This weekend I attended a sf&f convention called Liburnicon which was a lot of fun but also a great opportunity to see some Croatian scientists talk about their work, the future of humanity and the world we live in and all kinds of other interesting topics. The topic for this year was sustainability of our current lifestyle as a civilization in terms of energy distribution and resources so most lectures were centered on analyses of the current situation and also, offering ideas that could make the future look better than it does now. The first speaker was Korado Korlevic, an astronomer from Porec, Croatia, and his talk was titled “The question of the survival of human civilization” (or something like that, I’m not big on translating) and he definitely made some great points in it.
The first point he made was that the whole concept of civilization as we know it today and through history can hardly be precisely defined. According to Wikipedia, “Civilization is a term used to describe a certain kind of development of a human society. A civilized society is often characterized by advanced agriculture, long-distance trade, occupational specialization, and urbanism. Aside from these core elements, civilization is often marked by any combination of a number of secondary elements, including a developed transportation system, writing, standards of measurement (currency, etc.), contract and tort-based legal systems, great art style, monumental architecture, mathematics, sophisticated metallurgy, and astronomy.” The Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary offers a much more concise definition by saying that a civilization is “a relatively high level of cultural and technological development; specifically : the stage of cultural development at which writing and the keeping of written records is attained” and while all the disciplines listed by Wiki definitely play a role in our perception of what it means to have a civilization, Korlevic argued, and I agree, that at this point the feature that marks the human civilization the most is its technological aspect. When discussing old civilizations such as those of Maya, Inka, or even ‘advanced’ ones such as Ancient Greek and Roman civilizations we often focus on the less material advances, such as keeping records, developing natural sciences, philosophy, culture and such it is questionable whether we can describe our civilization simply through the non-material, non-technological achievements of our society. It is really hard to imagine a modern family today that does not own a car, a TV, a computer, a dishwasher and so on and this trend of obtaining as much gadgets and machines around as has been present for quite a while and has become a staple of who we as humans are today. Could our civilization survive without technology? One of the things that Korlevic brought up somewhere along the way is that the amount of knowledge today is at such extreme scales that it would be impossible for anyone to sort it out and make use of it just by using capabilities of our brains. Another thing to be considered is that what makes the world advance these days is, to quite an extent, the possibility of high levels of specialization that makes an individual an expert in his field of study and nothing else. This level of focus, of course, leads to great insights in the development of whatever a certain expert is working on but at the same time it negates the idea of an actual renaissance man that would have a working knowledge in everything that is important for good life and survival in today’s world while that was quite possible before we entered the era of rapid developments in technology and also information sciences that allowed us to produce but also catalogue and store enormous amounts of information fairly quickly. These arguments make it justified to claim that the civilization(s) of today are primarily technological and defined but also regulated by nothing but technology and technological needs.
One of the consequences of this is that the future development of our society and civilization is dependent on technology and its developments. The matter of energy and sustainability is, therefore, crucial in the discussion of everything that will come in the years ahead of us. If our society is dependent on technology and technology is powered and therefore also dependent strictly on energy than the loss of materials from which we can more or less cheaply produce energy such as oil, natural gas etc. will definitely affect not only the way we live but also the sole question of our survival. One of the key points of Korlevic’s talk was exactly that once the energy resources are all spent we will not have to worry about the exponential growth of the Earth’s population, natural disasters or anything that seems like a threat for our well being right now because our civilization itself will collapse in its core and lead us to another dark age that won’t b marked only by a loss of knowledge but also take us back to agriculture and primitivism. Even though I think his arguments make sense, I must admit that I see this as slightly too dramatic. Korlevic also made a great effort to explain how complex the system we’re a part of actually is and that it won’t take but a little change to turn everything into chaos. And here is, as far as I’m concerned, the key word to why civilization might not end completely and forever. Complex systems that are prone to change immensely after small, one would think irrelevant, details are changed are governed by deterministic chaos that is, as the name says, chaotic and unpredictable but also carries certain aspects of maintained ratios and vague predictability. Benoit Mandelbrot, the father of fractal geometry, a brilliant mathematician that played a great role in the development of the chaos theory, also did some work in information technologies and economy. At some point he examined the prices of cotton throughout 20th century economy including the times of wars, depressions, economic crises and such and even though the data at first seems to be very, very diverse and unpredictably chaotic, he found that there still existed certain ratios that stayed constant no matter what happened in such a complex system as that of stock market and economy is. Could something like this be true for the ridiculously complex system that we live in? Are there aspect of our civilization, or at least modern developments that will stay more or less constant in regards to some other factors? I guess there might be but I could also be wrong. In the end, there still remains a big probability that once we use up all of the natural resources that we use to power up the technology that we depend on to such an extent there will be a new dark age of sorts.
I personally love it that Korlevic actually used the term steampunk to describe what might come after some small, more or less irrelevant detail that will push the system we’re a part of into a complete technological and intellectual collapse. Of course, this will not be the final state that we will reach because there will certainly exist some lone centers of higher development analogous to convents in the original, medieval, Dark Ages. For this reason, he explained, data banks with seeds of most common plants and similar things are being constructed and secured for the future generations that might need both the knowledge that we have now, and when the matter of plants is brought up, seeds that produced the species that we commonly feed on. The project has been led by the Norwegian government and it’s dubbed the “Doomsday vault”. Similar, time capsules, with enough knowledge for a beginning of a complete restarting of our civilization are being organized and constructed. Some of these are the Rosseta project, the Crypt of Civilization that should be opened in 8113 AD etc. One of the most interesting ones, in my opinion, are the two capsules manufactured by the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company for the New York’s world fairs in the 1940s. The reason why I find this interesting is not only because it shows concern for the keeping of knowledge in case of a global catastrophe even more than 60 years ago but also because Westinghouse Electric was one of the companies working with, as far as I’m concerned, one of the greatest revolutionaries and visionaries in the history of technology Nikola Tesla who, ironically, at some point predicted that energy will be free and at hand for everyone in the near future. This whole matter of Time Capsules definitely reminds me of Asimov’s Foundation series and the attempts of his heroes to minimize the time of chaos after the collapse of a galactic empire, but I still don’t find it mere science fiction. If it weren’t for the Greek and Roman documents from the Ancient times that were carries to the western monasteries through Arab translators, it is questionable whether the Dark Ages would have ever ended and led to renaissance, enlightenment and times when Copernicus, Descartes etc. laid foundations for physics, philosophy and basically everything that we needed to get where we are today. If the strength of the collapse is proportional to the level of advancements in the civilization that is collapsing, then the analogy does not offer very nice predictions and time capsules just might be what we need to move on from steampunk to something more along the lines of cyberpunk which I believe will be here soon.
In the end, another possibility that was mentioned was that our society might overcome the need for technology and energy or find a way to sustain it and hence evolve in something completely different. One of the things that Korlevic mentioned as an opinion from other scientists is that we will reach a new level of our civilization that is focused on selling ‘dreams’. He also mentioned the possibility of everyone reaching such a level of ecological consciousness that the human society as a whole starts practicing some kind of ecological Buddhism, but, to be honest, I find this very unlikely. The ‘Dream Society’ seems like a more plausible idea if we consider how much attention we pay to TV, media, movies and similar dreams of fantasies but I feel like it could only be a transitory phase before our need for energy resources that are highly limited forces us into a very different state.
Anyways, it was a very interesting talk that definitely got me thinking about what people my age might speculate about in a couple of hundred years or earlier. Will they be using primitive steam operated machines? Will they be using some completely new technology? Will they give up technology and become complete one with our nature? It’s hard to tell, but at least we are thinking about it.
Thanks for reading