The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Extinction or Whole World Totalitarianism Events

It’s time to talk technology, and the catastrophic futures it makes possible—and how to avoid them.  This isn’t just about climate change, which, if it goes really wrong, could wipe out humanity (if, for example, the oxygen cycle gets screwed up: entirely possible.)  It is about a wild variety of technologies, from ubiquitous surveillance to genetic engineering, to nanotechnology.  It is not hard to forsee the possibility of creating a totalitarian state in which revolt is impossible.  The new neuroscience, which is becoming more and more reliable at telling when people are lying and seeing decision points before we are consciously aware of them, combined with implants and surveillance, makes it possible to envision a society in which revolt not only couldn’t succeed, it couldn’t even be thought about, or not for long enough to do anything about it.

(Kicked back to the top as it’s important and timely given the work that I will be doing over the next few months.)

Likewise, the Galts may one day decide, with improved methods of production, that 99% of humanity is superfluous to requirements, and get rid of the useless eaters.

We can also imagine a world of tailored humans: through genetic engineering, nanotech, cybertech and so on, in which some people are really are so superior to the rest of humanity that the mass are ants.  We forget that in much of history it was so.  The old Punch comics, with the small, twisted, deformed poor people were not caricature, that’s what people who worked hard and had inadequate nutrition all their lives looked like.  They were weaker, stupider and uglier than the nobility.   This wasn’t innate, but it was real.  The nobility saw themselves as better than their inferiors because they were.

That superiority was environmental, but if we decide to ration transhuman technologies based on who can pay, well, it will be more than environmental, especially after multiple generation of artificial selection.

All of these technologies  are vastly dangerous, and all of them suggest the possibility of the creation of catastrophic end states: the complete end of humanity, the creation of totalitarian states, the creation of a new untouchable aristocracy; surveillance societies in which the very possibility of even mental privacy does not exist.

We could turn away from them; we could reject them.  Those who say that is impossible are wrong.  A world state could probably pull it off, in the same way that the Tokugawa Shogunate was able to control key technologies for centuries; a system which ended only because it was upset from the outside.  Absent the possibility of an outside shock, a world state could run for a very long time.

But these technologies also offer the ability to create radically better ways of living: truly affluent societies with what amount to replicators; humans who suffer far less from pain, disease and mental infirmity; an end to aging; and wondrous possibilities for creation of artifacts and life forms we can’t even imagine today.  There are those who feel that anything “unnatural” is to be avoided: I say that the historical and pre-historical record is one of mass rape, mass murder and mass extinctions, of violence and cruelty and want.  I am not willing to put aside transhuman technologies from fear, because the human condition is suffering and fear, and I want that to end.

So we come to points of failure.  While we all live on Earth, to these technologies, we are one society, no matter what our apparent divisions.  We are going to move towards something much closer to world government in the next century, not because we want to, but because without it we are not going to be able to mitigate and reverse climate change, and if we don’t do that, well, we could have an extinction event.  No individual country can manage  the earth’s ecosphere, there will be international organizations capable of using force to ensure compliance, or we will lose billions of people.

Earth is a bad place to experiment.  Changes spread too easily, too uncontrollably.  Nanotech in the wild, genetic changes on a mass scale, neuro-monitoring technology, and so on, cannot be contained to one society, one geographic region, not least because if one group does obtain a decisive advantage they WILL use it to subjugate others.

This is why I support, and have long supported, getting off the rock: spaceflight, and colonization.  Get out into space, into the Oort cloud: learn how to live not just on other planets but in space itself, and we can experiment to our heart’s content, separated from each other by the vast gulfs of vacuum.  If one society goes bad, it doesn’t have to take everyone else down with it.  Add (ideally) a caveat that societies can run themselves as they want, but can’t prevent emigration (they can prevent immigration) and you have a model which no longer has a single point of failure, has a frontier for the discontents to go to, and allows us to experiment with radical changes to who and what we are.

There are two tasks for the next cycle, the next ideological and technological age.  The first is to stabilize the earth, and provide a good living to everyone without destroying the ecosphere.  The second is to create workable space colonization so that humanity is no longer vulnerable to having a single point of failure, and can experiment to find the full possibilities of our new sciences and technologies, fully knowing that many of those societies will go bad, in horrible ways, but hoping that some of them will create radically better ways of living and of being human.

Perhaps we could do all this on Earth, but if we blow it the consequences are too high.  And anyone who has read or lived history knows that eventually we WILL blow it.  Run Earth, the storehouse of virtually all life, conservatively, let the experimentation take place of off-world.

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On Prostitution


In Light of Charlie Hebdo, are some lives worth more than others?


  1. Hank

    I agree with your take on stabilizing the earth, but I have serious doubts about feasibility of large scale space travel:

  2. Ian Welsh

    I think there will be ways to colonize much of the solar system, and that’s enough for now.

  3. Stormcrow

    “Getting off the rock” is a good idea, if it’s at all feasible. I’m all for it.

    But I don’t think we have enough time left. The extinction agent has already entered, stage left.

    The more I learn about the feedbacks involved in global warming, the more convinced I become that this problem is operating well inside of the OODA loop of any human government going or any that we might construct. Even if we had a stay of execution lasting centuries, which we won’t.

    When we’re well in the terminal crisis; governments will be far more powerless against this than they are now; they’ll be completely occupied with the consequences of the resource wars and volkerwanderungs.

    Those are going to get very very bad, very quickly, because the causus belli will the presumed physical survival of some part of the “winning” population. That’ll jack the level of ruthlessness way beyond even WW II levels. Nukes may not be much used, since they tear up the spoils, but you can expect slate-wiper bio weapons to be used, early and often.

  4. Ian Welsh

    Yes, I also think they’ll realize they don’t “need” most of the population. What may save us for a while is the old ideology of selling to the masses.

  5. Dan H

    I think a “frontier” attitude is always dangerous. 400 years ago the whites coming to America could not have envisioned the technology we have now. The same will be said(if we survive) in another 400 years of our current knowledge base… the point is we suck ass at prediction. Pushing the frontier out again on the assumption that this time we know there will be no feedback loops to harm us is giving in to our penchant for over confidence.

  6. markfromireland

    Just to amplify stormcrow’s final point above it is already technically feasible to tailor diseases to genetic profiles. As the technology advances and matures this will (I’m reliably told) become easier to do. Say you’re Putin’s successor and you want to keep Siberia. What to do? Get rid of the Han Chinese for a start … Similarly if you’re worried that there’s a latter day Völkerwanderung except this time from Africa well that’s easily dealt with. Kill ’em off at source and you no longer have a problem. Anybody who thinks that either the Russians or the various North European nations wouldn’t do it has no appreciation of the history of either place.

    It is important to remember that current models show that places like Northern Europe, are likely to escape the worst impacts of climate change at least in the short run. The governments and peoples of those countries have no intention whatsoever of sharing with hordes of climate displaced migrants. None.


  7. Celsius 233

    Glad to see Stormcrow and MFI addressing this.
    In all the future-talk, disease (whether manmade or natural drug resistence) is never given its due.
    My father was in pharmaceuticals for well over 30 years and was speaking of the looming problem of over and mis-prescribing antibiotics. This was in 1960.
    Even then he/they knew there were a very limited number of drugs available.
    We’re there now and it’s only getting worse. I feel this is the potential destroyer of humans more so that climate change.
    Antibiotics are everywhere; in our food (especially for meat eaters), water, air, sewers, and rivers.

  8. Celsius 233

    Nuts, man-made and resistance

  9. David Kowalski

    Ian, your proposed path makes a lot of sense. Humans have been doing just that for at least 50,000 years since they came out of Africa. First, it was Asia, then maybe Europe, Australia and North and South America. the last less than 10,000 years ago. It took more time to fill in the space of the Americas and Australia in the outback isn’t really full today (although not resource rich).

    A second wave of Europeans hit the Americas starting with the Vikings but getting serious with Columbus. In 600 years, most of the Americas have been filled up. The exceptions are the reaches of Alaska’s interior, parts of northern Canada, including Baffin Island, much of Greenland (unless that is Europe, it is on the line), and the Amazon.

    These settlers were unhappy and filled with wanderlust where they were and soon where they moved to. Daniel Boone, for example, started in NC, moved to explore and help settle KY and wound up in Missouri (I think near KC). His grandson, anyway, built a log cabin saloon that became the county courthouse for KC for 80 years. Just one smallish room.

    Wilderness Alaska, well after the gold rush attracted those looking for lots of space from Canada, the US and even Europe. The last frontier? Northern Canada and parts of the Amazon will be slowly settled. The last frontier on Earth will be Antarctica. Now that will take technology.

  10. Jerome Armstrong

    Without a doubt, the next step is global. There’s not enough thought/activism that goes into getting ahead of the multi-national corporations who are already planning it for the rest. As far as colonization goes, the sea steaders are interesting to watch. I joined up on Blueseed just to stay informed.

  11. Richard Clyde

    I think that while there are some real concerns here, there are at least three factors that make your projections unrealistic.

    1) The advance of technology is one thing, but the more fundamental energy and economic infrastructure needed to underpin its implementation will run short. I think the valid concern is that states will be able to prevent necessary reform through political channels, by repressing/controlling the political classes and exercising powerful brute control of the proles. Technology certainly empowers those repressive functions and may well have the result that serious political change of any kind will involve violence. But the steady-state dystopia you seem to be picturing here is a mythic vision, a kind of dark-side “end of history” that’s no more convincing than Fukuyama’s version was. It’s even less likely for these technologies to end ageing or suffering or whatever.

    2) The idea of a world-state, which seems to have captured your imagination lately, is similarly a mythologem that will never exist in actuality. I would have thought it clear that globalisation was contingent and ephemeral, a one-time wave resulting from cheap oil and unexploited markets (people like John Ralston Saul and John Gray make this case robustly). The spectre of a one-world political system is an artifact of Pax Americana (and ultimately, I would speculate, the lingering ghost of the One Church), a projection that is already well at odds with the reality of the nation-state’s return. That a world-state might be the only body capable of addressing climate change does not make it more likely to come about.

    3) Space exploration and colonising the solar system are the least likely outcome you mention here. Space is inhospitable like nothing in our experience, and we haven’t the energy.

    What these, to my mind, missteps seem to have in common is a strong urge to escape– you say explicitly you want to end the human condition and “get off the rock.” That’s the essence of apocalyptic ideation– wishful, unrealistic, and also deeply unattractive– and I hope I don’t overstep the bounds of civility by remarking that these notions are unworthy of your usually independent-minded and clear-eyed insight.

  12. Ian Welsh

    What one man thinks is wishful and unrealistic, let alone deeply unattractive: isn’t to another man.

    And the emphasis on the form, vs. the reality, is misguided. If the form of the nation state remains, but the reality is gone, it matters not. A steady state dystopia in which “nation states” still exist, but the elites of the nation states all agree on basic policy is easily possible: many Chinese cities are overtaking London as the most-surveilled cities in the world. Likewise one might look at the contents of the TPP, and consider “what is global governance?”

    As for oil, talked about it ages ago. There will be other ways to get energy.

    Your take on what it is realistic for technology to do is unconvincing to me. Certainly I don’t expect ageing, for one, to be defeated soon enough to matter to me, but I do expect it to be defeated if we don’t wind up in a new dark age–which is certainly a possibility. Likewise the new neuroscience is telling us more and more about how suffering is created. We are fumble fingered idiots at this point, when it comes to the brain, but we will not always be so.

    I have a number of different models of how the future can go. It’s not set in stone until it’s the past.

  13. Adams

    Damn. I’m still working on your advice to “Get out…” of the country. Now you want me to get off the rock. You move fast.

  14. Ian Welsh


  15. S Brennan

    To the comment’s dealing with the harshness of space, one Jovian moon is covered in a liquid ocean of water…nuclear subs operate in harsher conditions here on earth. Just because you don’t understand how to do it, it does not follow that it’s impossible. That’ why you call in professionals that studied the science in school. Frankly, that is the real problem with spaceflight, NASA’s administration is largely Obama’s political appointees and they don’t need no stinking science degrees to run NASA.

    I think it’s very hard for many to grasp the concept of a “highly educated” – “low information” liberal. Did I mention that 91% of Harvard grads were Honor roll? 91% averaged an A…really? Tthese are the people that rule us, people who were not allowed to either fail and as consequence, learn from failure.

  16. So, the big important assholes want us all gone. We have no value.

    They are the biggest dumbshits ever. How are they going to create a class of people who are smart enough to deal with the aging nuclear power plant issues that are emerging? You can’t destroy an entire system of learning and impoverish millions and not compromise our species ability to birth, raise and educate the people that can figure out the solution to the nuclear garbage we have created. And figure out the coming solutions to antibiotic resistance. ETC ETC.

    What a bunch of witless morans.

  17. I was responding to this part of the post:

    “Likewise, the Galts may one day decide, with improved methods of production, that 99% of humanity is superfluous to requirements, and get rid of the useless eaters.”

  18. David

    Ian, you are exactly correct.

    Regarding colonization of the solar system,
    there are currently two big obstacles, the first is that it is very expensive to
    put anything in space. Currently, I think the cost is something like
    $US 10,000 per pound so just sending one person costs millions of dollars when one includes food, water and other needed items for even just a couple of weeks in space. This cost has to be reduced by at least a factor of 100 or so, but it is doable.

    Elon Musk at Space X claims that his rockets will soon be able to reduce these costs by something like a factor of 6 or 7. This would make say trips to Mars possible cost wise and perhaps in getting a start in putting small bases on the Moon. To really cut costs and open up the solar system to settlement, probably requires something like the Space Elevator ( or one of its variants and that is likely to be a project for the 22nd century.

    The second is not an obstacle in the near or middle term, but eventually one would have to be able to have self-sustaining biospheres if a settlement is to last.
    It is not good if for example, the crops fail because the soil lacked some microbe no one knew about and with it taking weeks for any food to arrive. From what I have read, we have an inadequate understanding of how to do this, but who is to say what we will know in the future.

    In any case, whether we have sufficient time to do all this is the important question as others have pointed out. To put it all succinctly, I recall that a noted science fiction writer was once asked why she no longer wrote stories set in the far-future. Her response was something like “I can’t see the far-future anymore because this mountain of skulls blocks the view”.

  19. Stormcrow


    Tailoring bio weapons to specific sets of genomes is aspirational today. But in another 20 years? The capability would not surprise me in the least. Assuming, of course, that I’m still around to evaluate it.

    But check the link beneath “slate-wiper bio weapons” in my post, or just Google search on “jackson-ramshaw virus”. My point is that super-efficient biological weapons are solved problems today, at the agent level, if you’re willing to forgo genetic targeting. And the technology needed to develop agents is several orders of magnitude less expensive than what you need to go from zero to a working design for a reliable fission weapon. This is old news; Ramshaw and Jackson’s work is more than a decade old at the time of this writing.

    The tricky parts are production, delivery systems, and testing. That’s where you get showstopping system failures, embarrassing intel leaks, disasters like the one at Sverdlovsk in 1979, and ecological catastrophes like Resurrection Island. Sometimes several of these categories, all in the same disaster. That’s also where you need to invest in facilities and people most heavily. The lab work is at the shallow end of the pool. But you can expect to lose people even in your labs; look up Nikolai Ustinov.

    Answering your point about Russians and the various North European nations, I agree completely. They wouldn’t hesitate. But under total war conditions worse than those of WW II, nobody is going to hesitate. Absolutely nobody. If the only alternative to annihilating the opposing population is annihilation of your own, along with yourself, your family, and everyone you care for, then it really does not matter where you hail from. Morals are going to get plowed under very very quickly.

    The only reason Nixon (of all people) deep-sixed the US offensive biowar program is that we already had enough deliverable nukes to kill the entire planet multiple times over, and they’re more controllable and less accident prone than bio agents. This decision had nothing to do with “doing the right thing”. We simply didn’t need to accept the operational risk.

    The Soviet government knew they were the underdog in a strategic weapons total war, so they considered bio weapons worth the risk. Thus Biopreparat, and the standing orders for employment of anthrax and smallpox weapons in the second strike of a nuclear world war. Yeah, those existed. Mikhail Gorbachev signed off on them just like his predecessors did, and for the same reasons.

  20. Victor Debs

    I think the new Neuroscience ain’t all its cracked up to be. There was an article released some months ago titled We are Not the World which pretty well demonstrated that most neuroscience is beset by a huge problem, sample populations. What we think we know about the human brain is actually what we know about a particular population of brains (by and large US pysch major freshman) in a particular society (The US), which just so happens to be rather different from almost every other society on the planet. Even basic laws of perception are different amongst Americans than they are in other societies. That’s not to say the new neuroscience is making advances, but I don’t think they’re as advanced nor as universally applicable as we imagine.

    Humans are strange creatures and understanding our behavior is very very very difficult, more so for science. Look at “psychiatry” today. As far as we can tell, exercise is more effective than any SSRI found on the market. The scientific paradigm is predicated on dispassionate observation. The problem when we apply this to humans is that the act of dispassionate observation changes the very nature of our behavior. As a result, neuroscience creates its own continual catch-22. For an example look at lie detectors, science’s last attempt to “objectively” determine truth or lying. They don’t work and its easy to game them. The same can be said of future technologies of neurological surveillance. They will have a high degree of failure because the human is a subject, not an object and as such she cannot be objectively quantified without losing significant data in the equation.

  21. markfromireland

    @ Stormcrow December 16, 2013

    I don’t think we’re in disagreement. I was very careful about what I wrote when I said ” it is already technically feasible to tailor diseases to genetic profiles” in other words it’s doable now it’s not aspirational it’s doable now.

    Agreed about delivery systems. And yes I know about Ustinov, and about Sverdlovsk, would that more people did.

    Nixon was a bad man but one of America’s better recent presidents in many respects. Gorbachev was a reformist he wanted the Soviet Union to survive. Of course he signed off on those standing orders. Why on earth would he not have signed off on them? Doctrine was (and still is) that it’s second strike capability that really counts.


  22. Ian Welsh

    Ah, the “We are not the world” article. Immensely flawed. The problem is the social context: in the context of those socities, the money is going to be shared anyway, so the important thing is just to keep the game going.

    In any case, even if you think it isn’t flawed, that’s not neuroscience, that’s social conditioning and we’ve known for ages that it varies between cultures.

  23. Victor Debs

    Ian, I don’t think you addressed the article in full. It’s not just that social norms are different, but that things as basic as perceptual rules of thumb are different. For example, optical illusions which westerners see as illusions aren’t illusions for other populations. The analytic reasoning of the west produces very concrete changes in the structure of the brain that are not uniform for the rest of society. These changes are wrought by social conditioning yes, but neuroscience is about social conditioning. Malabou’s “What to do with Our Brains?” seems instructive here, though with a grain of salt. Even if you don’t go in for all her epigenetics, she’s right in positing the brain as a social construction as much as anything else. Brains build and wire themselves in response to their surroundings.

    That’s why the coming omniscience “new neuroscience” falls flat to me. Neuroscience is an objective science. The problem remains the subjective humans whom it tries to objectify in its study. In so doing it forgets the plasticity of the human mind and just how malleable it is. In order to work it will need a universal model to operate from, lest it be plagued by constant cock ups resulting from divergent populations displaying non baselines characteristics. Is this baseline model is possible in plastic humans? We are subjects, not objects and I question science’s ability to measure us properly. Of course maybe Adorno is right and we’re doomed, but I fall with Sartre and Merleau-Ponty on this one.

  24. subgenius

    RE: getting off this rock…

    If do the math didnt get it through to you, here’s xkcd

    It’s all about the energy requirements.

  25. Ian Welsh

    I doubt that, say, telling when someone is lying, is particularly culturally bound. To be sure, there is a great deal that is, but less than folks think.

  26. Ian Welsh

    Who said anything about getting everyone of the rock? You don’t have to do that to do what I want, you get breeding populations off, and they… breed. And the energy requirements will go down, significantly, once we get serious about this: accelerators, a beanstalk, and any number of other techs will reduce the energy cost.

    Plus we ain’t gonna be burning liquefied dinosaur forever. There will be better energy techs in the future.


  27. ibaien

    ian, your blithe techno-optimism really isn’t doing your argument any favors. getting meaningful self-sufficient colonies established anywhere off-world is still centuries away, in even the rosiest of scenarios. people keep pointing you to ‘do the math’ for a reason.

    barring an iain m banks-esque sentient AI deus ex machina, we’ll all be dead of some haemmoragic fever long before folks can get off the rock.

  28. Stormcrow

    @ markfromireland December 16, 2013
    I don’t think we’re disagreeing either.

    Re Gorbachev. I’d have really been surprised if it’d turned out he hadn’t signed those second strike orders. What most Americans don’t seem to really understand, although I figure you do, is that Gorbachev was the last ruler of Russia to have lived through WWII, during which about 1/6 of the entire population was killed. Winning that war was like killing the cobra by beating it to death with the baby. People (and countries) who go through something like that are changed, probably permanently and not for the better.

    Personally, I admire him; I think he was far too decent a man to get as high as he did in power politics without an incredible amount of good luck. Not to mention having Yuri Andropov and Mikhail Suslov for patrons.

    Politically, I think it was his decency that undid him. He simply did not understand that by 1985, the only thing holding the USSR and its empire together was coercion. Remove that coercion, and the whole thing flies apart. Which is exactly what happened.

  29. Stormcrow

    @ ibaien December 17, 2013
    I don’t read it as “blithe techno-optimism”.

    I read it as desperation.

    “Desperation”, as in, “we either do this, or EVERYBODY dies”.

    You already know my view if you’ve been reading up-thread.

    I simply think everybody dies.

    The human species is going to go extinct, just as ugly as it can happen, within 100 years probably and 200 years tops. We’re in an ecological deathtrap, plain and simple, and we’ll get no more mercy from the universe than the Anasazi or the Easter Islanders did.

  30. Victor Debs


    Telling when you’re lying may not be culturally bound, but cultural bounds aren’t what I’m talking about here. Cultural bounds are but an example of the fact that human neuro-architecture can vary widely and change very quickly. While what constitutes lying may not differ much over cultures, the physical signs of it may well differ amongst individuals especially when being analyzed. Certain individuals today can take lie detectors and fail every time even when they state their own name, while others can pass every time even if they proclaim themselves Hitler of Hyderabad. The possibility of false positives and false negatives is never a negligible variable in neuroscience.

    I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but we forget that the very act of measuring something changes that something. Of course when dealing with unaware objects, this usually isn’t an issue, unless you’re at a quantum level. On the other hand, when you’re dealing with self aware subjects this becomes a significant problem. Humans, being most self aware (at least according to my human chauvinist paradigm) are the most likely to screw up results in such a process. Obviously this data isn’t all bad, but there is a statistically significant population segment in any study who will change behavior and thus skew results.

  31. Curtis

    Asimov suggested that a world effort to put a colony in space would help us learn ow to o it here.

  32. Lightfibre

    The nobility saw themselves as better than their inferiors because they were.

    That superiority was environmental, but if we decide to ration transhuman technologies based on who can pay, well, it will be more than environmental, especially after multiple generation of artificial selection.

    This was the basis of a 1979 TV series. Its creators seem to have well understood just how ugly things were going to get at the hands of of Ron, Maggie, and their inheritors…

    “It’s a ‘hands-off’ government.”

    “A ‘hands-off’ government…? What a crock!”

  33. jayackroyd

    What is a “very long time”?

  34. Danb

    Ian writes, “Plus we ain’t gonna be burning liquefied dinosaur forever. There will be better energy techs in the future.” i hope you are being metaphorical rather than literal in the use of liquified dinosaur; but in any case, you are at present merely hoping for a technological breakthrough on energy.

  35. Ian Welsh

    Solar is now cheaper than coal in many parts of the world. Battery tech is improving. These make a difference, potentially a big one.

  36. alyosha

    I think getting off the rock and founding a viable colony is likely within the next 100 years. Saw something on tee-vee a few years ago that showed the various ways NASA was looking at colonizing different planets + moons.

    Crazy ideas like large balloons floating high above Venus’ surface where the temperature is more hospitable, and since oxygen is lighter than CO2, the buoyancy works. The point is, there are minds employed trying to work out ways to make colonization happen, to the point where somebody produced a movie about it and it was shown on cable. Elon Musk has said he hopes to die on Mars, and I would bet he’s onboard with the notion of getting past the single point of failure.

    Nobody has explicitly stated it, but the de facto stance of the elites is that there is way too much surplus labor. Everything the right proposes and has enacted in America is geared toward culling the herd.

  37. Anomar


    I don’t think these biological attacks will necessarily be instituted by governments. It is much more likely secret and hugely funded groups will decide who is to live and who is to die.

    This is precisely the plot of Cameron’s “Dark Angel” series.

  38. I’m going to put that on twitter, Alyosha.

  39. DMC

    As Ian points out, the whole energy scarcity con the carbon lords have been pulling for the last couple centuries is about to go bye-bye. There won’t be a coal burning electricity plant on earth inside of 1o years. Look at the price trends. Do the math. Solar voltaic and solar thermal are already at grid parity and have been(at least in the SW USA) for the last 18 months and it is going to keep on getting cheaper, faster to the point that other than wind, it will make ALL other electrical generation schemes financially nonviable. Its as simple as supply and demand plus economy of scale. The Saudis are actually doing us a perverse favor by knocking the various high cost oil producers(esp. the Tar Sands o’ doom) out of the world market with lower oil prices.

    And the only technology that’s really holding up the space elevator is the problem of making fullerine carbon nanotubes longer than a couple of meters. This has been perpetually “about 18 months’ from solution for about 15 years. Once that’s whipped, the rest of it is barely high school physics. Orbital costs go from $10,000/kilo to $10/kilo. Once you’re out of the gravity well, the energy costs to place things around the Solar system are comparatively negligible(depending on how fast you wanted to get there).

  40. where you look at things, depends on your perspective. on earth, for normal living conditions, solar is very cheap. but it isn’t cheap if you want to make endless copies of things. the scale is not there, you need nuclear power for that. and in India and China that is the case. while we ( the Imperial we) can get by with solar, this is not the case for energy sparse parts of the world, and there not going to wait for us to get it together.

    actually, we have been going backwards for about 30 years. we want larger numbers of people flying more often, but in a style that would be unthinkable to people of 30 years ago. which is why the elites do not put up with our system, and rent their own jets in the last 10. you don’t know how good interservice is for the true elites.

    since we’re not invested in making our infrastructure better, gradually China and India are catching up, and Europe and Japan/ Korea are actually better than we are. most of you don’t realize that your cell phones and such are actually worse than the rest of the civilized planet.

  41. V. Arnold

    @ Stirling Newberry
    January 6, 2015
    Sterling; that post is gold. Shortest, most succinct summation I’ve ever read.
    I know for a fact that what you say is true, having lived outside of the U.S for nearly 12 years.
    My mobile phone costs me ONLY when I make the call. All received calls cost me nothing. Being somewhat hermetic, my mobile costs me $10-12 USD per month based purely on my calls out. And I’ve only been out of contact once; and that was deep in the western mountains on the Myanmar border.
    Oh, and I refuse to fly: Period!!!

  42. DMC

    LARGE arrays of solar-thermal dishes, which should be adequate to produce a thermal mass that will last the 12 hours of darkness( they’ve gotten 8 hours out of the small demonstration projects already) will be able to replace the kind of heavy duty output required for say, aluminum smelting in the US and other heavy industry applications anywhere there’s enough low value land. Other than thorium-based plants for the express purpose of disposing of spent reactor fuel, who’s going to build nuke plants after Fukashima? If you look at the make up of US power generation, we’re adding solar at about the rate we’re losing nuclear. With most US nuke plants 10 and more years beyond their reasonable life expectancy, we’ll be facing the real costs of these plants in the decommissioning phase.

  43. alyosha

    who’s going to build nuke plants after Fukushima

    Fukushima was a plant designed in the 1960s. A lot of lessons have been learned since then. For example, China plans to build 30 pebble bed reactors by 2020, as part of an exercise in gaining experience with these types of reactors.

    I’m not particularly a proponent or opponent of nuclear power, but when I saw the diagrams of Fukushima’s reactors, I knew we were dealing with version 1.x technology, to say nothing of our expertise in siting these beasts.

    Whether solar or renewables can beat a country’s investment in nuclear is unknown to me, but my sense of it is that it’s way too soon to declare a verdict on nuclear power.

  44. Lisa FOS

    who’s going to build nuke plants after Fukushima7

    The tragedy of nuclear power is that most places went down the wrong, US, technology route.

    The PWR (and the BWR) design are inherently unsafe, since they are active safety systems. Active in the sense the pumps have to keep going and water has to keep flowing otherwise it all goes tits up. If something goes wrong you have to do all the right things to prevent a disaster.

    The British Advanced Has Cooled Reactor (AGR) was inherently much safer, in that the natural circulation of the CO2 in the reactor itself was sufficient to keep it cool, with no pumps needed. In other words if something went wrong the best thing was shut the reactor down and to do nothing else, the reactor would stabilise itself.

    The low gas pressure also didn’t require such an expensive containment vessel. And, though it was slightly less efficient from a nuclear burn point of view, it was thermally more efficient, running at higher temps.

    Sadly, the US design ‘won’ unfortunately. No corruption or political pressure involved of course…

  45. sanctimonious purist

    I loved the archdruid post linked above by someofparts.

    Here’s what he was responding to:

    Looks like Ian agrees with Bardi more than the Archdruid, but I think these two posts sort of lay out the controversy.

  46. Ian Welsh

    The Archdruid fundamentally believes in a long grey suck: a slow decline.

    That is possible, to be sure, but one can not rule out catastrophic failure or long-run police states.

    Both have occurred in the past, with far less technological ability than we have today.

    I like the Archdruid, but he tires me with what appears to be his visceral contempt for the possibility of catastrophe.

    Be clear: the Earth will survive.

    Humans, or human high civilization? Not so clear.

  47. The Tragically Flip

    You could also throw in the payments system as an example of highly successful (in its own goals) global governance without formal “government.”

    These various free trade treaties now become giant horrible prisoners’ dilemmas for the various state parties: Join in the shitty treaty which sucks for your people, or stay out and suffer even worse economic starvation consequences. That’s even assuming a given state’s leadership even cares about its people (obviously many don’t, but probably not quite all).

    The “free trade” model of sucking all the meaningful economic power out of national governments can be applied to other things, which is why these “trade” agreements have so many extraneous requirements like IP laws and so forth.

    Plus you let non-state actors sue states in unaccountable treaty-created quasi judicial “courts” like NAFTA’s corporate lawyer adjudicators and suddenly you have some pretty damn effective ways of making states do things without any one-world visible government or formal military/police force (the US does this for now, maybe China will take it over later).

    Every state’s only recourse is to pull out of the treaties and find itself locked out of the world trade system. This has brought Myanmar/Burma to heel, and reduced North Korea to ashes. Maybe a Germany or France could endure this type of exclusion or some small island pacific statelet but few others.

  48. someofparts

    “I think it’s very hard for many to grasp the concept of a “highly educated” – “low information” liberal.”

    Well, if you are obliged to work for them long enough you figure it out. Stupid and PROUD about it.

    What’s not to fucking love, eh?

  49. I tend to agree with you almost all the time and now is no different I re-post you on my Facebook page The All Stick Policy Review. I try and organize, at least, what I think are the, best links to, Stories, Opinions, Philosophies, News, Theories and, anything else, that seems relevant to today’s world.

    The only thing I would ask, is, in your considerations of biological determination, does your concept, theory, entail also, or contain, the “Village Idiot” element/variable? By which, I mean, the random, at least the chance of anyway, for the evolutionary changes, we, have enjoyed, throughout our, mere, 100,000 years as head of the food chain, after the Neanderthals.

    I call this the Village Idiot variable and that they, village idiots, should be our most prized of citizens, as, they represent our ability to change. There is such a thing as biologically perfect, that will; at the very least, has the potential to, condemn, man to generational degradation somewhat like clone degradation. Thus extinction. I am not afraid to live longer better etc… I just … you, know, would like to think we have thought things out better than we have so far.

  50. On another note, I guess as proof I am, on board, with a technological future, even one, possibly filled with biological transhuman additives. I still say that one cannot attempt to have me believe, they are intelligent, and thus your thoughts, or additions, unless these things cross their minds as the most important things, we should do if we could aim everyone in the same direction:

    1 Educate
    2 Medicate
    3 Facilitate, Education and Opportunity; in life, to the highest level, to the highest degree or ability.
    4 Feed everyone
    5 Get off this rapidly filling planet. A planet, that, is going to hit the flush cycle at, 9-11 billion people, as the least, of what, is in store as of now.

  51. markfromireland

    @ someofparts January 7, 2015

    You forgot “arrogant” and “with an entitlement complex so massive it’s amazing they don’t burst” but otherwise yup.

    The thing to remember is that their structural function in the current set-up is to act as combined enablers and fig leaves for the right wing. They don’t actually have beliefs or principles per se just attitudes.


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