Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Radical Discontinuity

We've certainly had our share of catastrophes lately -- think of the southeast Asian and Japanese tsunamis, Haitian earthquake, Katrina, Sandy, great floods and droughts all over, the emergence of HIV. All of these have disrupted countless lives and destroyed or radically changed communities, towns and cities. But the broad course of history flows on little affected by these events, however dramatic they are. (The Japanese tsunami has significantly weakened the Japanese nation, an important economic power, with perhaps some effect on geopolitics, but it doesn't change anything fundamental about the world order.)

To be sure, the cumulative effect of global climate change will have a radical global impact. The wise among us -- which does not seem to include our political leadership -- are working hard to understand what this is likely to be, and to find ways to avert the worst and cope with the inevitable. But I have been thinking of late that all of our hopes and worries about the future are quite likely to prove largely irrelevant on the scale of decades. Completely unpredictable events will almost certainly intercede. Arguments about the federal budget in 2050, with which we are presently obsessed, are preposterous.

In 1859, when Edwin Drake drilled his oil well in Pennsylvania, petroleum was essentially viewed as the source of kerosene, a replacement for whale oil and tallow candles. Nobody could have anticipated that it would be more important than that. As it turned out, it wasn't long before people no longer lit their homes with open flames of any kind, yet petroleum ended up changing the world more radically, in fewer years, than any innovation since language.

On the down side, I got to thinking about this because of the recent discovery in London of a mass grave from the Black Death. In parts of Europe, it killed one third or more of the population, maybe half. Historians will argue about the consequences, but it is entirely plausible to argue that it brought about the end of the Middle Ages and opened the way for the Renaissance and  Enlightenment. Suddenly, there was twice as much land, housing, livestock and tools per person. Labor was scarce and the peasantry suddenly in a much stronger relationship with the gentry. Land peonage could not endure, and the old ways started to fall away.

We might well have a global pandemic of some highly transmissible and deadly pathogen that we cannot quickly control. Public health authorities are continually insomniac over this possibility. Decimation of the human population would have unpredictable consequences in the long term, but immediately of course it would be horrific. Lots of other really bad stuff could also happen, but I'm not writing this to catalog them, that's not the oint.

On the up side, the possibility of a radically transformative technological innovation that saves us from our present multiple crises like a deus ex machina can't be ruled out. A breakthrough light, compact, energy storage technology; viable fusion energy; room temperature superconduction -- it could happen. And any of 1 million things I haven't thought of. In other words, the one safe prediction is that the future won't be anything like people are predicting.

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