Saturday, July 15, 2006

On advancing progress

Many in the peak oil community feel disheartened with technology and consider progress to be slowing. No doubt there are various reasons for this perception, the most rational of which may be a general loss of confidence with science.

Progress may indeed appear to be slowing when one considers the amount of new innovations and advances made during the first half of the 20th century, only to see the second half of the 20th century ‘merely’ improving upon earlier advances instead of continuing to come up with all new innovations and breakthroughs. Greenneck summarises this position nicely in recent comments:

I recall when Armstrong and Aldrin set foot on the Moon and back then, the future looked bright indeed.
Well, 35 years later we haven't got back to the Moon.
What went wrong?

This is why some people believe PO will lead to some kind of doom: they have lost confidence that science will solve it.

I suspect that if one were to travel back in time and grab someone from 1900 to take them on a quick trip of the 20th century, they would likely adopt a similar position on civilisation’s progress as many of the PO pessimists do. The jump from 1900 to 1950 would be a remarkable leap for them. They might feel amazed at how much we have progressed, seeing inventions that were in their infancy in 1900 become highly advanced and wide spread. They would see the remarkable leaps forward made in almost every aspect of scientific endeavour, and they would see some of the greatest achievements in human history. And while they may at first feel disorientated with the level of progress made, they would soon fit in with society – after all, social structure and culture in 1950 really wasn’t that different from 1900.

But then the jump from 1950 to 2000 would be a different story. Our friend from 1900 might think that civilisation had slacked off. The technology, while improved upon, is still basically the same. There have not been the giant leaps forward in theoretical science that the first half of the century enjoyed. A few industries have made impressive advances, most notably electronics and computing, but over all it would appear to our time travelling friend that progress has slowed considerably.

After a while though our friend would begin to perceive the true advances civilisation has made, however he would not easily understand them. Unlike the jump to 1950, the jump to 2000 would see a change in society he would be virtually incapable of comprehending. People of different races working together and treating each others as equals, women in leading roles in large corporations, he would see scantly clad men and women with strange high-tech sports gear zipping through the streets, people communicating with other people on opposite sides of the world using difficult to see technologies. He would see people assimilating astonishing amounts of information quickly and easily, people conducting business from all parts of the globe and at any time of the day or night. He would see communities of like-minded individuals finding each other from remote and widespread locations and clustering into virtual communities. He would see organisations and corporations employing individuals from all corners of the Earth and working together without ever leaving their homes. He would see people playing when he thinks they should be working, and yet they are never truly away from work as they often work when he thinks they should be resting.

The changes to society and culture are long and varied, but in short, our time traveller friend from 1900 would be overwhelmed by the pace and the capabilities of society circa 2000. In the year 2000 he may not perceive the same obvious degree of technological advancement made from 1900 to 1950, but he would be incapable of comprehending the progress made in the way people live their lives from 1950 to 2000. He would fail to understand the considerable advantages of the new globalized and digitised world community, and perhaps would think that the world has gone crazy.

Not unlike our PO doomer who craves the more quiet, simpler times…

The point of this little time travel exercise is to elaborate on human progress. To understand how civilisation is progressing, we must look at all of the aspects of civilisation, not merely a single part of the equation. For example, some people merely look to the continued use of a single resource as proof that civilisation is not progressing, as a doomer recently put it so elegantly in the comments:
If technology is advancing so fast why are the computers you jackasses typing on most likely powered by COAL!

It should be obvious that we can not merely measure the progress civilisation has made in the resources or materials it uses, nor the inventions patented per capita, as some people foolishly do, nor can we even measure progress purely as a technological aspect.

To consider human progress, I could easily point to the plethora of technological advances made recently. I could comment on the fact that civilisation appears to be on the verge of a new technological age based on all new materials – just as iron and bronze revolutionised the world with new unforseen technologies thanks to the widespread adoption of new superior materials (bringing about the iron age and bronze age), so too will our new found capabilities of structuring carbon at the molecular level (commonly known as nano-technology) herald in a new technological age of unforseen advances with the widespread use of superior materials. We may only just be entering what may come to be called ‘the carbon age’, based on molecularly perfect carbon materials that offer massive increases in strength, reduction in weight, transference of heat and ultimately massive increases in efficiency and reductions in waste, and many other possibilities not yet perceived.

However to elaborate on the considerable progress civilisation has made, we must not solely focus on the technological. Social and cultural advances are also of vital importance, and are intimately bound with our technological advances. And in many ways, the advances that we have made socially and culturally are far more important then the technological advances we make.

Consider Wendell Phillips famous words:
“What gunpowder did for war, the printing press has done for the mind.”
It’s unquestionable that this simple technological advance, first developed over 500 years ago, had a tremendous impact on society and culture. Now consider the modern evolution of the printing press and what it has done for the mind. The internet is arguably one of the most important social revolutions in history, and is what has allowed such wide-spread awareness of peak oil issues to be assimilated by society in the first place. If it were not for this technological and social advance many people would likely still be unaware of the peak oil issues. It may be powered by an old power source, but it is still a deeply impacting advent radically altering civilisation as we know it.

While technological change over the past 50 years may be difficult for some people to perceive, especially given the considerable about of improvement over innovation, the radical social and cultural change we have experienced should be obvious. Society has radically transformed and continues to do so, and this effect must not be so easily dismissed. Civilisation today is far more adaptable and capable then ever before, and assuming that we are incapable of dealing with complex issues such as peak oil simply because we still use antiquated power sources is imprudent. We may have considerable challenges ahead with transitioning to new ways of life, but transitioning to new ways of life is one thing that we have become ever more skilled at doing.

Don’t dismiss our adaptability; it’s what allowed a once weak, defenceless and insignificant little species to conquer the world, and we’ve been accelerating our adaptability capabilities ever since.

Peak oil: we will adapt.


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At 12:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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