Monday, 7 December 2015

Second thoughts on Ecomodernism

Earlier this year, I made some enthusiastic comments on David Brin’s blog about the Ecomodernists, who published their manifesto earlier this year.

Why? I have been seeking ways in which people might maintain many of the advantages of a technological civilization, jettison some (or a lot of) the more toxic aspects, and also start repairing some of the damage we’ve inflicted on the biosphere. Ecomodernism seemed attractive because it offered a pathway to realise some of these aims.

But now I’m not so sure.

Several things made me uneasy, including two informed critiques by George Monbiot and Chris Smaje at The Dark Mountain project. George Monbiot accuses them of subjecting the poor to “remote and confident generalisations” and historically this has meant that the the poor have “suffered gravely.” Smaje offers a long critique, highlighting the downsides of the nineteenth century style of (neo) liberal modernism that the Ecomodernists seem to be offering.

One pivotal issue is the claim that we can protect nature and wilderness areas better by ‘decoupling’ human activities from nature, increasing (material) living standards while decreasing the damage to the planet.

 This claim seems attractive but is currently unproven.

In fact, a recent paper disputes the claim that as nations develop economically, they ‘decouple’ at all. This claim has been supported in the past by some standard measures used by governments that seem to show that “some developed countries have increased the use of natural resources at a slower rate than economic growth (relative decoupling) or have even managed to use fewer resources over time (absolute decoupling).”

However, the study, by Thomas Wiedmann and team shows the opposite, that “achievements in decoupling in advanced economies are smaller than reported or even non-existent.” In fact, their research “confirms that pressure on natural resources does not relent as most of the human population becomes wealthier (my emphasis).”

This seems to me to dent the credibility of some ecomodern claims.

Finally, a word about manifestos. These can be useful for political movements, but seem worse than useless if you’re trying to sort through difficult issues objectively. This is because manifestos too often degenerate into dogmas, which devotees end up defending tooth and claw, often by ignoring or denigrating potentially threatening evidence.

And the survival of civilization seems to me too important for this sort of thing to happen.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Technology will save us all, right?

There’s a big problem with most debates over technology. Whenever discussions about genetic engineering, future energies, nanotechnology, applied neuroscience, etc. come up, it’s assumed that EITHER you belong in a group that embraces any kind of technology, especially if it's shiny, OR you belong in a group (often, very unhelpfully labelled ‘Luddites’) who’d like to reject all technology beyond the Stone Age and live in a cold, dripping cave knapping flints.

(Please don't misunderstand the last point: I'm well aware of the sophistication of Stone Age/traditional cultures, and think that we have things to learn from them. It's just that in this sort of debate it's assumed that there are two and only two sides, and they're polarized).

I’ve never really identified with either of these extremes, but have instead tried to evolve a realistic view about the kinds of risks and promises that new technology brings. One thing that’s become very clear to me is that progress cannot mean technological progress only.

Take the Luddites. Firstly, the fact that many Luddites were hanged (including a boy of twelve) often gets papered over in these discussions. Second, the Luddites did not reject technology out of hand, but they were concerned about its alienating and disempowering effects.

I’ve read a lot of stuff recently about how the coming age of robotics and how AI will free us from work. Well, I think it depends how it’s done. If AI is introduced into factories and other workplaces, making lots of workers redundant, then it is plainly not going to benefit anyone but the employers.

 If, on the other hand, AI is introduced at the same time as social and political reform (say a guaranteed national income, and/or with a mind to using AI applications to enable small business and single workers) then it might liberate us from punishing working hours, for at least some jobs.

This example suggests that expecting a new technology automatically to ‘save us,' to raise living standards or take away the pain of toil is very naïve. So my position is similar to the one Nicholas Agar outlined in his book The Sceptical Optimist (Oxford, 2015).

Agar surveys the debates, and concludes that ‘declarations that technological progress is good or bad may be effective as rallying calls,' but do not provide us with a way of making informed choices. Instead, the benefits and dangers of new technology should be intelligently balanced against each other.

I think he's right, but it seems to me that the main problem here is that the stance that individuals and various factions take on technology is more often dictated by shared values than by a balancing of danger vs. opportunity.

So a Transhumanist will tend to embrace any kind of human-enhancing technology, simply because it is high technology,  but a Deep Ecologist will tend to reject things like GM crops, nanotech and nuclear power.

I think that in practice it's pretty much impossible to make judgments that are divorced from your values. So maybe if you really want to make an informed judgment about technology, you need to figure out what your values actually are and be honest about them.

And my own values, these days, tend to revolve around whether a technology will genuinely enhance well-being and the health of the planet, as opposed to assuming that any innovation, for its own sake, is 'progress' and will magically solve all our problems.

Saturday, 28 November 2015

A Lazy Person's Future

In attempting to write up a credible follow up to last time’s blog – on the possibility of eliminating ‘Syndrome Evil,’ I’ve been delving into various, technocratic dreams for the future.

And boy, are they exhausting.

In the future, apparently, we’ll live forever, have chips in our brains and get twitter feeds directly into our neocortex. We’ll all be impossibly beautiful and perfect, that is if we haven’t already had our consciousness uploaded onto a data cloud.

Once in the datacloud, we’ll set about dismantling the planets, creating Matrioshka Brains (don’t ask) and forming a massive Dyson Sphere around the sun. And eventually, our machine-descendants will colonize the galaxy and then the Universe, recreating this current era as a simulation, which we might be living inside, anyway.

This all sounds rather a lot of hard work.

The question many of these guys never seem to ask is what it will be like living in this amazing future. I’ve got one way of simulating it. Spend all day (24 hours) at your laptop/tablet, drinking lots of strong coffee laced with sugar. Make sure that you simultaneously answer every tweet, work at a spreadsheet and simultaneously play something like candy crush saga. And never stop.

And then see how you feel.

Oh, but of course, we’ll be engineered to love/cope with the speedy life, won’t we? We'll never feel tired, or lousy, or depressed again because we'll have a little mood button. In other words, we'll be machines and not human beings.

My vision of the future’s quite different. If I was asked to picture an ideal life in, say, 2600, it would be predominantly rural (we’d have solved the population problem and rewilded much of the Earth).

I might live longer or be less subject to the infirmities of a human body (we'd have advanced medical technology), but I wouldn’t live in a machine worshiping culture. Work -- the boring jobs -- would be largely mechanized; at most, I’d have to do four hours a day for five days a week.

And the work that I did do would be genuinely useful, and not simply to profit someone else or contribute to ‘economic growth.’ The rest of the time would be spent on creative projects, personal development, community, being kind, social life and travelling around the rewilded areas of the Earth.

Cities would be far more pleasant in this future: much greener and less overpopulated. Poverty would be gone, and the prevailing ethos would be towards quality of life rather than the accumulation of wealth.

But the most important thing, is that there would be quiet, time, and peace in my future. And cats, of course. Definitely cats.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Expanding your time horizon

Most of us, most of the time, are so hypnotized by the generally short term challenges of living that we don’t pause to think about the long term. This seems a fatal flaw to me.

I mentioned last time some conversations I’d had last week, concerning climate change and the curious lack of concern about it.

Well, the bad news keeps coming. The New Scientist for the 17th October 2015 reported that if we carry on pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet collapses – then major US cities are going be underwater quite soon: Jacksonville by 2035, Long Beach by 2075 and New York by 2085.

2035: twenty years hence. And yet, most of us, including those in power, are carrying on as if this isn’t a concern. A decade hence, it seems, is out of the general cognitive time-horizon.

So the question is: how do we cultivate a sense of the long term? We know it’s possible, because the long view can be trained – as historians, archaeologists, geologists, palaeontologists and astronomers will appreciate.

A part of this problem might be to understand your life in terms of a wider, temporal whole. Take a day – and multiply. What were you doing 100 days ago? That was late July. Maybe you were on holiday.

Okay; how about a thousand days ago? That was 2.73 solar years ago, late January 2013. Can you even remember what you were doing then?

Ten Thousand days? June 1988: I was Fourteen, and our family was about to break up from School and go on holiday in Norway.

One hundred thousand days? That was 1741; year of a slave insurrection in New York; the defeat of the Austrian army by the Prussian troops of Frederick the Great at Mollwitz, the Spanish victory in Battle of Cartagena de Indias over Great Britain, and the crowning of  Maria Theresa of Austria as Queen Regnant of Hungary in Bratislava. Any of these events familiar?

A million days ago? Approx 724 B.C., when the Assyrians start a four-year siege of Tyre and the diaulos footrace was introduced at the Olympics. Don’t current affairs suddenly seem rather… trivial?

At the very least, this exercise demonstrates how unconscious we are, much of the time, of the greater span of time, even within our own lives….

Friday, 23 October 2015

Guardians and Cosmonauts

Was in London on Wednesday, after a farcical three quarter of an hour drive around Peterborough to find a parking space. Weather in London was miserable and rainy, and the City was in its overcrowded and stress-inducing aspect.

Eventually got to the science museum to see an exhibition on the Soviet space program, where a large number of relics from the Early Space Age were displayed. The exhibition, entitled Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age, had a significant amount of hardware from the Soviet Space Program, including the Vostok capsule that had transported the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, the Soviet Crewed lunar lander, that never made it to the Moon, plus various replicas of space probes, and a mock up of Sputnik.

Just as interesting was the Soviet era art and memorabilia, including space mugs and postcards, and posters of Yuri Gagarin. The exhibition also had modernist sculptures of bold and bemuscled people reaching for the heavens, and a large painting of the 'chief designer,' Sergei Korolev.

There was also a bit on the prehistory of the space age, including Konstantin Tsiolkovsky's home-made ear trumpet and mention of the mystical writings of Nikolai Fyodorov, founder of cosmicism. Fyodorov advocated an expansion into space, and the use of science to provide immortality and resurrect the dead. Tsiolkovsky read him and started the theoretical work needed to achieve the first part.

After this, in the evening, I went to the offices of the Guardian for one of their Masterclasses, on pitching a story. This was very very useful, as I've been trying to expand the journalism for a bit, but have been struggling. Why? Three reasons (1) I've got pretty eclectic interests and struggle to find a focus for the writing sometimes. This probably comes across in this blog.... (2) Many of the things I'm really interested in are long term and probably seem pretty esoteric and weird to most people, especially, unfortunately, editors and (3) nervousness about my writing being a load of old crap.

The class helped on all three fronts, although there was one point where I got into a conversation about long term problems (i.e. climate change) and the (very nice and friendly people) started to get that look on their faces.

One gentleman suggested that people mostly don't worry about that sort of thing, and I replied that they would when London was under several feet of water. But I am very struck, in general, about how poorly the sort of journalism we have really seems to deal with long-running and possibly unsexy issues. The problem being that it's those long-running and unsexy issues that can prove the most serious and dangerous if unattended....

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Snowdonia (2): Writerland to Adventureland

It’s a real experience travelling between interest groups. On the Friday Milford ended this year, I went for a weekend at The Plas YBrenin Mountaineering centre on the other side of Snowdonia.
After a week without TV, it was a bit of a shock to have the Rugby World Cup in the Bar, played at top volume. As was leaving the world of dreams, fantasies and the future for rocks, ropes and grazed knees.

Been doing a lot of climbing practise recently with my rock climbing partner James Watson, and I’ve been eager to get to climb on natural rock for some time. I’ve already done some scrambling in Snowdonia – the Snowdon Horseshoe in 2013, also after Milford, and earlier this year, again on part of the horseshoe, on a Mountaineering course.

Well, we did plenty of climbing on the weekend course. On the Saturday, we went to Pant Y Fan at Tremadog, and the weather was wonderful. Climbing was fun, although I was a little nervous on the descent at first, being belayed by strangers. But the view at the top of Pany Y Fan, across the Straits of Menai, was wonderful.

On Sunday, we went to Crag A Tonnau. The rocks there are weird – the cliff undulates. It’s pillow lava, according to one website, but it looked more like volcanic tuff to me (The core of Snowdonia’s a prehistoric volcano).

A hobby like this sometimes raises eyebrows among my more inactive, intellectual friends. So why do I do it?

  • Apparently, I used to climb everywhere when I was a toddler.
  • Rock climbing and other outdoor pursuits are good for the soul. They’re also a very effective tonic for depression.
  • Slightly risky physical activities (possibly excluding sex) help build character and resilience. I’ve found that doing things that involve some acute but manageable risk, increases my confidence in everyday life when faced with more mundane challenges.
  • I’m a born Romantic, in the old-fashioned sense. The story of exploration was always the best bit of history, for me, especially Polar and then interplanetary robotic exploration. I might never be a Ranulph Fiennes -- or an astronaut, for that matter -- but I can still have adventures.
  • Rock climbing forces you to concentrate, totally, and forget everyday worries and concerns. So it’s actually rather like meditation.
  • And finally, the VIEW AT THE TOP! 

Friday, 16 October 2015

The Magic Kingdom (1): Milford!

Been to Snowdonia, North Wales, twice this year: once for mountaineering, and again for the SF/Fantasy writers group meeting in Trigonos, on the shores of Lynn Nantille, known as Milford.
Snowdonia is one of my favorite places in Britain; it’s a little Mountain Kingdom, squeezed into this overcrowded isle and existing almost as an Other Place. It's a perfect hideaway for someone who writes fantastic fiction.

Trigonos is also a special place: a retreat, in the mountains, away from the distractions of everyday life. I always enjoy Milford; it’s good to mix with writers/creative people, and actually feel like a writer yourself, not some kind of impostor. It’s also important to be with people who think in SF terms, and looks at things like the future, space etc. in a similar way.

This year, we had (as usual, really) a nice bunch at Milford, and the pieces of work submitted for critique were of a very high standard. The idea, for those unfamiliar with writer’s circles, is for individual pieces – short stories or novel excerpts – to get submitted for mutual comments and criticisms.

This process can be very useful – but it can also be quite challenging, and I think it’s important to have in mind what you want from a critique beforehand. Over the last year, I’ve been writing a novel, and the main thing I needed to know was whether people ‘bought’ the central premises. On the whole, this time, I think I got away with it....

I’ve always had mixed feelings about writer’s circles. Whilst having your work critiqued is important and can be useful, conflicting advice on stories can be confusing at times. I tend to agree with the idea that that the process of commenting on other people's work helps you learn how to critique your own work more objectively.

Milford, and the conversations there, gave me something else. It’s helped remind me of the sort of writing that I really love, and why I wanted to be a writer in the first place. My life has been so enriched by exploring fantastic other worlds, that I’d be really crazy to give it up. But everyday life can make you forget that, so it’s good to meet up with other explorers from time to time….

NEXT TIME: Writers versus Mountaineers!