Sunday, April 15, 2007

Type 1 Environmentalism

I just finished watching Gore's movie. Yes yes, I know ... you waited til now to see it? Listen, I only stay current on comic book movies. At any rate, there was one comment that he made, right at the end of the movie, in an offhand way (one which he repeated recently in Congress, I believe), to the effect that he believed we would get rich fighting climate change.

.... the fuck!? I thought. More in surprise than in actual disagreement.

Don't get me wrong. I'm coming here from the position of a man who is very skeptical of the climate change shibboleth. The science seems iffy to me (not obviously ridiculuous, but also not rock solid), and the motives of those pushing it seem downright suspicious sometimes, a suspicion I base largely on their media tactics. I was only watching the movie because a friend argued - quite correctly - that I couldn't be dismissive of everything Al Gore said without at least seeing the damn thing. Besides, he'd gone to the trouble of reading some pretty extensive pages I sent him on the solar forcing theory, so ... fair's fair.

You can just picture me there, one o'clock in the morning, pen and pad in hand as I watched the movie and jotted down every unsupported comment, every suspicious tactic, every dubious claim, and everything that just plain annoyed me about the style of the movie. And I filled a few pages. Al Gore's an annoying guy.

But that damn throw-away referrence to getting rich off global warming ... that ate at me.
And y'know? I think the Gore may just be on to something.

The main proposed solution to global warming that is likely to be have any effect is technological change in the direction of greater energy independance at the household level, utilizing sources such as solar, wind, tidal, or whatever happens to be locally available. That technological change is also likely to lead in short order to a Type I civilization on the Kardashev scale (you know, types I, II, and III, respectively corresponding to total control over planetary, solar, and galactic energy resources.) Solar in particular will likely lead the way, due to advances in design such as the sunflower, and in materials science, developing increasingly cheap and efficient photovoltaic cells. Throw in the Sun's globally available nature, and the universal market that thus presents itself, and the history of solar power over the next twenty years or so has almost already been written. Cheap solar alone could revolutionize the world; with power becoming easily available in remote regions, it may well prove to be the technology that helps to bootstrap much of the Gap out of poverty.

Disturbing as it might be, Al Gore might actually be right that we - as a species - will get rich off of fighting global warming. I imagine he intends to, and he's not the only one. Indeed, the whole global warming story may well be, in part, a scare tactic in order to juice up demand for the coming production lines of household solar power panel installations. Gore's deliberate identification with the environmental movement is just good positioning; he's becoming the public face for a technology that may well revolutionize the world (and selling it with a scientifically credible scare story that can't help but generate massive attention for him.) But giving the entire planet access to Core standards-of-living, in a vastly more efficient way, can not possibly be a bad thing.

Indeed, the coming paradigm is likely to be one of far greater local independance than is currently the case. Most households will likely produce their own power (or buy it off neighbors who have more solar panels), and their own goods (with late-generation reprap style fabbers), eventually out of nothing more than dirt. The old infrastructures for power and the movement of goods will be largely abandoned: so long as you have access to the internet, you can go anywhere you please, start with a fab and a few solar panels, and grow your physical possessions as much as you want.

Food technology, also, is likely to become more of a local operation. Green techniques such as indoor aquaculture (a massive number of large aquariums filled with fish, stacked and linked so that they form a sort of contained ecosystem) are likely to make it possible for urban areas to grow much of their own food. Oddly, 'farmer' may come to describe an increasingly common occupation in much of the world, Core regions included. With much of the traditonal economy rapidly failing from lack of use following the near-simultaneous spread of repraps and solar, a lot of people in retail and manufacturing will be out of work ... and they'll still need money, because time, land, and food are three things that havene't gotten any cheaper. Gap regions that integrate through this route - adopting repraps and solar power and simply bootstrapping themselves - won't be demeaned with the prospect of lost jobs, as massive numbers of them don't have jobs, and working in a fish factory or some other green industrial food production method is a step up from nothing (especially when you've now got information, electricity and material abundance, thrown in for free.)

All of these technologies point in one direction, which is that of a world vastly richer than it currently is. Indeed, within short order, the diffusion of industrial power will likely lead to something very close to a Type I civilization, essentially controlling all the energy available in the vicinity of the earth. One might imagine whole forests of solar panels growing to cover the deserts, generating vast amounts of power from land previously useless to man or to living things, making those that own them very rich indeed. Make no mistake, the mid-East's current centrality to the energy economy is unlikely to go away when the oil does. Europe doesn't get much sunshine.

Then there are the possibilities for geothermally tapping volcanoes, harnessing tidal power from the oceans deepest currents, or wind power from the jet stream ... more challenging from an engineering perspective, but no less plausible for all that.

One can't help but wonder if there won't be some unforseen side effect of harnessing so much energy, likely dwarfing what the biosphere is capable of harnessing on its own. One way or another, civilization is set to become the dominant influence on the Earth's climate. Green technologies will get us there even faster in the long run, and I'm betting it's not long before the Greens realize that themselves and end up despising that which it once enthused over. It doesn't stretch the imagination that civilization might well end up deciding for itself what the climate will be; that, with some of the vast energies it harnesses, climate itself might come to be understood and directed as desired. In the meantime, it'll be more like an ape blundering about in a computer lab.

Some chaos is to be expected as the planet's phase space lurches towards the Singularity. It's oscillating towards a very different attractor from the one it's been on the past three billion years or so, in a lot more ways than just the climate. The entire solar system is about to become a much more interesting place.

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