Monday, August 8, 2016

turning our rose-coloured glasses towards the future

Everyone has a different idea about what the future holds, and our beliefs about likely future scenarios are largely defined by our beliefs about the present. This post aims to consider the way our beliefs shape our thinking about the future, without trying to ascertain which beliefs are probably correct.

The Christian Worldview

In the West, our thinking is hugely shaped by the Church. As a group, Westerners are romantic, idealistic and individualistic. We have a long history (which even predates the church) of skepticism about humanity's ability to be in control in a sensible way. A great example is the Greek fable of Icarus, or the story of Adam and Eve, but there are others, including more modern examples such as Frankenstein, Jurassic Park, etc. The issue is also deeper, and plays into the idea that the natural world is inherently beyond our comprehension or ability to control.
The Christian worldview also views humans as a mar on an otherwise-perfect landscape. A consideration of our flaws is fundamental here.

The Enlightenment worldview

In opposition to this is the Enlightenment worldview, which posits that rationalism and systematic research can reveal the workings of the world to us. It also views human potential as infinite and humans themselves as the apex of creation, with our intellect and reason elevated to near divine status. This view really began in the Renaissance, and gained traction with thinkers like Voltaire, Newton, Bacon, etc.
Since the Enlightenment, this view has been tempered somewhat by thinkers such as Godel and Schrodinger who have shown some of the limits to human knowledge. However, the enlightenment view persists, that people can continue to better themselves indefinitely through the application of knowledge about the universe.

The future

Many, perhaps most, people agree that humanity is at a crisis point when it comes to climate change. There is a smaller group who are aware of the dangers of resource depletion. We know that we cannot continue adding CO2 to the atmosphere without significant consequences for ourselves and Earth's ecosystems. There is disagreement, though, about what this forced change means for us and how we should achieve it.

The techno-utopians

The techno-utopians believe that technology will solve this problem for us without major changes to our society. Some even argue that market mechanisms, as they currently exist, will seamlessly transition us from fossil fuels in a timely manner. Others argue that government intervention (at least to remove market distortions) may be required.
The basic consensus in this group is that solar PV and wind turbine technology is currently the cheapest new form of power and that it will quickly displace all fossil fuel generation. To my mind, techno-utopians share the enlightenment worldview.


Doomers believe that we are on the way to collapse. They envisage that the disintegration of the West, industrial society, human civilisation, or even human extinction are the likely outcomes. They believe that humans have risen above their station by the exploitation of fossil fuels, that it won't be sustained, that there is no other alternative and we will revert back to some former, simpler, state. They believe that a sustainable society looks very different from our current society.
I believe that this way of thinking is close to the Christian worldview. Our punishment awaits us due to the pursuit of knowledge (that we shouldn't have) -- like the fable of Adam and Eve.


I'm not saying that one of these opinions is right and one is wrong (to my mind, it is not yet clear how this will play out). However, I think it is useful to be aware of the background and presuppositions to our thinking.
Also, the sketches of the two groups are very broad -- I realise that both groups are highly heterogeneous and have many distinct and conflicting opinions.


To my mind, a big question is: can humans discover/invent things that nature cannot?
A good example of this is solar power. Is it possible for humans to build solar PV systems that have a full-circle efficiency (ie. including materials provision, manufacture, maintenance and decomissioning) better than photosynthesis? I think that doomers would say we can't, and that techno-utopians would say we can.

Here is a restating of the question:

Evolution is our name for the process that leads organisms to possess traints that are well-fit to their environment. Because unfit organisms tend to produce fewer successful offspring, the tendency over time is for a trait to become optimal for its environment [1]. One thing to bear in mind is that evolution is incremental, and every tiny step in the development of a trait needs to be not only viable (ie. able to survive), but optimal (the currently most competitive solution) otherwise the progeny of that evolutionary step will be disadvantaged and the trait will tend not to persist.
This is not true for humans developing a new invention. Humans can mentally explore options, and use creativity and leaps of inspiration to create something fundamentally new. We don't need to arrive at a new idea, in tiny incremental stages, where each stage will be optimal -- we can "build" the invention, in our mind, all at once: exploring different designs and their strengths and weaknesses.
Clearly, humans' ability to make mental models of the world is constrained by our own evolution (eg. we retain a primate nervous system), but it seems possible to me that humans can still create inventions that are impossible for evolution to create. [2]

This doesn't answer the question of whether solar PV has a full-circle efficiency better than photosynthesis, but it indicates that it is possible it is true, while providing no evidence one way or the other. For this reason, I believe it shows that saying "if there was a better way to convert sunlight into chemical energy, evolution would have found it" is fallacious reasoning.

[1] This is clearly a gross simplification, but for the purpose of this sketch, it will do.
[2] There is a danger in this thinking though -- biological evolution has been occurring for such a long time that it could find circuitous routes around what appear to us as impossible chasms -- for this reason we should be careful before pronouncing that we have found an invention that evolution could not find.

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