Muck and Mystery
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March 25, 2009
Long Doom

Just sayin'

Surprisingly there are collapsitarians who are rooting for the quick arrival of the Long Doom. Perhaps not surprisingly they come in all kinds of flavors. Some hail from the hard wingnut left, some from the hard wingnut right, and some from next door.

As far as Google knows the term collapsitarian was coined by Jim Kunstler in a January 26, 2009 New Yorker article on Dystopians. There seem to be about six species of collapsitarians:

  • Luddites, anarchists, and anti-civilization activists (see The Unabomber Was Right) who are trying the hasten collapse as soon as possible.
  • Goldbugs, survivalists, Y2K holdouts, and slightly right wingers who see collapse as the penalty for modern liberalism.
  • Conservationists and greenies who see collapse as the penalty for environmental sins.
  • Somewhat leftist anti-globalists who see collapse as the penalty for globalism.
  • Critics of American super-power who see the collapse of America as an inevitable imperial overreach. Many are native academics, many reside outside of America, many are prominent historians.
  • Former financial employees who see nothing good in, but no escape from, this doom.
The idea of progress has been slowly dying. I think progress lost its allure at the ignition of the first atom bomb at the end of WWII. It has been losing luster since. Even more recently the future has become boring and unfashionable. No one wants to live in the future. The jet packs don't work, and the Daily Me is full of spam. No finds the Future attractive any longer.

The only thing left to believe in is collapse. That's not boring! The end of civilization would be terribly exciting, and unlike any future we could imagine, probably more likely. Dystopias are a favorite science fiction destination now.

We all are collapsitarians these days.

I'm not. Matt Ridley spoke for me in part in that Reason interview linked in earlier posts. "I’m that classically underrepresented voter, the person who believes in economic freedom and social freedom, too." On progress he said:
Let’s give it the obvious word, even though it’s a very unfashionable one: progress. The book is about where progress came from, how it works, and, most important, how long it can continue in the future. . .

If we go on as we are, it’ll be very difficult to sustain things. But we won’t go on as we are. That’s what we never do. We always change what we do and we always get much more efficient at using things—energy, resources, etc.

Just take land area for feeding the world. If we’d gone on as we were, as hunter-gatherers, we’d have needed about 85 Earths to feed 6 billion people. If we’d gone on as early slash-and-burn farmers, we’d have needed a whole Earth, including all the oceans. If we’d gone on as 1950 organic farmers without a lot of fertilizer, we’d have needed 82 percent of the world’s land area for cultivation, as opposed to the 38 percent that we farm at the moment.

Sure, if every office in China uses as much paper as every office does in America now and there’re just as many of them, then we’re going to run out of trees to chop down to make the paper. Well, I’m willing to bet that we’ll have found ways of recycling paper or making paper from less material or not using so much paper. It might take paper getting expensive before that happens.

We are not all collapsitarians these days. If you live in that echo-chamber you might think it so, but you need to get out more.


Did you ever see that cartoon, a Larsen IIRC, that had one fellow mounted on a snowmobile like vehicle tethered to a computer, and another fellow seated at a CRT monitor giving him steering directions. The caption said something to the effect that this was the early days of the development of the computer mouse.

Non-collapsitarians anticipate progress, though it's hard to predict.

The personal computer and Internet could have been predicted and were predicted by some. A 1968 video predicting a global communication system like the Internet and predictions of the information highway and the 1986 prediction of a global hypertext system.
The PC and the global net were predicted even earlier. I've read internal documents from skunkworks that were old in 1968 that saw this future and analyzed its probabilities. The problem then was the one Larsen spoofed in his cartoon: they knew what to do and how to do it but they just had to wait for the hardware to evolve to the point where it was practical. All knew that this would happen - "Lord willing and the creek don't rise" - but not when.

What are the analogous predictions now?

  • Low Energy Nuclear Reactions
  • Quantum Computers
  • DNA and other forms of Nanotechnology
  • Metamaterials
  • Nuclear Fusion and Factory Mass Produced Deep Burn Fission
  • Super-medicine
  • Robotics
  • Femtosecond and attosecond lasers
  • Augmented human intelligence and artificial intelligence
I find it hard to doubt that progress will continue given that so many emerging technologies are on the horizon, but the wait can be frustrating. The folks who expected pervasive information and communication technologies in the 1950s and 1960s knew that they would live their lives without these capabilities, and that can be depressing. Still, it's no reason to go over to the dark side and long for doom. It seems more sensible to go Kurzweil and try to live to see it. Hold your mud, be diligent and patient. It's useful behavior even if you don't make it.
Posted by back40 at 09:33 AM | Psychoceramica

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"Low Energy Nuclear Reactions". Sigh -- you mean cold fusion, right?

Sorry, no dice. The other stuff sounds pretty neat, though. Let's all hope it happens sooner rather than later.

Posted by: Chemjobber at March 28, 2009 03:51 PM

If you follow the link back to the source of those predictions you might be able to get an informed discussion of them.

Posted by: back40 at March 28, 2009 04:08 PM
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