It's remarkable how diametrically opposite conclusions may be reached by various people when they look at the very same data. Sean Carroll talks about Sid Meier's Civilization I-V, a famous series of computer games
Humans will need to leave the Earth, we're assured. The Washington Post tells us that Rio+20 in next week will have to agree that everyone must become a vegetarian. Alternatively, we have to create a sustainable society. Holy cow. I have played Civilization quite passionately as an undergrad and my conclusions were completely but completely different! And by the way, James Lovelock of the Gaia fame already sees the future and energy industry very differently, too. See two wonderful interviews organized by Leo Hickman for the Guardian: fracking rules, shale gas is good, greens less so.
My greatest experience was the encounter with CivDOS, CivWin, and Civ II. You shouldn't imagine that freshman Lumo would be playing it for years. But during a semester in 1993 or so, I spent many hours with it for at least 30 different days. One night session with my friend was a memorable event.
The computer lab in the basement of the school canteen (next to our hostels) would be closing at midnight. The doorkeeper would only allow the people to get out at 1:00 am, then 2:00 am, and then every hour. We got stuck at midnight, determined to stop playing by 1:00 am. That didn't work so our plan was moved to 2:00 am. Then it was moved at 3:00 am but by mathematical induction, we already felt that the new plan was less trustworthy than what we thought about the previous one. To make the story short, we suddenly saw the rising Sun around 7:00 am and we had to go to have some breakfast.
I wasn't tired at all, went to play volleyball (which I was very bad at, of course: our coach advised me not to register again because I was screwing their games), and only at the end of the volleyball classes, I felt extremely tired, ready to sleep for 15-20 hours. ;-) Games may be addictive but it's not a really deadly experience.
Just to be sure, I am able to run Civilization for DOS – through DOSbox – as well as Civilization for Windows 3.1 on my Windows 7. Just Civilization 2 doesn't work because it seems to be the only 32-bit program in the world that my 64-bit PC cannot swallow. But Civilization Alpha Centauri does work again and just to have an idea how the visual details have improved over the two decades, I downloaded the Civilization V demo a month ago. The video above shows someone playing Civilization V.
But let me return to the point – and to Civilization II that I have also played for many hours. My impression was that the beginning of the game, when you're a chieftain who hasn't really mastered the environment and who may be beaten by random savages that appear somewhere from the darkness of an unknown land – was frustrating. But as you map your continent(s), discover various technologies, and once you became able to build many things, the game just become pleasant and relaxing.
The scientific and technological progress is a totally cool thing. It's a pleasure to see how you can build railways and move your vehicles across the continent in one turn, instead of the muddy and slows methods to move at the beginning. Things become even better if you can send airplanes to your enemies – and if you can nuke them. You are very afraid of doing so at the beginning: nuclear weapons are almost a taboo. But the game correctly teaches you that it is just another tool, and a very effective one, and the pollution caused by the blast may be pretty much cleaned. Things just work.
I found it pleasant when my civilization became sufficiently dominant and the world just behaved (and kept on improving) in the way that looked satisfactory. You shouldn't think I was too good in playing the game but it was a relaxing activity that modestly and pleasantly stimulated one's brain activity – but not too much. If the other folks are destroying you too quickly or too brutally, then you're just playing too difficult a level. Unless your goal is to do something really difficult, ambitious, and energy-consuming, you should switch back to a chieftain (an easier level) or whatever is more appropriate – and then the game is fun.
The video below has additional parts and the guy talks about playing Civilization II. Carroll talks about the same version and I have played this one, too.
If you still don't know what the game is, then I apologize. It's a strategic game that takes place on a grid (originally square grid but it was replaced by a hexagonal network in the fifth Civilization). Each place of the grid may be controlled by one civilization and may host military units or cities – that are able to use resources in some vicinity of a particular shape – and/or various kinds of landscape. You're building cities, cities build units and products and wonders of the world and your scientists are inventing new technologies that depend on previous technologies – you may choose what your research focuses on and how much money you're paying for research or military and how much money you leave to the citizens – and allow you to build new kinds of city improvements, products, and military units.
It's enough for a description, I hope.
Again, my point is that the life becomes much more pleasant from pretty much all viewpoints as you and your civilization are getting more technologically (and politically) potent. The tree of the discoveries is a rather accurate caricature of the history of our own science and technology; when you play the game, you spend a lot of time by revisiting the actual history of the mankind.
But the game also contains some "foreseeable" wonders of the future, including a flight to a different star's planetary system, and some "unnamed future discoveries". It's very realistic and conveys the right spirit about the progress, I believe (although I know that some conservatives criticized the game as a communist propagandistic conspiracy: I don't follow this criticism, can you help me?). By the way, I forgot to say that your empire may be a dictatorship, kingdom, republic, democracy, or communist state etc. As you go towards democracy, many peaceful things become more effective but the hippie bastards in the Parliament often overrule your decision when you need to attack some foreign bastards.
That's why it's often very useful to switch to a more dictatorial system which is more effective when it comes to conflicts.
Sustainability is complete rubbish
All these random factoids about the game and my experience with it was only written as a background for something more important and it is the following. Superficial environmentalist doomsayers including Sean Carroll are completely missing the point when they insist on the "sustainability" of the progress or the evolution of the world near the "equilibrium" which is really the same thing expressed in less ideologically tainted words.
As the Civilization games correctly teach you, there's never any long-lived equilibrium as long as your society is alive and kicking. A life near the equilibrium would mean stagnation – a softer form of death. What you actually see during the whole playing is a skyrocketing population, increasing number of cities, strength of the cities, density of improvements in the cities, constant development of new ideas, new technologies, qualitatively new forms of the government, new ways to store people, fill their souls, and many other things. The progress is both qualitative and quantitative, both extensive and intensive, and it has many forms that keep on changing.
It's probably wrong to think about the year 3991 AD in terms of the amount of fossil fuels that will be consumed. Chances are that the consumption will be low; some of the fossil fuels may still be useful and they will perhaps be artificially produced out of other forms of energy that will be generated more centrally. Many things may happen. The fact that you get a scary world if you extrapolate current technologies, currently relevant resources, and current trends to the year 3991 AD shouldn't be surprising. The extrapolation is qualitatively wrong because the "physical resources" that will be determining the GDP in the year 3991 AD will be substantially different than the current ones.
Every combination of a resource and trend that leads to demonstrably scary conclusions in the year 3991 AD simply means that the trend will indeed slow down, stop, or the resource will become almost totally irrelevant, indeed. But that doesn't mean that the mankind will be in trouble. It just means that it will use different resources and methods or much smaller amounts of the known resources to stay alive and to entertain itself. It means that it makes no sense to try to plan (or invest) 2,000 years into the future simply because we have no idea about the conditions in the year 3991 AD.
Late Michael Crichton described the nonsensical character of the doomsaying extrapolations (and any prophesies of details about the distant future in general) very nicely in his talk Aliens Cause Global Warming. Among many other wise things, he said:
... Look: If I was selling stock in a company that I told you would be profitable in 2100, would you buy it? Or would you think the idea was so crazy that it must be a scam?I think these are very true words. If someone claims that the year 3991 AD – or even the year 2100 is enough – will be in trouble just because he applies the current technologies, current expectations about the importance of things, trends, and everything else and extrapolates them to a completely different era, it shows his breathtaking arrogance, unbelievable naivety i.e. extraordinarily superficial reasoning, or both. It's just not possible for a sharp person to think in this way.
Let's think back to people in 1900 in, say, New York. If they worried about people in 2000, what would they worry about? Probably: Where would people get enough horses? And what would they do about all the horseshit?
Horse pollution was bad in 1900, think how much worse it would be a century later, with so many more people riding horses? But of course, within a few years, nobody rode horses except for sport.
And in 2000, France was getting 80% its power from an energy source that was unknown in 1900. Germany, Switzerland, Belgium and Japan were getting more than 30% from this source, unknown in 1900. Remember, people in 1900 didn't know what an atom was. ...
When you talk about technologies, approximately 100-200 years is a period after which "almost everything" becomes qualitatively different than before. Just to be sure, certain things about the humans, their thinking, and the economy don't qualitatively change in 100 years and some of them not even in 1,000 years. But almost all the technical details do. And it's only the technical details that may be used to predict bad conditions. That's why these predictions for the year 3991 AD or even 2100 AD are nonsensical. That's why people who want to plan carbon emissions up to the year 2050 if not 2100 are unhinged loons and psychopaths. Stalinists suffered (I use the past tense because I hesitate to admit that these people – in Syriza – will win the Sunday elections in Greece again) from a shocking degree of megalomania but they only dared to plan the society for 5 years. The plans were almost never fulfilled, anyway. And it was just 5 years, not 50, 100, or 2,000 years.
The progress of the mankind in the long run can't be measured by the weight of coal we will be able to burn – although other leftists did this things at various point, too. Even if you replace the coal by anything else, e.g. solar panels that we will install, you can't get a sensible method to measure the progress in the very long run. In the very long run, it's pretty much guaranteed that some truly qualitative changes will take place and the progress may be measured by the number of these qualitative changes. Certain things we pay for will become so cheap that they will be for free. The payments will shift elsewhere.
But the amount of coal or number of solar panels may only be interesting in a small local neighborhood of our lives in the spacetime. In this neighborhood, the progress may be expressed in terms of these quantities. But in completely different corners of the spacetime – a landscape of possible civilizations – the linearization from the previous sentence becomes totally inadequate. One must use totally different degrees of freedom to talk about the life of the civilization in a distant future and about its economy (yes, I am referring to a rather close analogy with effective field theories that may describe the conditions around various minima in the string-theoretical landscape: each vacuum produces a different effective field theory).
It's amazing that some people don't understand how their interests – and even their whole lives and certain value systems rooted in the latest environmentalist fads – are provincial, transitory, subjective, and downright worthless from the viewpoint of the eternity. I've been stunned many times when I was interacting with various people of this kind.
Take Alexander Ač. He's OK, a de facto conflict-free guy. But holy crap, he is bug nutty, bat shit crazy, if I borrow the words from Penn and Teller. He must know that his predictions of quantities related to his doom – that he sees everywhere – or his predictions of the oil prices or anything else are changing by 70 percent in average in every 3 months or so. A sane and at least marginally humble person would be able to estimate the timescale after which his expectations cease to have any relevance. Yes, the time scale is of order 3 months. But folks like Alexander Ač who are not only unable to estimate things more than 3 months into the future but who don't really understand their own age are still self-confident enough to preach about the duties and urgent needs in the year 2050, 2100, or 3991 AD.
It's an explosive combination of ignorance and stupidity on one side and arrogance and megalomania on the other side that one would expect among the Islamic fundamentalists only. But he would be wrong. Many people who are walking on our streets may be the same if not worse. After all, people in all nations are pretty much the same, whether they're Arabs or half-Czechs half-Slovaks or anything else. So this shared DNA of the humans must manifest itself in the weirdest kinds of stupidity in every nation, too. Much like human and technological progress, human stupidity may exponentially grow without any limitations.
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