Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Chilling Effects

There is a new story (here) out about the forecast solar minimum.  Supposedly, this will be the least active sun cycle seen in centuries.  While the effects of the sun's cycles are not completely understood, the last time the sun was inactive was during the time of the "Little Ice Age," around 1650-1715, when growing seasons got shorter and the weather noticeably colder than it had been for some time in Europe (remember, the Middle Ages in Europe were a time of relative warmth). 

The declining activity of the sun was the subject of a very well-done science fiction movie, called "Sunshine," and has been the subject of numerous other works of fiction.  While this probably isn't the start of something apocalyptic, it's a stark reminder that our life and circumstances are very dependent on things will outside our control.  It's hard to say exactly what would happen in the next few years if this comes to pass.  Food may be somewhat rarer and more expensive, to start with -- something already problematic in a day and age when inflation is beginning to drive the price of food up.

It also really points to the reality of how vulnerable the human race is, that we're stuck on earth for now and the foreseeable future.  What would be the response of the human race if the sun were raging out of control and drastically raising global temperatures? 

In some ways, we tend to assume that a "Dark Age" or "collapse" is a loss of what we already have -- information, wealth, population, etc.  However, if we can look at it another way -- we are simply sitting still, while we need to be steadily advancing as a species and culture.  If we expect that the creation and use of technology is geared to the survival and continuance of our species, then is it not true that failing to advance ourselves is tantamount to guaranteeing our demise? 


  1. In your last sentence, how do you define "advance ourselves?" At present, high concentrations of atmospheric CO2 overwhelms any potential cooling effect from reduced solar activity. Further, 2010 had record emissions of CO2. Humans are advancing ourselves via economic growth, albeit anemic. But at what ultimate cost? The best way we can advance ourselves is to completely dismantle industrial civilization, thus giving our grandchildren a slim chance at life. Business as usual assures our demise.

  2. TGriz,

    There are a number of ways I could address your post, but I guess the first thing that comes to mind is that if we go back to a paleolithic level of existence, most of our grandchildren will not be alive to begin with -- the pre-industrial carrying capacity of the world is what -- around a billion, maybe? Likely around 200 million for cruder farming techniques? So, every 29 out of 30 people, give or take, would not exist now.

    The problem here is that we find ourselves completely back to the mercy of any hazardous natural event, such as plague or a meteor hitting the world. Without industrial civilization, we're doomed in that sort of scenario. Even barring a catastrophe, we're still going to eventually see habitable space diminish as time goes on (phosphorus leeching out of arable ground, oxygen evaporating into space slowly over time). Turning permanently back from technological progress means that we're signing our own death warrant as a species. Is that desirable? Maybe, but I'm not so nihilistic as to believe that.

    So, obviously, we also can't stay where we're at. Oil is eventually going to run out, water, land, etc, will, too. The status quo will lead to falling backwards and the eventual death of the species as well.

    The only other option is to explore new technologies, new ways of both thinking (an end to nationalism and balkanism, among other things), and eventually moving off the Earth and into space on a permanent basis. Most of the point of the Leibowitz Society is to preserve our accumulated cultural knowledge to have a "leg up" after we inevitably stumble. Is it likely or practical that we'll eventually colonize other worlds and not have the Earth be our one vulnerable island of existence? Maybe, I don't know. There's a lot we have done as a species that didn't seem fathomable even a century or two ago, but I also see humanity losing its vision and turning inward, not outward.

    If you haven't read it, you might enjoy "Titan" by Stephen Baxter. He explores some of these themes and the novel is a good read, to boot.


  3. "Turning permanently back from technological progress means that we're signing our own death warrant as a species. Is that desirable? Maybe, but I'm not so nihilistic as to believe that."

    Would it be all that tragic if some silent event caused most of the human race to become sterile - no genocide or violence, just a fading to nothing over a few decades? It seems to me that at any moment there are things going on in the world that are so terrible that they completely outweigh any slight happiness that a privileged fraction of the human race enjoys.

  4. It's a deep question. If 99% of the people in the world were happy, and one percent weren't, would it be appropriate to damn the others because some didn't have what they had?

    Likewise, I don't see mass suicides because people can't live the life of sports star or billionaire.

    And, it raises the question of what the purpose of life is, what defines a well-lived life, and so on. The Christian might answer that people live to love and serve God, while the atheist might state that people serve themselves by exploring life, developing themselves to their best ability and trying to improve the world during their life. And there are a hundred other actualizing states between those two extremes.

    We want to view the world as tragic and fatally flawed, but consider -- in the last century and a half, we have dispensed with slavery as a legitimate institution. We are in the process of recognizing and accepting the sexes as equal. And so on.

    What did Romans feel like in 450 AD, when their empire was crumbling? Did they conflate the end of their Empire with their own personal destinies and come to see life as futile and hopeless? Perhaps that is a defining psychological characteristic, too, when our worldview becomes one of limited possibilities at that moment. Are people going to come along in a hundred years, look at what we once achieved, see that the world is wide open and try to do better?

    Maybe there's a little romanticism there, but I don't really like the idea of defeatism and nihilism. Even James Kunstler is steadily working on new things -- his theory that life isn't over until it's over. I think there's a significant takeaway in that.

  5. "Sunshine" seems to me to be an Anti-"Solaris", even though it has a happy ending, too.
    Within their spaceships and space stations - metaphors of Earth - Sunshine shows mankind being beset by disaster, while Solaris shows what happens to mankind when the problem is too much of a good thing: first discord and madness, then working through it, and finally triumph.

    I agree fully with you final paragraph. The problem areas in which we must advance are painfully clear. By ignoring them, we guarantee our "ironic" ("a sudden reversal of fortune"...think of the suddenness of the 2008 financial crisis in the USA)and inevitable demise.