Thinking About the Future

Lately, Diane and I have been following a series of videos called the Crash Course. Be warned -- the future that Chris paints in these videos is more than a little disturbing. While primarily focused on the United States, many of the things he talks about also apply to most of the world's economic systems. One of the things it has done is challenge my base assumption that the world will continue to get better as we live our lives. Now that's a pretty general statement, but I think a lot of us can say that our standard of living has gotten better over the last several years. But the crash course brings up some facts that disturb this rosy picture, and make me wonder just how bad the future could get. One of the things that's driven home to me about the watching Chris' videos is that the nature of exponential growth is very difficult for the human mind to get its head around in an intuitive fashion. You've got to spend some time figuring out good examples to help show you how difficult it is to deal with problems that are escalating exponentially. There's an excellent series of youtube videos that a professor at the University of Colorado did concerning the problems of exponential growth here. It's long, but worth watching.

In those videos, the professor presents an extremely interesting example. Suppose you have a test tube full of food and put one bacteria in it at 11:00. The bacteria doubles every minute, and the life cycle of the system is one hour so when the clock strikes 12:00, there is no food left. So at 11:01 there are 2 bacteria, and at 11:02 there are 4 bacteria, and so on. One question to ask is: when is the bottle half full? The answer is 11:59, because in that last step there needs to be enough room for the bacteria to double to make the bottle full. To drive the point home further -- when is the bottle 1/4 or 1/8 full? Well just 11:58 and 11:57 respectively!

You can add on one additional piece to that. Suppose that the bacteria somehow are able to find 3 more test tubes full of food. This represents a HUGE discovery of resources - fully 3 times the initial supply! If the bacteria move into the new test tubes, how much time has this bought them? Just two minutes. The first to use one new test tube, and the second to use the remaining two test tubes. Wow. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to make the connection that the earth is kind of like a test tube -- a finite area with finite resources, and human kind is growing in numbers ... exponentially.

I remember being taught in elementary school that population growth was one of the humankind's biggest challenges. How did this get lost from the public eye?

Humankind has made a habit of ignoring problems until they become annoying enough to solve. The problem with this approach is the problems we're going to be facing are of the exponential nature -- and when we notice it enough to be annoying, it'll probably be too late. I might even be too late now ... I don't know if anyone can say for sure. But it sure seems like a good idea to try and do something about it!

After watching these videos, I've started to get a real urge to go buy some gold and keep it close for the years to come. I wonder how far humankind will fall when we run out of easily exploitable fossil fuels? It's a little scary to think about just how much of our daily lives is dependent on energy. Oh it's not just hot water in taps and power for our lights and all that. It's the energy required to get us the food we need and to build the many things that make our lives easier so we have time to do more than just survive. Every time I see or read about earlier times, my most common recurring thought is "wow, people worked hard then".

I'm not saying we're headed back in time necessarily. Humans have progressed to be able to do some pretty amazing things -- and some of the things we've learned to do may help us adapt to the difficult time ahead. But one thing is pretty sure: the next couple decades are going to be ... interesting.