Saturday 1 January 2022

Asimov's Foundation and Climate Change


In Isaac Asimov's book, Foundation, a character named Salvor Hardin says the following:

"We're receding and forgetting, don't you see? Here in the Periphery they've lost atomic power. In Gamma Andromeda, a power plant has blown up because of poor repairs, and the Chancellor of the Empire complains that atomic technicians are scarce. And the solution? To train new ones? Never! Instead they're to restrict atomic power ... Don't you see? It's Galaxy-wide. It's a worship of the past. It's a deterioration - a stagnation!"

Asimov's Foundation chronicles the decline and fall of the Galactic Empire. If that sounds familiar to you as a Star Wars plot, it's because it is. George Lucas stole the idea wholesale, as have many others. And Asimov himself stole it from the historian Edward Gibbons, who wrote the famous The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, first published in 1776.

Curiosity at what makes a great civilization decline and fall has only recently interested Western thinkers. Before the 17th Century, the Roman ruins that lay scattered and crumbling throughout Europe didn't really concern many people. Peasants broke them down for stone to build their houses and wells, and Lords showed scant regard for their preservation. Nobody cared. In Britain folk were either focused on day-to-day survival or making war on the French.

It was only in the 17th and 18th Centuries, when Britain found itself creating the largest empire that had yet been amassed, that certain thinkers began to wonder what exactly happened to the Romans. After all, if the mighty Roman Empire could fall, maybe the British Empire could too.

As unthinkable as that was at the time, serious intellects began to look into it. This was a time when Roman ruins became quite faddish. Rich nobles built ruined follies on their estates, and young gentlemen and their ladies traveled to Italy to marvel at the decrepit ruins that local Italians had never given much thought to. Theories abounded on the symptoms and causes of the rise and fall of civilizations, and it was sobering to think that every civilization that had existed before ours had fallen. Not just a few. All of them. It seemed clear that every civilization had an expiry date, and after the disaster of WW1, thinkers like Oswald Spengler and Arnold Toynbee gained prominence as they delved deeper into the subject.

After WW2 the fad faded. The United States was the new superpower, the new empire of sorts, and a period of hope prevailed that took us eventually to the moon. Asimov, however, had not forgotten his pre-war influences, and the thinking that went before. The passage he wrote above illustrates the dying phase (the decadent phase) of a civilization, where the optimism has faded and civilizations get buyer's remorse.

They stop thinking outside the box and instead retreat to more familiar territory, both figuratively and literally. They play safe and circle the wagons. Religion becomes mysticism and critical thinking becomes pessimism.

Hardin's quote illustrates perfectly, during the different phases of rise and fall, how a civilization solves its problems. Because there are always problems to solve, even when one has become dominant. A failing civilization, however, having sat on its laurels for too long, is unwilling to expend the same amount of effort to solve a problem as they had done when they were a rising, hungry star. In Foundation, the galactic empire is more willing to silence warnings than to heed them, because solving problems is hard. The elites prefer to focus on keeping their power and their wealth, even as they are being warned by the doomsayer Hari Seldon that they will lose both.

We are not short of doomsayers here at the beginning of the 21st Century, and it's tempting to think that Hari Seldon, if he was real, would be one of them, with Climate Change being uppermost in his mind. If it were turned into a very simple contemporary movie, it would have the politicians and business elites all disbelieving the scientist and his young and ardent followers, thus bringing calamity down upon humanity. In fact, I've just described the plot of the new Netflix movie, Don't Look Up (watched it last night, very funny).

But Hardin's quote reminds us that it's not simply a matter of believing in the science and getting the message out, as some in the climate-change movement believe, and I'll give you an example of why, and what it means for the rise or decline of our own society.

Full Disclaimer: I believe Climate Change is real. Despite the subject having been heavily politicized here in the west, with a lot of media and social-media hype, there is, for me, a clear sign that it's not all hype, and that is the fact that Russia and China are spending millions to begin exploring and exploiting the melting Arctic regions, with plans to protect their investments by military means. They see the Arctic as an important geopolitical region of the future, and these are not the type of governments to be swayed by Greta Thunberg throwing a tantrum at the United Nations, or climate activists gluing themselves to the pavement as they block roads or runways to protest government inaction. In Russia or China, that kind of action would see them thrown into a dark prison, with little chance of getting out again. No, these governments have compelling reasons to do what they do, and they have their own scientists. If they believe Climate Change is real, then my guess is that it is.

It's possible you don't believe Climate Change is real, and that's fine, but for this particular example, let's just accept that the climate activists and their supporters claim that they believe in Climate Change, and follow that claim to its natural conclusion to see where it takes us.

And this wasn't originally intended to be a long post, but bear with me on this.

So climate activists, and their media and political supporters, are saying that our industrial societies, with our carbon emissions, our deforestation, consumerism and meat-eating habits are harming the planet, which will lead to global temperatures getting high enough to cause us real harm, and possibly even extinction-level catastrophe.

Fair enough. So what are their solutions? Cut back on industrialization, consume less, eat less meat, fly less and recycle more. And build more wind farms and solar panels.

That's about it. There might be slightly more complex engineering solutions around the edges, like clean-hydrogen engines and the like, but those proposals don't get shouted as much, nor funded much. Now if you look at the above paragraph, do you see how closely it resembles Hardin's quote at the beginning of this article? "Do less and return to the windmills of the past." It's not really a solution. Wind farms and solar panels don't provide enough base load to run a civilization, and are less efficient than the fossil-fuel powered stations they are supposed to replace. Recycling won't cut down on carbon in the atmosphere, because recycling requires energy itself. And cutting back on energy consumption in our societies means willingly adopting austerity, like monks entering a holy order. It should be obvious that people won't do that, no matter what they might say to pollsters. Many societies have had their ascetic types who lived on sand and locusts and practiced soulful meditation. Many still have those who live a simpler life off the grid, returning to traditional methods of living. But these people have always been a minority. Even when called upon by a powerful church to give up worldly pleasures, people rarely do. The Catholic Church could not even get its young men to cease masturbation. Just because someone asks people to do something, doesn't mean they will.

The alternative to asking, of course, is simply to coerce people. Police them. Tax the hell out of them. Make them poor. They'll consume less, then. One doesn't need to be a historian to know how that ends. Remember when I mentioned earlier about the regrowth of mysticism in declining civilizations? Most of the loudest climate activists, including Ms. Thunberg, are gripped by some mystical vision of a very unreal society that, enmasse, willingly chooses eco-piety, and doesn't need to be forced.

And the politicians who now tow the ecological line? How realistic are they? Let me give you an example from my own country of Britain: Our Prime Minister has announced that all new cars after 2030 will be electric. Thereafter the number of polluting internal-combustion engines on our roads will be phased out (helped no doubt by punitive tax tariffs). On the face of it, this could be a good thing. Less pollution, better air quality, less reliance on volatile petroleum markets in geopolitical hot spots, less reliance on fuel that we know will run out someday anyway, and quieter traffic flows. It sounds like the future, right?

Well, it's kind of a lop-sided future, because while the Prime Minister announced these measures over a number of years, I don't recall a speech where he would authorize the mass building of nuclear power stations to cope with the massive ramp up in power use. I also don't recall green activists criticizing him for that. Their only complaint, indeed, is that they don't think Boris is moving quickly enough. They want mandatory electric cars a lot sooner. And electric public transit systems.

It's almost like everyone thinks that electricity is magic, and doesn't need to be produced by industrial means. This is why I sometimes think that activists who claim to be worried about climate change and its effect on people, can't actually be that worried. Because if they were, they would be more serious about solving the problem, rather than just offering faddish lifestyle choices.

Ah, but that's because they are not worried, and it's all just really a conspiracy to deprive people of their freedoms, and ... give power to elites, who can ... do stuff that they can't already do ... for some reason.

No, it's not a conspiracy. It's exactly the kind of thinking that Asimov's character outlined in the book, and it fits with the inadequate problem-solving metrics present in declining societies.

To be sure, nuclear power is only a limited answer. Make no mistake, we are a fossil-fuel civilization. One only needs to look at 17th Century life to see what fossil fuels lifted us out of. More will be needed to move on to the next phase of energy production if we are not to slide backward to being at the mercy of mother nature. Without the fossil-fueled industrial revolution, we would not have the longer lives, education, healthcare, information technology, food production or government systems we enjoy now. Or the individual rights and freedoms that are simply not possible in harsher times or places. So there's a lot at stake.

But if we're not looking at radically new and scalable forms of energy production, then we're not serious about avoiding catastrophe. Largely because people, including college-educated activists, don't understand the sheer amount of effort needed to keep a civilization going. Because our ancestors made it all look so easy. It will take more than windmills and personal guilt-trips to keep civilization going in the face of continuous challenges.

In China, they recently tested a full-sized Thorium reactor. Thorium reactors are safer than nuclear, with more fuel available for them in the world, and produce much less radioactive waste. Why China? We've actually known about Thorium reactors and their benefits for over sixty years now, and programs to test and develop them existed in the US. But they were closed down. We should be building a ton of them now. We have the knowledge, and we were ahead of China in the science. But we gave up.

Now that would have been a serious solution. Another would be Fusion power. Again, the Chinese are ahead in developing this. It requires ridiculous amounts of money in research, but we haven't been willing to commit, and so Fusion power remains science fiction, at least here in the West. Again, another serious solution left hanging.

Do you see what I mean about us not really being serious about solving that which we claim to be afraid of? Instead we make performative gestures, promote lifestyle choices and complain about a lack of piety among the masses. If those don't sound like the actions of some out-of-touch, decadent, self-satisfied aristocracy, then I don't know what does. This is how societies fail.

Hari Seldon would not have been fooled by the climate treaties, play-acting, crocodile tears, messianic rhetoric and mystical movements. He would still have recognized an empire that, whatever it might say, did not really want to survive. And he would have moved his Foundation to China.