Thursday, June 14, 2007

Stand on Zanzibar

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner is an incredible exercise in speculation, one of the most impressive SF masterworks ever, but I believe it is wrong about two of its central conjectures--that population is going to keep increasing out of control and that we are going to face diminishing resources.

As for population, we have good contraception and are developing better contraception. Once a society reaches a certain level of wealth, its members appear to be willing to use that contraception. The entire First World, and I believe most of the former Second World (the old communist countries), now have birthrates below replacement level. Some people speculate that the forces of natural selection will again start forcing the population back up, but I fully expect that societies will forcefully intervene if it looks like excessive breeders are going to turn the world into a hell.

As for scarce resources, I think we are going to be awash in increasing resources for the rest of our perhaps long lifetimes. There might be temporary recessions or even depressions, but I think the overall trend is going to be upward. Personal services will get increasingly expensive, but material wealth will get increasingly inexpensive. I will give some examples I've seen on the science-news sites lately.

The news out of photovoltaics looks great. The price is falling. The efficiencies are going up. There are several different new technologies coming online. There is lots of venture capital.

The news out of biotechnology looks even better. Prices aren't just falling; they are plummeting. There is at least one big story out of biology every week. See this site for examples. It certainly looks like that within five to ten years, whole genome sequencing is going to be a consumer item.

The number of simultaneous experiments that biologists can run keeps going up by orders of magnitude. The rate of experimentation, of course, is one of the things that paces the rate of scientific discovery. I could go on, but the site I recommended does a better job than I can in a short blog entry.

Then there is robotics. Progress has been slow, but robots and automation have steadily gotten better, and they are starting to look really good. Replacing human labor lowers costs and increases production, and those are the factors that increase wealth. You can now get consumer robots that are actually useful and inexpensive enough for the middle class. They can vacuum and scrub your floors and mow your lawn.

There is an abundance of most metals we use in building things. The big bugaboo is petroleum. Some hysterics are predicting peak oil and the end of civilization. If humanity does something stupid, civilization might end, but it isn't going to be because of crude oil. There are many ways we can work around petroleum shortages; I'll spin just one scenario. Consider that we already know how to build breeder reactors. Uranium-235 is fairly rare, but the earth has lots of U-238 and thorium. Breeder reactors can turn those into useful fuel. Therefore, if we wanted to, we could easily provide electricity for the entire planet through nuclear fission.

Lack of petroleum for transport fuel would be a pain in the butt for a while, but with lots of electricity and only current battery technology we could still get over a hundred miles per charge for rechargeable vehicles. Transportation might be more inconvenient, but it certainly isn't a civilizational risk. The above assumes current batteries, but batteries are another technology that is attracting venture technology. The way to bet is that we are soon going to have good batteries.

In short, I see lots of good news coming out of science and technology and not a lot of bad news. Anyway, for those readers who are interested, here are some of the sites that provide my ideas:

Al Fin
Science Daily
Advanced Nanotechnology