I just uploaded a new novel (again). Some kind of snafu occurred the first time. For those of you hoping that it is Decay, I’m sorry to disappoint you. In its favor, writing this novel rescued me from my two major problems with Decay. Sometimes, you just have to look away to solve it. In any case, it’s called Definition, and it’s the polar opposite of the Renewal story in some important ways. Let me explain…
We’re at an interesting place in history, and I know most of you can feel it. We are living at the fork in the road. We can choose one path, and end up in the world of Renewal, collapsing under our own weight. Yes, I know Renewal is pretty optimistic as far as apocalypses go, but still, it would be better to avoid even the mildest forms of systemic disruption. Or, we can choose another path, and continue to grow and develop into a world that works much better than the one we have now.
Most of the discussion around our current state of affairs acknowledges that we have painted ourselves into a corner. We are mired in a whole host of political, economic, medical, and constitutional problems that no one seems to have to the combination of will and authority to solve. Many of my readers would say that the solution involves going back to the Constitution and individual liberty, and I would agree. One of the great things about writing fiction is that it’s possible to explore those ideas to whatever depth the author sees fit.
I want to go back even further. Let’s go back to human nature. First we’d need to agree that such a thing exists, that we are born with instincts and behavioral programming and that they can vary from male to female, possibly even from race to race. Before the blank slate people get rowdy, I also agree that we are capable of adapting to many layers of cultural conditioning that arise from everywhere, from our parents to our entire heritage. To suggest that there are underlying differences is not racist. It’s just part of acknowledging our innate human nature, and I think we can all agree that no one has gotten it right yet, so there’s room for an honest recognition of our nature all around.
One of the fundamentals of humanity is that we are born wanting more. We can and will use up everything that we can reach until something external slams on the brakes. This is not new. We’ve been doing it for a very long time, and it’s universal. Even our Native American icons of living in balance with nature most likely had to learn the hard way, since there is good evidence that the earliest humans on the continent managed to erase the Pleistocene ecosystem in a relatively short time, and that was with a comparatively small number of people.
Always wanting more drives us to expand. Once we in America had the whole of the West to absorb, discounting the people who were already there, who we displaced or otherwise removed anyway. Today, we have suburban sprawl, 12 lane highways, parking lots that involve a hike to the store, and entire landscapes covered in tract housing. When we have no place to go, we fill in the gaps.
Just these two little slices of our nature mean that there are finite limits to our existence. The more crowded we get, the more rules we need to keep from killing each other over Black Friday sales and such. The more rules we get, the less freedom we have. The more people that occupy a given area, the more infrastructure is needed and the more resources are consumed to keep a standard of life. This is not a theory; it’s a known mathematical fact, and that’s ignoring the elephant in the room. Eventually, there will be no more stuff to get. The world is finite, and everything it provides for us is finite as well. The fact that we are able to ignore this fact while sharing the world with billions of people is a great testament to our built-in optimism.
So, we have two options going forward. One, we can collectively learn to shrink. We can institute draconian rules to control births, and food, and fuel, and just about anything else that we use freely today. This possibility not only goes against every freedom that we accept as our American right, it goes against human nature itself. In other words, it’s doomed from the start. People will learn how to cheat the rules. People in power will use the differential in wealth to make themselves even richer and more powerful. Ultimately, we will all fight over the scraps at the table.
Option two is glaringly obvious to me, and yet just as obviously unpopular. If we as a species want more, then we already know where to get an infinite supply of “more.” Look straight up. That’s right. Our little planet is roughly 8000 miles across and can be circumnavigated by a solar powered boat, even with Somali pirates clogging up the sea lanes. However, it’s a swimming speck in a solar system with so many resources that by the time we even make a dent in the untapped well of space-borne riches, we could probably be swarming around any number of other stars.
I’m fully aware of the arguments on both sides of the space equation. Some people think it’s ridiculous to spend money exploring when we have hungry, illiterate children in our own cities. Some would prefer that we stay here, where we can be limited and controlled. Some people are even unaware of how much of our modern life was driven by the original space race and that leaves them unable to imagine what further progress would yield.
Our economy is predicated on growth. We’ve run out of room for growth without extending the artificial limits even further, and our economy is stalled out. We either need to redesign our economy for long term steady state conditions, or we need somewhere to find more growth. Straight up.
The elegance of the space option is the simple fact that we already know most of what we need to start taking advantage of all those resources. A private group, aptly named Planetary Resources, is working its way outward today. If they are the only ones in the game when they get there, they will amass wealth that is orders of magnitude more than anything we’ve seen yet. They’ll make the Facebook IPO look like a bankrupt third world nation. The second point of elegance is that we can take the burden for resources and heavy industry off this tired little planet of ours. We can turn our home into a garden while the ugly parts of human wealth creation move somewhere else, somewhere that doesn’t damage our environment every time we drive a bulldozer of the trailer. The most important point of elegance is that from a human nature standpoint, we can have our “more” cake and eat it too. Endless resources, endless energy, endless wealth, endless growth.
Some of the response to the formation of Planetary Resources has been, “Our government should do this, not some private company.” They’re right. The fact that our government would rather spend our dollars squabbling over limited pools when there are oceans for the taking is criminal. They might not realize it, and we might not realize the magnitude of that mistake until some private company becomes profitable and our government ends up asking them for permission to leave the ground. At that point of profit, the gold rush will be unbelievable, and our public trust will be too late. But the ‘only-government” response is wrong too. Everyone with the means, private or public, should be working to get out there and carve off a piece of some rock full of exotic metals worth trillions of dollars. Either way, growth will be created and our lifestyles will benefit.
One final point of elegance is the “eggs in one basket” argument. Right now, someone could set off a nuke. A meteor could hit. A volcano can erupt, throwing enough dust into the sky to kill off food production for years. The Mayan Calendar could end. (ok, kidding) The point is that the sooner we get people to places that are not vulnerable to a single event here at home, the more likely we will survive. Heck, if we do it well, those adventurous souls could probably help us fix whatever we screw up. As long as we are all here in one basket, we are vulnerable.
So, we have the control of human nature response, and we have the follow our expansionist instincts response to our current problems. Two paths to the future… Which one sounds better in the long run?
In very sketchy terms, Renewal is what happens when our closed system runs out of steam, and Definition is what happens when we choose an open system and follow our basic nature where it leads.
But, maybe I’m just too optimistic for my human nature.