Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Last Civilization?

News: Two short stories — Luna Vegas? On the Rocks and Reality Bytes.

Oops. I’ve been so busy with other stuff (like applying for jobs) I missed putting up an entry about Luna Vegas. Both stories have been through WOTF. Luna Vegas was a semifinalist and Reality Bytes had an honourable mention. I’ve revised Luna Vegas after considering the critique that came with it, but I haven’t changed Reality Bytes because I like it as it is. If I’m right or wrong, you can decide. This leaves one story to go and it’s an adult’s only one, but I’ll put up lots of warnings.

So ... for this entry, I thought I’d write about a possible downside for humanity’s future.

Back in January, I wrote about the threats to our civilization and about how past civilizations have risen only to fall. Ours is (as far as we know) the premier technological civilization. Others have been local phenomena, either independent of or with limited knowledge of other civilizations. For example, Rome, and even the earlier Greeks, would have known there were Indian and Chinese empires in the distant east beyond the Persians even though they didn’t trade directly with them, and yet goods and probably knowledge has flowed back and forth along the silk route for centuries.

And yet, as advanced as their knowledge was, none of these civilizations went on to develop technologies like those we have today, even though they had the basic knowledge to do so. If our civilization collapsed, could a new one arise that would not only match our technological sophistication but pass it? My bet is that this is what any futurist would expect, if not hope for. But the more I think about it the more I think that ours may be the last and only civilization to reach this peak of technological and scientific excellence.

It all comes down to resources.

From the earliest times when stone tools were developed, there came a time when the appropriate kinds of stone could no longer be found just lying around or within easy reach. Archaeologists have found sites where flint was mined in large-scale operations. And later, when the discoveries that heating certain types of minerals in hot fires produced strange new materials — copper and tin — which could be combined into yet a harder material, the Stone Age gave way to the Bronze Age. Which gave way to the Iron Age. In all these situations, the initial resources were easily found on the surface, such as in riverbeds or eroding out of cliff faces or mountainsides.

And when they could no longer be found on the surface, those ancient peoples dug into the ground.

Ancient miners dug hundreds of metres into the ground, sometimes for vast distances, using nothing but stone tools to carve through hard rock. But in those early times, the water table limited how far down they could tunnel. The Romans developed sophisticated waterwheel-based methods to pump out mines and were able to mine deeper, but only so far. And they had to mine deeper as earlier societies had already used up those mineral veins close to the surface. No doubt the same was true in other regions, such as China and India, where great civilizations went through these cycles.

The one saving grace was that new mineral resources could be found, or old mines could be reworked with improved extraction processes. All that was needed was a little extra effort to search in those out-of-the-way places no one had looked at before. But when that wasn’t possible, such as in Europe back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, it was the need to pump out mines that had to go deeper and deeper that led ultimately to the industrial revolution and society as we know it today.

But what about tomorrow?

Today, the Earth’s surface has been scanned from space and probed beneath to depths of tens of kilometres with a host of technologies that those ancient miners couldn’t even dream of. Even on the deep seabed, there are vast resources known. But no resource is unlimited. Oil, that precious commodity, which kickstarted our last stage of development, is close to running out and many mines have to delve deeper and deeper to depths where only highly complex technologies allow miners to operate.

So what would the future hold if something befell us?

It doesn’t have to be something on a grand scale like a huge asteroid hitting the Earth or one of those super volcano time bombs going off, like the one in Yellowstone National Park in the US, or the one around Naples in Italy erupting. Maybe an extended drought — an afterthought of global warming — that lasts for a few years might cause a massive upheaval in populations, like have happened to help bring down past civilizations. Or old diseases might at last get the upper hand over our defences and overwhelm us with plagues. Or it might just be a good old-fashioned world war that does us in.

Assuming enough of us survive to keep homo sapiens trudging along until, after a couple of centuries, the population recovers enough build a new civilization, what can it hope to achieve? Let’s give it a chance by letting it recover our knowledge. It can even have access to the remnants of our cities, now fallen down and overgrown.

Even if that knowledge began to make sense, say after a century or two of study by learned scholars, where would they begin to put it to use? You could suppose that eventually they might be able to develop a basic technology to let them use the metals left in our abandoned cities or dug up in old garbage dumps. And with that, maybe, through recycling our waste, they could reach the level of development of perhaps the nineteenth century.

Even this is doubtful as there may not be a cheap fuel available, like coal was, to drive that spurt of growth. But as for anything further, without the energy sources derived from cheap and easily obtained crude oil, they would have nothing with which to take that extra step to our level. Possibly they could produce diesel from biomass, but the requirements would be enormous.

And if they didn’t have that knowledge and had to start again from scratch? Let’s face it, they wouldn’t. Over the last two to three thousand years, the necessary resources have been mined out. Even if there was a genius, equivalent to the Stone Age one who chucked a clump of odd rock into the campfire and the next day found a lump of exotic material in the ashes, which led to the Bronze Age, that genius would be stillborn. There won’t be any clumps of odd rock to throw into the fire. There won’t be nuggets of gold lying about in streambeds to tantalize and eventually lead to a money economy. Oil takes millions of years to create from marine organisms collecting and being buried on the sea floor. Coal takes just as long, but may also need another Carboniferous Age to produce the necessary deposits.

So the best our future generations can hope for is to perhaps live in small villages or hamlets, farming and herding, with a wood and stone-base culture, like our ancestors did before the rise of the earliest civilizations. On and on they will live, like our ancestors did, the past and future joining up to form a giant circle. But that doesn’t mean they will necessarily live a mean existence. Many past cultures were rich, possibly even richer and more vibrant than our current western culture. And in time, evolution will have its way. Either we will go extinct or we will evolve into a new species. The question is ... will that species be as intelligent as we are?

As for us, I guess we are the guardians of the future. We can have a say in our future. Barring natural calamities, we can have no say over, we have the knowledge and the technical expertise to make our own path.

It just remains for us to have the will, so let’s not do anything stupid, okay?