The Human Future

Where exactly is the human species headed? How will we get there? Is any great improvement in human culture and technology really possible… or are we close to the end of the line? Throughout history, various authorities and pundits have suggested such, most recently at the end of the nineteenth century, when some suggested closing the U.S. patent office because significant new discoveries would be impossible. We all know how accurate that prediction was. And yet… are there limits to what we as a species can do?

A perhaps apocryphal statement attributed variously to either General Hoyt Vandenberg or Senator Arthur Vandenberg supposedly doubted the feasibility of developing the atomic bomb because such a project would require doubling the electrical power generation capacity of the United States in wartime. In fact, such a doubling was required and did take place, largely based on the TVA Project. Whether or not either man did make such a statement, the underlying truth is that large advances in technology have always resulted in or required, if not both, an increase in the use of power. The industrial revolution was effectively supported by the widespread coal mining; the technological developments of the twentieth century by massive use of oil and natural gas.

Currently, the United States with roughly five percent of the world’s population, employs/consumes/uses more than a quarter of all the world’s energy and resources, yet most experts in the fossil fuels field believe that any significant increases in oil and gas production are not possible and that sustaining current production levels for more than a century at the outside is highly unlikely. Given the fact that world population shows no signs of rapid decreases and that major powers such as China and India are becoming increasingly industrialized and technology-driven, with increasing demand for energy and goods, it doesn’t take much intelligence to realize that the human species either has to become far more efficient in energy usage and production or face increasing conflicts over energy supplies… OR develop new science and technology to utilize far vaster energy sources. The problem here is that renewable sources, such as wind and solar power, do not provide energy that is easily concentrated — and concentrated energy is necessary for high technology and our current society — not to mention mass and long distance transport.

Yet each advance in power sources has required a greater energy input. It takes more energy to mine coal than to gather or and cut wood, more energy to drill oil wells, especially now, and refine the product than to burn coal. Fission power plants cost far more than natural gas, coal, or oil-fired power plants. The next apparent step in concentrated energy production is fusion power, but even the research into developing fusion power is hideously expensive… so expensive that there are only a comparative handful of research projects pressing forward.

The next related problem is that, without something like fusion power, and with the current world population levels, maintaining a standard of living even remotely close to the present level of industrialized nations will not be possible for longer than a few generations, if that. Over the long term, the prognosis is even less rosy.

With all our species’ eggs, so to speak, in the basket that is Earth, we’re not only vulnerable to energy depletion, but to species extinction, sooner or later. But there are no other habitable planets in our solar system, not without massive terraforming — and that also requires huge amounts of technology and energy. So… what about interstellar travel?

At the moment, with what we know now, travel to even the nearest star systems will effectively take generations, because current physics doesn’t provide any ways around the apparent limitations of the speed of light in terms of attaining speeds conducive to what one might call real-time interstellar travel. The one possible loophole might be the creation of something along the lines of a Hawking wormhole, but preliminary calculations suggest that the energy necessary to create such a tunnel through space/time would approximate that used/radiated by a black hole. And that leads us back to the energy problem once more… and to the question that no one seems to want to ask.

Given what lies before us, why aren’t we devoting more research resources to high-energy power generation possibilities?

1 thought on “The Human Future”

  1. David says:

    "Given what lies before us, why aren't we devoting more research resources to high-energy power generation possibilities?"

    The human lifespan is short in comparison with the march of events in history. Men cause much mischief through commission, neglect, and shortsightedness simply because they won't be alive when the costs must be paid. The generations as yet unborn do not vote on today's financial and energy budgets, nor do they offer advice on which decisions are wise and which unwise. We therefore leave our dishes in the sink knowing that they must either wash them or endure the stink of rancid food.

    An economic system that puts importance on money and material gain is nearly always going to be shortsighted because its decision-makers will nearly always have a conflict of interest when a tough but vital decision is to be made. When men measure their worth by material wealth rather than by biological quality, they sacrifice their genes to their personalities, their great-grandchildren to their pleasures.

    Politics should be based on principles other than the notion that material gain is good. The principles should be moral ones, which seek to preserve and advance the genes of the people who participate in the political process. Politicians should, one and all, have at least one eye on eternity, should judge their every public act by the criterion of longterm survival and advantage for the people they represent.

    I say "should" knowing that this isn't how things are, knowing, also, that there is no method of gentle persuasion that can make it so.

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