Singularity futurism versus sustainability futurism

There’s always a lot to talk about, now, regarding climate: science, technology, politics, trends. Just yesterday, Britain’s academy of science released its study, “Geoengineering the climate” (summary: Carbon Dioxide Removal good, Solar Radiation Management not so good, unless you want change now). El Niño has returned and so we are likely headed for a new “hottest year on record”, this year or next. The draft of the Copenhagen climate treaty, to be signed in December, is still being negotiated at a series of international summits. The deep recession in the United States is challenging the Obama administration’s agenda, which includes cap-and-trade (my prediction: they will dilute all their key initiatives enough to get them passed, rather than hand their opponents an unambiguous political victory).

The biggest challenge immediately facing the world is not climate change per se, it is the combination of climate change, population growth, and economic dysfunction. In creating this blog, I didn’t set out to promote a particular climate policy as ideal, only to argue the more esoteric point that disaster will be averted. However, I do intend to discuss the merits of the various options, and that will require attending to the overall situation.

But there’s an even bigger context which, for those who take it seriously, makes the problems of unsustainability only of short-term concern – though the “short term” here may stretch for several more decades. Technology has already given us fossil-fuel society, modern medicine, and modern communications, which are all implicated in the state of the world; but further huge changes are foreseeable, changes which are at odds with the trend-based thinking underlying sustainability futurism, and which replace its defining problems with a wholly different set of problems.

That is a blandly cryptic statement, so let me illustrate the possibilities. When atmospheric carbon dioxide levels change, the mean global temperature should also change. But the world doesn’t move from the old mean to the new mean overnight. It takes many decades just to get most of the way to the new equilibrium: the ocean warms first, then the atmosphere catches up. One consequence is that even if CO2 stopped increasing right now, warming would go on for a very long time (indeed, if Hansen et al are right in their recent “target 350” paper, just being over 350 ppm is enough to eventually melt the whole of the Antarctic, producing a 70-meter rise in sea level, though only after centuries of melting). But this also means that, even though climate change is already making things worse than they would have been, the truly catastrophic scenarios are many decades away from coming to pass. People want an immediate start on reducing emissions because it is thought that moving to carbon-neutrality and then drawing down some of the excess CO2 will be a comparably slow process, primarily because so many billions of tons are involved.

But it can be argued that at a sufficiently advanced level of nanotechnology, all those billions of tons of excess CO2 could be removed from the atmosphere in less than a year, rather than more than a century – and that this level of technology will foreseeably reached within a few decades. Furthermore, it can be argued that nanotechnology this advanced will in itself pose a severe threat to the survival of the human race. This is the type of “Singularity futurism” which makes climate change mitigation look like a waste of time and a dangerous diversion of resources. Yet to the sustainability futurist, Singularity futurism is itself a threat, a battle with phantom enemies carried out while the problems of the real world go unaddressed.

To resolve that debate here and now is beyond me. But it is another, underappreciated dimension of the situation, and I’m sure I’ll be returning to it.

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2 Responses to “Singularity futurism versus sustainability futurism”

  1. Dr. Jeffrey M Doyle Says:

    I AM A 60 YEAR OLD SEMI-RETIRED PH.D. IN ECONOMICS, PHYSICS,ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE et al WHO WOULD VERY MUCH LIKE TO HAVE A CALM, RATIONAL, DISCUSSION WITH SOMEONE WHO UNDERSTANDS THE FUNDAMENTALS, WITHOUT BEING AN IDEOLOGUE.

    I HAVE BEEN THROUGH MANY BATTLES. A CONVERSATION WOULD BE A NICE CHANGE

    I HOPE YOU CONTACT ME, BECAUSE I STILL HAVE MANY MORE BATTLES TO FIGHT

  2. Zaphodora Beeblebrox Says:

    It’s a very good point; technology powerful enough to mend the situation, is also dangerous enough to create other problems.

    I think that CO2 and other greenhouse gases will get dealt with, but even though Earth’s climate is very stable considering all the variables, if a major variable changes there is not much we can do about it. there are things completely out of our control: long term solar trends, regional climate change etc. and these are the things that really affect people’s day-to-day lives.

    Nice blog, hope you keep posting

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