One of the core elements of the Star Trek story (whether you are a TOS grognard, an original timeline die-hard, or a JJ-verse aficionado) is the partnership between the planets Earth and Vulcan. Vulcan is a harsh desert planet whose people have an ancient culture based on the pursuit of logic. Earth is a young and adventurous blue planet whose people provide the intuition and sense of adventure that the Vulcans lack.
The other day I was thinking about this, however, and I realized that we probably aren’t the humans in that story. We could have been once, probably even as late as the 1960’s when Star Trek first hit the air. But at this point we’ve pretty well squandered our chance to play the humans, so we had better start studying for the part of Vulcan.
Think about it:
- Vulcan is a desert planet with harsh weather: While scientists argue about the exact concentration of CO2 that represents the “point of no return” for a runaway greenhouse effect, many of them believe that we have now past it. The world is already hotter than when we were born and it is going to get worse for the rest of our lives, at least. And not only is the mean temperature going up, but the temperature range is getting wilder, producing higher wind speeds and overall rougher weather. We will be lucky if the whole world doesn’t become as hard to survive on as The Forge, on Vulcan.
- Vulcan is a planet with limited biodiversity: I think this is only implied in canon, but it is stated explicitly in several of the Star Trek novels. With two thirds of the animal population expected to be dead by 2020 and the current wave of extinctions, we are well on our way.
- Vulcans have a history of horrible violence: I’m not even going to bother to cite any articles for this one. Let’s just hope that someone like Surak teaches us to see reason and control our emotions before we wipe ourselves out.
- Vulcans are an old culture: Let’s face it, with all these problems at home we aren’t going to be able to get serious about deep space exploration for a few centuries (at least). So by the time we get out there we may well seem like a pretty old culture to anyone we meet.
- Vulcans are stronger than most races and have special adaptations to survive on their planet: Once our planet gets harsh enough we will probably need to let go of our qualms about human genetic engineering just to produce humans who can survive here. And if we are tinkering with the genome anyway, we might as well add some cool pointy ears. But even if that doesn’t happen there is likely to be plenty of natural selection as the climate kills off all but the strongest of us.
So, have I convince you that we are living on Vulcan, or at least that we will be in a few generations? Now we just need to hope, most earnestly, that someone comes up with a rational philosophy that will actually keep us alive as a species. But if we get through that, we are likely to have become so specialized and culturally ossified* that to advance further we will need a young energetic culture to pull us along. So we’d better start looking for some humans.
*See Toynbee. A Study of History (Abridged) III.IX. (1946). for the theory of why this will happen.
Tonight I think I will depart from my usual blogging style. It’s a beautiful spring evening, and I’m in the mood to ponder big ideas. I thought it would be fun to list a few of my personal predictions for major social trends that will happen over the course of the 21st century. These are ideas that I’ve had kicking around my subconscious for a few years. Ideas are all they are; in most cases I have done little or no research or theoretical work on them. Actually, the only qualifications I have as a “futurist” are the thirty years I’ve spent reading and writing everything I could find and the years I was in college learning how to be a professional analyst and forecaster–which is less impressive than it sounds, since the educational system in this country rarely encourages students to think more than five years out. In 85 years or so I’ll probably be dust, but maybe someone will dig up a copy of this post on whatever passes for an Internet by then and have a good laugh over how many of these came true.
All of these predictions apply only to Western Civilization, and then only if Western Civ. continues to be allowed to chart its own destiny, rather than being conquered or assimilated by some other culture.
1. The End of Binary Gender
Few myths have dogged out society as persistently and perniciously as binary gender, the idea that people are either “men” or “women” and everything else is an aberration. I firmly believe that gender is a complicated construct and that, in fact, it is unlikely that any two people are the same gender. There are already many signs that our society is preparing to embrace a much wider interpretation of gender. In another couple of generations, the gender of of another person will cease to matter unless someone is trying to decide whether to mate with them, and possibly not even then.
Once this happens, it will have two subsidiary effects, which are also already beginning to show themselves.
a. The Redefinition of Marriage
As soon as society finally accepts that there are more than two genders, they will need to throw away the notion that marriage is between a “man” and a “woman”. This will open the door for dozens, or hundreds of different forms of marriage and domestic partnership, with different combinations and numbers of partners, limited only by the participants ability to draft a valid contract.
b. The End of Male Chauvinism and Privilege
Once we realize that “male” refers to a biological state, and it becomes increasingly easy to change that state, the old notions of male superiority will finally die. This doesn’t mean that some genders will not enjoy a competitive advantage in certain times and places, however. For instance, in Hanna Rosin’s book The End of Men, she actually argues that people with more feminine traits are now enjoying a relative advantage in modern workplaces.
2. The Decline of the Middle Class
The bourgeoisie grew from being a tiny and relatively uninfluential segment of the population in the middle ages to being the dominant class in Western Civ. in the 20th century. While most bourgeoisie believe that his represents some sort of divinely ordained natural state, the fact was that the new economies of the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution required a large middle class to function. That is no longer the case. Now their numbers and political influence are steadily declining. Expect most of them to be reabsorbed into the proletariat and the aristocracy/oligarchy by the end of the century. This trend also has subsidiary effects,
a. Temporary Ascendancy of the Intelligentsia
I use the word Intelligentsia in the same sense as historian Arnold Toynbee used it in his Study of Civilization: a member of a different civilization that learns enough of the technology and external culture traits of the dominant civilization to function in it at some level, yet is never entirely a part of it. As Western Civ.’s native middle class dwindles, we increasingly import professional and technical workers from other civilizations to make up for temporary shortages. At the moment, the presence of large numbers of intelligentsia in our civilization make the middle class seem more robust than it is. However, since very few will ever be assimilated and become full members of our culture, they don’t count. Eventually we won’t need nearly as many of them and we will stop importing them.
b. No Change or a Positive Change for the Intellectual/Creative Class
We will still be needed to educate and advise the aristocracy and to create culture for the whole society, so our relative numbers will stay about the same. Once we again rely on the aristocracy for patronage, our job stability and renumeration may actually improve. Of course, all the pseudo-intellectuals and poseur artists are actually members of the bourgeoisie in disguise, and will find they have no such protection.
3. Decline of Democracy
Democracy has had its longest and most successful run so far, but it is on its way out, at least in the “one citizen, one vote” sense we know it in the United States. As the middle class disappears the aristocracy will again find ways to disenfranchise the proletariat (assuming the proles are interested in voting at all). This sounds like a bad thing, and it could be–particularly if it allows our culture to swing back towards facism. On the other hand, it could allow people who actually know enough to make decisions start undoing some of the damage caused over the last hundred years by demagoguery and populism. Whether it’s ultimately good or bad, though, this change is going to happen. Democracy is just one of many possible political systems, and nothing stays the same forever.
4. Reevaluation of Education
Our current educational focus has long been on educating the middle class. Once most of them are gone, the educational system will once again split into a system of education for the aristocracy and a system of training for the proletariat. This is already happening; just compare the programs at Harvard with those at University of Phoenix.
5. Abandonment of Money
Money, in the sense we usually think of it, mostly matters to the middle class. The proletariat never has much of it, whereas the aristocracy handles it only in an abstract sense. The basic functions of money–a medium of exchange, a store of value, and unit of account–will be increasingly served by other media. For instance, computers of the future will be able to immediately compare the relative values of labor and commodities and allow frictionless barter, removing the need to translate everything into currency as a unit of exchange. Material goods in general will become far less important as most possessions become virtual and cheap 3D printers and similar technology allow anyone to manufacture anything for which they have a computer model, then recycle the material when they are done with it. Energy and intellectual property will become the only stores of value that matter. Energy will probably become the unit of account, because anything can be expressed in terms of energy. Naturally, we will need to revise our entire concept of intellectual property.
6. Changing Perceptions of Space and Distance
As telepresence becomes “as good as being there” and most property is either virtual or manufacturable on demand, there will be less and less reason to travel. Few people, even the very rich, will have any incentive to ever go more than a couple kilometers from their homes. The physical world will become much smaller, while the virtual world becomes much bigger.
What form these homes take depends on our ability to control overpopulation. With a reasonable population density everyone, even the poorest of the proletariat, will be able to live in idyllic villages. A more likely scenario is for most people to live in massive arcologies or other high density mega cities, where technology races constantly to ensure the survival of people for the minimum possible resource cost.
The Two “Wild Cards”
Looking at the list I just typed, I actually feel like my predictions are all throughly plausible. There are two factors so powerful that no one can account for their effects, though. The first, which will almost certainly be negative, is climate change. If the changing climate damages our biosphere too badly, it is possible that we will see a significant portion of our population killed off, while the remainder have to abandon all technology and culture that doesn’t directly contribute to survival. If that happens, the survivors could become the futuristic equivalent of Greenland Inuits or Saharan nomads. In that case, all bets are off. The other factor, which will probably be positive, is space travel. We are entering an age when commercial space travel will become viable. Potentially, the ability to harvest energy and materials from the rest of the solar system, combined with the new cultures that will develop among space travelers, will change our society in was that no one could predict.
Rain is necessary; for water is the medium of life, more important even than the light of the sun; the unintelligible whim of the elements may condemn to dessication regions which once flourished with empire and industry, like Nineveh or Babylon, or may help to swift strength and wealth cities apparently off the main line of transport and communication, like those of Great Britain or Puget Sound. – Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage
Years ago, when I was still an engineering undergraduate, my Hydrology professor predicted that World War III would be fought not over oil or ideology but over fresh water. That was back in the 1990’s and global warming was only an academic theory, barely mentioned in the mainstream media. Usable water, though, was already running out. Throughout the 20th century technology had allowed exponential population growth in many of the most arid regions of the world, such as North Africa, the Arabian peninsula, and the American Southwest.
Now accelerating climate change, along with an additional two decades of population growth, is making the situation much worse. The other day I read an article in the Irish Times that reported on the current drought in the Southwestern region of the the US–the worst in a thousand years. The issue affects me deeply and personally since I live in Southern California. I have only to drive up Interstate 5 so see miles and miles of dry wasteland in an area once famous for its groves of nut trees. I will not attempt to explain the Byzantine world of California water politics. Suffice it to say that without enough water to go around, most of it has been allocated to Los Angeles and other municipalities. Farmers have been forced to cut down groves of trees that took years to establish.
I spent my last few days off tearing out the dead brown grass of our front yard and replacing it with stones, a project many of our neighbors have already completed. I capped off most of my sprinklers, leaving only a couple of heads to drip water on small beds of desert plants at the corners. As watering restrictions become more Draconian, I may not even be allowed to run those.
Drought is a major problem. Like most problems, however, it is far from new. In fact, cycles of climate change and dessication have always played a critical role in the history of civilization. As students of history and the Great Books, we have the advantage of being able to apply historical perspective to contemporary issues.
Historian Arnold Toynbee, in his Study of History, wrote that dessication was probably the primary factor in the development of civilization. Having survived the ice age, our species encountered a period of mild climate and spread prolifically until climate started to change again. As some regions became drier different cultures responded to the challenge in different ways. Some migrated away from the dry areas and continued their primitive hunter-gatherer lifestyle.
Others became nomads, adopting very specialized and complex culture complexes which allowed them to live in regions which were uninhabitable by generalized hunter gatherers. Nomad cultures develop high levels of technology that allow them to survive in harsh environments, along with strict and complex systems of taboo and custom designed to reinforce survival behaviors and prevent individuals from endangering the group. But on the road to civilization, nomadism is a blind alley. Nomads live so close to the edge that they have no time or energy to be anything but nomads. The same taboos that help them survive discourage or forbid experimentation with new lifestyles or social organization. The size of the tribe must be limited to avoid exhausting water or graze. The rule of the family patriarch, a leader who is expert in survival skills, must be absolute.
The third group of people chose to remain where they were and develop a different set of technologies to survive. These were the cultures who learned to dig aqueducts and cisterns and wells to access water and bring it where they needed it, to build solid structures of brick and stone to protect themselves from the environment, and to practice intensive agriculture in their newly irrigated fields. These endeavors require far more organization and manpower than a hunter-gatherer band or nomad clan could ever muster. In fact, they require civilization.
Echoes of this decision read us in the Book of Genesis, which describes mans expulsion from Eden. Man couldn’t go back to Eden because it no longer existed. It dried out and became Mesopotamia. Adam’s sons Cain and Able each had to choose which survival strategy they would follow. Abel chose to become a nomadic shepherd while Cain became a sedentary farmer. There was trouble between them almost immediately, culminating in the Bible’s first homicide.
Conflict between civilization and nomadism is one of the major recurring themes in history, mainly because nomads can use land which is too dry for farmers. A minor shift in climate allows the forces of civilization to take land away from the nomads and plant it. This happened in the US in the late 19th century during the years when “the rain followed the plow”. Civilized farmers, with their superior population and production base, conquered the Great Plains, killing off the Plains Indians or forcing them onto particularly arid, undesirable land.
When climate shifts the other way, however, nomads come back into their own. Throughout my lifetime the Sahara desert has been growing steadily. Land that was once productive for farming is now useful only to Bedouins. Similarly, the land at the periphery of China has changed hands many times between nomads and farmers as conditions changed.
In many ways California and the rest of the Southwest have more in common with the first Mesopotamian civilizations than with any society since. Both exist in arid country that becomes extremely fertile only with constant irrigation. In Los Angeles, as in Ur or Babylon, imported water allows a high population density and enough surplus to support a high culture and a prolific artistic class.
But the water is running out. The desert is getting closer.
No, I don’t necessarily believe that Southern California will be over run by nomads, even though that would be entirely consistent with history (and Mad Max movies). But it’s hard to believe that the current society will be sustainable for more than a couple more decades. To survive, we will need to consider the same three options as neolithic Mesopotamians. We can try to move somewhere else and continue the same lifestyle. We can adopt a highly specialized lifestyle adapted to the arid conditions. Or we can try to become even more organized and civilized and use the power of civilization to leverage generalized technologies–possibly by moving into arcologies or dome cities or something of that sort.
It would be nice to have a fourth choice, but in the last 10,000 years no one has come up with one.