Thursday, May 16, 2024

Not not the end of the world


It's May 2050 and my name is Captain Jon Xander of the 17th Armed Division of 

the Ministry of the Future[1]. I'm here to give you a brief update of the past 25 

years' efforts. Summary take home, we failed to prevent the worst. Summary cause for hope, humanity behaves better than expected in a pinch[2].

Back in '25 some of the kids in XR realised that we needed more political and economic leverage against the huge momentum behind forces destroying the planet. Tipping points had been past, and it was clear we were already going to exceed 3 degrees global heating. At this point, within a decade, the antarctic ice shelf would be gone, and with it, all the coast cities of the US, and with them, the global economy.

Mass migration inland was also hampered by wet bulb temperatures across central US and southern Europe, latin America and sub-Saharan Africa, India and central China, sustaining over 50C for weeks at a time. Life was not sustainable here.

The ministry was created to coordinate economic incentives, to discount the future properly. Like open cast mining, the cost of restoring the environment to its original condition had to be paid forward one way or another - e.g. through carbon capture, reforestation there or elsewhere, from the get go.

But this wasn't enough. Hypocritical leaders were still flying around in corporate lear jets, so the undercover branch of the ministry was setup to bring those planes down, to set an example.

Models told us this was all going to happen, but those models had to steal cycles from the Hypercloud, the systems build by the Big Five Tech Companies to more precisely target marketing and advertising to you, and to persuade you to buy goods and services you didn't need, using ever more convincing (holographic avatars that look like your boyfriend, your mum, you) AIs. In 2030, these AIs ran on data centres that each consumed more electricity than a metro area like New York. They were overtaking the now shrinking fossil fuel companies as the root cause of the problem.

We tried geo-engineering - reducing solar radiation, spraying ice back on to the poles, even sails in orbit, etc. But that needed coordinated action, and the lack of that is the very thing that got us in this mess. Non-coordinated interventions moved monsoons thousands of kilometres away from where the rain was needed for food, and months away from the right season for rain in any case. Some actors even weaponised the systems to attack neighbouring states.

BY 2040, they were all history. The global economy couldn't sustain anymore than micro generation of energy with scavenged materials, no reliable power anywhere for computation or communications. How did we cope? How could we plan? With no Internet, of course, we just used The Clacks. But what about Machine Learning?

Here's an example (taking out Otis King[3] cylindrical slide rule). This was used by Computors back in 1930 to work out actuarial tables (and, sadly, ordnance for military) and these don't need a battery - this one was used in UCL stats department and is 120 years old. Works fine. 

So we can coordinate the routes for the sailers and fishing crews, plan the kelp  farms, and still predict the rate of biodiversity restoration through re-wilding and careful choice of trees to give us materials for housing, boats and clothes.

In the end, people are the key - 100 people with calculators like this can work out a route from earth to the nearest exo-planet. Of course, we don't need to as we shan't be seeing any space agencies for some centuries to come, except, perhaps, the wide open spaces between remaining dry land. Where luckily, we managed to save a couple of the really big libraries[4].

What do you think people miss most, today, in 2050?

The biggest disappointment for kids today is that 

they'll never get to play the electric guitar.

With thanks/apologies to 

1. Kim Stanley Robinson

2. Rebecca Solnit

3. Cylindrical Slide Rules

4 The BL is this height:

5.  Using the Cylindrical Slide Rule

6.  Sunken Cities, Dobraszcyzk

7. Five times Faster, by Simon Sharpe

8. Not the End of the World, Hannah Ritchie

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