No Roots

The Red Pill

If you'd told us the truth, we would've told you to shove that red pill right up your ass.

Cypher, The Matrix

Nomatter how many times you choose the Blue Pill, the Red Pill is coming.What if I told you that you had the choice between (Red Pill) learning that the matrix, which underlies our modern way of life, is an illusion or (Blue Pill) carrying on enjoying the illusion? Well this is about the Red Pill. You can choose to take it or not. But the fact is that the Red Pill lies around every corner and as time passes, more and more Morpheuses will appear in different guises. Some will whisper, some will make offhanded comments and some will shout so loud you will confidently discard their rantings as insanity.

But their voices will slowly grow... over months, maybe years - I cannot say. But here is one account of the Red Pill.

I should start by saying I'm not too thrilled I took the Red Pill. Nobody else offered the Red Pill with a warning. Nobody said "this will unsettle you and change your world view - and not really for the better." However I am different. I am considerate. Here I am giving you the opportunity now to turn around.

No? OK but don't say I didn't warn you.

Please note that I'm generally an optimist. I love science fiction films which depict our high tech future. From Star Trek to The Fifth Element, this view of our civilisation's outlook has become part of the collective imagination and fuels the inspirations of yours truly. I want it to become real... and I believe one day it may yet be. But not yet - and may not for another 100, 300, or even 500 years. Nonsense! you say. With the present growth of technology it is but a few years off. But that is simply not the case for the immediate future holds a new dark age. It is the age when 6 billion people try to survive as their main source of energy runs out: Oil.

Back to the Future, 1985Of course we all know that oil is a finite resource. But most people are under the assumption that we won't run out for hundreds of years by which time we will be driving around in flying saucers powered by Mr. Fusion. Unfortunately it's not 200 years off. It's not even 50 years off. But whether it's 2 years off or 10 years off, we are already starting to run out.

Yeah yeah no big deal, you say. Technology will save us: we'll just drive different types of cars. We'll build nuclear power stations. We'll have solar panels and windmills. We'll even have more oil: as the price of oil goes up, it will become economical to suck more of the dregs from existing wells. We'll adapt.

Yes we will adapt for sure: I'm not suggesting that Skynet is going to become self-aware at 2:14 am Eastern Standard Time on August 29 and start a nuclear war. Change will be gradual. But the fact is that you cannot fly a jumbo jet on solar power and hydrogen cells in cars don't create energy: they simply store it. You still have to get the energy from somewhere. It will take a very long time to build enough nuclear stations to power the needs of the planet. Oh and then we'll have another major problem but that's another story. In the meantime, things could get ugly.

Few people consider how dependant we are on oil: yes it runs our cars. But it also runs almost every vehicle that transports our food and goods. Look around you. Everything you're looking at got there with the help of oil. It even grows our food: it powers the machines that carry out planting, irrigation, feeding and harvesting. Oils and gas are even used as raw materials in the production of fertilizers and pesticides. Know what plastic is made out of? Oil.

The few Americans who are even aware that there is a gathering global-energy predicament usually misunderstand the core of the argument. That argument states that we don't have to run out of oil to start having severe problems with industrial civilization and its dependent systems. We only have to slip over the all-time production peak and begin a slide down the arc of steady depletion.

The Long Emergency

The population of the earth has increased by over 1 billion since I was born. By the time I die, at least another billion will be added. Presently, most of those people live in poverty - thank God. If they were all as wealthy as Americans, if they all used fridges, TVs and drove SUVs, we could be pretty confident that not only would oil supplies be depleted promptly, but that even the most fervent naysayers would have to concede that global warming was on its way to fry us. Energy consumption is tied to wealth and oil depletion is tied to energy consumption. Let them eat cake but please keep them from modern appliances.

Of course we don't want people to be poor - just poor enough to make us nice things cheap and leave us the remaining oil reserves. Unfortunately, places like India and China seem unwilling to cooperate. They each have roughly a billion people and are growing both in terms of numbers and prosperity. China has huge energy needs and no Kyoto protocol is going to stop them from claiming the wealth that we have been flaunting for generations. Who will stop them? They have a taste for it and will grow as will India and many others. Didn't you hear? The Asian Dragons are back and they are breathing fire. Several billion people want more.

So consumption is not only growing, it's skyrocketing. And supply? Well it's not skyrocketing. It's flattening out and is preparing for a sharp decline. When? Well those inclined to call it generally say 2007 is the peak. Some say as far out as 2015. Either way it's now - it's this generation. It's not just something you can leave your grandkids to worry about.

Easter Island
Lets say I put you on Easter Island and there are two tribes: yours with your friends and family and the other tribe at the opposite end of the island. The others aren't exactly your enemy but they're rather strange and can sometimes be aggressive. They are certainly unpredictable. OK so everthing is going along swimmingly: there's lots of fish and lots of fruit and both villages have lots of babies. Unfortunately, one day it becomes clear to you that the resources of the island won't support everybody. You've reached the tipping point. Your choice is to carry on with the status quo and eventually watch your children become malnourished and die or you can go over and slaughter the other tribe and thereby live comfortably on the island's bounty. Bear in mind that they also understand that resources are running out and may choose to kill you too. So what do you do?

Personally I think if you had the ability to kill the others with some manufactured disease then that would be best: it would just look like they died of natural causes and nobody would get upset at the slaughter. But a more humane solution might simply be to take over their territory, take their resources and subject them to living off scant supplies under your military rule. Some sneaky in-between measure might be to simply instigate them to fight with each other and cause their infrastructure to break down so they are unable to harvest and distribute their resources. Or you could take the direct approach. There are probably lots of ways you could legitimize moving into their village and killing them off. Whatever works.

Sounds horrible? Well ask around and find out how many people are really willing to give up the cheap electricity to power 24/7 broadband and cheap oil to power their SUVs. Are people going to be happy about not running their heating in winter nor aircon in summer? Please! Anyway the average person is not going to have to make that call. For the most part the masses have already proven they're too stupid to be decisive. The choices will be made for them.

As oil supplies run out, we're going to need to find more. We're going to have to rip up some nice places and of course move in to take over others. It's unpleasant but when people start to see their lives changing, they will be willing to pay the price to protect it.

Oil will disappear from some places sooner than others. Those who can't pay - notably the third world net importers - will suffer first. and yes they will suffer. People will die, but some people will survive and learn to live a different way. But it won't be the glorious future they dreamed of for their children - nor will ours.

The decline won't be rapid. There will be signs that first appear to be just noise: a bit of volatility in the market. But slowly these temporary turns for the worse become permanent changes: Oil at $58/barrel? It should come back down... maybe. OK so what if it doesn't? Demand is rather price insensitive at these levels so we adapt. The price of everything dependant on oil goes up... and well that's basically everything. So I pay more for gas and buy less video games... OK so then there's an economic downturn. It will turn up again. And so it does, but the turn is dampened by the ever rising price of energy... And so it goes. It's a descending spiral. International trade slows, there is growing unemployment, rising crime. Slowly, more and more parts of the US look like Flint Michigan.

When the day comes that it is too expensive to run the garbage trucks that take the waste of millions out of the city every day, you'll know you had better head for the hills. In fact, you might consider planning ahead on that one.

So where's that great future I believe in? It's out there, I'm just not going to get to see it. I thought I'd get a glimpse of it but now I think all I will glimpse is the coming of the new dark age.

This is, of course, a bit of a bummer. I can't enjoy stuff quite the way I used to. Like when National Geographic shows some fantastic documentary about how NASA plans to one day colonize the moon and even Mars, all I can think of is: You guys are in for a BIG surprise! You better think of another way of getting there besides blowing up thousands of pounds of fossil fuels because, lemme tell you baby, that stuff ain't gonna come cheap and by they time you have figured out how to get your ass to Mars, there may be none left.

I really hope that the future of interstellar relations, flying cars and 3D video phone is somewhere out there. There are many ways this planet can be destroyed and many more ways the human species can just make it uninhabitable for themselves but leave a lot of other creatures in peace. But I still have this belief that, while we're in for a rough ride, whether it's 100 years or 1000 years of darkness, we will emerge on the other side and realize the collective imagination of a lost civilization. A civilisation who's matrix gave way because too many opted for the Blue Pill.

Technorati Tags: , ,

Labels: Furl digg Reddit TailRank Add to My Yahoo co.mments Sunday, April 17, 2005


Blogger Big Gav

Morpheus eh ? I've never been called that before - but I'll take it as a compliment :-)

I did get told once that I was "the most honest person I've ever met" by a lady who ran a cost control group at Deutsche Bank, which sort of made me feel much the same way. And weirdly enough (probably because it was such a novel tactic in a big bank), I was allowed pretty much complete freedom of action as a result...

The new blog look is very slick by the way - I should get around to doing a makeover on my standard issue blogger templates one day.

Thursday, April 21, 2005  

Post a Comment