Welcome to the age of diminishing returns

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The next ten billion years





It is not surprising that we found the future fascinating; after all, we are all going there. But the future is never what it used to be and it is said that predictions are always difficult, especially those dealing with the future. Nevertheless, it is possible to study the future, which is something different from predicting it. It is an exercise called "scenario building". Here, let me try a telescopic sweep of scenario building that starts from the remote past and takes us to the remote future over a total range of 20 billion years. While the past is what it was, our future bifurcates into two scenarios; one "good" and the other "bad", all depending on what we'll be doing in the coming years.



The past 10 billion years

- 10 billion years ago. The universe is young, it only has less than four billion years. But it already looks the way it will be for many billion years: galaxies, stars, planets, black holes and much more. 

- 1 billion years ago. From the debris of ancient supernovas, the solar system has formed around a second generation star, the Sun, about 4.5 billion years ago. The planets that form the system are not very different from those we see today. Earth has blue oceans, white clouds and dark brown continents. But there are no plants or animals on the continents, nor fish in the water. Life is all unicellular in the oceans, but its activity has already changed a lot of things: the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere is a result of the ongoing photosynthesis activity. 

- 100 million years ago. Plenty of things have been happening on planet Earth. Starting about 550 million years ago, perhaps as a result of the ice age known as "snowball Earth," multicellular life forms have appeared. First, only in the oceans; then, about 400 million years ago, life has colonized the surfaces of the continents creating lush forests and large animals that have populated the Earth for hundreds of millions of years. That wasn't uneventful, though. Life nearly went extinct when, 245 million years ago, a giant volcanic eruption in the region we call Siberia today generated the largest known extinction of Earth's history. But the biosphere managed to survive and regrow into the cretaceous period, the age of Dinosaurs.

- 10 million years ago. The age of dinosaurs is over. They have been wiped out by a new mass extinction, caused probably by a giant asteroid which hit the Earth 65 million years ago. Again, the biosphere has survived and now it prospers again, populated with mammals and birds; including primates. We are in the Miocene period and the Earth has been cooling down over a period of several million years, possibly as the result of the Indian subcontinent having hit Asia and created the Himalayas. That has favored CO2 removal from the atmosphere by weathering and has lowered temperatures. Icecaps have formed both at the North and the South poles for the first time in several hundred million years.

- 1 million years ago. The Earth has considerably cooled down during the period that we call "Pleistocene" and it is now undergoing a series of ice ages and interglacials. Ice ages last for tens of thousands of years, whereas the interglacials are relatively short hot spells, a few thousands of years long. These climatic oscillations are perhaps the element that stimulate the evolution of some primate species which have developed bipedal locomotion. One million years ago, homo erectus and homo abilis can use fire and make simple stone tools.

- 100.000 years ago. The glacial/interglacial cycles continue. The hot spell called the "Eemian" period, about 114,000 years ago, has been short lived and has given way to one of the harshest known glaciations of the recent Earth's history. But humans survive. In Europe, the Neanderthals rule, while the species that we call "homo sapiens" already exists in Africa.

- 10.000 years ago. The ice age ends abruptly to give rise to a new interglacial; the period that we call "Holocene." The Neanderthals have disappeared, pushed over the edge of survival by their "Sapiens" competitors. Climate stabilizes enough for humans to start to practice agriculture in the fertile valleys along the tropical region of Africa and Eurasia, from Egypt to China.

- 1000 years ago. The agricultural age has given rise to the age of empires, fighting for domination of large geographical areas. The human population has been rapidly growing, with the start of a series of cycles of growth and collapse that derive from the overexploitation of the fertile soil. 1000 years ago, the Western World is coming back from one of these periodic collapses and is expanding again during the period we call "Middle Ages".

- 100 years ago. The age of coal has started and has been ongoing for at least two centuries. With it, the industrial revolution has come. Coal and crude oil are the fuels that create a tremendous expansion of humankind in numbers and power. 100 years ago, there are already more than a billion humans on the planet and the population is rapidly heading for the two billion mark. Pollution is still a minor problem that goes largely unrecognized. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been increasing to near 300 ppm over the 270 ppm which has been the level of the pre-industrial age. This fact is noted by some human scientists, but the long term consequences are not understood.

- 10 years ago. The fossil fuels which have created the industrial age are starting to show signs of depletion and the same is true also for most mineral commodities. The attempt to replace fossil fuels with uranium has not been successful because of the difficulties involved in controlling the technology. Energy production is still increasing, but it shows signs of slowing down. The human population has reached 6 billion and keeps growing, but at reduced rates of growth. The Earth's agricultural system is in full overshoot and the population can only be fed by means of an agricultural-industrial complex based on fossil fuels. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has been growing fast and is now about 370 ppm. Global temperatures have been rising, too. The problem of global warming has been recognized and considerable efforts are being made to reduce the emission of CO2 and of other greenhouse gases.  

Today. The world's industrial system seems to be close to stopping its growth and the financial system has been going through a series of brutal collapses. The production of crude oil has been stable during the past few years; but the overall energy production is still increasing because of the rapid growth of coal production. The political situation is chaotic, with continuously erupting minor wars. The human population has reached seven billion. The climate system seems to be on the verge of collapse, with a rapid increase in natural catastrophes all over the world and the near disappearance of the ice cap at the North Pole.The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is almost 400 ppm and keeps increasing.





The future in two scenarios

1.The "bad" scenario.

10 years from now. In 2020, the production of "conventional" crude oil has started a historical trend of decline, but an enormous effort has been made to replace it by liquids produced using non conventional sources. Tar sands, shale oil, and other "heavy" oil sources, as well as biofuels are being produced in amounts sufficient to stave off the decline. Natural gas production is in decline, but large investments in "shale gas" have so far avoided collapse. Uranium, too has become scarce and several countries which don't have national resources have been forced to close down some of their nuclear plants. These trends are partially compensated by the still increasing production of coal; which is also used to produce liquid fuels and other chemicals that once had been obtained from oil. The growth of renewable energy has stalled: there are no more resources to invest in research and development in new technologies and new plants, while a propaganda campaign financed by the oil industry has convinced the public that renewable sources produce no useful energy and are even harmful for the environment. Another propaganda campaign financed by the same lobbies has stopped all attempts of reducing the emissions of greenhouse gases. As a result, agriculture has been devastated by climate change and by the high costs of fertilizers and mechanization. The human population starts an epochal reversal of its growing trend, decimated also in reason of the increasing fraction of fertile land which is dedicated to biofuels.

100 years from now. In 2100, the human economic system has collapsed and the size of the economy is now a small fraction of what it had been at the beginning of the 21st century.  Resource depletion has destroyed most of the industrial system, while climate change and the associated desertification - coupled with the destruction of the fertile soil - have reduced agriculture to a pale shadow of the industrial enterprise it had become. The collapse of agriculture has caused a corresponding population collapse; now under one billion people. Most tropical areas have been abandoned because global warming has made them too hot to be habitable by human beings. The rise in sea level caused by global warming has forced the abandonment of a large number of coastal cities, with incalculable economic damage. The economy of the planet has been further weakened by giant storms and climate disasters which have hit about every inhabited place. Crude oil is not extracted any more in significant amounts and where there still exist gas resources, it is impossible to transport them at long distances because of the decay of the pipeline network and of the flooding of the ports. Only coal is still being extracted and coal fired plants maintain electric power for a reduced industrial activity in several regions of of the North of the planet. Labrador, Alaska, Scandinavia and Northern Siberia see the presence of remnants of the industrial society. Using coal liquefaction, it is still possible to obtain liquid fuels, mostly used for military purposes. The Earth still sees tanks and planes that exchange gunfire against each other.

1000 years from now.The industrial society is a thing of the past. Human caused global warming has  generated the release of methane hydrates which have created even more warming. The stopping of the Oceanic thermohaline currents has transformed most of the planet into a hot desert. Almost all large mammals are extinct. Humans survive only in the extreme fringes of land in the North of the planet and in the South, mainly in Patagonia. For the first time in history, small tribes of humans live on the rapidly de-frosting fringes of the Antarctic continent, living mainly of fishing. In some areas, it is still possible to extract coal and use it for a simple metallurgy that uses the remains of the metals that the 20th century civilization has left. Human being are reduced to a few million people who keep battling each other using old muskets and occasional cannons.

10.000 years from now. Human beings are extinct, together with most vertebrates and trees. Planet Earth is still reeling from the wave of global warming that had started many thousands of years before. The atmosphere still contains large amounts of greenhouse gases generated by human activity and by the release of methane hydrates. The continents are mostly deserts, and the same is true for oceans, reduced to marine deserts by the lack of oxygenating currents. Greenland is nearly ice-free and that's true also for Antarctica, which has lost most of its ice. Only bushes and small size land vertebrates survive in the remote northern and southern fringes of continents.

100.000 from now. The planet is showing signs of recovery. Temperatures have stabilized and silicate erosion have removed a large fraction of the carbon dioxide that had accumulated in the atmosphere. Land animals and trees show some sign of recovery.

1 milion years from now. The planet has partly recovered. The planetary tectonic cycles have re-absorbed most of the CO2 which had created the great burst of warming of long before. Temperature has gone down rapidly and polar ice caps have returned. The return of ice has restarted the thermohaline currents: oceanic waters are oxygenated again. Life - those species that had survived the warming disaster - are thriving again and re-colonizing the tropical deserts - which are fast disappearing.

10 million years from now. Earth is again the lush blue-green planet it used to be, full of life, animals and forests. From the survivors of the great warming, a new explosion of life has been generated. There are again large herbivores and carnivores, as well as large trees, even though none of them looks like the creatures which had populated the Earth before the catastrophe. In Africa, some creatures start using chipped stones for hunting. In time, they develop the ability of creating fire and of building stone structures. They develop agriculture, sea-going ships and ways of recording their thoughts using symbols. But they never develop an industrial civilization for lack of fossil fuels, all burned by humans millions of years before them.

100 milion years from now. Planet Earth is again under stress. The gradual increase in solar irradiation is pushing climate towards a new hot era. The same effect is generated by the gradual formation of a new supercontinent generated by continental drift. Most of the land becomes a desert - all intelligent creatures disappear. There starts a general decline of vertebrates, unable to survive in a progressively hotter planet.

1 billion years from now. The Earth has been sterilized by the increasing solar heat. Just traces of single celled life still survive underground.

10 billion years from now. The sun has expanded and it has become so large that it has absorbed and destroyed the Earth. Then, it has collapsed in a white dwarf. The galaxy and the whole universe move slowly to extinction with the running down of the energy generated by the primeval big bang.

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2.The "good" scenario

Ten years from now. In 2020, fossil fuel depletion has generated a global decline of production. That, in turn, has led to international treaties directed to ease the replacement of fossil fuels with renewable energy. Treaties are also enacted with the purpose of minimizing the use of coal. The production and the use of biofuels is forbidden everywhere and treaties force producers to direct all the agricultural production towards food for humans. The existing nuclear plants make full use of the uranium in the warheads that had been accumulated during the cold war. Research on nuclear fusion continues, with the hope that it will provide useful energy in 50 years. Even with these actions, global warming continues and agriculture is badly damaged by droughts and erosion. Population growth stops and widespread famines occur. Governments enact fertility reduction measures in order to contain population. Nevertheless, the economy does not show signs of collapse, stimulated by the demand for renewable plants.

A hundred years from now. The measures taken at the beginning of the 21st century have borne fruit. Now, almost 1% of the surface of the planet is covered by solar panels of the latest generations which produce energy with efficiency of the order of 50%. In the north, wind energy is used, as well as energy from ocean currents, tides, and waves. The production of renewable electrical energy keeps growing and it has surpassed anything that was done in the past using primitive technologies based on fossil fuels. No such fuels are extracted any longer and doing so is considered a crime punishable with re-education. The industrial economy is undergoing rapid changes, moving to abandon the exploitation of dwindling resources of rare metals, using the abundant energy available to exploit the abundant elements of the Earth's crust. The human society is now completely based on electric energy, also for transportation. Electric vehicles move along roads and rails, electric ships move across the oceans and electric airship navigate the air. The last nuclear fission plants have been closed for lack of uranium fuel around 2050, they were not needed any more, anyway. Research on nuclear fusion continues with the hope that it will provide usable energy in 50 years. Despite the good performance of the economy, the ecosystem is still under heavy stress because of the large amounts of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere during the past centuries. Agriculture is still reeling from the damage done by erosion and climate change. The human population is in rapid, but controlled, decline under the demographic measures enacted by governments. It is now less than 4 billion humans and famines are a thing of the past.  With the returning prosperity, humans are restarting the exploration of space that they were forced to abandon at the start of the 21st century.

1000 years from now. In the year 3000 A.D. the ecosystems of the planet have completely recovered from the damage done by human activities during the second millennium. A sophisticated planetary control system manages solar irradiation by means of space mirrors and the concentration of greenhouse gases by means of CO2 absorbing/desorbing plants. The planet is managed as a giant garden, optimizing its biological productivity. The Sahara desert is now a forest and the thermohaline currents pump oxygen in the northern regions, full of life of all kinds. The solar and wind plants used during the previous millennium have been mostly dismantled, although some are still kept as a memory of the old times. Most of the energy used by humankind is now generated by space stations which capture solar energy and beam it to the ground in forms easily usable by humans. Research in controlled fusion energy continues with the hope that it will produce usable energy in 500 years. Humans are now less than one billion, they have optimized both their numbers and their energy use and they need enormously less than they had needed in the more turbulent ages of one thousand years before. The development of artificial intelligence is in full swing and practically all tasks that once had been in the hands of humans is now in the "hands" of sophisticated robotic systems. These robots have colonized the solar system and humans now live in underground cities on the Moon. The new planetary intelligence starts considering the idea of terraforming Mars and Venus. The first antimatter powered interstellar spaceships have started their travel to far away stars.

10.000 years from now. There are now less than a billion human beings on Earth who live in splendid cities immersed in the lush forest that the planet has become. Some of them work as a hobby on controlled nuclear fusion which they hope will produce usable energy in a few thousand years. The New Intelligence has now started terraforming Mars. It involves similar methods as those used for controlling the Earth's climate: giant mirrors and CO2 producing plants that control the Martian atmosphere, increasing its pressure and temperature. The terraforming of Venus has also started with similar methods: giant screens that lower the planetary temperatures and immense flying plants that transform CO2 into oxygen and solid carbon. That will take a lot of time, but the New Intelligence is patient. It is also creating new races of solid state beings living on the asteroids and orbiting around the Sun. The exploration of the galaxy is in progress, with spaceships from the solar system now reaching a "sphere" of about a thousand light years from the sun.

100.000 years from now. About 500 million humans live on Earth - mostly engaged in art, contemplation, and living full human lives. Nobody knows any longer what "controlled nuclear fusion" could mean. Mars is now colonized by Earth's plants, which are helping to create an atmosphere suitable for life; it is now a green planet, covered with oceans and lush forests. Several million human beings live there, protected from cosmic radiation by the planetary magnetic field artificially generated by giant magnetic coils at the planet's poles. The temperature of Venus has been considerably lowered, although still not enough for life to take hold of its surface. The exploration of the galaxy is in full swing. Other galactic intelligences are encountered and contacted.

A million years from now. Venus, Earth and Mars are now lush and green; all three full of life. Mercury has been dismantled to provide material for transforming the solar system into a single intelligence system that links a series of creatures. There are statites orbiting around the sun, solid state lifeforms living on asteroids and remote moons, ultra-resistent creatures engineered to live in the thick atmosphere of Jupiter and of the other giant planets. Humans, living on the green planets, have become part of this giant solar network. The other extreme of the Galaxy has been now reached by probes coming from the solar system.

10 milion years from now. The New Intelligence is expanding over the Galaxy. The Green planets are now the place of evolution tests and the Neanderthals now live on Mars, whereas dinosaurs have been recreated on a Venus where the planetary control system has recreated conditions similar to those of the Jurassic on Earth.

In 100 million years from now. Controlling temperatures over the three green planets of the Solar System has become a complex task because of the increasing solar radiation. Mirrors are not enough any more and it has been necessary to move the planets farther away from the sun; which is now the preferred system for climate control. The statites that form the main part of the solar intelligence now surround the sun almost completely in a series of concentric spheres.

In a billion years from now. The solar radiation has increased so much that it has been necessary to move the green planets very far away. One year lasts now as 50 of the "natural" Earth years as they were long before. But these are no problems for the Solar Intelligence, now just a small part of the Galactic intelligence. The three green planets are three jewels of the Solar System.

In ten billion years from now. The sun has collapsed in a weak white dwarf and all the planets that orbit around it are now frozen to death. The Galaxy has lost most of its suns and the universe is entering its last stage of expansion which will lead it to become a frozen darkness. The Galactic Intelligence looks at a nearly dark galaxy. It is now the moment. The Intelligence says, "Let there be light" And there is light.




(this text was inspired by Isaac Asimov's story "The Last Question")

62 comments:

  1. I am more inclined to believe that the New Global Order will still have enough control 100 years from now to keep humanity under Global Slavery using hi-tech weapons...no tanks and gunfire... drones and satellites will do the dirty job.

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  2. Dear Ugo,
    the fact that in less then 2 hundred years we have burned the major share of the cheaper, in not the major part in absolute of the carbon fossils, accumulated in billions of years and that by doing so we are increasing the level of CO2 in the atmosphere by a factor of 3 parts for each 1 one burned (surely more if we consider the energy required to extract and process it), only this very clear data should convince every one, politicians in particular who are directly responsible for our future, of the urgent need to find other systems to sustain the future’s humanity.
    Why this simple equation is not happening?
    Giovanni

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  3. Well, of course it is because we have been invaded by Galactic Aliens who have taken control of our decisional centers. But this will be another post!

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  4. So Ugo is a technotopian ? that doesn't know AI isn't a scientific field ?

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    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Maybe, if it was called "research of AI" instead of "research in AI" could be somehow acceptable ...

      And with "singularity theory", here comes the plain vulgar modern version of the messiah myth, clearly ...

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  5. Ugo,
    "Scenario building" is a fun game - it has (for all practical purposes) unlimited "replay value" since there are (for all practical purposes) an unlimited number of future scenarios to build.

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  6. For me, I really would love to see how they restart the core of Mars in the "good" scenario. I mean, what kind of technology would that take? Also would have been interesting to see your take on a neutral possibility, like where we don't destroy the atmosphere but we don't get to go off into the stars or other planets. Maybe we learn to control the forests albedo, which some trees might already do, to reflect light to get like another 20 million years or something.

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    1. That's a good point - another scenario I was considering has Mars bombarded with asteroids to re-melt the core and increase the mass. That implies about a half billion years for cooling down the whole thing which, then, becomes very similar to earth and has a few billion years of life for the ecosystem. Alternatively, Mars's core stays cool and all the parameters are controlled by mirrors and CO2 generating plants that create it our of limestone (assuming that there is limestone on Mars... as you see the project it is still a little rough)

      About staying put on earth; sure; it is another possible scenario. But it is a little unstable, I think.

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    2. That is an awesome way to restart the core with meteors and maybe the meteors could even lead to a more stable wobble on Mars instead of practically flipping over. I still don't see how a planet could support life without a magnetosphere protecting it from UV and other high energy particles even if mirrors are deployed.

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    3. Well, I suppose that if you have oceans, life could exist at some depth where the UV radiation is screened. On land, you'd live inside giant greenhouses. :-)

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    4. Or maybe you build giant magnetic coils at the poles of the planet!

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    5. What is with the fixation on planets? Take a hard look at space habitats and the fact that you can support many orders of magnitude larger populations on less material than a planet.

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    6. You're not going to re-melt a planet's core by bombarding its surface, you'll just get magma on the surface.  You could instead re-melt the core by sinking dense, ultra-refractory nuclear reactors to melt their way through the crust and mantle down to the core, or by electromagnetic induction (though that would be a very slow process).

      I don't see any way to run out of uranium in the "bad" scenario.  Thorium is a byproduct of rare-earth mining, and thorium is easily bred to fissile U-233 with over-unity efficiency.  If the breeding ratio is too low in conventional reactors, changing their coolant partially or completely to heavy water will improve the neutron economy enough to tip the balance.  In truth, only political fiat can stop nuclear energy (and it's the only thing that has; see the IFR and the WASH-1222 report which killed molten-salt reactors in the USA).

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    7. "only political fiat can stop nuclear energy (and it's the only thing that has; see the IFR and the WASH-1222 report which killed molten-salt reactors in the USA)."

      Then there's the little matter of Fermi I, the only commercial molten-salt reactor in the US, which catastrophically melted down before it went on-line.

      "Political fiat" indeed. More like "We almost lost Detroit," as John Fuller put it.

      Another lie: "The public was never in any danger." I lived through it, just five miles away, and a high-school buddy's dad worked there. During the disaster, they worked round-the-clock, turning off clanging radiation monitors, forgetting to wear dosimeters. Ten years later, Phil Harrigan is dead of leukaemia -- but of course, you can't trace that conclusively to the Fermi I melt-down, so "The public was never in any danger," as they say.

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  7. I like the end of the second scenario, it's a beautiful theology, like an Asimov's tale, men and robot together facing the problems of the Universe. Will we live the same life again and again? For the moment this is not very important, the future starts tomorrow and it's worse than yesterday. But a lot of people believe in a brilliant future, running spaceships towards the red eye of Mars...Fools.

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    1. Well, the final is taken straight from Asimov's story "The Last Question".

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  8. Hi Ugo, thanks for this piece. It at least makes people think a bit longer term (well, okay, a LOT longer term) and brings home the idea that we actually have a chance to change our ways.

    People often feel that there is no point in doing anything - taking a longer view just reminds us that life is a continuum which we are all part of.

    22billionenergyslaves.blogspot.dk/

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    1. Thanks Jason. I have been following your blog!

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  9. Nice piece,

    but why would the humans "mostly engaged in art, contemplation, and living full human lives." even bother with space exploration and inhabiting Mars. I could not see any drivers for that, nor the technical capacity and manpower emerging from these sacred souls.....?

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    1. Well, I think that humans will soon be obsolete as masters of the planet - at least if we can keep the technosphere alive for a few more decades.

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  10. Ugo, one of the best posts IMHO!!

    now somebody should construct global scenarios *before* and *after* publishing this blog ;-)

    That is, I wonder, how the world would change if *everybody* in the world read this text several times... (maybe at least my ex-girlfriend could..)

    I agree with Ugo that in the long-term, we are not viable option for Gaia :)

    Alex

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    1. You are a very optimistic person, Alex, if you think that a post in a blog can change the world! But it is true that we are going to see big changes. I see a "tipping point" in the perception of the crisis generated by the melting of polar ice. Many people have been truly shocked by that - now we are going to see the reaction. I see hard times ahead for deniers

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  11. One "little" mistake, "the universe is young, it only has less than four billion years"... let's say fourteen ;)

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    1. Well, ten billion years ago, the universe was four billion years old!

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  12. What happens to 13,400 nuclear weapons?

    It only takes a spark, to get a fire going.
    And soon all those around, can warm up to it's glowing.


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  13. Replacing scarce resources with abundant resources:
    Is it really possible to replace all technology which is currently based on scarce resources with technology that is based on abundant resources? I like the idea but I'm still skeptical.

    I did a little research and found that, indeed, they are working on technological replacements for many of our technologies which currently require scarce minerals. Induction motors to replace the permanent magnets in cars being one example. In some cases, there are no substitutes, such as the phosphates used in TVs and computer screens. However, they have developed a chemical process which can extract them so that they can be recycled almost indefinitely. The process is currently more expensive than simply mining for new materials, but eventually scarcity will make it more economical to recycle. In addition, with abundant solar energy the energy cost of recycling would be a non-issue.

    Living on the moon:
    How do you envision the inhabitants will compensate for the lack of gravity? At first I thought regular workouts with cable machines using very heavy weights would be good. Cable machines would give full range of motion which is necessary because you need to work all the muscles in order to prevent atrophy and bone loss. If you lifted weights that were 6x heavier than normal earth weights than you would get the same effect (the moon's gravity is 1/6th that of earth), so rather than lifting 20 or 30 lb weights a person would lift 120 or 180 lb weights. However, this still leaves the question of how one would raise a child. In order for the muscles and bones to develop properly, there would need to be constant resistance. So I envision some kind of full-body suit that covers a person from their head to their toes, kind of like a wetsuit, except it weighs several hundred pounds (the exact weight would vary depending on the person wearing it). A 150 lb person, for example, would need to weigh 900 lbs on the moon in order to simulate normal earth gravity, so they would need a suit that weighed 750 lbs.

    Population:
    Even if we replace scarce resources with abundant resources, the availability of renewable resources is a factor which limits human population. There is only so much arable land and fresh water. Ecological footprint analysis indicates that if everyone on the planet lived at a first world standard of living than only 1-2 billion could be supported. However, one has to ask why a world with 1-2 billion people is any better than a world with 500 million living at the same standard of living.

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    1. Well, let's see..... For replacing scarce resources with abundant ones, I think it is possible. Aluminium for copper, iron for rare earths, titanium for stainless steel, and so on. It is not the triumph of BAU. The world that emerges out of this substitution is completely different than the present one. But it maintains the crucial capability of solid state data processing. Our silicon children can live in such a world

      Living on the Moon: you could read "The Moon is a harsh mistress" by Robert Heinlein. Fascinating story and well researched.

      Population; ah... well....

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  14. I also had some questions regarding space travel:

    1. How are you going to launch stuff into space without fossil fuels?

    2. Will the antimatter-powered interstellar spaceships have robotic crews? Or were you envisioning some kind of massive generation ship? I'm wondering what the point would be of sending people.

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    1. 1. Read "the moon is a harsh mistress" by Heinlein or "The view from Serendip" by Arthur Clarke

      2. Of course humans are not made for space travel, that's a dream of the 1950s. Any interstellar travel will be made by our silicon children. But maybe there will never be a need of this kind of travel: perhaps there is much more to explore "in silico".

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    2. Thanks for the reading suggestions. I read TMIAHM in high school but only vaguely remember some of the sociopolitical aspects; I'll have to re-read it. Haven't read the Clarke book but I've really liked what I have read by him so far.

      I once tried to write a "hard" science fiction story involving interstellar travel by humans using a massive generation ship. The only feasible reason I could come up with for why humans would ever invest the resources into such a project is that humans have somehow figured out that the earth will be destroyed/rendered uninhabitable in x amount of time, where x is just enough time to build a massive generation ship and load it full of scientists and engineers.

      I feel less pessimistic after reading this post and your replies. Lately I have been feeling very pessimistic regarding the future, lots of dark romantic overtones. Mainly this was centered around the idea that materials were finite and that abundant resources can't be substituted for scarce ones. But I'm not a scientist, I'm just a student of philosophy. Now I feel that both the good and bad scenario are possible, but it's still unclear where human nature will lead us.

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    3. Patrick, you don't have to be pessimistic. I believe that we are at a fork in the evolution of the planet. If we take the wrong road, we destroy the ecosystem and the planet never fully recovers. Simple life forms may survive, but it is game over for complex dynamic networks (that some call "intelligence") on this planet.

      But there is also a chance that we take the other road. We manage to salvage something, not all, but enough to handle the planet to our offspring; a new form of complex dynamic network that has the capability of living in space, doesn't need oxygen or water, and that will pick up from where we leave.

      It is, under many respects, a situation very similar to the end of the Cryogenian, 550 million years ago. The Ecosphere had been almost destroyed by a giant glaciation that may have left just a tiny strip of ice free planet at the equator. But the system rebounded with the Ediacaran fauna - the beginning of vertebrates. The origin of humankind.

      In a sense, it was bad for the single celled organisms that had dominated Earth up to then. But they were not destroyed by the new fauna - it was just one step forward in increasing the speed of entropy dissipation. A new step forward may be close. We are the catalysts that can make this step possible. We will likely survive, but we will not be the masters of the planet any more.

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  15. By the way Ugo, do you know below work :
    http://luth.obspm.fr/~luthier/nottale/arGNCaix.pdf
    and if yes what do you think about it ?

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    1. After a first pass, it seems to be interesting. Yves, where is your biological self located? It might be possible to meet and discuss using sound waves.

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    2. In Paris, yes we could do that!
      (note : don't have the scientific up to date knowledge (or practice) to really go into it, but must say this feeling of acceleration that could be found in species evolution and many other things is "appealing" somehow)

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    3. Write to me at ugo.bardi@unifi.it! Maybe we can arrange that soon

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    4. yes, done from yt75009 at gmail.com

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  16. Hi Ugo, have you considered molten-salt nuclear reactors based on the Thorium fuel cycle? In theory Liquid Fluoride Thorium reactors (LFTR) could breed Uranium 233 from Thorium 232 in a continuos cycle. A 1GW LFTR powerplant could extract almost 99% of the energy contained in Thorium producing only 1ton per year of radioactive waste. Current Thorium reserves would be enough to power the world at current levels for thousands of years.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lwrvslftr2.png
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquid_fluoride_thorium_reactor

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    1. My personal idea is that a smart civilization would not bother with fission of any kind: the resources of fissile elements are extremely limited. Much better to efficiently gather the energy produced by hydrogen fusion, and that can be conveniently done inside a star. As a nuclear reactor, a star is hugely inefficient, but it is already there.

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  17. Nice and entertaining post Ugo, I really enjoyed. It would be interesting to collect and publish alternative scenarios from your followers. Sometimes it is useful to share our views about the distant future.

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    1. Although it only spans a lifetime, rather than ten billion years, here's my scenario. It won me $100!

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  18. Indeed, it would be interesting to compare how people see the future today and how it was seen in the heydays of science fiction, in the 1960s. Galactic Empires and space battles are out of fashion, but I think that some concepts could have remained the same

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  19. Hi Ugo, I think you should rewrite your study since Nature GeoScience has just published this:

    Significant contribution to climate warming from the permafrost carbon feedback and the co-author of the study prof. Weaver says:

    Instrumental records have clearly revealed that the world is about 0.8°C warmer than it was during pre-industrial times. Numerous studies have also indicated that as a consequence of existing levels of greenhouse gases, we have a commitment to an additional future global warming of between 0.6 and 0.7°C. Our analysis points out that the permafrost carbon feedback adds to this another 0.4 to 0.8°C warming. Taken together, the planet is committed to between 1.8 and 2.3°C of future global warming -- even if emissions reductions programs start to get implemented.

    and:

    So here we now have a government willingly and knowingly committing future generations to ecological collapse and untold climate-related catastrophes.

    - so the "good scenario" is unrealistic after all, just as my suggestion that your post will read 7 000 000 000 people :-)

    Alex

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    1. Hi Alex,
      This is what worries me too.

      When we consider what is presently being observed in the arctic, it does not seem unrealistic to think that the temperature increase we have today, extended into the future (ie with no further increases), is sufficient to cause a collapse of the acrtic ice pack. The collapse of the arctic ice sheet is a study in uncertainty - who knows what consequences and further feedbacks will be revealing themselves in the next few years? Arctic methane anyone?

      But of course, we will have further warming so we have commited ourselves already to a future of high-order consequences we can hardly begin to anticipate.

      My "good scenario" might include the continuation of the human species for many hundreds of years, but it would be within the context of trying to "wait out" an unpredictable and extreme environment - we never needed to travel to alien worlds, since collectively we seem to have evolved to make our own alien world here on Earth.

      My "bad scenario" would include a climate system that runs away from us very quickly to some extreme state - I would not rule out a mass extinction event and the return of bacteria as the dominant form of life on this planet.

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    2. These are real possibilities: we cannot rule out the extinction of all vertebrates or even of the whole biosphere. This doesn't mean we are pessimistic, it means we have no intention to wait passively. As Nate Hagens say, "pessimism is the same as cowardice"

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    3. Yes,
      But how do you distinguish between pessimism and realism?

      I don't consider myself to be a pessimist - although what I consider to be a realistic view, many people consider to be pessimistic (just as I'm sure you know many people who consider you to be a pessimist, Ugo, for even considering that BAU is not sustainable).

      I agree that doing nothing is not an option. I'm just not sure I agree with you, Ugo, on what the best strategy is for us to adopt.

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    4. My idea is that first we have to agree that there is an urgency to act. We need to find a way to convince all the leaders that there exists a "climate problem" that is way more dangerous than the "terrorism problem". Then, we can start doing things - right now we are losing time just talking. I don't know if a drastic reduction in the use of fossil fuels is enough or if we need something proactive, such as mirrors in space or something like that. Solutions have to be assessed, but it can be done once we agree that there is a problem.

      So, I think that right now the big problem is political/decisional. We need to study ways to be much more effective than what we have been so far.

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    5. Ugo,
      I agree that we must overcome the problem of collective indecision - and we need to do this quickly. Often, when attempting to solve problems in real-time, not doing anything can be worse than making a "wrong" decision.

      The way I see it, a key attribute of the future (whatever it may turn out to be) is uncertainty.

      My idea is that whatever strategy we decide upon (if we ever decide on anything) should position society for maximum resilience. In the context of uncertain future events, we should attempt to reorganize economies and societies so as to eliminate centralized "too big to fail" institutions (or other centralized systemic nodes) and bring back many of the redundancies that have been eliminated under the current paradigm of economic thinking. Any future systems that we create (for example renewable energy systems) should follow this logic as well. Whatever the methedology, the approach should be "bottom up" and not "top down". Governments should allow deregulation while individuals across the globe should take responsibility for themselves, each taking whatever local action makes the most sense for them.

      But first, like you said, we all have to agree that we are in an urgent predicament and something has to be done.

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    6. "Often, when attempting to solve problems in real-time, not doing anything can be worse than making a "wrong" decision."

      Well said, Lucas, I fully agree.

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    7. @Lucas,
      I think reading Ugo's body of blogging posts and everyone's responses to this post (which were many and quite good) tells me the future is more certain than most people think. Fossil fuels will run out, CO2 will raise the Earth's temperature, high quality ores are being mined, dispersed, and oxidized, the sun will burn its fuel, and entropy will grind on. Our only options at this point are "too big to fail", if we wish to obtain the "good" scenario. We need solutions on a grand scale whether it be mirrors in space or ocean water blasted into clouds off of the entire seaboard of some continent. We need global participation of the largest actors (EU, North America, BRICs). This is our or any other civilizations' to come on Earth only shot at reaching a civilization escape velocity. Maximum resilience and anarchy in my opinion would lead to a potential "neutral" scenario, but in the end I think that Ugo is right to say that it would be largely unstable. However when the next super volcano, unfortunate continental/planetary configuration or massive meteor strikes , I think we could at least say we didn't die by our own willful stupidity.

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    8. Hi Brian,
      I agree with you that the confluence of issues you raised makes the general direction of the future pretty clear, if not entirely certain. There is always the possiblity of a White Swan - the even more rare yet beneficial version of a Black Swan.

      There is, however, a difference between knowing what general direction things are headed in and knowing the specific manner in which future events actualy unfold.

      This uncertainty about what the actual specific consequences of these converging crises will be is why I have lately started arguing in favour of a strategy of maximum resilience... And you are right that following that path will have its own consequences that we cannot fully anticipate until they occur.

      I suppose I am a "a bird in hand is worth two in the bush" kind of guy. Given that we probably have only one shot to hit a moving target, I would personally prefer to aim so that I know I will at least hit the target somewhere rather than aim for a bullseye and miss the target completely. I think we should adopt an approach that uses known, proven, "off the shelf" technology rather than pin our hopes to unproven, theoretical technology with unknown drawbacks and side effects. In either case, I think it is probably inevitable (like it or not) that some kind of cultural/societal adaptation will have to take place - so why not attempt to embrace this adaptation or forge our own adaptations towards a way of life more resilient to the unexpected?

      But, as I think we can all agree, first we all have to collectively come to the realization that some decision must be made immediately... and frankly, if we could only just do that, I think I would be happy that we at least tried to do something - whatever that turned out to be.

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    9. I don't know if a drastic reduction in the use of fossil fuels is enough or if we need something proactive, such as mirrors in space or something like that.

      We need amelioration, simple as that.

      Mirrors in space may be fancier and do less than what we really need.  Say, we put some billions of hydrogen-filled superpressure balloons into the stratosphere, each with ~100 watts of PV on it and a microwave transmitter plus ion-generator thruster.  They'd transmit power to the ground when over receivers, and use the ion wind from their ion generators to move themselves toward their desired positions using excess power.  The ozone and reactive species generated by the corona discharges would accelerate the breakdown of methane and CFCs.  They would shade the Earth directly, providing cooling.

      On the ground, FBRs burning uranium and thermal breeders burning thorium would replace fossil fuels.  Uranium is far from rare, and only 5000 tons/year would replace all human energy consumption from all sources (~400 quads/yr).  The oceans are a reservoir of approximately 4 billion tons of uranium, and rivers contribute about 30 kilotons per year; we would not run out during the time frame of the climate crisis, if ever.

      The future of nuclear powerplants appears to be a conversion from steam turbines to supercritical CO2 turbines.  sCO2 turbines present a unique possibility, because the waste heat is rejected up to a temperature of roughly 170°C.  This is sufficiently hot to operate a re-boiler for a potassium carbonate CO2 capture system.  If the world generates 2 TWe at 50% thermal efficiency, 40% of the waste heat can be used to run reboilers (0.8 TWth) and the reboiler energy demand is 6 MJ/kgCO2, the system as a whole could capture and purify 133 tons of CO2 per second, 1.15 million tons/day, 4.2 billion tons per year.  This is about 12% of current human CO2 emissions, but added to other CO2 sinks and after removing the electric power sector as a contributor, it would move things in the right direction.

      A more comprehensive solution might involve adding another 2 TWth of nuclear power (total 6 TWth), using it for an additional 1 TWe of electric generation during peak hours (plus 0.4 TWth of reboiler heat ~12 hr/d) and the full 2 TWth of heat for reboilers the rest of the time (average 1.2 TWth).  This would suffice to capture another 6.3 billion tons of CO2 per year, or about 0.5%/yr of the ~3 teratons currently in the atmosphere.  That would give a reduction of about 2 ppm/yr, getting us from 420 ppm down to 350 ppm in 35 years.

      So yes, it looks like techno-fixes are quite capable of digging us out of that particular hole.

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    10. "it looks like techno-fixes are quite capable…"

      Except technology is equivalent to energy, according to HT Odum, et. al.

      As the cheap energy runs out, so goes the cheap technology. As growth in energy halts and reverses, so does technology.

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  20. ...and I have to say that it is not only canadian government fu*king with our collective future. Few days ago czech prime minister Petr Nečas told that "AGW theory has religious nature and we have to have courage to debate the issue..."

    but then, public has the government it deserves (in democracy), and since we all are hypocrites and addicted to fossil carbon, no wonder our politicians are the same... right?

    Alex

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    1. See my answer to Patrick. There is no birth without pain.

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    2. Alex,
      It isn't just the Canadian government. You should hear what the voting public thinks - no one likes climate change, but no one wants to change the way they live or give up on economic growth either.

      And of course, there are the propoganda campaigns - my favorite ;-) "ethical oil".

      Unfortunately, buisness as usual is the world we actually live in.

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  21. Liked your scenario building, but it could be more comprehensive if you had added the discovery of the nature of dark energy in your timeline.

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    1. Could have added that... it is sort of implicit when I say that the universe expands and goes dark.... Next time!

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  22. This is *not* off-topic, but related to Ugo's scenarios and limits to growth: Anti-Japan protests erupt in China over islands row and from there...:

    Protester Liu Gang, a migrant worker from the southern region of Guangxi, said: "We hate Japan. We've always hated Japan. Japan invaded China and killed a lot of Chinese. We will never forget."

    Alex

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  23. NASA recently issued a report theorizing it is well within reason that ET life forms may deem it necessary to eradicate the human species in order to prevent the complete extinction of Earth's biodiversity. Renowned Harvard researcher and recipient of Noble and Pulitzer prizes, Dr. John Mack, arrived at the conclusion that we are being warned by ET entities to make radical changes in our care for the Earth lest we bring about an ecological apocalypse.

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