“Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.“ Niels Bohr
I love this saying from Mr. Bohr and often repeat it, albeit at times with my own twist to it. I was reminded of this uncertainty of the future from some comments to a recent post over at Lack of Environment. The particular post was called Can technology save us? and was a reflection of Martin Lack, the blog’s author, watching a recent BBC Horizon special called Tomorrow’s World. (There’s the YouTube of the broadcast at the end of this post.) Martin opened his post by saying:
I happened to stumble across a BBC TV Horizon special, entitled ‘Tomorrow’s World’ last Thursday. It begins with a fascinating review of humankind’s history of – and propensity for – invention. It also explains some truly fascinating – and inspiring – developments in the spheres of space exploration, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and power generation.
In the introduction, the programme presenter and narrator Liz Bronnin explains how, after 100’s of thousands of years of technological stagnation, the fast-moving world of technological innovation is very definitely a modern invention.
Then a little later Martin goes on to say:
After about 32 minutes, Bronnin introduces the power of the Internet to promote innovation – crowd-sourcing research funding and the concept of open-source technology – the complete abrogation of intellectual copyright… It is a fundamental challenge to globalised Capitalism; but it may well be the solution to many of our problems…
However, to me, the final third of the programme is by far the most fascinating… It looks at the challenges of finding a replacement for fossil fuels. It provides a very clear message that this is a technological challenge driven by the reality of physics – not by ideology.
But, overall, Martin lets us know his perspective with his final paragraphs:
Re-engineering nature for our benefit will, without doubt, be very very useful. However, I still think the optimism of the comment at the very end of the programme “…I never worry about the future of the human race, because I think we are totally capable of solving problems…” is very unwise. This is because anthropogenic climate disruption is a problem that is getting harder to solve the longer we fail to address it effectively.
Bronnin concludes by saying that, “it is an exciting time to be alive…” However, I remain very nervous. This is because, as Professor Peter Styles of Keele University – a strong supporter of the hydraulic fracturing industry – recently acknowledged, it will be impossible for carbon capture and storage to remove enough CO2 from the atmosphere to prevent very significant changes to our climate. This is because of the collective hypnosis that deludes most people into seeing perpetual economic growth as the solution to all our problems.
In short, I am certain that technology alone cannot save us. In order to avoid the ecological catastrophe that all but the most ideologically-prejudiced and wilfully-blind can see developing all around us… we need to modify our behaviour: This primarily means that we need to acknowledge the injustice of a “use it up and wear it out” mentality and, as individuals, all learn to use an awful lot less energy.
Climate change “sceptics” have picked a fight with history and science – primarily with the concept of Entropy – and they will lose. The only question that remains is this: Are we going to let them put us all in (what xraymike79 recently called) ‘the dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments’.
Now Jean and I also watched the Horizon special and, to be perfectly frank, found it both uplifting and inspiring. It seemed a great counter to the overwhelming volume of commentary these days along the lines of ‘The end of the world is nigh!‘ some of that coming from yours truly! That’s not to make light of the huge hurdles ahead.
But it was a couple of comments on Martin’s post from Patrice Ayme that got me thinking. Here’s the exchange that went between Patrice and Martin following on from a comment from Thomas Foster.
Considering that it is technology which has enabled us to “conquer” nature and thus the degradation of the environment which is a consequence of that it seems most unlikely to this writer that the cause will also bring about a cure. Thomas Foster
The genus Homo has been technological for 5 million years. Give or take two million. Homo is the cure for life. Patrice Ayme
If we Homo Sapiens have been technological for 5 million years, we have spent most of that time being very unsuccessful; and have spent the rest being far too successful. Is there no scope for just living in harmony with our environment (as opposed to being at war with it)? Martin Lack
Hominids have been masters of the environment for at least three million years. By a million years ago, only Homo was left (but for places like Flores). Dozens of megafauna species got annihilated. Homo’s technology has extended to the entire Earth for at least a million years. The Earth itself was turned into a tool. A tool we are not at war with, but that we use. Patrice Ayme
A utilitarian attitude to Nature is one that does not recognise its inherent value (i.e. which it would have even if we did not exist). Seeing ourselves as superior to Nature rather than as part of it has resulted in our not living in harmony with it. This is, by definition, equivalent to being at war with Nature. QED. Refer: Nature is not your enemy. Martin Lack
Call it what you want, Martin. Man manipulates nature, and that nature one calls nature has not been “natural” for more than a million years. Except if one views man as part of nature! Patrice Ayme
Patrice is a very clear thinker even if, at times, pretty hard-hitting. But this exchange confirmed in my mind that clearly looking out to the future must always be hard. Most certainly in this period of mankind’s evolution predicting the future is especially difficult. Hence my contribution to Martin’s post:
Jean and I watched the Horizon special a couple of evenings ago. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what my overall thoughts are in response to your post, Martin. What does come to mind is that old saying, “Never underestimate the power of unintended consequences.”
So it may be that we are at a particular point in time, or more likely an era, where seeing clearly into the future is challenging.
The one aspect of modern life that is a game-changer is what we are doing now. Sharing ideas and thoughts across a far-flung net. Not only as the Horizon programme illustrated but as ordinary people trying to make sense of the world.
These are incredibly uncertain times. Undoubtedly not the first in man’s long history as an historian will explain (cue to Alex!). But to all of us alive today, these are the most uncertain times we have ever experienced!
No wonder so many of us feel lost at times in today’s world.
Here’s that BBC Horizon, courtesy of YouTube.
I will close with this thought from one masterly ‘wordsmith’, William Wordsworth.
“Life is divided into three terms – that which was, which is, and which will be. Let us learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present, to live better in the future.”