1. First Edition24 April 2019
CategoriesBlog, Environment, Future

John Valentine is a writer of fiction and physical sciences. This article is a speculative view of humanity's deep future.


A picture for Planet A (this one)

John Valentine, 24 April 2019

Photo credit: ESA/NASA

In our previous article, "Humanity's Output" (2017), we took a pessimistic view that we are heading through a pivotal point that marked Earth's inability to sustain human life at its current levels. We stressed the importance of a divergent range of options where the human species could hedge its future, including correcting our destructive course, and space-faring before we lost the ability to escape Earth.

Here, we take a look with the vision of speculative fiction, at a 'future retrospective' picture of an Earth that was not wrecked by our current exploits.

This is the first draft; we hope to add more to it soon.


What we did

We generated less carbon by eliminating our consumption of fossil fuels

This was difficult at first, because to create the sustainable technologies, we had to use the bad technologies. After a while, the sustainable power production snowballed, and the fossil fuel markets couldn't compete.

There was, and still is, some reliance on mining and machinery to get the materials out of the Earth. We still need to work on that, because the Earth's crust takes more than half a billion years to renew, and non-recyclable rare earths are not sustainable.

Learning how to use carbon and silicon more effectively as a material helped avoid reliance on the metals, plastics, and rare elements that proved disastrous for the local ecosystems. The pure metals, used in the industrial and information ages, used vast amounts of energy in their production, and scarred the Earth with gouges, spoil heaps and run-off pollution. This had to stop. We made carbon-based materials that efficiently conduct electricity. We used carbon as a construction material, growing parts that resemble wood beams, wall and floor panels, flexible plastics, and tensile cables. All of it uses low-energy processes, that effectively captures carbon rather than sending it into the atmosphere.

There are still problems to solve. Although the nuclear dream is over, we have sent only a quarter of the legacy of nuclear waste into the sun, but at least we won't be needing that technology again.

The most effective fusion reactors still need rare materials for their construction and repair, but we are hopeful of progress soon, and for now, we can accept some environmental impact for such a huge net gain. Our behaviours and expectations are shifting further, to become intolerant of any unsustainable negative impact, with the danger that this may obstruct the longest-term gains. We remain hopeful.

People were located closer to where they needed to be

Improvements in communications, effective VR, and a recognition that we have to travel rarely to conduct business and move information, all meant that people could work from home, or closer to their home. This vastly reduced personal transportation, leaving mostly goods and public transit systems, which lent itself to a 'routed packet infrastructure' along with standardisation of vehicle form and delegation of control to the public networks. It was then that personal ownership of road vehicles became abhorrent. Most of the road networks were then torn up, freeing up the resources and expenditure that were previously dedicated to sustaining this infrastructure.

Now, we call upon the transport service, for whatever need we might have, priced appropriately, and within our means of credit. The sense of continued entitlement to personal transport is gone, and the use of transportation devices as status symbols is a quaint anecdote in history texts. The spaces taken by wide roadways is reclaimed. It's possible to feel the presence of a space, not by the shape and arrangement of its roads, but by the functional constructions that occupy the spaces and the spaces between them. The fractal-like arrangement of infrastructure is optimal in supplying the essentials to the people as locally as possible, again eliminating the need to travel.

We are never 'in the wrong place' as our ancestors were. We are well-connected, and we take time to travel to friends, family, and other contacts, in a truly leisurely way, making use of the spaces in-between. Many of us have given up the luxury of our own personal space we call our homes, to live without cost in our public infrastructure. This was made possible by the accepted realisation that 'possession for exclusive use' is not an acceptable aspirational goal, and is not sustainable.

Tokenised economics have changed

Is used to be that all debt could be reduced to a monetary currency: a number that was passed around, which represented a debt of favour that could be redeemed, assumedly in exchange for something else valuable.

Those economies choked when the money stagnated in holding accounts: systems only achieve sustainable goals throughout society when the currency keeps moving through many hands, without pausing for breath. The lifeblood of economy needed to flow, but instead it clotted.

To help with environmental denial of responsibility, we locked debt into different types that could not be translated into the legacy monetary currency that caused so many problems. Carbon accounting can never become cash, and attentive-time currency can only become cash under regulated controls. This locking-in ensured that someone with the 'old type of wealth' could not avoid their responsibilities to remain within sustainable limits. Monetary budgets became 'carbon budgets', which in turn became 'carbon accounts' and 'earth accounts'. Bankruptcy is not an option.

Population is on a plateau, until space

We didn't think it possible: humans at zero growth for a full two hundred years. Prior to that period, there was a unilateral agreement among nations that no country would compete by increasing their populations. Sustainable policies were demanded by the people of democratic nations, and likewise, it became acceptable for individuals to take a measured view of whether or not to attempt to reproduce.

A plateau of forty-three billion is still a huge number of people, which sometimes creates times of hardship when conditions vary, but overall, that is within a thirty percent margin of what the Earth can maintain with current technologies, with a fraction of our processes still being unsustainable.

Three centuries ago, there was a food revolution, sparked by the development of mass bio-production, which was adapted for all regions where humans wanted to live. This local production further reduced the need for transportation, easing the burden on the networks. Our reliance on 'flesh as food' was eliminated as culture shifted to reject it. Land was then freed, to return to reconstructed nature, be repurposed for bio-production or housing and infrastructure.

Though we eliminated one of our most perilous fates by limiting our growth, other clocks are now ticking, particularly with the materials with unique properties that are difficult to replace, and the possibility of catastrophic events beyond our control.

What we are doing

When we do see renewed exponential growth of the human species, it will not be on Earth. It will be in space, or using bodies in space. After some short flights, we launched an orbital vessel, affectionately known as "The Marrow", containing over two thousand humans, on an elliptical orbit that was captured again by Earth in the fortieth year of its journey. Only a small fraction of the population wanted to return to Earth, and the ship remains in orbit with its tiny population, thriving against all predictions, falling a little behind the technology of Earth, but still receiving maintenance and upgrades. I digress. This was part of a larger plan, to construct generation ships, aimed at the six thousand Class 1 worlds, and other places that offered materials that we thought would permit long-term prospects for survival.

We are now in exciting times. Four billion humans are in flight, away from Earth, never to see their home planet nor any of the other colonies again. Though they will maintain some communications with their sister ships, that will eventually diminish to zero. The colonies will create their own technologies, their own histories, adapt to new environments, evolve into their own variant species beyond recognition, and meet their own fates in the decades, centuries and millennia to come. Humanity is not one entity; it is now many.

There is hope

It's too early to tell whether this will work or not. We still have to be careful here on 'Planet A', and cannot take risks that result in the collapse of the Earth's ecosystem and atmosphere. We have four thousand years' supply of rare earths and metals, but are hopeful that we can recover more from the asteroids beyond Mars.

We have reached a comfortable phase in the history of the species, where our trajectory of foolishness is not headed towards certain immediate doom, and we have the breathing room to solve more of the distant problems, and make art. This is much better than the prospects of the people at the dawn of the Space Age (they still made art!), and we'll do our best not to repeat those near-fatal errors. We remember!

If I had the opportunity to write a note to my distant ancestors in the past— the ones reluctant to change, or the ones who did not know how absurd their unsustainable lives were —what would I write? It wouldn't be this article; it's not persuasive enough, but it might offer them hope that different ways of living are possible, if everyone moves together and they lose their grip on the motivations that threatened to send them blindly to extinction. I wish I could write that letter, because the history wasn't pleasant, but it was necessary, and I am pleased to be here to write this.