Monday, July 16, 2012

Better living through innovation

Throughout human history, unprecedented innovations have ushered in improvements in the quality of life. Starting with stone tools and proceeding onward through the threshold of the Industrial Revolution, discoveries and inventions enhanced individual and group survival and started providing lifestyle options.

Right up to the arrival of the Oil Age around the beginning of the 20th Century, each new development added value to the existing level of comfort and convenience. People adopted new technologies because they made life easier. You could still do things the harder, old way, but why would you, if you had the chance to get something better?

Extraordinary innovations became more common from the late 19th Century to the present, accelerating sharply through the latter half of the 20th Century. It looked like the more we had, the more we could get. It was in this surge that we reached the point where we need extraordinary innovation to save us. It is no longer a luxury to enjoy and then become accustomed to having. Our choices during the Oil Age created a civilization so dependent on energy that we can no longer just drop back a little and maintain while we figure out what to do next. We've acclimated ourselves to a level of convenience and operated under the assumption of sufficiency for so long that even dropping back to the level of the 1930s -- a time still in living memory for some people on the planet -- would be a huge shock. And I doubt that the fallback would stop there.

Nature reclaims our infrastructure without the slightest hesitation. It might not be the pretty nature you 'd like to see, when the time comes, because our meddling had decimated the more aesthetic species, but unless we manage to make the planet completely uninhabitable, plants, animals and insects will assert themselves as relentlessly as we have, and we'll be back to meeting them on more equal footing.

The worst of the doomsaying economists predict a crash by the end of 2012 that will make 2008 look like a minor delay collecting for your paper route. I say they're optimists. Their particular doom scenario is tailored to get frightened suckers to sign on with their investment counseling firm, but their hypothesis is based on real observations about undermined or fundamentally hollow parts of the economy that have ended up holding way too much weight.

If the United States, and perhaps the world, falls into a depression worse then The Great One, it will take a lot more than government programs and a global war to pull us out. That combination only worked because of the peculiar circumstances of the time. Those conditions will never be repeated. There may be government interventions. There could very well be vicious war among desperate people sensing the magnitude of the change being thrust on them. In the end, whatever passes for prosperity will not look anything like the rise of nations after World War II. We simply don't have the energy for it.

There's no point in getting ugly about it. There's seldom any point to getting really ugly, although often it's a relief emotionally to get a little snippy. That won't deter some people from getting all cranked up and shooting people, though. You'll have to decide for yourself whether it's worth stockpiling weapons and ammo and non-perishable food, or if the conflict will simply outlast you and your meager supplies no matter how big your cache looks now. What really needs to happen is that people need to decide that everybody needs to work about the same amount, for about the same return, and that no one needs to be given a significantly worse or better time while we're all doing it.

That would be a truly unprecedented innovation.

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