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Thursday, September 29, 2005

Rocket Sled Earth

I've been accused, from time to time, about being wildly overly optimistic about the potential for technological progress to solve the problems of the world, especially problems related to the ecosphere and sustainability of the earth's populations. I think, however, that accusation is based on a misperception. It's not that I'm all that optimistic regarding the potential of technology. Rather, I'm wildly pessimistic about the future of the human race should technology not deliver the benefits I'm hoping for. In other words, I think that if technology won't save us, the human race is up the eco-creek without a bio-boat.

My favorite metaphor for the situation is that the ecosphere, including us, is a rocket sled heading at high speed toward a brick wall. The rocket's engines were ignited tens of thousands of years ago when trade was invented. I pick the invention of trade because that's the point where, along with the merchandise being traded, ideas and inventions were spread around the world within a few dozen generations, ensuring that humanity's aggregate knowledge would expand continuously, and that natural human inventiveness would inexorably lead to our current situation.

On this rocket sled, there's a brake and a throttle. We're going far too fast for the brake to stop us in time. We can slow down, for sure, and perhaps hit the wall a little later. However, if we're going to hit the wall in the not too distant future anyway, I personally don't care whether the rocket sled slams into the wall in 243 years or 347 years or whatever. Indeed, if the choice is 243 years of living it up versus 347 years of austerity, I'd certainly pick the former. In either case, the number of people who will have to deal with living through (or dying from) the resulting ecological catastrophe will probably be pretty similar and everybody before them will live better.

This rocket sled has an additional feature that I forgot to mention: little tiny wings. It might be, just maybe, if we're lucky and hit the throttle as hard as we can, these wings could lift the rocket off the ground, and we just might clear the brick wall and continue on, unscathed, with progress, technology, and wealth accelerating like never before. In my metaphor, the wings are technology, and the throttle is the growth (i.e., GDP growth) which pushes technology forward.


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