I’d meant to go straight on from last week’s post about völkerwanderung and the dissolution and birth of ethnic identities in dark age societies, and start talking about the mechanisms by which societies destroy themselves—with an eye, of course, to the present example. Still, as I’ve noted here more than once, there are certain complexities involved in the project of discussing the decline and fall of civilizations in a civilization that’s hard at work on its own decline and fall, and one of those complexities is the way that tempting examples of the process keep popping up as we go.

The last week or so has been unusually full of those. The Ebola epidemic in West Africa has continued to spread at an exponential rate as hopelessly underfunded attempts to contain it crumple, while the leaders of the world’s industrial nations distract themselves playing geopolitics in blithe disregard of the very real possibility that their inattention may be helping to launch the next great global pandemic.  In other news—tip of the archdruidical hat here to The Daily Impact—companies and investors who have been involved in the fracking bubble are quietly bailing out. If things continue on their current trajectory, as I’ve noted before, this autumn could very well see the fracking boom go bust; it’s anyone’s guess how heavily that will hit the global economy, but fracking-related loans and investments have accounted for a sufficiently large fraction of Wall Street profits in recent years that the crater left by a fracking bust will likely be large and deep. 

Regular readers of this blog already know, though, that it’s most often the little things that catch my attention, and the subject of this week’s post is no exception. Thus I’m pleased to announce that a coterie of scientists and science fiction writers has figured out what’s wrong with the world today: there are, ahem, too many negative portrayals of the future in popular media. To counter this deluge of unwarranted pessimism, they’ve organized a group called Project Hieroglyph, and published an anthology of new, cheery, upbeat SF stories about marvelous new technologies that could become realities within the next fifty years. That certainly ought to do the trick!

Now of course I’m hardly in a position to discourage anyone from putting together a science fiction anthology around an unpopular theme. After Oil: SF Visions of a Post-Petroleum Future, the anthology that resulted from the first Space Bats challenge here in 2011, is exactly that, and two similar anthologies from this blog’s second Space Bats challenge are going through the editing and publishing process as I write these words. That said, I’d question the claim that those three anthologies will somehow cause the planet’s oil reserves to run dry any faster than they otherwise will.

The same sort of skepticism, I suggest, may be worth applying to Project Hieroglyph and its anthology.  The contemporary  crisis of industrial society isn’t being caused by a lack of optimism; its roots go deep into the tough subsoil of geological and thermodynamic reality, to the lethal mismatch between fantasies of endless economic growth and the hard limits of a finite planet, and to the less immediately deadly but even more pervasive mismatch between fantasies of perpetual technological progress and that nemesis of all linear thinking, the law of diminishing returns.  The failure of optimism that these writers are bemoaning is a symptom rather than a cause, and insisting that the way to solve our problems is to push optimistic notions about the future at people is more than a little like deciding that the best way to deal with flashing red warning lights on the control panel of an airplane is to put little pieces of opaque green tape over them so everything looks fine again.

It’s not as though there’s been a shortage of giddily optimistic visions of a gizmocentric future in recent years, after all. I grant that the most colorful works of imaginative fiction we’ve seen of late have come from those economists and politicians who keep insisting that the only way out of our current economic and social malaise is to do even more of the same things that got us into it. That said, any of my readers who step into a bookstore or a video store and look for something that features interstellar travel or any of the other shibboleths of the contemporary cult of progress won’t have to work hard to find one. What’s happened, rather, is that such things are no longer as popular as they once were, because people find that stories about bleaker futures hedged in with harsh limits are more to their taste.

The question that needs to be asked, then, is why this should be the case. As I see it, there are at least three very good reasons.

First, those bleaker futures and harsh limits reflect the realities of life in contemporary America. Set aside the top twenty per cent of the population by income, and Americans have on average seen their standard of living slide steadily downhill for more than four decades. In 1970, to note just one measure of how far things have gone, an American family with one working class salary could afford to buy a house, pay all their bills on time, put three square meals on the table every day, and still have enough left over for the occasional vacation or high-ticket luxury item. Now? In much of today’s America, a single working class salary isn’t enough to keep a family off the streets.

That history of relentless economic decline has had a massive impact on attitudes toward the future, toward science, and toward technological progress. In 1969, it was only in the ghettos where America confined its urban poor that any significant number of people responded to the Apollo moon landing with the sort of disgusted alienation that Gil Scott-Heron expressed memorably in his furious ballad “Whitey on the Moon.”  Nowadays, a much greater number of Americans—quite possibly a majority—see the latest ballyhooed achievements of science and technology as just one more round of pointless stunts from which they won’t benefit in the least.

It’s easy but inaccurate to insist that they’re mistaken in that assessment. Outside the narrowing circle of the well-to-do, many Americans these days spend more time coping with the problems caused by technologies than they do enjoying the benefits thereof. Most of the jobs eliminated by automation, after all, used to provide gainful employment for the poor; most of the localities that are dumping grounds for toxic waste, similarly, are inhabited by people toward the bottom of the socioeconomic pyramid, and so on down the list of unintended consequences and technological blowback. By and large, the benefits of new technology trickle up the social ladder, while the costs and burdens trickle down; this has a lot to do with the fact that the grandchildren of people who enjoyed The Jetsons now find The Hunger Games more to their taste.

That’s the first reason. The second is that for decades now, the great majority of the claims made about wonderful new technologies that would inevitably become part of our lives in the next few decades have turned out to be dead wrong. From jetpacks and flying cars to domed cities and vacations on the Moon, from the nuclear power plants that would make electricity too cheap to meter to the conquest of poverty, disease, and death itself, most of the promises offered by the propagandists and publicists of technological progress haven’t happened. That has understandably made people noticeably less impressed by further rounds of promises that likely won’t come true either.

When I was a child, if I may insert a personal reflection here, one of my favorite books was titled You Will Go To The Moon. I suspect most American of my generation remember that book, however dimly, with its glossy portrayal of what space travel would be like in the near future: the great conical rocket with its winged upper stage, the white doughnut-shaped space station turning in orbit, and the rest of it. I honestly expected to make that trip someday, and I was encouraged in that belief by a chorus of authoritative voices for whom permanent space stations, bases on the Moon, and a manned landing on Mars were a done deal by the year 2000.

Now of course in those days the United States still had a manned space program capable of putting bootprints on the Moon. We don’t have one of those any more. It’s worth talking about why that is, because the same logic applies equally well to most of the other grand technological projects that were proclaimed not so long ago as the inescapable path to a shiny new future.

We don’t have a manned space program any more, to begin with, because the United States is effectively bankrupt, having committed itself in the usual manner to the sort of imperial overstretch chronicled by Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, and cashed in its future for a temporary supremacy over most of the planet. That’s the unmentionable subtext behind the disintegration of America’s infrastructure and built environment, the gutting of its once-mighty industrial plant, and a good deal of the steady decline in standards of living mentioned earlier in this post. Britain dreamed about expansion into space when it still had an empire—the British Interplanetary Society was a major presence in space-travel advocacy in the first half of the twentieth century—and shelved those dreams when its empire went away; the United States is in the process of the same retreat. Still, there’s more going on here than this.

Another reason we don’t have a manned space program any more is that all those decades of giddy rhetoric about New Worlds For Man never got around to discussing the difference between technical feasibility and economic viability. The promoters of space travel fell into the common trap of believing their own hype, and convinced themselves that orbital factories, mines on the Moon, and the like would surely turn out to be paying propositions. What they forgot, of course, is what I’ve called the biosphere dividend:  the vast array of goods and services that the Earth’s natural cycles provide for human beings free of charge, which have to be paid for anywhere else. The best current estimate for the value of that dividend, from a 1997 paper in Science written by a team headed by Richard Constanza, is that it’s something like three times the total value of all goods and services produced by human beings.

As a very rough estimate, in other words, economic activity anywhere in the solar system other than Earth will cost around four times what it costs on Earth, even apart from transportation costs, because the services provided here for free by the biosphere have to be paid for in space or on the solar system’s other worlds. That’s why all the talk about space as a new economic frontier went nowhere; orbital manufacturing was tried—the Skylab program of the 1970s, the Space Shuttle, and the International Space Station in its early days all featured experiments along those lines—and the modest advantages of freefall and ready access to hard vacuum didn’t make enough of a difference to offset the costs. Thus manned space travel, like commercial supersonic aircraft, nuclear power plants, and plenty of other erstwhile waves of the future, turned into a gargantuan white elephant that could only be supported so long as massive and continuing government subsidies were forthcoming.

Those are two of the reasons why we don’t have a manned space program any more. The third is less tangible but, I suspect, far and away the most important. It can be tracked by picking up any illustrated book about the solar system that was written before we got there, and comparing what outer space and other worlds were supposed to look like with what was actually waiting for our landers and probes.

I have in front of me right now, for example, a painting of a scene on the Moon in a book published the year I was born. It’s a gorgeous, romantic view. Blue earthlight splashes over a crater in the foreground; further off, needle-sharp mountains catch the sunlight; the sky is full of brilliant stars. Too bad that’s not what the Apollo astronauts found when they got there. Nobody told the Moon it was supposed to cater to human notions of scenic grandeur, and so it presented its visitors with vistas of dull gray hillocks and empty plains beneath a flat black sky. To anybody but a selenologist, the one thing worth attention in that dreary scene was the glowing blue sphere of Earth 240,000 miles away.

For an even stronger contrast, consider the pictures beamed back by the first Viking probe from the surface of Mars in 1976, and compare that to the gaudy images of the Sun’s fourth planet that were in circulation in popular culture up to that time. I remember the event tolerably well, and one of the things I remember most clearly is the pervasive sense of disappointment—of “is that all?”—shared by everyone in the room.  The images from the lander didn’t look like Barsoom, or the arid but gorgeous setting of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, or any of the other visions of Mars everyone in 1970s America had tucked away in their brains; they looked for all of either world like an unusually dull corner of Nevada that had somehow been denuded of air, water, and life.

Here again, the proponents of space travel fell into the trap of believing their own hype, and forgot that science fiction is no more about real futures than romance novels are about real relationships. That isn’t a criticism of science fiction, by the way, though I suspect the members of Project Hieroglyph will take it as one. Science fiction is a literature of ideas, not of crass realities, and it evokes the sense of wonder that is its distinctive literary effect by dissolving the barrier between the realistic and the fantastic. What too often got forgotten, though, is that literary effects don’t guarantee the validity of prophecies—they’re far more likely to hide the flaws of improbable claims behind a haze of emotion.

Romance writers don’t seem to have much trouble recognizing that their novels are not about the real world. Science fiction, by contrast, has suffered from an overdeveloped sense of its own importance for many years now. I’m thinking just now of a typical essay by Isaac Asimov that described science fiction writers as scouts for the onward march of humanity. (Note the presuppositions that humanity is going somewhere, that all of it’s going in a single direction, and that this direction just happens to be defined by the literary tastes of an eccentric subcategory of 20th century popular fiction.) That sort of thinking led too many people in the midst of the postwar boom to forget that the universe is under no obligation to conform to our wholly anthropocentric notions of human destiny and provide us with New Worlds for Man just because we happen to want some.

Mutatis mutandis, that’s what happened to most of the other grand visions of transformative technological progress that were proclaimed so enthusiastically over the last century or so. Most of them never happened, and those that did turned out to be far less thrilling and far more problematic than the advance billing insisted they would be. Faced with that repeated realization, a great many Americans decided—and not without reason—that more of the same gosh-wow claims were not of interest. That shifted public taste away from cozy optimism toward a harsher take on our future.

The third factor driving that shift in taste, though, may be the most important of all, and it’s also one of the most comprehensively tabooed subjects in contemporary life. Most human phenomena are subject to the law of diminishing returns; the lesson that contemporary industrial societies are trying their level best not to learn just now is that technological progress is one of the phenomena to which this law applies. Thus there can be such a thing as too much technology, and a very strong case can be made that in the world’s industrial nations, we’ve already gotten well past that point.

In a typically cogent article, economist Herman Daly sorts our the law of diminishing returns into three interacting processes. The first is diminishing marginal utility—that is, the more of anything you have, the less any additional increment of that thing contributes to your wellbeing. If you’re hungry, one sandwich is a very good thing; two is pleasant; three is a luxury; and somewhere beyond that, when you’ve given sandwiches to all your coworkers, the local street people, and anyone else you can find, more sandwiches stop being any use to you. When more of anything  no longers bring any additional benefit, you’ve reached the point of futility, at which further increments are a waste of time and resources.

Well before that happens, though, two other factors come into play. First, it costs you almost nothing to cope with one sandwich, and very little more to cope with two or three. After that you start having to invest time, and quite possibly resources, in dealing with all those sandwiches, and each additional sandwich adds to the total burden. Economists call that increasing marginal disutility—that is, the more of anything you have, the more any additional increment of that thing is going to cost you, in one way or another. Somewhere in there, too, there’s the impact that dealing with those sandwiches has on your ability to deal with other things you need to do; that’s increasing risk of whole-system disruption—the more of anything you have, the more likely it is that an additional increment of that thing is going to disrupt the wider system in which you exist.

Next to nobody wants to talk about the way that technological progress has already passed the point of diminishing returns: that the marginal utility of each new round of technology is dropping fast, the marginal disutility is rising at least as fast, and whole-system disruptions driven by technology are becoming an inescapable presence in everyday life. Still, I’ve come to think that an uncomfortable awareness of that fact is becoming increasingly common these days, however subliminal that awareness may be, and beginning to have an popular culture among many other things. If you’re in a hole, as the saying goes, the first thing to do is stop digging; if a large and growing fraction of your society’s problems are being caused by too much technology applied with too little caution, similarly, it’s not exactly helpful to insist that applying even more technology with even less skepticism about its consequences is the only possible answer to those problems.

There’s a useful word for something that remains stuck in a culture after the conditions that once made it relevant have passed away, and that word is “superstition.” I’d like to suggest that the faith-based claims that more technology is always better than less, that every problem must have a technological solution, and that technology always solves more problems than it creates, are among the prevailing superstitions of our time. I’d also like to suggest that, comforting and soothing as those superstitions may be, it’s high time we outgrow them and deal with the world as it actually is—a world in which yet another helping of faith-based optimism is far from useful.