‘The world is too small for the kind of localism that leads to wars. We can have special pride in our country, our language, and our literature, our customs and culture and tradition, but it has to be the abstract pride we have in our baseball team or our college – a pride that cannot and must not be backed by force of arms.’
I read a ton of science fiction as a teenager and continued well into my twenties. My father seemed to be reading almost nothing else, though he also introduced me to Neville Shute and lots of WWII memoirs. SF was fully normalised in our home and I took years to understand how rare it was for households to be looking into possible futures. I am so grateful, with hindsight, that ‘what if’ was the mantra rather than ‘once upon a time’.
‘We need a world government that can come to logical and humane decisions and can then enforce them.’
Our spines read Blish, Wyndham, Bradbury, Pohl, Hoyt, Dick, Heinlein, Clarke and more that I forget. Magazines like Astounding and SF digests with collections of short stories adorned shelves and filled attic boxes, bedside drawers and closets. Sadly, there came a great clean-out for a renovation of the house and the older books were a principle casualty. Having been a cinema manager in the 1950s, my father also knew many of these stories from the movies made from the books. These were exciting and fantastic diversions from the nuclear Mad, Mad, Mad World at a time when seeing movies like Dr Strangelove was only possible when they were up in the cinemas. I was hooked to reading SF.
‘We must limit our population, limit the strain we put on the earth’s resources, limit the waste we produce, limit the energy we use. We must preserve. We must preserve the environment, preserve the other forms of life that contribute to the fabric and viability of the biosphere, preserve beauty and comfort.’
The ideas of travel to other planets was made rational and plausible by Sputnik and Apollo programs. The ideas for Sputnik and Apollo were themselves once the SF imaginings of writers like Verne and Wells. I think my SF readings are why I had no difficulty engaging with a diversion into the potential for mining on Mars. This came up a few years ago during a breakfast meeting about potential uses for augmented intelligence with a well known authority on the subject.
‘Stubborn humanity is inching forward to help itself only because the pressure of circumstances has closed all other passageways.’
While I wasn’t at all surprised when the Vogons demolished Earth for their intergalactic bypass, I was surprised at the answer to the ‘Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything’. After four billion years of calculations by Earth, itself a supercomputer created by another supercomputer called Deep Thought, the answer was really quite unexpected (no spoilers here). Oops, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy wasn’t real. Douglas Adams wasn’t a historian.
‘To put it bluntly, planetary problems require a planetary program and a planetary solution, and that means cooperation among nations, real cooperation. To put it still more bluntly, we need a world government that can come to logical and humane decisions and can then enforce them.’
A guy I’ll call BB gifted me The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery back in late 2005. I’m very sorry to report that I didn’t have time to read it. I was literally jetting from continent to continent and spending a lot of time jet-lagged. And besides, there was too much to read in my emails. Too much business pressure. Too many projects. Too much going on at home. My life was being lived to the fullest while our earth was dying.
I didn’t get back to the The Weather Makers until I’d read Flannery’s later book Here on Earth. I really wish that I’d read The Weather Makers long before I did. And truthfully, I only read it because I happened to find it again. There is an apposite quotation in the chapter The Science of Prediction ‘… poor criticism can lead those who are unfamiliar with the science involved into doubting everything ..’. Criticism is as important to advancement in anything as the effort in research and development of the thing itself.
And here we are almost two decades later and for example, American coal-industry donations continue to undermine political action on climate change. Were we all too busy to care about climate change? Are we all still too busy to care about climate change?
Economist David McWilliams has written some interesting opinions in his weekly column in The Irish Times regarding the economic implications and recovery from the pandemic. My own hope is that Europe looks after Europeans rather than bickers about frugality and profligacy. I believe that Europe as a whole shares the responsibility for not having a Public Health Commissioner and not having a centralised, unified pandemic response plan. My view is that Europe needs to pour trillions in cash into the bank accounts of individuals, small and medium businesses or else there’ll be a serious cash and credit crisis. My view is that our nations need to renegotiate existing sovereign debt to the lowest interest rates, take on longer repayment and borrow even more. I’m not an economist. As I mentioned here in April, David McWilliams wrote ‘You’d be amazed how many clever people hate easy answers … Only those who truly understand their subject have the self-confidence to opt for the easy answer.’
So you can ignore me because I don’t fully understand this subject. But please spend a bit of time exploring my idea that science fiction allows thinking about what might be and poor criticism prevents it happening. And read about plan continuation bias in this and then search for a whole range of cognitively biased disaster stories.
The quotes in blue are all lifted from an article first published in Der Spiegel in 1971. The title of the piece is The Good Earth is Dying and I was still in school when Isaac Asimov wrote it. I didn’t read it until early 1996 while sitting under a ceiling that was under the stars in South America. I had brought it to work in Argentina in The Faber Book of Science (1995) ed. by John Carey. Asimov predictions weren’t all correct yet his underlying thought experiments remain instructive. I was born onto a planet that was already 40% overpopulated according to ecologist David Pimental speaking to The American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1994. His view was that 2 billion is the population that the planet can comfortably sustain.
‘Earth is dying; so in the name of humanity let us move. Let us make our hardback necessary decisions. Let us do it quickly. Let us do it now.’
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