Jordan Peacock has suggested interviewing me for Five Books, a website where people talk about five books they’ve read.
It’s probably going against the point of this site to read books especially for the purpose of getting interviewed about them. But I like the idea of talking about books that paint different visions of our future, and the issues we face. And I may need to read some more to carry out this plan.
So: what are you favorite books on this subject?
I’d like to pick books with different visions, preferably focused on the relatively near-term future, and preferably somewhat plausible—though I don’t expect every book to seem convincing to all reasonable people.
Here are some options that leap to mind.
Whole Earth Discipline
• Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, Viking Penguin, 2009.
I’ve been meaning to write about this one for a long time! Brand argues that changes in this century will be dominated by global warming, urbanization and biotechnology. He advocates new thinking on topics that traditional environmentalists have rather set negative opinions about, like nuclear power, genetic engineering, and the advantages of urban life. This is on my list for sure.
Limits to Growth
• Donnella Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and Dennis Meadows, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2004.
Sad to say, I’ve never read the original 1972 book The Limits to Growth—or the 1974 edition which among other things presented a simple computer model of world population, industrialization, pollution, food production and resource depletion. Both the book and the model (called World3) have been much criticized over the years. But recently some have argued its projections—which were intended to illustrate ideas, not predict the future—are not doing so badly:
• Graham Turner, A comparison of The Limits to Growth with thirty years of reality, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO).
It would be interesting to delve into this highly controversial topic. By the way, the model is now available online:
• Brian Hayes, Limits to Growth.
with an engaging explanation here:
• Brian Hayes, World3, the public beta, Bit-Player: An Amateur’s Look at Computation and Mathematics, 15 April 2012.
It runs on your web-browser, and it’s easy to take a copy for yourself and play around with it.
The Ecotechnic Future
John Michael Greer believes that ‘peak oil’—or more precisely, the slow decline of fossil fuel production—will spell the end to our modern technological civilization. He spells this out here:
• John Michael Greer, The Long Descent, New Society Publishers, 2008.
I haven’t read this book, but I’ve read the sequel, which begins to imagine what comes afterwards:
• John Michael Greer, The Ecotechnic Future, New Society Publishers, 2009.
Here he argues that in the next century or three we will go through a transition through ‘scarcity economies’ to ‘salvage economies’ to sustainable economies that use much less energy than we do now.
Both these books seem to outrage everyone who envisages our future as a story of technological progress continuing more or less along the lines we’ve already staked out.
The Singularity is Near
In the opposite direction, we have:
• Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near, Penguin Books, 2005.
I’ve only read bits of this. According to Wikipedia, the main premises of the book are:
• A technological-evolutionary point known as “the singularity” exists as an achievable goal for humanity. (What exactly does Kurzeil mean by the “the singularity”? I think I know what other people, like Vernor Vinge and Eliezer Yudkowsky, mean by it. But what does he mean?)
• Through a law of accelerating returns, technology is progressing toward the singularity at an exponential rate. (What does in the world does it mean to progress toward a singularity at an exponential rate? I know that Kurzweil provides evidence that lots of things are growing exponentially… but if they keep doing that, that’s not what I’d call a singularity.)
• The functionality of the human brain is quantifiable in terms of technology that we can build in the near future.
• Medical advances make it possible for a significant number of Kurzweil’s generation (Baby Boomers) to live long enough for the exponential growth of technology to intersect and surpass the processing of the human brain.
If you think you know a better book that advocates a roughly similar thesis, let me know.
A Prosperous Way Down
• Howard T. Odum and Elisabeth C. Odum, A Prosperous Way Down: Principles and Policies, Columbia University Press, 2001.
Howard T. Odum is the father of ‘systems ecology’, and developed an interesting graphical language for describing energy flows in ecosystems. According to George Mobus:
In this book he and Elisabeth take on the situation regarding social ecology under the conditions of diminishing energy flows. Taking principles from systems ecology involving systems suffering from the decline of energy (e.g. deciduous forests in fall), showing how such systems have adapted or respond to those conditions, they have applied these to the human social system. The Odums argued that if we humans were wise enough to apply these principles through policy decisions to ourselves, we might find similar ways to adapt with much less suffering than is potentially implied by sudden and drastic social collapse.
This seems to be a more scholarly approach to some of the same issues:
• Howard T. Odum, Environment, Power, and Society for the Twenty-First Century: The Hierarchy of Energy, Columbia U. Press, 2007.
There are plenty of other candidates I know less about. These two seem to be free online:
• Lester Brown, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, W. W. Norton & Company, 2011.
• Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality, New Society Publishers, 2009.
I would really like even more choices—especially books by thoughtful people who do think we can solve the problems confronting us… but do not think all problems will automatically be solved by human ingenuity and leave it to the rest of us to work out the, umm, details.