David Brin on the rise and fall of civilization (and selling out our children)

  • Published on March 22nd, 2012

nonzero by robert wright

By David Brin 

Go read one of the most important books in the past twenty years, Robert Wright’s Nonzero.
Our entire Enlightenment Experiment has been about positive sum games. Open-competitive Economic Markets, Science, Democracy… these are all examples of systems set up to harness competition and produce positive sum results for all.Alas, there are forces in human nature that always trend toward ruination of such systems. Winners tend not to want to compete as hard, next time, so they use their wealth and power to cheat! It is called oligarchy; the very thing that wrecked markets and democracy and science in all past cultures. Every single last one of them.Except ours… but not without a struggle in every generation. Today, capitalism isn’t the enemy; it is the #1 victim of an ongoing attempted coup by oligarchs – who are only doing what humans are programmed to do, when tempted by feudal privilege.  If liberals would only read the “First Liberal” — Adam Smith — and realize this, they might drop both the left and right and stand up for the balanced market that emphasizes small business, startups and brash-competitive creativity, instead of monopoly, corporatism, state-paternalism and aristocracy.

Heck, if our ancestors could stand up and save the Enlightenment during their crises… so can we.

Then take a look at Niall Ferguson’s new book Civilization: The West and the Rest.  Ferguson appraises some of the reasons that civilizations fail, a topic that Jared Diamond surveyed (with a bit too obsessive a focus only on environmental causes) in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed… and that I take a Big Perspective on, in my next novel, Existence.

In his article, Western Civilization:Decline or Fall?, Ferguson describes how he sees our way out of a “decline of the west:”

“What we need to do is to delete the viruses that have crept into our system: the anti-competitive quasi monopolies that blight everything from banking to public education; the politically correct pseudosciences and soft subjects that deflect good students away from hard science; the lobbyists who subvert the rule of law for the sake of the special interests they represent—to say nothing of our crazily dysfunctional system of health care, our overleveraged personal finances, and our newfound unemployment ethic.”
In other words, break free of the hobbling/crippling, oversimplifying metaphors like “left-vs-right” – a curse bequeathed on all thinking, by the French Revolution – and get back to acting like intrepid grownups again.Rebuilding CivilizationOpen Source Ecology: Following the DIY “maker” trend, one ad-hoc group is producing open source modular plans to the 50 different industrial machines necessary to build a civilization — or at least provide a self-sustaining village with basic comforts. The basic fifty include: backhoe, bulldozer, baler, wind turbine, cement mixer, electric motor, steam engine, dairy milker, baker oven, aluminum extractor from clay, and bioplastic extruder, among others. The more complicated ones build upon the simpler ones. In northern Missouri, they have used their compressed brick press and tractor to build a manufacturing facility to construct more models.

The founder, Marchin Jabukowski (TED Senior Fellow) is a Physics Ph.D., who dropped out to work on this project. His orientation is post-scarcity society rather than disaster, but if one were wanting to create a generalized resiliency rather than prepare for specific movie scenario plots, it would be a good place to start. See his TED talk: Open Sourced Blueprints for Civilization.

And now, Open Source Ecology is teaming with WikiSpeed to build an open source, modular, configurable car with high fuel efficiency that meets U.S. safety standards.

Seems related to a TV series I was pitching for some years, to start with contestants wearing loin cloths in the desert, challenge them to make stone tools, then leather, and eventually smelt metal, etc.  The show?  REBUILD EVERYTHING!  Picture “Survivor” meets “The 1900 House” meets “Junkyard Wars”… then throw in lots of fascinating Discovery Channel riffs… along with a dash of “The Flintstones”. Include some tasty inter-tribal rivalry, and add a sensation that viewers are actually learning something of value, becoming a little more capable and knowing about their own culture.

In the ultimate challenge, competitive teams race each other, starting from scratch to rebuild civilization! Instead of just surviving, they must chip flint, make spears and arrows and traps, stitch clothing from hides (no animals will be killed directly by the show). Once the Stone Age has been conquered, contestants move on to re-invent pottery, weaving and agriculture – then mining and smithing copper ore, then bronze, iron and so on.

Each next step must be taken by using technologies achieved at the previous level. Once they succeed at a task, it is assumed that their “civilization” (their team) has that technology from then on. They will be provided any tools they require from that level, in order to attempt the next.Envision season four ending with them chugging up-river on a built-from scratch steamboat, prospecting for ores to make the first TV….Threats to Civilization

In EXISTENCE I portray the rich buying up small island nations that are doomed by rising tides, then building stilt cities on those nations, who already have legal international sovereignty.  Now see the beginnings: leaders of the Pacific archipelago Kiribati are considering moving the entire population to Fiji, as their islands are threatened by rising ocean levels. When you see stilts rising over there, know that I told you first.

We have overseen the largest wealth re-allocation in history: The US has transferred 7 TRILLION dollars to Middle Eastern nations in exchange for oil.  Ponder that.

And the bosom pals of middle-eastern potentates ran the US for many years, undermining all efforts to get off of the oil teat.
Now T. Boone Pickens is back touting natural gas… of which North America apparently has a vast supply… as a way to break that habit.  Sure it is still fossil/carbon fuel (though better and cleaner than oil).  But it might serve as our “bridge” in order to both do better and keep some of our money, to invest in the true solution technologies of the future.
Pickens will stand to make big bucks if we go along with his plan.  But at least we’d know what we are buying – a deal that makes sense, unlike the total sellout of our children that happened in the first decade of this century.

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(David Brin is a scientist and best-selling author. His future-oriented novels include Earth and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. The Postman inspired a film by Kevin Costner. Brin is also a leading commentator on technological trends. His non-fiction book, The Transparent Society, explores issues of privacy and accountability. This column originally appeared at Contrary Brin.)

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