"The Future" Is Always Somebody Else's Pain and Payment for Our Sins


Over at the IEET, the Institute for Ethics (where actual ethics are rarely discussed) and Emerging Technologies (where the technologies are rarely actually emerging), futurologist Dick Pelletier has penned another of his incomparably desolating consolations, this one entitled (I kid you not), Overpopulated Earth? No problem, Experts Say; Technologies to the Rescue. Critics who lambaste my "strawmen" caricatures of a complacent, consumerist and reactionary futurology are invited to renew their complaints at the service desk. For those who crave more of Mr. Pelletier's curious construal of "the experts" and the things they presumably "are saying," do enjoy this reminder.

Pelletier's little number is positively (oh so very positively!) thrumming with lively refrains. "What are the solutions to overpopulation," Pelletier asks? Asked and answered!

"1) improve rain-fed agriculture and irrigation management; 2) encourage vegetarianism and acceptance of genetically-modified foods; 3) speed development of molecular nanotechnology; 4) expand telemedicine efforts; 5) create new medical therapies to curb obesity; and 6) produce lab-grown meat without growing animals."

Robust reliable programmable self-replicating room-temperature swarms of billions of usefully positionable nanobots, mountains of nutritious meat-mush cultured from a single sacrificial cell -- who cares if nobody actually qualified is doing it or doing even anything remotely like it and few who are actually qualified think it can be done and everybody knows that even in the event that a thing is logically doable this doability remains a far cry from being practically, politically, profitably doable -- na! na! na! na! not listening! not listening! it's from Pelletier's lips to the Robot God's ears. The Nike swoosh and the bracing exhortation "Just Do It!" are not provided, but definitely implied.

But why pay attention to a negative nellie like me? Pelletier assures me that "billionaire Peter Thiel's Breakout Labs [has] funneled $350,000 into Modern Meadow, a startup company that uses 3D printers to manufacture food." Gosh! Between Thiel's dreams of coding a history-ending sooper-intelligent sooper-parental Robot God, and of building a secret pirate libertopian oil-platform paradise off the coast of San Francisco (when you're a Randroidal sooperman it's always nice to have a socialist paradise handy for, you know, hospitals and emergency rescue operations and hygienic restaurants and underhuman support staff and stuff), to think he's also working on 3D-printer cornucopiae for the poors to snack on just goes to show why we Takers just need to get out of the way so the Makers can get on with all that tremendous Making they do! (So far he's actually made a global hedge fund and had an unspecified hand in making PayPal's actual code, and made lots of friends denigrating diversity, but who's counting?)

Pelletier soldiers on: "Currently, genetically -created or –modified foods are too expensive, but using Kurzweil's 'law of accelerating returns,' experts predict that in the near future, lab-produced, nutrient-enriched meat will be priced competitively, and accepted by mainstream society as a healthier alternative to animal-grown food."

Perhaps you did not know that Kurzweil's "law of accelerating returns" -- which is not a law but the assumption of an entirely arbitrary subjective perspective from which one can tell a story of accelerating technological growth that looks plausible to those who want it to be true but not to anybody else -- is the sort of thing one can "use," really, let alone the sort of thing the use of which makes one an "expert" in anything, but presumably the extreme credulity demanded by the "law" is now considered by certain "experts" to create causal conditions such that things we do not know how to do and do not know that we will ever be able to do will become at once both knowable and doable. What can one say, but -- awesome, man!

Pelletier concludes by reminded us of "[t]he late Julian Simon," a futurist who "discarded the notion that too many people will cause us to run out of resources and space. Simon believed that adding more people would provide creativity and innovation to solve our overpopulation problems, forever keeping us ahead of the curve." I have always personally been struck by the habit Simon had of responding to objections, criticisms, worries about the scale of the stakes involved in such question with the prototypically futurological response, "You wanna bet on it!"

Now, as you know, I am always criticizing futurological thinking as the systematic confusion of making bets with having thoughts, and I was always especially charmed by the way Simon and the nice futurologists over at Long Bets so eagerly literalized the point for me.

Of course, to reply to a criticism with the declaration of a willingness to bet on the result is very much not to respond to an argument with an argument. I was always puzzled by the way this response so sufficed for so many futurologists. Since, really, Simon's performance of a willingness to bet that we will come up with some solution to problems of overpopulation and catastrophic climate change is not only not the provision of any sense at all of what solutions these might be or who is working on them under what conditions with what real chances of success, but is actually nothing but a kind of re-enactment of the very state of denial in which extractive-industrial-petrochemical-consumerist modernity is sleepwalking its way to extinction in the first place.

Yes, in the absence of actually changing our wasteful, polluting, exploitative, violent ways we are all of us always only betting our lives and the lives of every earthling with whom we share the world that the price we all know will come due for our abject foolishness will not come today but tomorrow or for somebody else.

This catastrophic tomorrow, this terrorized foreigner is, and has always been, the real substance of "The Future" of the futurologists.

Also published at Amor Mundi.