Thursday, April 03, 2008

Why This Project Is Impossible And Undesirable

This essay is a refutation of my previous work. In it, I will try to explain why preserving technology through a major civilization collapse is futile, and, separately, why it is not necessarily desirable. I am not trying to destroy the hope that many people maintain for survival through a civilization collapse. If others feel it is worthwhile, I encourage them to continue working and studying in this area. I am merely trying to explain why I have stopped taking the project seriously.

First, in researching how to preserve certain technologies, it has become clear to me that these technologies depend not on a few easily reproducible foundation technologies, but on an entire complex market society, for their existence. Think, for instance, about what is required for producing antibiotics (see previous post). Then think about the equipment required to test the finished product for lethal impurities. Think about the number of people and resources necessary to produce that equipment. Now think about how much food and other resources those people must necessarily consume. That gives you an idea of the surplus food and primary goods that must be produced to keep that one technology up and running. Our current complex society and market economy produces a huge surplus, enough so that only a small percentage of the population need work in food production. However, this is highly unlikely in a post-collapse situation. We might ask the question: if it were so easy to produce this surplus after a collapse, why don't Djibouti and Burkina Faso produce their own antibiotics?

Second, the collapse is upon us, and it appears to be a slow one - one in which the standard of living will slowly decline over years, decades, even generations, until basic needs can't be met. Of course, I am talking about the United States here - basic needs already can't be met in a huge portion of the world, and it will only get worse as the United States and the West slip into economic depression and stop providing aid. According to United Nations classifications, over 900 million people live in slums, most living in the kind of insalubrious conditions we associate with the end of civilization. A slow collapse, with a huge population slowly but inexorably using up all existing resources until they are gone, unable to save resources for future generations, is the worst-case scenario from an Eschaton management perspective. Technological enclaves are not impossible, but the slow-collapse population pressure will force them to over-invest in security, and it will be unlikely that any such enclave could be large enough - and hence complex enough - to support the continuation of the most important technologies. To put it in more concrete terms, a large surplus of food could be used to support a scientific research laboratory and its staff - but if a huge population surrounding the laboratory is starving, the surplus is more likely to be diverted to present needs. (Even in a quick-collapse scenario, with few surviving humans, immediate resource pressure is still likely to subvert the goal of preserving technologies for future generations. This scenario is explored for modern audiences in Cormac McCarthy's irritatingly-written but important book, The Road.)

Third, I have always had concerns over whether the continuation of human society is desirable. There are some who take it as a given that it is important to continue humanity - indeed, that this is the most important thing. But those who take suffering seriously must be given pause by this assertion. Humans are the most conscious and complex of all animals, and as such, have the greatest capacity for suffering. Continuing human civilization - especially under collapse conditions - is continuing suffering. One view - that taken by John Leslie in his important book on the Doomsday argument, The End of the World - is that the joy experienced by some humans makes up for the suffering experienced by others. Another view - that taken by Dostoevsky's Ivan Karamazov - holds that suffering can never be redeemed, even by eternal happiness in Heaven:
It is not worth one little tear of even that one tormented child who beat her chest with her little fist and prayed to 'dear God' in a stinking outhouse with her unredeemed tears! Not worth it, because her tears remained unredeemed . . . But how, how will you redeem them? . . . And if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole of truth is not worth such a price. I do not, finally, want the mother to embrace the tormentor who let his dogs tear her son to pieces! . . . . they have put too high a price on harmony; we can't afford to pay so much for admission. And therefore I hasten to return my ticket. And it is my duty, if only as an honest man, to return it as far ahead of time as possible. Which is what I am doing. It's not that I don't accept God, Alyosha, I just most respectfully return him the ticket. (Pevear-Volokhonsky translation, p. 245)
Under this view, just as it is potentially an unredeemable offense against a child to give birth to that child, it is an offense against humanity to try to continue humanity.

If we take this idea seriously, perhaps the ideal end-of-the-world preparation is not to ensure survival, but to prevent suffering. By this view, the bug-out bag should not be filled with fish hooks and flashlights and freeze-dried food, but with three grams of a fast-acting barbiturate per person.