From Prior Posts:
- Setting the framework for a journey into the future, having a sense of what the destination could be: How Might Humanity Survive a Radically Changing World?
- The first steps in understanding the destination: The Goal — Episode I: The Basic Requirements
- The Goal — Episode II: Support for Security Needs
- The Goal — Episode II: Fulfilling the Higher Needs
Looking at a Spatio-Temporal Map
We've identified the destination on a “societal/psychological” map. The details of that destination are still very rough; a map, after all, isn't a detailed representation of the reality. But we have gotten a glimpse of where mankind could go as a result of passing through the likely evolutionary bottleneck. What we need to do now is determine the pathway by which we get from here to where we want to be. And we need to plan and prepare for the trip. This will not be easy.
A trip takes you from one place to another through space and takes the passage of time to accomplish. Along the way energy is consumed in moving mass along the pathway. One generally plans a trip considering the lowest energy consumption but also the shortest time (which might mean the shortest distance). Unfortunately speed and minimal energy consumption are at odds with one another so the trip plan requires finding an optimal tradeoff.
This journey will take considerable time and the pathway will more likely be dictated by events over that period than having selected an optimal path. Which means we will need to have a higher energy reserve (or sources) because we will need to adapt as we go.
Here is the world we live in today. It is still a going concern in most ways. Doomsday is seemingly not imminent. Gasoline is still available at fluctuating prices, but high enough to be a sign of the coming problems nonetheless. There are many other signs that are becoming clearer. The whole financial situation on a global scale tells us that things are going to crumble in the foreseeable future. The storm clouds are not above us, but they can be seen on the horizon. We can rely on the current system holding together a bit longer, but we should be making preparations now (as with the knowledge that a hurricane is bearing down - board up the windows). We should be stockpiling our energy reserves. The trip will be long and arduous.
My guess is that the bottleneck event will take hundreds of years to unfold after some major cataclysmic event on a global scale (e.g. a complete breakdown of the financial system triggering a collapse of industrial societies). That means the travelers will have to sustain their trip for all that time. The initial events will come in the form of breakdown of social institutions, the energy delivery systems, the health care system, the food supply system, and the water supply system. With the breakdown of public health facilities will come outbreaks of any number of contagious diseases. This could take several decades to play out and there will, no doubt, be hungry, wild people roaming desperately from one place to another looking for food and willing to do whatever is necessary to obtain it. The vast majority of humans will most likely succumb in place. This will especially be true if climate change accelerates as some scientists now expect. Rapid onset of droughts and floods and storms of extreme severity would catch people off guard and quickly diminish their ability to travel — to become climate refugees. The distances involved in getting, for example from northern Mexico to southern Canada are too great and the drought conditions expected for the American southwest will make the trip impossible. Epidemics and starvation or dehydration are likely to overtake urban inhabitants before they can disperse far from their towns and cities.
But there will still be survivors of this initial tragic event. These are the more dangerous threats to our travelers.
Noah had an ark. The mythical flood came in a mere forty days and nights and wiped out everything else. So he didn't have to worry about marauders and climate changes over extended time. Our travelers will need something a little different in form even if conceptually fulfilling the role of an ark.
While the village of the future is the destination, a permaculture-based settlement, it is probably not the immediate vehicle to consider. Over the two or three centuries it will take for things to go through the maximum chaos and then settle down, sapient groups will more likely have to be nomads. That is, they will need to travel physically while at the same time finding sustainable ways to produce food and artifacts. Possibly temporary growing season settlements will be the overall strategy. Find a place where sufficient food can be grown, harvested, and preserved, and then move to wintering-over territory. This, of course, is not unlike many aboriginal tribes all over the world practiced before the advent of settled agriculture. The latter provided a way to increase the probability of having adequate foodstuffs year-round. But we have to recognize that as a strategy it worked primarily because the Earth's climate was entering an unusually stable period. Humans got lucky, essentially. We know this because in certain regions at various times the climate became a little unstable and settled agriculture failed. Thus, in a period when future climate is bound to be unstable, humans would do well to reacquaint themselves with the nomadic lifestyle. Whether groups end up being hunter-gatherers or pastoral (or more likely some combination) will depend on the circumstances they find themselves in. No options should be left off the table.
What this means is that the groups (say between 50 to 200 individuals) will need to accumulate tools designed to bootstrap them to become low-energy mobile. I suspect we would not have to resort to dog-pulled sledges. I imagine there are low-tech artifacts that benefit from industrial age technology that will make the trek doable. The idea is to acquire all such tools and artifacts for the start of the journey and include tools that will allow the production of additional artifacts from raw materials found along the way. This is so that as the starting tools wear out, new, alternative replacements can be manufactured. See the discussion below.
Olden days wooden sailing ships had to carry tools and spare beams of wood, and other raw stock, sufficient to make repairs at sea. They needed craftsmen sailors who could fashion a plank (or spar or whatever) on the go. A well planned ship, spare parts cargo, and skilled crew could sail around the world and recover from storm damage (or battle damage) while under way. That same kind of thinking will be needed for our travelers if they adopt the nomadic lifestyle until they reach their destination.
I know it sounds corny, but this venture might look a lot like the biblical migration of the Israelites from Egypt to the promised land more so than like Noah and his ark. There is some reason to believe that some kind of migration of this sort did happen historically, giving rise to the mythology. In any case I think it likely that the journey to the future living condition I've put on the map will resemble this story quite a bit. The only difference, of course, is our travelers won't have a god hovering over them, guiding at times and angry at other times. They will have to look out for their own destiny.
Eventually climate patterns will start to settle. The great masses of humanity will have died and more stable ecosystems will start to emerge. Future humans can settle too. A village life, based on a permaculture lifestyle and centered on the idea that every individual has the freedom to attain self actualization may be possible. The core of that society and its future development will be enhanced by basing the governance of society on the university of Noesis. Knowledge and understanding lead all to wisdom.
The key to the future is for highly sapient people to find one another and form groups that will begin preparing for the journey. I have written previously about the possibilities for recognizing sapience in younger individuals and those thoughts still stand. The premise is that those sapient enough to recognize the need to prepare will do so. Let's assume they do. What other preparations are needed?
I've already mentioned the need to collect tools that are transportable and will be used to bootstrap the trek. The emphasis should be on tools needed to cultivate, construct shelters and transport repairs, and for making necessaries such as clothing and containers, etc. How best to know what such tools would be? Basically I have found some interesting information about the life of nomadic American Plains Indians that seems useful. There are modern versions of many of the tools and techniques that they used to thrive (not merely survive) that could be used to get the group through the early parts of the journey. For example, modern camping tents might be expected to last at least twenty years or longer while people learn to fashion yurts. These would, as I said above, need to be replaced eventually with handmade versions resembling their earlier predecessors. The reason for trying to replicate the nomad tool set using more modern versions (e.g. steel arrow heads!) is that these are known to provide a means of making a living that has been tested by time. Starting with modern versions buys the group time to learn to fashion the older versions from natural resources at hand.
But let me make it clear that I am not talking about ‘reversion’ to primitive designs and workmanship. A good set of steel tools will enable craftsmen to shape much more refined replacements even from the natural materials our ancestors used. Though our travelers will, from one generation to the next, increasingly look the part of our ancestral nomads, they can have much better tools and techniques for the several hundred years of a nomadic life.
There is no way to say specifically every detail of preparations that need to be made. So much will depend on the sense of the group and the skills brought to it by individuals. Also, I have no crystal ball to tell me what specific events will have to be overcome. That leads me to the only real rule that I think will apply universally. Its actually the Boy Scout motto! “Be prepared”. The single most important factor in survival at something more than the subsistence level is adaptability. Adequate preparations are necessary but not sufficient for survival. The group must maintain a constant capacity to change plans as circumstances unfold.
It will be necessary to become familiar with the territory that the group will occupy. Aside from modern aids like Google Maps/Earth members of the group (scouts) should take advantage of modern transportation while it lasts to become familiar with the main features of the region. Find out where the wintering-over areas are, where the cultivatable areas are, where the game live (and what kind), etc. Find out what sorts of food crops (making sure they include a complete diet in macro and micro-nutrients) grow in the areas under varying climate conditions (cool summers as well as hot). Learn all you can about the territory before you actually have to make a living from it and while you can still travel rapidly and easily through it.
Perhaps one of the most important preparations to be made is along these lines but targeted toward the distant future people who will settle down to form some kind of civilization. People alive today owe it to those future people to preserve and disseminate as much useful knowledge about the way the world works as possible. Our current state of knowledge has been hard won. We gained it from ignorance and through a long slow evolutionary process of discovery and affordance (using what we learned). It would be unconscionable for us to not try to provide our descendants with a leg up on how the world works when they are ready to rise again to a technologically enhanced civilization.
The Knowledge Seedbank
One of the more perplexing problems we face, if we are to provide our future progeny with more than just luck is how to provide them with the accumulated knowledge of our species. We actually do know a lot about the world, even if we are unable to use that knowledge wisely. We can imagine that at some distant time in the future, if the conditions are right, future hominids could profit from the better parts of that knowledge if only we have a way to preserve it for them. Therein lies the conundrum. We might imagine storing books and scientific journals in a sheltered library but we may be looking at tens of thousands of years before the conditions are right to open those books. In the meantime they might easily have decayed. Anything can happen over that kind of time stretch. Not the least of which is the evolution of whole different languages and loss of remembrance of the languages in which the books were written1. We can expect that mathematics is a universal language (as in the case of the Pioneer plaque that has universal symbols like a hydrogen atom with one electron to represent the number 1, etc.). The problem will be one of symbols used, but there are ways to regenerate the meanings of symbols when starting from simple number theory. But not all of our scientific and technological, let alone sociological and psychological knowledge can be easily expressed in pure mathematics.
What we need to consider is the preservation of knowledge in some form that 1) is highly stable over very long time scales; 2) can be easily copied and distributed to ensure some copies survive catastrophic events; 3) is compact; and 4) is easily expanded and translated irrespective of language differences. Digital media is not the answer even though it is certainly compact. No current storage technology is very stable over the long time scales we are talking about. And to unpack digital storage requires a computer or electronic decoding and expansion device. Finally, we can't just digitize all books and journals as they read, the number of media elements needed for storage would be too many to easily and safely “hide”.
As it turns out the problem of knowledge replication, compaction, and decoding when needed is exactly the problem solved by evolution in the form of the genome and its containing cell. Plants and some animals and most bacteria have evolved methods of preserving single cells along with a “starter” medium in packages that can withstand desiccation and unfavorable temperatures over long time scales. In particular I would like to consider the plant seed as a model for preserving knowledge. Seedbanks are used to hold seeds in preservation until they are needed2.
I am working on using the seed as a model system for preserving knowledge. In this system the DNA is the coded knowledge needed to reconstruct a whole organism. The cell (called an zygote) acts as the minimal interpreter and construction machinery needed to read out the encoded knowledge and begin the process of reconstituting the whole organism. The cell needs a supply of available raw materials at hand since it is translating the knowledge into an actual growing structure. Such availability is what I mean by the favorable conditions in which the seed of knowledge can begin to regenerate the whole system.
Just as the majority of details about our phenotypic construction are not actually encoded within the genome, e.g. the details of all of the brain development specifications could never be encoded in a genome that contains only about 30k protein coding genes, the knowledge encoding mechanism I am considering would also only contain just the knowledge needed to start a process. That process, as in the development of an embryo and later the rewiring of the brain as knowledge is learned, is a result of the interaction of the genome and its environment. Factors in that environment are responsible for triggering (turning on or off) genetic readouts at just the right times to produce the phenotypic forms (see: Evolutionary development biology). I am imagining a way to encode knowledge so that some future descendants can receive it after the process of reconstitution unfolds.
In order for this scheme to work we need to have the same kinds of conditions and components. Let's start with a consideration for exactly what kind of knowledge we will encode. Essentially it has to be knowledge that generates additional knowledge. For example, all engineering and technological knowledge derives from scientific knowledge about the physical world. Thus we would not directly try to preserve engineering knowledge per se. Rather we would preserve the scientific knowledge and an interpreter that would generate the knowledge of how to use the scientific knowledge to engineer artifacts, for example, therefrom.
The seed knowledge needs to include some minimal understanding of the physical world (e.g. matter, energy, information) and the laws that govern the world. We would, for example, include an encoding of gravitation and electromagnetic forces as a starting point. From electromagnetic force, one can derive the existence of deeper forces (and relations between the forces), i.e., the strong and weak forces. From gravity can be derived a wide range of mechanical aspects. I suspect the inclusion of the laws of thermodynamics and evolution would be a part of the seed knowledge.
A possible guide for what to include in the seed comes from the biological model of recapitulation (loosely interpreted) in which as embryos develop they go through stages that resemble in form the phylogenetic history of the species. What I envision here is that the unfolding of knowledge from our hypothetical embryo will resemble the historical temporal web of discovery of that knowledge. The difference will be that the encoded knowledge will be our current understanding of those phenomena rather than an interpretation from the historical time in which a discovery was made.
This is a vision of what to encode and a concept of how it can be carried into the future. What we need to do is find an appropriate medium for encoding and consider what sort of interpreter/constructor machine to embed it within. These have to have all the properties listed above. Finally, we have to designate the appropriate conditions and accessible resources for the machine to do its work in the future. At least a part of that consideration will be the nature of a future pre-literate, pre-technological civilization that would be primed to receive the unfolding of the knowledge. That future civilization, say not unlike pre-Columbian American native societies, would be a major factor in augmenting and amplifying the output of the preserved interpreter/constructor. The latter can only do so much. It would be up to the future people to receive, further interpret and continue construction (or reconstruction if you will) of the knowledge. In essence, the seed will start the process of reconstituting the necessary knowledge that would allow that future civilization to reconstitute the libraries in whatever languages exist at the time.
There will need to be other resources as well. Energy and material resources will have to be at hand. If the future living condition is maintained as the inherited culture (i.e. permaculture) of those people, and they have indeed evolved a greater level of sapience in the process, then I would expect them to have established reliable renewable energy sources and to be husbanding material resources appropriately. When they have achieved a stable living condition they will be able to have surpluses that can then be used to germinate the seed.
As to what medium might actually work for this project, not too surprisingly the top candidate for storage is DNA. This molecule is wonderfully stable at ordinary temperatures. Genomic information has been recovered from a number of prehistoric creatures, including Homo neanderthalis. These samples were preserved only by sheer luck. But the conditions of preservation are well understood and a seed containing intentional DNA codes could be constructed. Recently scientists have constructed intentional sequences (artificial genes) as well as three-dimensional structures (like a cube) from DNA and RNA. The methods used to sequence DNA to discover the code are well known and are incorporated in a number of modern devices that are used, for example, to identify remains of the dead and perpetrators of crimes (forensics). DNA sampling has also been used to identify the presence of specific bacteria for public health work. It is altogether conceivable that some kind of encoding into DNA molecules could form the basis of a knowledge seed in almost the same way it can encode the knowledge needed to form a new individual. Furthermore, an interpreter/constructor machine might be more like a chemistry lab than a digital computer. Such a device could also be built out of DNA/RNA with a few functional proteins. Just add water and watch the device germinate! The more we learn about how living systems pass information from generation to generation, the more viable this kind of approach looks.
As to how to preserve the knowledge of the existence of the seed among the future people, how to protect it, and how to “plant” it, that will have to be done through an oral tradition and something like mythology. I would hope that more sapient beings would better understand the role of myth and stories and not get caught up in elaborating them to include fanciful creatures and gods, as have Homo sapiens. The story of the seed (seeming like magic only because we have lost the original form and have only a seed left) can be told and retold. It speaks of a day in the future when the conditions are right (as part of the story) and humanity can plant the seed to regain the knowledge. I suspect this story would very much resemble our myths of the past and our fantasies we tell ourselves now (in fiction, but partly holding some slight belief!). But the minds that will hold and convey these stories would be more able to grasp them for what they would be. Not fantasies, but realities to be unfolded for some future generation.
Of course, this is hope on my part. Anything can happen. Everything could be lost. Future peoples could yet devolve and start to believe in fairies again. They could prematurely plant the seeds and all would be lost. But I do think evolution works rather well. The solution, I think, will be to produce many seeds and have them kept by many future tribes/villages. I would expect variety among groups will ensure that at least a few would stand a chance of reaching the point at which the seeds could be planted and result in usable knowledge. As I said, that would be my hope and I am convinced it is feasible. But only if we actualize it in the form of producing those seeds and providing them to the travelers we send on this journey into the future world.
The trickiest part of starting this journey will be deciding exactly when to depart. Very few people will be inclined to leave while it still seems society is hanging together, no matter how wise they might be. There will always be some lingering doubt that maybe things won't be as bad as we think. Leaving civilization for an unknown trek “through the wilderness” would seem to take as much faith as Moses demanded of the Israelites in leaving Egypt. But possibly not.
The signs are already visible. The unraveling of the global financial system under the pressure of the real economy not being able to produce real wealth to service and repay debt is perhaps the most prominent sign. The fact that this can be traced back to the decline of net energy per capita underscores the fact that the direction is one way. Civilization is finally facing up to the fact of the Second Law of Thermodynamics even if the majority of citizens are completely unaware of it. How far along the unraveling process do you wait to take your leave?
The preparations need to have been made well in advance. You should be able to simply lock the front door and walk away when the time comes. The question is: when is it the right time?
Everyone in the group will have to agree in advance. Pick the trigger sign(s) that will unambiguously signal that civilization is about to implode. What such a trigger sign might be will occupy some of my thinking in the (not-too-distant) future. I will write about these ideas in future blogs. I will be watching carefully how the world events unfold and trying to fit those events into the context of an unraveling civilization. John Michael Greer, author of “The Long Descent” and originator of the catabloic collapse hypothesis, believes that, as the title of his book states, the collapse of civilization will be a drawn out affair. He provides many a rationale for this in his book, but basically I think he believes that human ingenuity and adaptability will prevent the kind of cataclysmic implosion I have asserted would be most likely. Naturally I hope he is right and I am wrong about the rate of decline. If he is that means there is more time to prepare and put off the decision to depart. My own thinking, however, tends toward something like “assume the worst” and then be prepared if it happens. If you are counting on a slow descent, thinking you can be more leisurely in picking your date, you might not be able to react quickly enough to respond should the worst happen. Anticipating the worst gives you a leg up on preparedness. But every individual and group will have to make up their own minds on this. There is no one right answer and no easy way to find out.
For my part, being too old to be of benefit to a group, I do not plan to depart. Rather I will be continuing to work at developing the theory of sapience, the neuroscience, the genetics, the behavioral aspects in an effort to assist the higher sapients (if such exist) to find one another. I will also be working on the idea of knowledge encoding in a seed form in hopes we can give the distant future generations a head start in building an appropriately technologically advanced, but sapient, society. Wish me luck.
- What I am proposing here is quite different from other kinds of efforts to preserve knowledge such as is the intent of The Long Now Foundation. Their premise is that humanity can change its focus from short-term thinking to plan for the long haul and, consequently, survive. I am assuming that mankind will NOT survive as a civilization, which is why we have to consider preserving knowledge in a “seed” form.
- For example the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is designed to preserve vital seeds in the event of major global catastrophes such as nuclear war.