This week’s department colloquium was Roel Snieder of the Colorado School of Mines on The Global Energy Challenge. I have to admit, I was somewhat rude, and spent a lot of the talk futzing with my tablet, but really, while his presentation of the material was very good, the material itself wasn’t new to me– if you read ScienceBlogs, you’ve probably heard it all.
It’s a colossal ball of woe, too. You know the story– demand for energy is increasing, supplies of oil are dwindling. The planet is warming, the ice caps are melting, the oceans are rising. Everything is on the verge of collapse.
Throw in the more general news– the unfolding financial crisis, the last eight years of shameful political developments, the ongoing wars and conflicts around the globe– and it’s a wonder anybody can get out of bed in the morning. Some people are so down on life in general that they can’t even accept good news, and instead use Obama’s lead in most polls and projections as a jumping-off point for theories about stolen elections that border on deranged.
So, I’ve been thinking about the Great Depression to cheer myself up.
I mean, if you think about it, a person sent back in time to the US in 1929 would be looking at a good, solid thirteen years of the world looking like it was about to end. The economy went straight into the toilet, and pretty much stayed there for a decade. In Europe, you had the looming menace of the Soviet Union, and the rise of the Nazis. It really wasn’t until around 1943 that you could reasonably say that things turned the corner.
You hear a lot of dire stuff these days about the future– the days of cheap and plentiful energy are over, the American economy and political system is about to collapse, we’re going to be the first generation in decades whose children won’t be able to do better than their parents, etc. And I can’t help thinking that there were probably a lot of people in 1930 thinking the same way. But their children and grandchildren went on to have lives that were almost unimaginably better than those of their parents (One word: penicillin. If that’s not enough, here are two more words: polio vaccine.).
Or, hell, look at 1980. I remember countless nights of waking up convinced we were all about to die in a nuclear holocaust. Scary as Reagan was, we were two decades past the worst of the Cold War, but to a nine-year-old, it didn’t seem implausible that we were headed for a Mad Max dystopia.
To paraphrase what I said to a couple of bummed-looking students after the talk, if I really believed all the dire predictions you hear about what’s coming in the next few decades, you wouldn’t be getting Thursday Baby Blogging. Because, really, who would want to bring a child into a world that’s inevitably sliding into a Paolo Bacigalupi short story?
But, you know, the world as we know it has always been just about to end. And it always has ended, only to give way to a different world-as-we-know-it. And those worlds have been getting fairly steadily better for something like five hundred years now.
Are things likely to get bad? Yeah, probably. Is the world really going to end? No.
There are big problems looming, but there are also ways out of almost all of them. There are huge energy savings to be realized from fairly minor lifestyle changes. There are other ways to generate energy than burning oil, and our technologies are always getting better (to be fair, Snieder did mention this stuff, toward the end of his talk, and closed on a relatively optimistic note, for this type of talk). We’ll figure out ways to get through the coming problems, and I don’t see any reason not to hope that, thirty or forty years from now, SteelyKid will be every bit as happy and comfortable as her parents are now.
It’s possible that I’m hopelessly naive, or deluded. It may be that this is just what I need to tell myself in order to get out of bed in the morning. But then I think about how the world had to look to my grandparents when they were kids, and how it looks now for their great-granddaughter, sleeping upstairs in her crib, and I don’t think so.
The world as we know it is ending, to be sure. But it’s always been ending, and there’ll be another world there for SteelyKid when she gets old enough to take it. For now, she’s the Cutest Baby in the Universe, and reason enough for me to be optimistic.