Optimism and the Depression

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Markk
    October 24, 2008

    Yeah, as you get older a person seen more panics and real issues. I look around and living in the midwest I see nothing that touches what happened around here in the early 80’s when Reagan was in office and the media on the coasts was talking about how great things were. There were massive layoffs, 40,000 people the month I graduated from college – just in technology. Factories where people had worked their whole lives were closing right and left, and the national media hardly noticed or just said “oh that is the Rust Belt …”.

  2. #2 Cuttlefish
    October 24, 2008

    […]
    Once I built a market, I watched it grow, every day in The Times
    Once I built a market, well, you know… Brother, can you spare me…
    Seven trillion dimes
    Once I worked on Wall Street, I rolled in dough, with my partners in crimes
    Once I worked on Wall Street, well, you know… Brother can you spare me…
    Seven trillion dimes
    […]

    http://digitalcuttlefish.blogspot.com/2008/10/brother-can-you-spare.html

  3. #3 CCPhysicist
    October 24, 2008

    If you though it was scary in 1980, try to imagine 1962 when we were actually mere minutes from full-scale nuclear war for several days. [Closer, actually, then anyone in the US knew at the time, since we now know that the Soviets had the ability and authorization to launch nuclear weapons into Florida if Kennedy had taken the advice of his generals and bombed the missile sites.]

    For the reasons you note, babies were less common during the Depression even if you had a job. And people who still had money were also far more cautious about where they put it, often using many different banks as well as cash or silver or gold coin. That would be the kind of lesson that commenter #2 is alluding to.

    But I agree with your optimism, for the simple reason that we have shown that we could do it in the past and we appear to have learned something from those previous mistakes. However, the energy density and portability of liquid petroleum fuels is hard to match, as is the low cost of such fuels when they come pouring out of shallow holes in the ground. The economics that killed light rail systems (the interurban railroads that were once common but are now mostly used for bike trails) will likely make “trails to rails” a possibility in our future. See Wiki for a sample of what used to be quite common.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interurban

  4. #4 Bar Ringer
    October 25, 2008

    To quote R.E.M.

    It’s the end of the world as we know it
    It’s the end of the world as we know it
    It’s the end of the world as we know it
    And I feel fine!

  5. #5 yogi-one
    October 26, 2008

    Anyone besides me notice that ever since you can remember, the media has been blaring that we live in unprecedented times?

    Are times weird today? Yes. Were they weird last year? 10 years ago? 20? 50?
    Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

    Life is weird, and what happens next, in all likelihood, hasn’t happened before.

    Welcome to Earth.

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