One of the most interesting and challenging bits of cognitive dissonance you can find these days is the following conflict: On one side are those who believe that a technological breakthrough related to energy is needed, and that massive investment in said technologies along with life-style changes are vital to the survival of modern civilization. On the other side are those who believe that such a technology breakthrough is unlikely, or that it is too late for such a massive investment in a world where money is scarce and fossil fuels are expensive. Moving beyond that mental frame are those who believe that it is in fact so late that a significant breakdown in industrial civilization is coming and that even a massive die-off of humans is inevitable. Beyond such a wrenching change survivors will emerge into a new-old society that is both fugal and agrarian.
The cognitive dissonance comes for those of us who believe that the available evidence points in both of these directions simultaneously, that both tracks are emerging at the same time, and that we are in a kind of race to see which reality predominates. For example, I believe that a very rapid investment in next energy technologies is critical, and by this I mean most available alternatives to fossil fuels – solar, wind, ocean, thorium-based nuclear, geothermal. I also think that a shift in societal values in industrial countries is critical, toward a more localized, more frugal, and generally smarter life style. At the same time, I accept that it may be too late for some kind of gradual re-set of our energy ways, and that significant dislocations are possible, even probable.
So, when I come across evidence for one view or the other, I tend to find good evidence persuasive, even when it is contradictory.
A great example of this dissonance came across my screens today. First, I read as I do each Monday the weekly blog of James Kunstler. As usual he illustrates the bankruptcy of the view that with a few minor adjustments we will continue what he calls the happy motoring lifestyle into the infinite future. His blog, by the way, is at a new address, and is well worth the time each Monday. Those who comment on his blog tend to exemplify the people who think we are long past the point of no return and that a collapse is coming.
On the other hand, also coming into my screen today was a blog entry from The Oildrum, specifically a guest blog under the byline of “Gail the Actuaryâ€ in which an expert on space-based solar power explained how a new approach to the launch of vehicles may be able to cut the cost enough that space-based solar energy would become an answer, even the answer, to our future energy problems. Space-based solar arrays are one of those technologies that are always somewhere over the horizon, and some would say over the rainbow. If you take a few minutes to read this blog, and again the comments, you find the dissonance on full display. On the one hand you have a person saying that there may be an energy answer after fossil fuels. On the other hand you have lots of people not only saying it is not possible, but directly arguing that a human die-back is more desirable than cheap energy.
And so it goes.
At the end of the Fire 2009 conference, an audience member said he felt depressed, that the environmental problems discussed there seemed too large and the time seemed to late to respond. David Brin, the great science fiction writer, also in the audience, responded that we have to hope that humans come up with the breakthroughs, technological and social and values-based, that enable the enterprise of civilization to continue. The alternative is despair.
I thought this summed up things quite well.
Glen Hiemstra is a futurist speaker, consultant, blogger, internet video host and founder of Futurist.com. To arrange for a speech contact Futurist.com.