Saturday, September 21, 2013
Heinlein, Kardeshev, Rand, and Our Dangerous Times
In his Past Through Tomorrow and other works, Robert A. Heinlein explored a possible future history for homo sapiens. One of things he foresaw was a period at the end of the 20th Century and beginning of the 21st that he called "the Crazy Years," in which cultural fragmentation and decay in advanced countries generates political and economic decline and social disruption. He was prescient in recognizing what happens when commonly accepted principles such as an individual's responsibility for self are forgotten and political correctness and multiculturalism run amok. As advancing technology places increasing power in human hands, human ethics fail to keep pace. In Heinlein's world, humans do manage to navigate these shoals without destroying themselves and eventually do settle on a MYOB sort of libertarian ethic...but only narrowly averting nuclear self-destruction and environmental self-destruction, and not without going through periods of dictatorship as well as societal chaos.
Heinlein's story isn't just fiction. In the course of the development of the Soviet SETI program, astrophysicist Nikolai Kardeshev developed a theory of civilizations and what we might look for in trying to detect them. Kardeshev's work -- which has been further developed by others -- gives a classification system based on the scale at which a planet-based civilization can harness energy. The lowest level of civilization, Type I, has the capability of harnessing the entirety of the energy of its planet. As a sort of corollary, it's hypothesized that a species that is approaching Type I mastery potentially goes through a very dangerous period, akin to Heinlein's "Crazy Years." Their advanced level of technology gives them power capable of destroying the civilization if misused. If the species fails to develop behaviors, ethics, institutions, etc. that prevent this it can annihilate itself. I'm uncertain how much of this corollary is in Kardeshev's original contribution, but physicist Michio Kaku suggests that one thing we could look for in SETI is the wreckage of civilizations that failed to make the transition to Type I. And of course, our civilization is our one example, so far, of a civilization entering this transition.
What's the connection between Heinlein and Kardeshev? Think of just a few examples of the dangers we face today:
- Iranian or Al Qaeda religious fanatics obtaining nuclear weapons...
- An American federal government -- especially the executive branch -- working to acquire unlimited power, and already apparently having the power to spy on essentially all communications, everywhere...
- A growing segment of the population -- some poor and some very rich (think Goldman Sachs) -- who live as parasites on the productivity of others while creating nothing of values themselves...
- An intelligentsia that cannot bring itself to condemn Islamism for fear of being seen as insensitive or racist or ethnocentric, but which regularly denounces, in the most hateful terms, anyone who opposes the continued expansion of state power...
- An intelligentsia that praises socialism, hunter-gatherer economies, massive interventionism, anything but the one system that actually works, free market capitalism, a system they bitterly condemn...
- A "press," our mainstream media, that sees its job as promoting political positions and readily lies when lies serve this goal better than truth, and spouts nonsense the remainder of the time, apparently because reasoned analysis is too hard.
Philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand identified two problems at the heart of our current craziness. First, there's an epistemological failure: it's only through the careful employment of reason that we can learn what is true and what isn't. Epistemological confusion is arguably at te heart of our problems, but more to the point of this essay, the second problem is this: so long as men think of it proper or acceptable to sacrifice other men, so long as our ethics teaches us that it can be acceptable to treat others as means to our ends, without their consent, human societies will be plagued with inherent conflict. Only with the development and general acceptance of an ethic based on strict respect for individual rights will we emerge from the Crazy Years into a Type I global civilization.
I think we will indeed successfully make this transition. Humans have been remarkably successful so far. Our long run story has been one of advance. Sure, it's been punctuated with all sorts of crises and disasters, but we recover and continue to advance even further. The way to bet is that this will continue, despite our weaknesses. But it's hardly a sure thing. As Rand herself put it, "We are fast approaching the stage of the ultimate inversion: the stage where the government is free to do anything it pleases, while the citizens may act only by permission; which is the stage of the darkest periods of human history, the stage of rule by brute force." Couple that with unparalleled technological power and the widespread and numerous crazy doctrines promoting brute force, and it should be clear that we are in extremely dangerous times. Certainly if our current trends in government, in international relations, etc. continue unchecked, we're doomed.
Of course, that's why I don't think we're doomed. Those are all short run trends. Unforeseen contingencies will reverse them. But we have a very rocky road ahead for awhile.
Note: after writing this, I came across this very perceptive essay on the Crazy Years by science fiction writer John C. Wright. He highlights the empty moral vocabulary of post-modernism, and the ethical and epistemological bankruptcy behind it, as the cause. While he laments that our Crazy Years have outlasted Heinlein's, and one commenter suggests that such a decline is characteristic of a shift from republic to empire, I remain fairly confident that "this time is different." We're in the Kardeshev transition to civilization, and what we're seeing is the end of post-modern, Hegelian, socialist thought, its death throes. If not, then we're all dead. So let's kill it.
Perhaps these are good topics for you to pursue in a subsequent post.
That's something that can be done at the individual level. It might or might not reverse the Crazy Years, but the main point is that it preserves one from being slowly worn down and co-opted by the craziness.