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March 22, 2012 1:29 PM   Subscribe

Vernor Vinge is optimistic about the collapse of civilization
posted by Artw (47 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
“I disagree with that,” says Vinge. “With one exception — fossil fuels. But the stuff that we mine otherwise? We have concentrated that. I imagine that ruins of cities are richer ore fields than most of the natural ore fields we have used historically.”

As far as I can tell the ruins of the future cities are 80% tin cans and empty soda bottles
posted by The Whelk at 1:33 PM on March 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


Well, that's a relief.
posted by jimmythefish at 1:35 PM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


As far as I can tell the ruins of the future cities are 80% tin cans and empty soda bottles

Don't knock the tin cans. What else are you going to make your nuka-grenades out of?
posted by radwolf76 at 1:39 PM on March 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


empty soda bottles

bottlecaps!
posted by bonehead at 1:42 PM on March 22, 2012 [10 favorites]


Well- you just have to read one of his books to see this; it's not really that he's optimistic about the collapse, but rather the rebuilding, of civilization- and the ease with which it might be (on a geological timescale) Thanks for sharing this - I happen to be in the middle of Children of the Sky, and it's not as groundbreaking as his other stuff, but still pretty interesting.
posted by MangyCarface at 1:48 PM on March 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


80% tin cans and empty soda bottles

Tin will be gone soon, but plastic can last a million years or more. Styrofoam cups in particular are thought will last the longest for some reason. You can leave messages to the future by carving things in cups before tossing.
posted by stbalbach at 1:48 PM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I had a weird feeling reading Rainbows End last year, and i was finally able to put my finger on it. It was the first SF novel I'd read in about a decade that presented a generally positive view of our future civilization. Most others used resource constraints or war to show how civilization goes out of control or breaks down. It reminded me of the SF I read as a teenager.
posted by Space Coyote at 1:50 PM on March 22, 2012


80% tin cans and empty soda bottles

Concrete rubble will last a while
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:50 PM on March 22, 2012


I'm not sure being coining a term that has widespread use among "futurists" counts as a proven track record of looking ahead.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:51 PM on March 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


"But the stuff that we mine otherwise? We have concentrated that. I imagine that ruins of cities are richer ore fields than most of the natural ore fields we have used historically"

To be fair he's probably right about that. For instance aluminum doesn't exist as an elemental metal in nature; the only pure aluminum out there is the stuff we previously purified, and "recycling scrap aluminum only takes 5% of the energy required to produce new aluminum" from ore. Likewise I bet landfills are a gold mine (so to speak) of rare earth metals, which aren't really all that "rare" but are just distributed very finely and sparsely across the surface of the earth.

We should really be sorting all of our garbage into a couple dozen different bins at the landfills depending on the type of raw material it's made of; even if we don't have any clever recycling ideas right now, concentrated sources of specific stuff would probably come in handy at some point.
posted by rkent at 1:56 PM on March 22, 2012 [9 favorites]


Vernor Vinge says that when the Singularity happens, it will be "very obvious"
posted by Artw at 1:59 PM on March 22, 2012


No, seriously, don't knock the tin cans. It's been less than a century since we were rationing canned foods and collecting used cans to survive wartime tin shortages.

Even the soda bottles (including the plastic ones that didn't even exist during that war) aren't necessarily a joking matter... unless the joke is "Hey, paleolithic people: we have waterskins that never leak, weigh nearly nothing, and can be left in the sun for a few days to purify even foul water of the dysentery that killed one of your kids. We throw them away by the billions because they cost nearly nothing to make and we don't think they're pretty enough to reuse."

I'm not sure whether this all should make us more optimistic or more pessimistic. On the one hand, rapid economic improvement and a history of prior resiliency are both mostly good signs. On the other hand, people acclimate to their present environments, our present environment makes it natural to joke about how utterly worthless old cans and bottles are, and so if it changes suddenly one day we might be awfully surprised at how far it's possible to fall...
posted by roystgnr at 2:08 PM on March 22, 2012 [6 favorites]


And there's fossil fuels too, of a sort, in the massive deposits of plastics in any pre-mass-recycling land-fill.
posted by Artw at 2:10 PM on March 22, 2012


Hey guys, remember the Extropians?

I miss 1994.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 2:10 PM on March 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Liked him better in that interview than I have previously.

I wondered if he would mention Olaf Stapledon, whose work his reminds me of sometimes, and he did.
posted by jamjam at 2:20 PM on March 22, 2012


You know who else was optimistic about the collapse of civilization?

This guy.

Nah, I'm kidding. It was Walter Miller.
posted by R. Schlock at 2:25 PM on March 22, 2012


This guy, sometimes. WINGS OVER THE WORLD!
posted by Artw at 2:26 PM on March 22, 2012


You know who else was optimistic about the collapse of civilization?

This guy.


I don't know what it says about me that the Wikipedia entry on Albert Speer and the theory of ruin value shows up a recently-visited link for me.
posted by COBRA! at 2:28 PM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I had a weird feeling reading Rainbows End last year, and i was finally able to put my finger on it. It was the first SF novel I'd read in about a decade that presented a generally positive view of our future civilization.

That's funny. I only made it about a quarter of the way through Rainbow's End because every character was a jerk and the society seemed pretty nasty to me.
posted by adamdschneider at 2:30 PM on March 22, 2012


My optimism about the future comes from reading ancient history and far-future SciFi like Vinge.

The horrors of the 4th Century, the stupidity of their leaders, and the superstitious folly of the people ruined an advanced, metropolitan society with legal freedoms and a literate middle class. Yet, 1600 years later, here we are freer, more advanced and literate than the most optimistic person of that century could have even dreamed.

As long as we don't utterly wreck the biosphere, humanity will be fine. It's only the end of the world as we know it.

My advice: don't live in Dacia.
posted by General Tonic at 2:33 PM on March 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


I actually prefered Fast Times at Fairmont High, the novela set in almost the same world with almost the same characters that was, I guess, a kind of prototype for it.
posted by Artw at 2:33 PM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't know what it says about me that the Wikipedia entry on Albert Speer and the theory of ruin value shows up a recently-visited link for me.

Daß Sie haben eine tausendjähriges Browser-Geschichte?
posted by R. Schlock at 2:36 PM on March 22, 2012 [3 favorites]


Artw, you're not the only one. I think it's one of the best predictions about the near-future I've read.
posted by dragoon at 2:38 PM on March 22, 2012


Have I been misinformed or are there large caches of toxic materials around the world that, without human attention, will leech into our groundwater and cause severe problems?

I would think that might hinder the rebuilding efforts somewhat.
posted by ODiV at 2:47 PM on March 22, 2012


There was a pizza hut, now it's all covered with daisies.
posted by MoonOrb at 2:51 PM on March 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


From reason.tv: Freedom, Science Fiction and the Singularity: A conversation with author Vernor Vinge
posted by Artw at 2:58 PM on March 22, 2012


No mention of agriculture? Even if all knowledge of technology gets wiped out, the hard work of selecting and breeding good crops has been done, making agriculture a hugely profitable path. The early adopters all those thousands of years ago may have been forced into it through the lack of other options, and the lifestyle wasn't great, but the crops we have now are so much better.
posted by Jehan at 3:21 PM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


Of course the flipsideto that is GM monocultures might actually be a cause of famine and disaster in themselves, and might require specific pesticides to compliment them which will not be available.
posted by Artw at 3:25 PM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


That and don't a lot of current crops require you to re-obtain the seeds every year?
posted by ODiV at 3:29 PM on March 22, 2012


Even no GM crops require loads of pesticides and herbicides and fertiliser nowadays, not to mention crops that would be pretty hard work to turn into actual food without an industrial civilisation.
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:30 PM on March 22, 2012


Surviving seedbanks would of course become intensely valuable strategic assets, per Windup Girl and other SF.
posted by Artw at 3:33 PM on March 22, 2012


Whoa, calm down, you guys are looking at way too recent history! Think of the difference between 10000 years ago with 500 years ago. Selective breeding alone has done so much, even without fertilizers and GM. Moreover, it's given the whole world a great selection of plants and animals to work with.
posted by Jehan at 3:33 PM on March 22, 2012


Yeah but it's getting over the short term... the first few years would be very tricky, especially if there is a bad harvest or two.

Also livestock would be a problem... you really need hardy varieties that can look after themselves - not the bred for profit producing freaks we have no that require loads of intervention with vaccines etc. And shire horses. They all come under rare breeds.

Farming has become as specialised as any part of industry now... you might be able to run a modern farm for a while (like a modern factory) but without supplies of all the chemicals you need you would soon run into problems
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:44 PM on March 22, 2012


really one that is very much I think in a lot of people’s minds now is simply that the internet plus the people on the internet — so the internet, its computers, its support software, its server farms, and then billions of human beings — those together could come to constitute a superhuman entity that would qualify as giving us a Singularity.

This supposes that 10 trilliion YouTube comments are less shit stupid than one YouTube comment.
posted by George_Spiggott at 4:33 PM on March 22, 2012 [4 favorites]


“I disagree with that,” says Vinge. “With one exception — fossil fuels. But the stuff that we mine otherwise? We have concentrated that. I imagine that ruins of cities are richer ore fields than most of the natural ore fields we have used historically.”

See, that's great, but I can immediately think of why this might not work so well, depending on the nature of the disaster. Anyone ever read Alas, Babylon? Detonate a nuke close enough to a city and any "ore" from the ruins, especially metal, may be dangerous almost in perpetuity. Think about places like the area around Chernobyl or Fukushima, Japan.
posted by limeonaire at 4:42 PM on March 22, 2012


That said, I love Vernor Vinge's writing; it's some of the most interesting futurism out there today, especially society as depicted in Rainbows End.
posted by limeonaire at 4:44 PM on March 22, 2012


Detonate a nuke close enough to a city and any "ore" from the ruins, especially metal, may be dangerous almost in perpetuity

"In perpetuity" is really stretching it. You have to deliberately set out to contaminate an area to do that, like by deliberately putting cobalt in your bombs, it doesn't just happen by magic nuclear radiation stuff. Most modern weapons are pretty clean relatively speaking.
posted by Justinian at 4:47 PM on March 22, 2012


Contamination from Fukushima that people are worried about is pretty much all in the form of radioactive iodine, which causes thyroid cancer, but which is strictly a short term problem due to it's short half-life.
posted by Artw at 4:51 PM on March 22, 2012


Yeah but it's getting over the short term... the first few years would be very tricky, especially if there is a bad harvest or two.

Also livestock would be a problem... you really need hardy varieties that can look after themselves - not the bred for profit producing freaks we have no that require loads of intervention with vaccines etc. And shire horses. They all come under rare breeds.


I suppose I'm thinking about the long term on this. The kinds of plants and animals that need a lot of work would die off soon, but the others would breed and seed and become pretty commonplace. Even with the most modern varieties gone, those left would still be much better than the stuff available at the beginning of the agricultural revolution. What's more, they would be everywhere, and not limited as before. For example, America didn't have wheat, or horse, or onions, or apples, or so many things before the Columbian exchange, but they're all there now. Moreover, I have asparagus in my yard, my father has apples in his, one neighbor has chickens, another pears, and so on. Abandoned for decades or even centuries, the resulting woodland would be far richer in usable crops and animals than any in its natural state. Even if, say, potatoes breed out some of their best characteristics—which can be quite shallow genetically—they're still now worldwide and available for any future civilization wherever it begins. Agriculture would be relatively quick and easy to restart.
posted by Jehan at 5:05 PM on March 22, 2012 [1 favorite]


> Even no GM crops require loads of pesticides and herbicides and fertiliser nowadays

Lots of things we don't normally think of as edible are edible if you're hungry enough. Kudzu for instance. You dig the starchy roots, your goats eat the leaves (and thrive). I doubt we'd be stuck in the eat-each-other stage of recovery more than a couple decades.
posted by jfuller at 5:42 PM on March 22, 2012


@george_spiggot

yeah, youtube commenters are pretty stupid, all right. it's good to have reminders of this, so thank you.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 8:27 PM on March 22, 2012


yeah, youtube commenters are pretty stupid, all right. it's good to have reminders of this, so thank you.

we should also take a moment to appreciate laconic lowercase implications of how lazy and predictable we all are as people commenting on an internet thing or something like that.
posted by brennen at 8:55 PM on March 22, 2012


We need to use selective breeding to turn rodents like rats and mice into meat and milk producers. Then the useful animals will never go extinct, and our post-apocalypse descendants will have it made. And then maybe we can find a way to encode a library of our arts and sciences into cockroaches...
posted by Kevin Street at 8:57 PM on March 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


Sure, life will be a lot better for the 100 million or so survivors of the post-apocolypse or eventually for their children. There are abundant resources on this planet for that size of population. Of course, it'll be no fun for the 7-10 billion people who die of starvation, disease, war or polution while civilization collapses. So theres that.
posted by j03 at 11:29 PM on March 22, 2012 [2 favorites]


yeah, youtube commenters are pretty stupid, all right. it's good to have reminders of this, so thank you.

That wasn't the point, but if one has to explain a joke it's sort of wasted, so I'll skip it.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:38 PM on March 22, 2012


Vernor Vinge says that when the Singularity happens, it will be "very obvious"

Apparently, it will be the techno-optimist Rapture.
posted by y2karl at 6:27 AM on March 23, 2012


Vernor Vinge says that when the Singularity happens, it will be "very obvious"

I respectfully disagree: in astronomy, from the point of view of an object (or a person) falling into a singularity, the singularity is not an event, only an irresistible attraction.

So if we were actually falling into a singularity, there would be no measurable moment when we could say "Bam! This is it!".

We would only feel that we couldn't imagine any force, any power, any change other than total annihilation, that could stop our fall.

In a sense, we could already be well past the event horizon of our singularity. We could be falling inexorably into each other.
posted by bru at 8:52 AM on March 23, 2012


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