An Optimist’s Tour of the Future

Mark Stevenson’s book, An Optimist’s Tour of the Future had me wondering in its opening pages. I warmed to the lively engaging style but I didn’t want to read about a scientist’s vision of human lifetimes lasting thousands of years. As I see it generations need to pass and leave space for others to experience life. However Stevenson rapidly optimist book shared his own doubts about extreme longevity and it became apparent that the book was not going to be a bland rendering of fantastical futurist visions but a serious account, albeit with a light touch, of some of the new science technologies of our time. It’s an account given largely through contact and interviews with scientists working in the various fields and leavened with personal reflection along the way.

Biotechnology, with all its promise for the treatment of disease as well as some of its dark possibilities, is the first area of investigation. “Give us the medicine. Save us from the weapons.” From there he moves to artificial intelligence, with some fascinating accounts of the robots laboratories are working on and reflections on the ultimate thinking capabilities of advanced machines. He gives reasons why we’re likely to remain the most intelligent machines on the planet. Nanotechnology comes next, under the chapter title Invisibly Small and Magical.

Acknowledging the uncertainties and anxieties surrounding its development Stevenson nevertheless highlights its real potential to make our world cheaper, healthier, more sustainable and cleaner. Spaceflight has a chapter. Then it’s on to the internet, with a discussion that finally centres on the adjective ‘entangled’, in a positive sense, as a description of where it has brought us.

There’s plenty of focused and dedicated scientific activity going into all these fields, and they’re all wide open to the future which is what Stevenson wonders about. But the litmus test for me of his realism about the future was what he had to say about climate change. I can no longer read any projections of the human future without querying whether those making them are treating the threat of climate change with the seriousness it deserves. Interesting though Stevenson’s surveys of the areas indicated above were, I needed to see what he was going to say about the issue which overshadows all the others.

He’s gentle with the sceptics in the general public, though obviously clear himself on the basics of climate science. He asks what risks it is wise to take in the face of the worries expressed by the scientists. Their picture may be incomplete, but that doesn’t mean it is wrong. He’s not happy to bet against them. He visits Wally Broecker and Klaus Lackner. Broecker is one of the world’s top climate scientists. He knows the consequences of burning all the fossil fuels, but thinks the world is going to go ahead and do it anyway. To counter the consequences he strongly backs Lackner’s scheme to pull carbon dioxide directly from the atmosphere and sequester it in suitable rocks. Lackner explains the scrubbing effect of his machine to Stevenson and reports on progress to date and the money needed to advance the scheme further. It’s a very clear explanation of the process and one can understand the enthusiasm Stevenson obviously feels in response.

He moves to consider energy, remarking on the staggering inefficiency of our energy production and use and the clear economic case for improving energy efficiency as a first step. The chapter’s consideration of renewable energy centres on Stevenson’s visit to the American Konarkas factory that is making photovoltaic solar cells by printing plastic ink on to a roll of plastic. Molecules of ‘organic conductive polymers’ can be either ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ and they are mixed up together in the inexpensive ink. The levels of power generated by this jumble are lower than in the ordered wafers of silicon cells, but the cells are much cheaper and can work in low light. The discussion Stevenson reports with the CEO opens up other fascinating possibilities for conducting polymers, such as a printable polymer-lithium battery.

Suddenly Stevenson had arrived here in New Zealand. He came to meet and enjoy the company of the directors of two small companies. Carbonscape is making biochar and associated fuels by microwaving processes. Aquaflow is extracting wild algae from sewage ponds as a feedstock for fuel and chemicals and in the process cleaning up the water so that it is well on the way to becoming fresh and clean. I’ve written articles about both companies in the past, and it was good to see them figuring in a book of this scope.

Stevenson moves next to Australia, where gets to see some remarkable farms which have taken on recommended management changes that enable them to work successfully in dry conditions. The partnership offering the advice has big plans for extensions in Australia to make the land ‘look right’. It’s a suitable place in the book for a very useful discussion about how to build up the carbon content of soils and the enormous potential that holds for carbon sequestration.

And where better to end this section of the book than in a visit to the Maldives where Stevenson watches the famous underwater meeting of the Maldives Cabinet and gets to talk to President Mohamed Nasheed about his plans for the Maldives to at least be an example of climate change mitigation to the rest of the world, while pleading for that world to take the steps needed to protect countries like his from the destructive sea level rise that will accompany ice sheet melting. He asks Nasheed finally what his one tip is for approaching the future. “Never give up hope, you know? Never give up. Just keep moving.”

In his concluding chapters Stevenson tries to make sense of the bewildering variety of understandings he has gained in the course of writing his book. He reflects on the exponential growth of information technology, nanotechnology and biotechnology, growth accelerating so fast that it makes it almost impossible to discern the shape of their future. He might have mentioned that exponential growth may also worryingly figure for climate change, but as one of his resolutions in conclusion is to embrace the exponential I guess that won’t go overlooked.

The book is breezy in style and easy to read, with lots of interest in the personal encounters it incorporates. However it’s far from lightweight. It communicates a great deal of accurate and useful information about the topics it covers. And its optimism is cautious, with plenty of doubt and acknowledgment of negative possibilities.

Article by Bryan Walker, appearing courtesy Celsias.

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