Raymund Eich talks about the high possibilities of an optimistic future and the political obstacles that stand in the way. Read his story , “Return Blessing” in our [September/October issue, on sale now]
The Consortia, the galaxy-colonizing setting of my current Analog story “Return Blessing” (and my novel Azureseas: Cantrell’s War), is a fundamentally optimistic future. The characters in these stories, and the vast majority of human beings living on the dozens of Consortia worlds, have their basic material needs met and have opportunities to flourish. Tourist trips through interstellar jump points are just icing on the cake.
Optimistic science fiction seems unfashionable these days. Read the news and you’ll understand why.
Climate change will flood the homes of billions and turn farmland into desert. The Amazon rain forest will get clear-cut. The raw materials we need will run out, or we’ll irreparably harm the environment when we extract them. Covid-19 is just the first of a wave of killer plagues. According to the UN, Earth’s population is projected to increase about 47% by 2100, to over 11 billion.
With all this doom and gloom, how can science fiction be optimistic?
Because these problems are solvable. More: we know how to solve them.
Smarter people than me, like Jerry Pournelle and John McCarthy have talked about this for decades. There’s enough energy in fissionable atomic nuclei or in sunlight to allow everyone on Earth to consume as much energy as the average American does today without emitting CO₂.
With enough energy, every other problem becomes simple. Seriously. Think about it.
Fresh water shortages? Distill seawater.
Mining damages the environment? Extract metals from seawater.
Overpopulation? A bounty of energy helps countries become wealthier. Wealthier countries have smaller families. (The correlation between per capita purchasing power parity GDP and total fertility rate is -0.50).
Even climate change is solvable with plentiful non-fossil-fuel energy. Not only by emitting less CO₂, but by powering carbon sequestration and other technologies to bring down atmospheric levels of CO₂ and other greenhouse gases as far as we want.
I can hear the objection. If we know how to save the world, why don’t we do it?
Cue Jerry Pournelle again. This time, his Iron Law of Bureaucracy. To paraphrase, the people devoted to an organization’s mission will get crowded out by others who manipulate the organization to increase personal wealth and power.
Pournelle saw examples of this in American education and NASA, but his Iron Law plays out throughout history. Look at the rise and fall of Rome, or the evolution of the Internet from ’90s idealism to dot-com-bubble greed to today’s corporate spyware and intelligence agency backdoors.
Pournelle isn’t the only observer of these phenomena. Peter Turchin has done copious work on how elites fight among themselves and strip-mine their societies for self-enrichment, and end up impoverishing their societies and their descendants.
In sum, the reason we aren’t doing the things we need to save the world is because the people who run our societies want what’s good for them, instead of what’s best for us.
How do we change that?
- In my stories of the Consortia, the problem has barely arisen. The galaxy is wide open. The only aliens discovered, on Valoduria, Azureseas, and other worlds I haven’t written about yet, are low-tech. Like the US in the 1800s, the elites of the Consortia can prosper by helping average people settle new worlds. New worlds equal new markets, after all. The elite have little need to fight among themselves for bigger pieces of a no-longer-growing pie.
- In theory, if elites stay loyal to their society’s moral precepts, they won’t turn against one another and against us. In practice, elites get good at paying lip service to public morality while being immoral in private. Consider even a “good” elite, sober, austere Roman Emperor Augustus. He wanted a return to strict Roman moral values, yet refused to exile his daughter for her notorious sexual excapades.
I wrote about a moral code with high-tech teeth in To All High Emprise Consecrated, book 3 in my Stone Chalmers science fiction action/adventure series. The elites of the rediscovered colony world of Minerva are bound by the same moral code as the colony’s average citizens, although the technology that does the binding is admittedly very speculative.
- A similar concept, but one we could implement today, is the Transparent Society described by frequent Analog contributor David Brin. I wrote a story about one particular implementation of the concept, “The Twenty-Eighth Amendment” (collected in Constitution 2050).
Monitoring politicians around the clock would cost taxpayers $4.32 billion per year. A lot of money? That’s less than 0.1% of the US federal budget (~$6.6 trillion in fiscal year 2020). (It’s also about 1/5 of NASA’s annual budget). On top of that, you and I both know it would pay for itself many times over.
An audio-video recording team follows the President, Vice-President, every Cabinet secretary, every member of the House and Senate, every Supreme Court justice, and every other presidential appointee at all times. Okay, they won’t get recorded in the bathroom, the bedroom (with their spouse), or in private time with their families.
We won’t stop there. Their phone calls are recorded; their emails are copied; their postal mail is scanned. Every recording is immediately posted online for any US citizen to access.
Impractical? Maybe. Impossible? Not at all.
Assume each monitored politician would require four teams of two people to record them around-the-clock, and there are about two thousand politicians to be monitored. That’s 4 * 2 * 2000 = 16,000 workers on recording teams. Double that to cover the recording of phone calls, emails, letters, and the IT required to keep it online. Then add 50% for support staff. That’s 48,000 employees. At an average federal government employee annual salary of about $90,000 (nice work if you can get it), monitoring politicians around the clock would cost taxpayers $4.32 billion per year.
A lot of money? That’s less than 0.1% of the US federal budget (~$6.6 trillion in fiscal year 2020). (It’s also about 1/5 of NASA’s annual budget). On top of that, you and I both know it would pay for itself many times over.
It should be obvious why. America’s elites use lobbyists and lawyers to get politicians to pass legislation and regulatory agencies to give them approvals, the good of society and the preferences of voters be damned. This corrupt traffic is only successful because it’s conducted in private.
Which is why any serious effort to make my speculative 28th Amendment a reality will raise a storm of opposition from elected officials from both major US political parties. (Yes, I know the politicians from your party are selfless public servants, and only the ones from the other party are the problem. Humor me).
However, we can rebut them with the same line they fed us, when the Patriot Act impinged on civil liberties after passing both houses of Congress by huge majorities (357-66 and 98-1): “The innocent have nothing to fear.”
A pipe dream? Maybe. But think on this. The Apollo program was born in the dreams of rocketeers decades before the 1960s. Those engineers had to build the technology it took to send men to the moon. Subjecting politicians to the round-the-clock scrutiny they deserve is much easier. It would only require off-the-shelf technology. And the will to implement it.