In a post here two weeks ago I discussed the disastrous failure of imagination on the part of the industrial world’s governing classes. Since then—well, let’s just say that for connoisseurs of elite cluelessness, it’s a target-rich environment out there.
We’ll choose one such target more or less at random. Last week’s news was briefly illuminated, if that’s the word, by yet another claim that fusion power is racing to the rescue of the industrial world, bearing “near-limitless clean power” to solve the climate crisis and bail out the otherwise unsustainable lifestyles of our society’s privileged classes. The handwaving this time emanated from the Joint European Torus (JET) in Culham, England, where scientists managed to sustain a fusion reaction for a little more than twice as long as any previous fusion device. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? The excitement may flag a bit if you read the fine print and discover that the new record was around five seconds.
The scientists boasted that during that five seconds, the reaction produced enough energy to power one house for a day. If this seems impressive to you—I have to say it doesn’t do much for me—keep in mind also that the energy they’re talking about is raw heat. They didn’t factor in the inevitable losses that come in when you take that heat, convert it into electricity via steam turbines or the like, and send it out into the grid. Nor did they subtract from their machine’s output the very considerable inputs of energy that had to go into making the reaction happen—fusion only happens at extremely high temperatures, and a tokamak-style reactor like the one in Culham also requires fantastically strong magnetic fields to confine the hot plasma. Both of these take gargantuan amounts of energy—as, of course, does building, maintaining, and operating the exceedingly complex hardware needed for nuclear fusion.
Oh, and having achieved that record, the JET will probably have to be scrapped, because the titanic heat and pressure needed to get a few seconds of fusion energy out of it have caused so much damage to the hardware that the machine won’t be able to do the same thing again. How will the same technology stand up to the 24/7 demands of generating power for the grid, so that fossil fuels can be retired and carbon emissions can start to decline? You can read the adulatory stories in the corporate media all day and not see anybody addressing that.
Plenty of useful lessons can be drawn from those same news stories, but the one that strikes me just at the moment is the remarkable mismatch between what’s being said about the imminence of climate-driven disaster and the very sedate pace at which fusion research is progressing. The first tokamak-style experimental fusion reactors were built in the 1950s, after all, and the fact that they’ve only just gotten to five seconds of sustained fusion isn’t exactly comforting. Let’s set that aside, however, and speculate that they can set a new record double the old one every single year from here on. Even at that rate of improvement—a rate that no fusion research program has ever been able to reach so far, much less sustain—they won’t be able to run the thing for a full hour at a stretch for another nine years and change, and 24 hours of sustained power isn’t on the schedule until somewhere toward the middle of year 14.
And the uninterrupted flow of power for months and years at a time that a modern power grid needs? If you’ve got a calculator, why, you can do the math as well as I can. Equally, if you note that it took them 70 years to get to five seconds of sustained fusion, and look at the actual pace of fusion research over that lifetime of labor, you can do the math too, and it’s not pretty.
All these dates assume, furthermore, that a society racked by the impacts of climate change can afford to pour effectively limitless amounts of money into building brand new fusion plants, and replacing them promptly with others when the damage from the heat and pressure render them inoperable. It also assumes that no technical difficulties worth noting will come up in the process of scaling up five seconds of fusion to continuous service over months and years, and a galaxy of other far from minor issues of the same kind, but we can let those go for the moment.
One conclusion that might be drawn from all this is that the managerial aristocracy is far less concerned about climate change than it likes to pretend. If in fact we only have a few years to prevent global catastrophe, as pundits and the corporate media insist so loudly, then it’s far from clear why we’re wasting time and resources on a potential power source that won’t be ready to supply power to the grid for decades to come, if it ever does reach commercial viability. There are plenty of other news stories just now that suggest the same lack of concern. I’m not sure how many of my readers are aware, for example, that the EU has quietly exempted private jets and luxury yachts from the carbon restrictions it’s planning to impose on the modes of transport that the rest of us use, or that US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi—during the same period in which she was lecturing everyone else on the dangers of climate change—dropped $500,000 on travel in carbon-spewing private jets.
This sort of mismatch between words and deeds—yes, that’s spelled “hypocrisy” in plain English—has convinced a great many people these days that the climate change narrative is hokum deployed by a kleptocratic ruling class to justify the ongoing consolidation of power and wealth in its own grubby hands. Reasonable as that theory seems at first glance, I can’t agree with it. It’s a mistake to think we can dump billions of tons of heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere without causing changes in climate, not least because the evidence from the past is clear: greenhouse events driven by CO2 releases in the prehistoric past are well documented in the geological record, and the mere fact that the CO2 in question came from volcanoes rather than smokestacks and tailpipes doesn’t change the impact of the gas in question once it gets up into the atmosphere and starts soaking up infrared rays. Nor is climate change purely a matter of abstractions. I’m writing these words in the middle of a New England winter, for instance, and outdoors it’s a bright, warm, sunny day and the thermometer says 58°F.
So why the glaring lack of consistency between words and deeds? Why are our politicians, pundits, and corporate flacks talking as though global warming is going to kill us all in a decade or so if we don’t give them everything they want, and then acting as though there’s nothing to worry about—cheering on fusion projects that might (but might not) pay off fifty years from now, and pursuing carbon-wasting lifestyles as though that couldn’t possibly be a problem?
This is where we cycle back to the theme I began exploring two weeks ago: the catastrophic failure of the imagination in contemporary industrial society.
Let’s start once again with nuclear fusion. It’s not a new idea. When Jules Verne decided to come up with a nifty new power source for Captain Nemo’s submarine Nautilus in his 1870 science fiction bestseller Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, he had it powered by nuclear fusion. Once 1901 came and Albert Einstein published his famous equation E=mc2, physicists started trying to figure out how to take Verne at his word. The first prototype fusion reactors were on the drawing boards by 1930, and by the 1950s the tokamak design had already been invented. Since then, entire generations of nuclear physicists have repeated the same failed efforts over and over again, resolutely refusing to learn the lessons of failure.
The failure that matters here, by the way, isn’t technological. It’s quite possible that sometime in the next century, someone will actually manage to get a sustained fusion reaction going for more than a few seconds at a time. If that happens, however, it won’t make an iota of difference for the survival of industrial society, because of the cost. Seventy years of fusion research have proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that fusion can’t produce electricity at a price that anybody can afford to pay. Even if they can be made to work, fusion power plants will be hopelessly unaffordable white elephants. In a future of inescapable economic contraction and resource scarcity, the chance that they will do any good at all is too small to worry about.
These same two points are equally true of the rest of the imaginary hardware that clutters up the notional landscape of the future. Space travel is another good example. As a feature of our canned Tomorrowlands, it’s well into its second century, and as a reality, it’s more than sixty years old. That considerable experience has shown that it’s hugely expensive, it requires gargantuan inputs of energy and nonrenewable resources, and it can’t cover its own costs–every attempt to make it pay for itself has consistently fallen flat on its nose cone. You can make a profit putting satellites into orbit—well, until the available orbits get too crowded and a Kessler syndrome happens—but people? A pointless stunt with costs vastly exceeding its very limited benefits. Yet it stays stuck in the collective fantasies of our age.
Another example? Let’s consider socialism, which is in its third century now—it was invented in 1809 by Charles Fourier. Even more than fusion power and space travel, socialism has been surrounded by a thick cloud of self-aggrandizing ballyhoo, and it’s crucial to clear away some of that in order to make sense of socialism as a historical phenomenon. Though its rhetoric makes a lot of noise about giving the means of production to the people, in practice “the people” always means the government, and “the government” always means a self-perpetuating bureaucracy of middle class functionaries carefully shielded from the consequences of failure. That’s why socialism in practice has turned out to be one of the few systems of political economy in history that’s even less viable than corporate capitalism. Yet an embarrassingly large number of people are still obsessed with trying to reenact this particular two-century-old flop.
If you want to see total failure of the imagination in practice, in fact, one of the best places to do so is a socialist website. Their arguments for socialism reliably consist of claiming that corporate capitalism is awful and that socialism is the only alternative. I freely grant the first point; so did Adam Smith, for that matter—the author of The Wealth of Nations, the founder of capitalist economic theory, argued that joint-stock companies (the term used for corporations in his day) were the worst possible way to run a business, and an even worse way to run a society. The second point, by contrast, shows not merely an utter lack of imagination but a stunning ignorance about the history of political economy.
The point that’s missed by these arguments is that corporate capitalism and bureaucratic socialism are far from the only games in town. Businesses can be owned and operated by co-ops democratically run by their own workers—that’s syndicalism. The means of production can be gotten into as many individual hands as possible—that’s distributism, and in another key, it’s also Gandhian economics. (Did you know that Gandhi worked out a detailed economic theory? Most people don’t.) Most business can be left in private hands but banking can be made a public monopoly, with every citizen receiving an annual dividend out of interest payments to the national bank—that’s social credit. Corporations can be abolished or stripped of their legal personhood, so that each entrepreneur is personally liable for the debts and criminal acts of the business he or she runs—that doesn’t have a name yet, but don’t be surprised to see it become a significant force in the years ahead. There are more options—many, many more—but they don’t have a place in the imagination of our time.
I could provide a baker’s dozen of other examples, but why? The point has, I think been made: what counts as “the future” in the collective conversation of the modern world is a collection of clanking, shopworn fantasies that people have been trying to put into practice over and over again for a century or more, and repeated experience has shown that all of them cost vastly more than they’re worth. We’re long past the point at which all of them should have been put out to pasture; at this point it’s time to start talking about the route to the nearest glue factory. Only the feeble imagination of the modern era leaves these geriatric daydreams stuck in place, and keeps fusion researchers and their many equivalents forever pushing on a door marked “pull.”
It’s all very reminiscent of one of the crucial problems that writers of fiction have to contend with on every page. No matter what kind of story you’re writing, there’s a stock of clichés—characters, situations, plot twists, turns of phrase, you name it—that’s been done to death by previous writers. They’re all secondhand goods, well worn by previous owners, which is why they come to mind so easily. What you do with these depends on what you’re trying to do. If you’re content to write the kind of popcorn fiction that makes money and then gets forgotten, your job is to deploy these clichés in some new constellation, so readers can snuggle down comfortably with your book in the serene knowledge that they won’t encounter anything that will make them think. If you want to write something that makes a difference, by contrast, your job is to chase out the clichés, and present the readers with characters and situations (and the rest of it) that they’ve never encountered before.
A genre of fiction becomes senile when it consists of nothing but clichés. A society becomes senile, in tur, when its vision of the future consists of nothing but clichés. It’s precisely because our society is entranced with a pair of shopworn, secondhand futures that it blunders mindlessly ahead, slamming into one preventable crisis after another, because too few people can imagine any future other than the Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber of perpetual progress toward the stars and sudden apocalyptic collapse back to the caves.
There’s an alternative to this. It doesn’t consist of holding up some other canned future as the one and only future we can expect. It consists of developing our imaginations until we can see that there are many potential futures, spanning a dizzying range of untapped possibilities, and we can all play a role in choosing which ones (not “which one”) come into being.
Try the following exercise sometime today when you’ve got half an hour or so to spare. Sit down in a comfortable chair, relax, breathe slowly and deeply for a while, and set aside the concerns of your day. Now imagine that you’re sitting in the laboratory of a friendly mad scientist, who rubs his hands together, cackles in glee, and shows you his latest invention: a device that opens a portal into different futures. There it sits in front of you, the portal like an open doorway made of some strangely colored metal, with cables and oddly shaped protrusions all over the outside, the machinery that makes it work a profusion of weird shapes, flickering lights, eerie low-pitched sounds, and a shimmer like the air over hot pavement in summer filling the space inside the portal, while the scent of ozone tinges the air. Imagine the mad scientist beaming at you and telling you to try it out.
Imagine yourself getting up from your chair and going to the machine. You see that it has a control panel with three buttons on it. One of them is labeled GENERIC TOMORROWLAND FUTURE. The second is labeled GENERIC APOCALPYTIC FUTURE. The third is labeled SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT.
Go ahead and push the first button. The space inside the portal shimmers, and all at once you can see through it into the canned future we’ve been talking about: the one with flying cars zooming through the skies, spaceships taking passengers to orbital cities, fusion reactors churning out limitless cheap energy, and all the rest of the notional future of our time. Step through the portal if you like, and check it out, or simply take a good look, before returning to the control panel. It won’t take you long, since you’ve been fed all the details from childhood on.
Now go ahead and push the second button. The space inside the portal shimmers again, and all at onde you see through it into the standard apocalyptic wasteland that fills an equal and opposite role in the collective conversation of our time—you know, the horrible thing that’s sure to happen if we don’t let the managerial aristocracy do everything it wants. Once again, step through the portal if you like, and check it out—your friend the mad scientist can hand you a portable oxygen mask and other survival gear if that’s needed. Then go back to the control panel.
Finally, go ahead and push the third button, the one marked SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT. The space inside the portal shimmers again, and you see—
I’m not going to tell you what you see. It’s not the Tomorrowland future and it’s not the apocalyptic future, but beyond that, it’s up to you—and of course that’s just it. No law of nature requires us to go stumbling blindly ahead into a future consisting entirely of tired clichés from the early twentieth century or before. More to the point, no law of nature requires us to keep on trying to act as though those tired clichés are innovative new solutions to the problems of our time, when they’ve all been tried repeatedly and none of them work well enough to bother.
It’s time to say no to another warmed-over serving of secondhand futures. The little exercise of the imagination I’ve offered won’t accomplish that on its own, of course, but it might help some of us make a start. Give it a try, and see where it takes you.