The Imminent Energy Shock

The biological world presented a mystery to people for millennia. The variety of life forms on earth was clearly immense. It was also clear to some observers of the biological world of life on land and in water that they were the result of evolution that led to the formation of new species of plants and animals. It was well understood that the various life forms evolved from earlier life forms, and that all life was related to all others. The difficulty lay in explaining the mechanism for evolution.

Some other observers held a different view. They argued that the variety of life forms on earth were created by an act of creation. That implied that there was a creator who designed and seeded earth with the all kinds of life we see on earth. They are called “creationists” and are distinct from “evolutionists” who believed in evolution.

One of the arguments advanced by the creationisist for their position involved a watch. A watch is a complex, designed object. It does not spontaneously come into existence. A watch implies a designer. The biological world is a far more complex system than a watch. Therefore it too, like the watch, could not have come about without a designer. Without invoking a creator, you cannot explain the complex, living world any more than you can explain the existence of a watch.

The debate between the creationists and the evolutionists began a quite a while ago, and in some quarters, the creationists continue to insist that they are right. But their idea was dealt a serious blow when the evolutionist side hit upon the mechanism that powers evolution. That mechanism is called “natural selection.” It was developed simultaneously by two people in the mid-1800s. Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.

Briefly put, their theory was that there’s a struggle for survival in nature. That struggle is for food and reproductive success, both of which are scarce. Scarcity is the defining feature. Therefore, they said, those individuals that were “fittest” in getting the scarce food and mates, succeeded in having descendants.

The mechanism of natural selection was this: food allows the individual to survive at least long enough to produce offsprings. These offsprings differ randomly in minor ways from the parents. Beneficial random variations allow greater reproductive success and therefore passed on to the next generation. That is, the selection of those beneficial traits is imposed naturally. Thus natural selection is a process of reproduction, random variation among the offsprings, and the differential survival of those that have beneficial features.

By explaining how the complex natural world evolved from simpler beginnings, natural selection removed the need for a designer and a supernatural creator. The natural world is complex but is not designed.

There was no watchmaker. The natural world was spontaneously ordered.

There is an analogous story regarding the complex world of human beings. Human society is immensely complex. It has been so for at least about 10,000 years, and it gets more complex at an accelerating pace with time. Because human society is so complex, we instinctively and intuitively feel that it must be the result of conscious design. People must have been involved in planning how society is to function. Such a complex organization could not have arisen spontaneously any more than a watch could have spontaneously made.

But that intuition is wrong. About 250 years ago, people began to realize that although society was the result of human action, it was not the result of human design. Society was not designed. The order we observe is spontaneous. What’s the mechanism through which this spontaneous order emerges? The answer is one word: competition.

This competition is similar to the competition for survival in the natural world. In both domains, the defining feature is scarcity. Scarcity compels competition, and that competition imposes constraints that ends up ordering society. What we get is order without any giving orders.

People figured out the mechanism for speciation around the same time they figured out how social order emerges without orders from above. That should not be surprising since both are cats of the same breed. The struggle for survival is at the foundation of both.

The preceding brief discussion was to lay the foundation for a simple claim: that it is impossible to figure out how the future will be with any degree of specificity. Spontaneous order is unpredictable in its workings because it is non-designed order.

You could not have predicted 65 million years ago, even in very broad terms, what the biosphere would look like in the present time. Things were going along fine until one fateful afternoon, an asteroid slammed into the earth, and that killed off the non-avian dinosaurs, and led to the dominance of the mammals, the most prominent of which are us, the homo sapiens.

So also, the claim here is that the equivalent of a massive asteroid is about to hit human society, and that it will transform the earth on a scale that is impossibly hard to predict with any accuracy. That there will be a “shock” to the present system is totally predictable. But we cannot imagine the long term consequences any more than one could have foreseen the evolution of humans 65 million years ago.

However, because the shock is just around the corner — beginning about 20 years or so — to a great degree the immediate consequences are foreseeable. They will be extraordinary and awesomely positive. Every aspect of life on earth will be affected. Everything that humans fear today, things that strike terror in people, will be over and done with. No aspect of our social world will be the same as before.

The transformation of human society will be total. It will be the end of scarcity, a curse that has dominated the human condition.

And here’s the one word that will be the equivalent of the asteroid: energy. It will turn the whole world upside down. This is the story of the near-term future of humans.

Author: Atanu Dey


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