Thinking Long Term
Hello dear listeners of Seldon Crisis, thanks as always for downloading and listening. Things have been crazy of late. In the long gap since our last episode, much has transpired and much of it has been unwelcome. About a month ago, a good friend and I went on our usual winter backcountry skiing and camping adventure. I had targeted a beautiful little bowl high on Mt Lassen in California as our destination – a deceptively short ski in – less than three miles from the parking lot to our intended campsite. We’d been in the habit of much longer entries, but this one was quite steep in comparison to our usual. We rented snowshoes for a change from our usual practice of skiing in which was a good call, and took our home-made sleds with us to haul supplies, which turned out to be a big mistake. The grade and terrain was such that we found it nearly impossible to pull the sleds and had to abandon them halfway, take the bulk of our weight on our backs the rest of the way to the campsite, then return for our lightened sleds and return to camp. Instead of a three mile journey of a few hours, it was more than eight miles in total and took the whole day to accomplish the project. Fully exhausted, we slept well in the tent and had a nice day ski around the bowl the next day, then had to get everything back out which may have been even harder than getting it in. The problem with going downhill with loaded sleds is they tend to run ahead which completely compromises any attempt to ski or even snowshoe. The end result was complete exhaustion.
Upon reaching home I hoped to get a good night’s sleep, rest up a couple of days, and then get back to a vigorous schedule of daily bike rides and lots of podcasting. Covid had other plans for me. My friend and I both tested positive the next morning. I spent the full week almost entirely in bed with a vicious breakthrough infection, wracking cough, fever and headache, and unrelenting fatigue. We were both fully vacced and boosted and wore masks almost everywhere we mixed with others, but somehow it found us. Now another several weeks have passed, I’ve gotten back to reasonably good health, but I still can’t entirely shake this cough that hits me off and on. Be careful out there friends. Don’t get Covid if you can help it.
As bad as the Covid was, it’s the war in Ukraine that’s really hit me hard. My wife is from St. Petersburg, Russia, and has mixed Russian and Ukrainian ancestry. She still has family back home and she’s been deeply affected and will continue to be for some time. We also have a lot of Russian and Ukrainian friends. We don’t know anyone who sides with Putin in this. I find myself endlessly distracted by this conflict and want it desperately to end, but not without liberating the Ukrainian people from such horribly unjustified aggression. I’ve also been deeply concerned about Putin’s possible use of nukes if he gets desperate enough – and he will get more and more desperate. It makes it quite hard to focus on producing content for the podcast and I hope you can forgive me for my distractions.
Let me get on to something a little less “woe is me.” Long time listeners may recall that in our very first episode I talked about one of the main things that drew me to Foundation being the scope of deep time. I’d always been fascinated by the ancient human story and this was a story that extended it well into the distant future. It turns out that there is an organization based just down the road from me in San Francisco that shares a similar fascination; the Long Now Foundation. Their stated mission is to foster long term thinking and they have some unique projects oriented to that goal. One is a 10,000 year clock that is being built inside a mountain in Texas. It is designed to ring a unique chime once every day for that great duration and the journey by foot to reach it is intended to be akin to a religious pilgrimage. Another is the Rosetta Project, intended to catalog 1,500 human languages to preserve them for distant posterity. One of the most intriguing projects for our subject is the “Manual for Civilization,” a library of essential human knowledge to be compiled for future humans that may need to rebuild civilization after some terrible calamity. Does this sound familiar to anyone. The Encyclopedia Galactica perhaps? It should not be a surprise that Asimov’s Foundation is among the works included.
What I’ve found most valuable in the immediate sense, however, is the archive of Long Now talks that are available on one of two podcasts and many in video format on their website at longnow.org. I’ve listened to at least a dozen of them and wrote a blog post about many of my favorites which you can find at seldoncrisis.net. I’m going to mention two of them in a little more detail and encourage everyone to at least check out these two, both of which are available on the website in video.
David Grinspoon is a planetary scientist I’ve been following on twitter for several years ever since reading an amazing book he wrote entitled Earth in Human Hands. It truly blew my mind, as it discusses the history of not just the history of humanity, but the history of the universe dating back to the big bang, with particular emphasis on geologic time and the unique epoch we are entering that many have become referring to as the anthropocene. This has varying definitions, but the gist of it is that it is the period of time in which humanity has become a planetary force on this planet. Some say it should start with the nuclear age, or the industrial revolution, or even 8,000 years ago when humanity learned how to grow plants for food and tame wild animals for our benefit. Grinspoon argues that this became the time that humanity began to significantly change the planet unintentionally. He likens our species to a toddler bolting about a room knocking these over or the classic bull in a china shop. His thesis is that it’s not a realistic option to stop changing the planet. Indeed, the planet has a tendency to change on its own and has done so regularly during the course of its history and that many of these changes are not conducive to our long term survival. He argues for a new era in which humans learn to intentionally manage the environment of the planet. We’ve already begun by learning how to keep the ozone from depleting via international agreement and inevitably will have to do more actions to manage the growing threat of climate change. He goes further to suggest that the anthropocene epoch could be just the start of a new eon; the Sapeozoic. He also suggests that this might be something we should look for in our analyses of exoplanets – to look for those that show signs of being managed. If a planet is warmer than it should be, or cooler, or the atmospheric chemistry can’t be explained by natural processes, perhaps a civilization is managing it and it has entered its Sapeozoic eon. The book is wonderful, but the talk is a nice hour long summary of the main ideas and has a brilliant Q&A session afterwards with Stewart Brand. I failed to mention that all Long Now talks end with a Q&A session and the questions are almost always incredibly thoughtful and evoke wonderful responses. These are like TED talks taken to a much higher level and almost always leave my mind reeling with excited possibilities and new ideas.
I actually got to see one talk live in SF by a guy you’ve heard a lot about on this podcast, sci fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson. It was thrilling and engaging from start to finish. He talks quite a bit about his recent climate novel The Ministry for the Future which I heartily recommend for every thinking human on this planet. It’s set in the very near future and covers about three decades in which climate change threatens to completely upend the world order and kick off a mass extinction event. Though it starts with 12 of the most horrific pages I’ve read anywhere, it’s ultimately an optimistic vision of how humanity could navigate its way through this gauntlet to a relatively stable and sustainable environment and a much brighter future.
Robinson also talks about his recent time at the COP26 climate conference and presents an insider’s perspective on the way such things work and how and why they are also quite limited in what they can achieve. Since this was only a little more than a month ago and the war in Ukraine had already begun, he explains his perspective on geopolitics and the problem on petro-states of which Russia is only one example, and how they are essentially fated to be transformed dramatically as part of the new climate order, and how an entirely new form of international economics will be required to make this a reality. Honestly, KSR is one of the smartest humans I’ve ever come across and have actually had the pleasure of befriending through our time in the Mars Society. I spoke with him briefly before the talk and asked him if he’d consider being a guest on the podcast. He agreed to do so, as long as I could wait until late next year or early in 2023 which I agreed to immediately. I guess that means I have to get back to podcasting in earnest, and continue to do so for some time. He’ll be an absolutely awesome guest.
There will be links in the show notes to the Long Now website and the talks I’ve discussed, so please check them out and share your reactions to them. Before wrapping up today, I want to call attention to another indie podcast I’ve recently discovered of interest to anyone interested in sci fi cinema called Science Fiction Remnant. I listened to their take on possibly my favorite movie of all time, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 a Space Odyssey, and the discussion was fabulous. The main host presented his own interpretation of the enigmatic message of the ending which I find distinctly plausible. They also have episodes covering a lot of my favorite sci fi flicks and I’ll definitely be checking out a bunch of them. Stay tuned after the closing theme for a brief promo for the podcast.
So, what of the long-awaited Search by the Foundation, Part I? I’m working on it, and it’s going to be well worth the wait I promise. There are more characters in this one than even the original Mule episodes and I’ll be featuring several new voices apart from my own. We’ll have a new voice playing Arkady, Amanda will be back to play Lady Callia, and another new voice will step in as Homir Munn. It’s possible I might have someone else play Lord Stettin, and of course there will still be a lot of me as well. Hang in there and a lot of great new episodes will be forthcoming. I hope to never again have circumstances that create such a long gap, but life can obviously be unpredictable as I have found from the past couple of months.
See you soon with more new episodes of Seldon Crisis!