I had the pleasure last weekend of spending my time with a generous and warm family from Brazil. They invited me to their beach home and everything, including the weather, was marvelous. My hosts were Mark and his wife, Roberta Lund. Mark has lectured at Babson and has participated in some of the student excursions into Brazil. Mark is a talented musician, sales educator, and surfer, but this particular weekend, I learned about his fascination and in depth study of myth, religion, and more specifically the Mayan calendar which, to some, predicts the end of the earth as we know it in 2012. Mark has lectured extensively on the subjects.
I am an atheist and a disbeliever when it comes to aliens, gods, myths and, not related, most of the business plans that I read. So I wanted to hear Mark’s story. I always love a good story. I will summarize it, certainly getting it wrong.
Virtually all religious holy days (shortened now to holidays) are related somehow to celestial observations and their synchronized events. We celebrate the longest and shortest days, the transitions in seasons, etc. Thus, all are in synchrony with the zodiacs. As Mark tells it, the Mayans were sophisticated enough with their observations of the movement of the stars to record not just the annual patterns but the patterns that occur over longer periods, thousands of years by including the effects associated with the axial tilt of earth in their calculations. The tilt undergoes a nutation, a slight irregular motion with a period of 18.6 years, and the orientation of the axis precesses around the sun each 25,800 years.
The Mayans either ran out of rock for calendars after 2012, or they assumed there was no need because we would all be dead. More likely to me, they figured that it would all repeat and there was no need to waste more rock. They probably had rock recyclers back then too.
I don’t believe that the world is likely to end in 2012, but I do believe that the planet is beset by cycles of catastrophes and the very nature of time, or a clock or a calendar points out one’s expectations for a catastrophe in the same way that we expect the spring after winter. A possible strike by a meteor, a possible reversal or collapse of the earth’s magnetic field, solar flares of immense proportions, are all lurking in our future. And, all of these catastrophes are cyclic in nature; meaning that they are inevitable. The end of days is likely upon us, or is it?
The first problem is that humans don’t really get probabilities. We have a hard time understanding the concept that the likelihood of a giant asteroid or meteor strike can be represented by a normal or Gaussian distribution centered on an average rate. It has been calculated that extinction events can be expected at an average rate of anywhere from one to twenty per 100 million years, depending upon your definition of extinction. The last major one was 65 million years ago. Well, once every five to fifty million years still seems like pretty good odds, but is it? In any case we’re overdue.
Major extinction events are part of our planets history and I’m certain that the forces that cause them are eventually going to occur. Yet, I’m not worried. Partially, because their likelihood is so low, that it’s not likely my problem, but more likely the problem of future generations, but more importantly, because there is now, unlike any time before us, a new chance for survival that none of our progenitors had.
I have spoken in my class about the observation by many scientists like Moore and Kurzweil that the rate of technological innovation is not linear but exponential because it appears that the development of future technologies is dependent upon the prior innovations. Thus, if we look at the rate of innovation during the four to five hundred years called the industrial revolution, we see that the rate has sped up, for example, from a time lag of 25 years between the invention of the telephone and wireless which occurred around the turn of the 20th century to our current environment where it seems major new inventions are available monthly.
Thus, we are in a race. One where the next extinction event gets more and more likely every year, but our technical ability to protect ourselves is also growing, albeit at an exponential rate. For example, it’s already true that NASA is tracking large objects in the sky, in anticipation of having to one-day “adjust” the orbit of a meteor or asteroid that appears to be on a collision course with our planet, a shield that the dinosaurs didn’t have.
This isn’t just about extinction however; it’s also about many if not all of the major global problems that beset us. Let’s consider global warming. Regardless of whether you believe that it’s induced this time by humans or not, let us for a moment assume that regardless of its source, it will be dramatic in its cost to society. The rising of sea levels and the changing of weather patterns will likely have a dramatic cost impact.
The question I raise is: is it really necessary for us to attempt to battle this problem now, or are we better off waiting until technology offers us a better solution? I must first define the term: “better.” To me, better simply means, less cost to society.
What we know is that there are two intersecting curves.
First, there’s the curve associated with the accumulated cost to society if we do nothing. Second, there’s the curve of the accumulated cost of mitigation.
For example, we know that it’s possible to remove or scrub carbon from the atmosphere and return it to a state where it can be used as a fuel once again. It has been demonstrated many times with many different technologies. But in all cases, the limiting factor is the amount of energy required to accomplish it. If however, sometime in the future, energy was cheap, fundamentally free, as might occur, for example, if we could harness lightening, or the rotation of the earth’s core, then the concept of building massive atmospheric scrubbers is not so farfetched. And, one might even suggest that using gasoline, namely the chemical storage of energy as opposed to batteries, was a pretty efficient system. Specifically, we would make the gasoline at the giant atmospheric scrubbers, ship it to the already existing gas stations, burn it in our cars and return the CO2 to the atmosphere where it is carried for free essentially back to the scrubbers. We stop digging for oil, coal, etc. and simply use air-gasoline as the storage system for environmentally friendly energy generation that is centralized.
So this leads to the essential question of: how long should we wait to start dealing with the problem?
I have no idea. But I would suggest that it’s possible for engineers and scientists to construct the curves that I speak of and to make a rational decision as to when it’s necessary to start, and what technology is likely to be used. Of course, we don’t seem to have a great track record when it comes to forecasting the future so maybe we will be left to just guessing.
I would guess that it’s not time yet to panic. Solar collectors are getting more efficient every year. Alternative energy sources are appearing frequently. I would suggest that we take a deep breath and wait. I think that there’s time and it will be cheaper in the future to fix. So: Fix it later.