Monday, August 19, 2013

Elysium Movie Review and Predictions of the Future


Someone once said that science fiction is never really about the future – because we can never really place ourselves in the mindset of the future. That's OK with me. The best science fiction, in my opinion; pictures a future that relates to issues of the present – extrapolating issues of today into a credible vision of the future – however unexpected.

The movie Elysium has created a very credible story line by focusing on present issues such as resource depletion, wealth concentration, technological attempts to avoid fixing social issues, a culture of corruption, and the continued oppression of indigenous peoples.

I recommend the movie – just for the conversations it will start.

Unfortunately, the Hollywood feel-good ending didn't feel all that plausible. (Long ago, Hollywood realized that sad endings don't sell tickets.) So, I guess it's the responsibility of us bloggers to consider more plausible endings.

...But first; the Elysium satellite concept seems like a great idea! If I were a billionaire, I would want them to start working on this right away. In fact, I would buy a few congressmen to pass bills authorizing NASA and various private contractors to start working on a “space colonization” project – at the expense of U.S. taxpayers. (Hey, I'd rather see NASA get the money than Homeland Security.)

Just check out this link to the (fictional) Elysium satellite. It's the ultimate gated community! It's the green zone in the heavens! But more importantly; it's an opportunity for humanity to keep our eggs in more than one basket. Space colonization is human species life insurance.

Even if only the super-rich get to live there, at least someone has a chance at life if all of the rest of us face extinction.

But wouldn't something like this be grossly unfair? Aren't many among these super-rich the very people responsible for exploiting the planet to the point of mass extinctions? Well, yes...

Which leads me to my point. There may be some very rich people right now who think they can be insulated from the consequences of a total Environmental collapse. Apparently, they must believe this – because their actions imply they don't care whether or not they cause an Environmental collapse. Of course, most likely they've deluded themselves (as most of us have) into believing their actions don't matter enough to see a need to change.

Humanity's callus and selfish actions have led us to the brink of our own extinction. The combined threats of nuclear war, chemical war, biological war, massive polluting, climate change, resource depletion, and overpopulation have pushed life on Earth to an extinction event as big as that which saw the extinction of the dinosaurs. We know this. It is already happening. And yet, like obsessively continuing to pull on a thread of a sweater, we continue to risk the total oblivion of the unraveling of nature. And why? To satisfy our man-made goals.

For example; the fossil fuel industries keep on selling poisons so that they can keep their stock prices up. Now after peak oil, they've figured out more dangerous ways to keep their cash flow in the billions. No one can deny that fracking is essentially poisoning our water in order to poison our air. But somehow, this makes sense in their (all that matters is cash flow) minds. For the past thirty years, the fossil fuel industry has done everything they can (including corrupt our democracy) to hold back renewable industries. Why? Because they perceive renewables as competition. The fossil fuel industries could have just bought into renewables – but no... the profits weren't as high. And why weren't the profits as high? Because they had corrupted our regulation systems to allow them to get away with polluting (poisoning) everything with impunity.

...And these are the people who could afford to buy a spot on the Elysium satellite.
Which brings up a point brought forth in the Elysium movie; one can never create a utopia if we fill it with evil people.

Of course, we don't actually have to build an Elysium satellite. We could try to create a utopia right here on Earth. Well... at least we could try. But I guess that's what those fossil fuel millionaires and billionaires must think they are trying to do for themselves. They've created gated community green zones that look idyllic from a distance, but don't really make the inhabitants that much happier. And to finance their gated communities, they've poisoned the air, the water, everyone's food, and each other. Oops...

On the other hand; even if we all were to switch to renewable energy, organic farming, clean industries, and all the sustainable habits – it may not be enough. There are seven billion of us on the planet, and our population continues to rise.

Ask any biologist; is this normal? NO! Every natural population finds an equilibrium in nature at which its population fluctuates sustainably. I'll use the hare and the lynx as an example: 

As you can see in the chart, natural populations fluctuate about a steady state. This makes sense, because our environment only has so many limited resources.

Now look at human population: 

This graph shows what is known as exponential growth – which is blatantly unsustainable. Note that wars, birth control, and AIDS have all barely made a dent in this exponential growth.

Evolution has given us a gift – which can also be a curse. Our population can rise precipitously to fill a void (such as when entering a new environment or after a major disease). But this propensity to grow has serious drawbacks humanity has yet to deal with.

Many scientists have predicted that eventually this exponential growth will level off – and that humanity will find a new steady-state population:

This, of course, is the best-case scenario. But unfortunately, it doesn't take into account human resourcefulness. People don't just stop having babies. People don't just give up on growing more food. People don't just stop eating when their traditional foods are gone. Humans survive because we have found ways to alter our habits and our environment. Which means that, for a while, we have figured out how to live beyond our natural carrying capacity. That's good news for us now, but terrifying news for us in the long run:

The reason we have so much to fear is we don't know what our carrying capacity actually is (or could be). In our natural state, humanity's carrying capacity was significantly less than a billion people. Which means we can't go back to our natural state. We have to rely on technology. But much of that technology is now polluting and using up resources. One would have to be brain-dead not to see that humanity has been systematically borrowing from the future to sustain our unsustainable lifestyle. One could even argue that humanity's whole exploitative economic system is a huge Ponzi scheme – on the verge of collapse.

In the last graph, consumption overshoot left the population with less in the long run. Which leads to the question: What if we overshoot our environmental carrying capacity so much that we drain our degraded carrying capacity to zero?

The concept is simple; a species grows exponentially in a finite environment until it eats all the food or somehow changes the environment to the point that the species can no longer survive in it.

Convincing examples of population collapses do exist:

Without some new technological fix to increase the world's carrying capacity, it would mean humanity's extinction.

...which is why scientists are trying to develop poo burgers.
In the not too distant future, that may be all that's left to eat.

Moreover, the sad truth is that because of humanity's consumption overshoot, we may not have time to build an Elysium satellite.

Recent news includes:

All I can say about this is; get used to it.
Humanity has already set in motion all of the events just mentioned – and much more.
If you're not scared, you don't have a clue.

Which is why I expected a different ending to the Elysium movie.

There may come a day when someone has the biological expertise to develop a disease that could kill 90% of us.

You may remember the movie 12 Monkeys. In this film, one person, that's right, one person sets in motion a disease that kills most human life on the planet. By the time we have the technology to put rich people in communities in space, the technology to create mass killing diseases will likely also exist. Which means that if the residents of an Elysium satellite ever feel threatened, someone might launch a pandemic.

Of course, if the technology to kill off all of their human competition were to be developed before an Elysium satellite; there wouldn't really be a need for an Elysium satellite.

What if some evil drug company invented both a humanity killing disease and a vaccination to prevent it? They could launch the disease and sell the vaccination. They could rid the world of all those poor people (in their way) and get rich doing it. Consider this; if they had a billion vaccines and they sold them for $10,000 a dose, that would make them ten trillion dollars! The temptation is frightening. Moreover, the results are arguably better than letting nature take its course (with a starving humanity bush-meating the planet). After a disease purge; the world would no longer be overpopulated with people, the drug company would be the richest people on the planet, and they could essentially create an Elysium right here on Earth. If there is a Dr. Evil, this would be at the top of his to-do list. But on the other hand, it still beats humanity's extinction (along with most of the higher forms of life on the planet).

So, there we have it.
Our choices are to:
  1. continue on the course we have set for ourselves and virtually guarantee our extinction (along with most higher forms of life on Earth).
  2. get our act together and develop a sustainable world economy, a fair worldwide democracy, a responsible research and development system, a stable population, and still risk extinction.
  3. try to build a space colony away from all the strife – knowing that there is no way we can keep up with humanity's exponential population growth and these space colonies will end up even more cutthroat than now (because of who will man it).
  4. create a disease that will sterilize us all – even though we suspect that the present population is already well over our planet's carrying capacity.
  5. create a bio-weapon that would kill off 90% of the human population without damaging the environment – knowing that the biggest exploiters, polluters, etc. will be those still alive.
  6. strive for technological “miracles” to save us for a while longer – knowing that the more our population rises, the worse the fall will ultimately be.

My point: in creating our present world, we have made our future options quite ugly. The movie Elysium, when considering these options, seems rather like a best case scenario – even for the poor stuck on Earth without jobs or health care. At least the rich hadn't killed them off.