Fried Light: The future in a nutshell

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By Roger Snodgrass

“A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” as the campaign slogan for the United Negro College has pressed into our heads for over thirty-five years, while raising $2.2 billion for its cause.

And what about a country? What about a world?

The Center for Naval Analyses says 46 countries with a combined population of 2.7 billion people are at a high risk of armed conflict. Another 1.2 billion people live in 56 countries facing political instabilities.

Half the world sits on a precipice staring at a nightmare of uncertain energy and food prices while failed governments and global greed shove them from behind.

Water shortages, drug-resistant diseases, hyper-weather disasters and criminal proliferation: there are new horsemen of the apocalypse every time we take the roll.

Three billion people in the world make less than $2 a day, as Rajan Gupta of Los Alamos National Laboratory, urgently reminds people in his analysis of the planet’s energy dilemmas. That’s twice the population of a hundred years ago and half the number who are living now.

These are abstractions, one might say: “I can’t imagine such an existence and there is nothing to do if I could.”

“Consider the extraordinary waste of human talent through violence, neglect, poor education, corruption, and other forms of inhumanity,” says the new State of the Future annual report that will be published next month.

The report of the Millennium Project of the World Federation of the United Nations Associations, according to a summary that has been released, scolds the world for not working better.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provoked a howl recently by reducing its calculation of the value of a human life from $7.8 million to $6.9 million. The reduction would cheapen the environmental toll, critics said, a write-off for polluters.

Apart from the political motivation, who would deny that the value of a human life is declining? What a waste.

Despite the prevailing pessimism of the times, the future report sees a brighter future for much of the world, if it can dodge a few bullets.

There are heavy expenditures for the military, $1.3 trillion of the world’s more-or-less $55 trillion economy. With about one-fifth of that economy, the U.S. accounts for a disproportionate half of the world’s military expenses. Destruction is heavily incentivized. What a waste.

A computer can now perform a quadrillion floating point operations per second, it says, a reference to LANL’s new Roadrunner supercomputer, which the report envisions will be supporting “simulations to improve medicine, materials, climate predictions and other insights into nature.”

The computer will be working on those things, especially during its first six months, but its main job will be nuclear weapons work. In that capacity, the Roadrunner will reduce the need to resume nuclear testing, according to proponents, but it might also encourage more rogues and states to nuke up and join a growing crowd, say others.

The laboratory’s potential is also invoked by another why-not idea that has been repeated so often one might think more of it would be visible by now. That is, as the State of the Future report calls it, “a global energy research and development strategy with an Apollo-like goal to turn around greenhouse gas emissions in 10 years.”

Surely we need better ways to make all these kinds of decisions, to see a few more moves ahead and save a little more effort for the tight spots.

While science and technology continue drive the conventional hopes of optimists, it’s hard to feel confident that these days that any big change in our prospects will be for the better.

That seems to depend on how much more wasted we get.