Former FGEI founding board member Cameron Murphey reviews Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by 2100, by Michio Kaku.
     Rarely am I made to feel sick. Movies have done it to me a few times—say, Silence of the Lambs or the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan. But today was the first time I’ve felt sick from a book; some of you may have heard of it: Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by 2100, by Michio Kaku.

     Kaku’s argument is simple. When predicting the future, the most common mistake is to underestimate the rate of scientific progress. In 1903, for example, the New York Times claimed that airplanes were a waste of time; and the chairman of IBM, in 1943, expressed doubt that demand would ever exist for more than a dozen or so computers. Here Kaku is right: what each of them, along with countless others, got wrong was the exponential pace at which the sciences develop.

     So what was it that made me so sick? In the epilogue, Kaku describes the life of an “average” person in the year 2100:

     After a night of heavy partying on New Year’s Eve, you are sound asleep.
     Suddenly, your wall screen lights up. A friendly, familiar face appears on the screen. It’s Molly, the software program you bought recently. Molly announces cheerily, “John, wake up. You are needed at the office. In person. It’s important.”
     Slowly you drag yourself out of bed and reluctantly head off to the bathroom. While washing your face, hundreds of hidden DNA and protein sensors in the mirror, toilet, and sink silently spring into action, analyzing the molecules you emit in your breath and bodily fluids, checking for the slightest hint of any disease at the molecular level.
     Leaving the bathroom, you wrap some wires around your head, which allow you to telepathically control your home: you mentally raise the temperature of the apartment, turn on some soothing music, tell the robotic cook in your kitchen to make breakfast and brew some coffee, and order your magnetic car to leave the garage and be ready to pick you up. As you enter the kitchen, you see the mechanical arms of the robotic cook preparing eggs just the way you like them.
     Then you put in your contact lenses and connect to the Internet. Blinking, you see the Internet as it shines onto the retina of your eye.

     What follows are example after example of human life transformed by ‘amazing’ scientific advancements. Magnetic cars cruise effortlessly through vast networks of superhighways; workers on Earth telepathically operate robots on the moon; doctors manipulate the genomes of unborn children, optimizing all the expected categories—even human aging has been halted (the main character asks his robotic doctor if his seventies are an appropriate age to start having kids).

     But I’ve still avoided the question: what brought on my sickness? It wasn’t the unrealistic depiction of a classless, conflict-free technotopic future. Nor was it its embarrassingly unoriginality (floating cars and robot chefs—really?). It was something much larger instead, not any specific point in his characterization of the future but—like a stage-light coloring the entire scene—the near-total lack of human connection. Upon awaking, for example, whose “friendly, familiar face” does the main character first see? Not his mother’s, the mother who patiently and lovingly raised him. Not his lover’s, the lover for whom his heart burns. Not even his dog’s, the dog who farts in her sleep. No. He sees the face of a computer program, one that thousands of other men probably see upon waking as well—a pornographer’s dream! And who cooks his breakfast? Not his mother; not his lover; certainly not his dog—but a robot.

     Like the dominant culture, Kaku’s book encourages us to further remove ourselves from the random sway of nature and to establish ourselves as its master. We find a laughable anthropology in the introduction—“For countless eons we were passive observers of the dance of nature. We only gazed in wonder and fear at comets, lightning bolts, volcanic eruptions, and plagues, assuming that they were beyond our comprehension. To the ancients, the forces of nature were an eternal mystery to be feared and worshipped…” We civilized humans, though, are on the track to total mastery. “By 2100, our destiny is to become like the gods we once worshipped and feared.”

     When I think of the future, of what kind of world I want to live in, I don’t see myself surrounded by more and more technology. I don’t see myself as a god. I don’t even want to be a god! I see myself living with the people I love most and, hopefully, the people who love me.

     I see better now why I felt so sick, nauseous even, reading Physics of the Future.  For me, Kaku’s world, along with that of other technophiles, is suffocating. It marks the realization of the fantasy of science—a sterile city-space in which every human interaction is mediated by technology. Nothing is left to chance. Nothing is left to nature. If I ever found myself somewhere on that endless sheet of aluminum that Kaku dreams of, I imagine that I would starve of loneliness.

Max Wilbert is on the Board of Directors of Fertile Ground and is a graduate of Huxley College of the Environment. He has worked against police brutality, militarism, and environmental destruction for nearly a decade. In June 2010 he traveled to the Russian Arctic with a team of scientists studying climate change.

Despite over 50 years of work by a growing pool of talented, dedicated, and intelligent people, nearly every indicator of ecological health is in decline. Why is that?

That is the question that local non-profit Fertile Ground is working to answer. And we know at least part of it – the environmental movement has not matched the scale or the power of the forces liquidating the natural world. Quite simply, we have been outcompeted. That is why we at Fertile Ground are working to build an oppositional culture; a core community that recognizes the linked oppressions of humans and the natural world and works to dismantle them. Before that work can be done, we need to understand what it is that we are fighting, and why we are losing.

It’s honestly not surprising that we are losing at this point. After all, transnational corporations have assets greater than all activists combined. The largest 5 oil companies alone earned more than $1 trillion from 2000-2010.1 We can’t compete with that kind of wealth at the political level. That money buys infrastructure, it buys favors, politicians, lobbyists; it buys power. Liberals and conservatives alike have consistently worked to grow the economy and facilitate resource extraction, at the price of our health, our communities, and the planet.

This is not an accident, nor is it a modern problem. After all, the United States was founded as a business enterprise – a vast colonial project to exploit a new continent. Contrary to common belief, the project isn’t over. In Utah, a new oil project mimics the Alberta Tar Sands. In Appalachia, mountains are reduced to rubble for coal, which is burned to produce electricity.

These projects (and many thousands more) feed into the globalized, industrialized economy that has been growing exponentially for the last 160 years. That growth has eaten through nearly every ecosystem on the planet. The Black Sea is dead. The great cod swarms of the Grand Banks are gone. The Great Plains are now the great cornfields. The sixth great extinction event has begun; over 22,000 species disappear every year, a rate between 100 and 1000 times greater than the preindustrial level2. The Bison are gone. The passenger pigeons are gone. The old-growth forests are gone.

Obviously the severity of industrial impact is massive and widespread, but there is one issue that drives them all: fossil fuels. They are the engine of global economic growth and of global warming. Without fossil fuels, industrial logging cannot continue. Industrial fishing stops dead. Industrial agriculture collapses. Without fossil fuels, the healing of the earth can begin; many activists consider this the central struggle of environmentalism in the 21st century.

Our region plays an important role in the global fossil fuels market. Besides the 3 nearby oil refineries (2 in Anacortes, 1 at Cherry Point), Bellingham hosts a natural gas power plant which sends power to Seattle, and trains which carry coal from the interior to Canada for international distribution. Two pipelines pass beneath Bellingham, one carrying crude oil from the Tar Sands to the refineries, another carrying natural gas (which, according to a recent study, may release more greenhouse gasses than coal3).

The latest plan calls for a new shipping port at Cherry Point that would ship large quantities of coal and other goods to China. The names have changed – SSA Marine is the latest local incarnation of the global resource-extraction machinery. But the story is the same. In Appalachia, it’s Massey Energy driving human exploitation and ecological collapse. In Canada, it’s Suncorp and Tesora, BP and Transmountain. In Nigeria it’s Shell Oil. In Papua New Guinea, it’s Freeport McMoran. In Afghanistan, it’s JP Morgan and Unocal.

It’s not surprising that most of the solutions that are presented to us are not sufficient to do this. After all, cheap and abundant energy is the foundation of our entire culture. The West enjoys excesses that have never been seen in the history of our species. The structure of our societies necessitates this glut.

Alternative technologies cannot replace easily transportable fossil fuels by nature; they require mining, smelting, refining. Most the of the rare earth minerals required for wind, solar, and battery technologies are mined in Mongolia and western China by near-slaves. Lakes of toxic waste mark the production sites4. And beyond that, these technologies do nothing to address global power imbalances. The US military is spending a great deal of time and money researching alternative energy technologies for the armed forces; tactically, it’s a smart move. But as always, the technology ends up benefitting the powerful while further degrading the natural world and abusing the poor.

Before we can move forward as a movement for ecological and social justice, we have to recognize that global power structures are not going to change willingly. They are not driven by truth or ethics, but by profit. The exploitation is not an accident; it’s a deliberate system to maintain and expand power. No amount of education will stop sociopathological behavior; only some sort of force will do so. This is a fact that many social movements have come to understand. The words of the famous Frederick Douglass immortalize the lesson: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has, and it never will.”

Unfortunately, the environmental movement still seems focused on “petitioning the king.” This is not an effective political strategy – they hold all the cards in this scenario. It is time to get back to our roots. We need to examine historical struggles for justice to find out what worked for them, and what did not.

This is Part 1 in a series. Part 2 will examine previous social movements – “the roots”. Part 3 will explain the vision of Fertile Ground.

More Information

1.      Markey Report: Big Five Oil Companies Approach $1 Trillion in Profits.House Committee on Natural Resources. Feb. 3 2011.

2.      Extinction. Center for Biological Diversity.

3.      Natural Gas from Shale Contributes to Global Warming. ScienceDaily, 4/13/2011.

4.      In China, the true cost of Britain's clean, green wind power experiment: Pollution on a disastrous scale. By Simon Parry and Ed Douglas. The Daily Mail, 1/29/2011.