Monday, April 1, 2013

Collective Wealth

Still reading Toynbee’s monumental work on history, it strikes me—as I see him assessing ancient cultures’ decline and occasionally touching on our own—that humanity has never experienced a situation like our current one (viewed some 80 years after Toynbee wrote his first five volumes). It is a situation in which extraordinary wealth touches a huge population—but it’s  not wealth as once understood, namely personal control of physical resources and money; it is wealth in the form of collective systems, structures, technologies, and organized knowledge.

Two examples may be Communications and Health Care. Communications anciently demanded personal wealth in that, to deliver a message, one had to send a courrier to distant places; no such media as telegraphy, telephony, radio, or television existed—and general circulation news papers were also absent. Health Care then was centered on the person of a doctor, midwife, or a surgeon—and what small bag he or she carried. The hospital, with its emergency room—accessible even to the poor—did not exist; nor did colossal testing technologies, clean-rooms, remote and robotic surgery, or the pharmaceutical industries.

Behind communications today are submarine cables and space satellites; behind the satellites stands an aerospace industry. Behind medicine are mountains of extraordinarily sophisticated institutions, technical developers very much cut of the same cloth as aerospace, computer technology, and world-wide supervisory organizations communicating, by means of the never-before-seen communications sector, to inhibit the spread of plagues; among them is our own Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

These two sectors—and they are just two of many others that operate in the same way, for the collective—represent a form of wealth one cannot discover in ancient times except in the most rudimentary forms: state-built roads with their bridges and water control on a large scale for river management and for delivering water via aqueducts.

Can our collective wealth, which makes even the poor a little “wealthy,” be traced to a single discovery? Yes. It is the “discovery” of fossil fuels. I put that word in quotes because, of course, coal and oil were known before the age of fossil fuels dawned. They were also used, principally for making weapons-grade metals, usually employing human-made and therefore manufactured charcoal. The discovery, however, was triggered by a technological innovation, the steam engine. That device—the Luddites’ first nightmare—then led, step-by-step, to an extraordinarily massive geological raid of dormant energy hidden beneath the earth probably by cataclysmic global changes literally eons ago.

The quite foreseeable exhaustion of this incredible and non-replaceable deposit of wealth will have consequences we can logically project forward. The extent to which essentially “free” energy underlies virtually everything we do and touch—not least how we communicate and heal—is effectively invisible to the public—except its members visit filling stations. The sooner it becomes the daily conscious worry of the average citizen, the sooner can creative responses to future troubles begin. The most important job now is to slow our current energy consumption drastically—to give humanity more time to adapt to conditions where effective “wealth” will once more become personal and nothing much beyond—except roads, bridges, aqueducts, and (I hope) sewage systems that will still, collectively, support us all.

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