TCS Daily

Don't Worry About the Future

By James D. Miller - July 15, 2004 12:00 AM

Global warming will destroy the environment; we will run out of oil in 40 years; social security will collapse before today's young workers reach retirement; and by the end of this century extended human lifetimes will burden an already overpopulated planet. Many commentators, and perhaps even a few real people, worry about stuff that may afflict humanity in the far future. But we really shouldn't fret over specific problems that won't manifest for 40 or more years.

Recent news reports quote a scientist predicting the feasibility of a space elevator within 15 years that would consist of a 62,000 mile long carbon nanotube cable running from some point on earth's equator to a platform in space. Such an elevator would solve potential long-term problems by drastically reducing the cost of space launches. We could use the elevator to launch satellites for collecting cheap solar energy and so reduce our need for fossil fuels. The elevator would allow a relatively inexpensive shield to be placed in space that would reduce the amount of sunlight hitting the earth and thus reduce our planet's average temperature. Furthermore, the elevator would literally open up new worlds to economic development and so reduce population pressure while creating enough extra wealth to fund retirement programs.

Of course, 15 years is a long time in science and we can't count on a space elevator to solve our future problems. But if our economy remains productive and free for the next 40 years we can count on achieving many spectacular technological advances that will solve most of the problems we now foresee. Rather than fretting about specific long-term concerns such as global warming, therefore, we should secure our future by having a continually strong economy.

Within a span of two weeks in 2003 similarly-sized earthquakes struck both California and Iran. While the Iranian earthquake killed over 28,000 people the quake in California killed fewer than ten. Economist Thomas Sowell explained that this difference in death tolls was due to the difference in wealth between California and Iran. Wealth is the best defense against environmental catastrophe. We don't know if in 40 years the earth will be too hot or cold. But we do know that the richer we are, the better we will be able to handle any temperature-related problem. The best long-term environmental strategy, therefore, is not to burden businesses with growth-destroying environmental regulations, but rather to give capitalists the freedom to create the wealth we need to survive whatever challenges Mother Nature hurls at us.

Moore's law, which predicts that computer speeds will double every 18 months, provides the best reason not to worry too much about specific long-term problems. If Moore's law continues to hold then in 45 years we will have computers over a billion times faster than we do today -- computers that will likely have vastly greater intelligence than mere humans. Indeed, increased computer performance will likely make the future completely unrecognizable. (Here is an intriguing article by computer scientist/science fiction writer Vernor Vinge on the difficulties of predicting this future.)

Of course, our economy will remain productive only so long as it is protected by our military, for history is unkind to rich nations that neglect their defense. Obviously, terrorists with weapons of mass destruction could easily inflict enough harm to our economy to leave us unprepared for future catastrophes. Wealth is the best defense against long term problems and we need a strong defense to guard this wealth. Therefore, an effective war on terror is probably our best defense against global warming.

James D. Miller writes The Game Theorist column for TCS and is a Republican Candidate for the Massachusetts State Senate.


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