Thursday, January 01, 2009

Book Review: A Step Farther Out

I thought I'd get in one more book review for '08 before returning to my European trip planning and language learning. In this case, I decided to pick up a book that I thought might restore my faith in the future possibilities of technology (it's been a little disheartening lately, believe it or not). The book I selected to reread is A Step Farther Out by science, technology, political, and science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle.

Pournelle has had a profound influence on my outlook for the future, and on my beliefs in the benefits to be derived from a spacefaring civilization. He is in the category of "seriously smart" people who often inhabit the halls of NASA (he worked on human factors, among other things, during the Apollo program), having degrees in psychology, political science, and engineering. Thus, he is proudly of the sort who does not suffer fools gladly. You can look up his entry on Wikipedia, or visit his web site, which is a permanent link on this site.

Now, to A Step Farther Out. Written in the late '70s and compiled from a variety of columns written in the mid-'70s, the book addresses some of the wilder scientific and technological speculations that might make "survival with style" in the future possible. These include nuclear power (fission and fusion), space solar power, asteroid mining, ocean thermal conversion (OTEC), magnetohydrodynamic power, and the like.

Survival with style means that all human beings will not eventually slog downhill toward a future that is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," but one where everyone at least has access to the benefits of the advanced society and conveniences we enjoy today. To overcome the problems of declining resources on one world, according to the Pournelle doctrine, we must tap into the material and energy resources of space. For further improvement of life on Earth, he even suggests exporting our more polluting enterprises--particularly metal production--into space, turning Earth into a great parkland. And Pournelle points out that the best way to reduce worldwide population is to make everyone rich (note where the highest declines in birth rate are). And according to Pournelle, the best way to make everyone rich is to make the goods of civilization, both physical and intellectual, so common as to be easily affordable by all: the simple law of supply and demand.

The alternatives to this high-technology, advanced society, Pournelle warns, are not pretty, and pretty much end up with the West becoming poor through increased taxation and regulation in an attempt to redistribute wealth to the Third World, or the West becoming a walled enclave that is eventually overrun by its poorer, hungrier, and less educated neighbors--one can already see signs of this today, 30 years after A Step Farther Out was written. The alternatives Pournelle was discussing were all feasible with the technologies we had 30 years ago. And perhaps that's the most infuriating part--we haven't done most of what he was discussing! So now we face yet another energy crisis, another surge of collectivism, an embattled space program, and even greater pressures on the world's resources, and yet little to nothing has been done about promoting the grand future Pournelle proposed.

Now Pournelle makes it quite clear that he is not for polluting the Earth--indeed, the notion of exporting all the pollution off the planet has a mighty utopian ring to it--but he also does not suffer environmentalists, collectivists, Marxists, "Club of Rome" enthusiasts, or anti-technology advocates without a certain amount of disdain. In the 30 years since A Step was written, an entire generation, including my own, got raised on environmentalism of a particular flavor, and so his condescension probably won't sell well without a lot of arguments. That said, high technology has advanced considerably since 1979. For instance, Moore's Law, which did and still does show computers doubling capacity every two years, has led to a drastic improvement in computing ability. The 8088 chip of 1980, for instance, had around 50,000 transistors on it; today, the top-of-the-line chips have two billion transistors. We have had a 25-year expansion in the U.S. economy and standard of living that is unprecedented in world history. That same generation that was raised on environmentalism was also raised in a world where space travel was commonplace (yea, nearly boring!), along with ever-improving computers, telephones, personal data assistants, and ever-new high-tech gadgets; so Pournelle's message isn't impossible to sell today.

The biggest blocks to A Step Farther Out today are the same as they were 30 years ago--they're political, not technical. With Republicans (if not old-style conservatism) out of favor, Pournelle is often ignored. The economy is experiencing a recession, so far only two or three quarters long--therefore, capitalism must be broken! Republicans who campaigned as conservatives in the '90s spent like liberals in the '00s--therefore, conservatism must be broken! The U.S. military is stronger and more expensive than the next 30 nations' armed forces combined, but we've lost just over 4,000 men in six years in Iraq and Afghanistan, 1 percent of our losses in our four years of fighting World War Two--therefore, the military must be evil and broken! Western Civilization did horrible things in its imperial past while the former colonies are still poor--therefore, Western Civ is evil and out of favor and broken! Now, I happen to believe none of this, but the statements I just wrote are running loose through the media and the culture right now, and they are some of the reasons that a pro-technology, pro-defense, pro-capitalism, pro-Western civilization, pro-conservative message might have a hard time getting through to the general population.

Nevertheless, Pournelle offers convincing arguments. It might not hurt for my out-of-favor conservative friends to give A Step Farther Out another look. It might return them to their principles and give them a better vision for the future.

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