Sunday, March 10, 2013

Graceful Shutdown

As our global civilization self-terminates due to its unwillingness to reduce the damage it is doing to the biosphere, especially from habitat destruction and carbon pollution-induced climate change, there is the potential for a lot more damage to be done. When a complex technological system goes through something similar, engineers call it "hard shutdown," with unpredictable, and often negative, consequences for both the system and whatever is connected to it. Engineers have learned to design systems with the ability to maintain some reserve power in the event that main power is lost, and use that power to control interactions between its components before turning them off so that damage doesn't occur; this approach is called a "graceful shutdown." I've mentioned this before, in the context of avoiding disaster; I'm arguing now that we should pursue it even though disaster is now likely.

In my novel "Lights Out," I explored what a hard shutdown of civilization might involve on a small scale, and how some people could survive it. Violence and death are virtually assured, particularly if people don't know what's happening and why. The powerful sociopaths who promote misinformation about climate change and the negative effects of unrestricted capitalism are working toward this outcome. If even a quarter of the population goes along with it (an approximation of the number of unquestioning followers of authoritarian leaders), and the technology of war and violence with its huge threat-multiplying capability remains readily available, the collapse of global civilization may take down all of humanity instead of just a majority, even before climate change has its full impact.

A graceful shutdown scenario would involve a growing number of people meeting their needs without using non-renewable and ecologically damaging resources, while respecting and preserving each other's right to meet the basic needs of survival. Relationships between people would become less about property and more about valuing life for its own sake. Money, such as it exists in the future, would be used for its most fundamental purpose, accounting, rather than as a means for concentrating personal power. Critical to this scenario would be the promotion and dissemination of accurate knowledge and understanding, and the development of a value system that outright rejects as evil the promotion of self-serving distortion of reality.

In technology, hard shutdowns are typically the default, with thoughtful design being necessary to enable graceful shutdowns. Considering that our global civilization has evolved with the built-in assumption of perpetual operation and growth, hard shutdown looks like the most probable outcome. With the time we have left, more of us can work to redesign parts of it, to limit the negative consequences. The Transition movement is one example of one of the more radical redesigns in progress, while renewable energy technologies are being pursued by people who expect civilization to require mere tweaking to avoid the worst of potential futures. I hesitate to brand these attempts as futile, since they are moving in the right direction; but they must be accelerated to a pace even greater than the exploitation of the fossil fuels that now threaten us, and it remains to be seen whether this can be done in time to have a measurable impact on the nature of the shutdown that is nearly upon us.  


xraymike79 said...

Can I repost this at my site...

Bradley Jarvis said...