A World Without Aeroplanes

Or Reprovincialised Rustic TechnoFuture as possible alternative to Grim Meathook.

I’m not sure where this image is from, but I like how the plane of the far left seems so happy.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about the future a great deal recently. Not simply because of reading books like Collapse and The World Without Us, and attending events like Thrilling Wonder Stories, but because I want to write something about it for myself. I’ve been working on a couple of my own projects regarding the future – one about the future of games, and one about the future of progress. I’ll probably start compiling more thoughts about these two topics on here in notepad form, without any proper form: thinking out loud. Starting with this.

An FT interview with economist Jeff Rubin discusses what kind of role the increase in oil prices had on the recession. Rubin says: “Once we get into triple digit prices, what we find is it’s no longer compatible with a global economy… distance costs money and things that we thought made a lot of sense like importing food or steel from China cease making sense.” And so the conversation goes on about how that will cause globalisation to slow down, and a wider, deeper recession to occur.

Oil is already the most important economic factor in the health of global money, and the implications of it getting more expensive are enormous. While peak oil might be a long, long way off (up to a century, by some optimistic estimates), and there’s little reason to believe that the slowdown will necessarily cause an energy-led Malthusian catastrophe, it is going to run out.

And of course the assumption is that the slow death of oil use via expense and scarcity won’t matter – or at least won’t be dangerous to a current way of life – because we’ll have flipped over to a hydrogen economy, and that will ease the burden. (Biofuels are already proving to be impossible as a wide-scale solution, because if we grow them on a colossal scale we rapidly begin run out of space for food.) A hydrogen economy nevertheless remains a total fiction, a fabrication to make the future seem shinier: not even a tiny fraction of the oil-consuming world is ready to be retrofitted to use gas a fuel. People are already thinking about other alternatives: the methanol economy as alternative, or a stopgap. It’s much easier to refit generators, cars, and powerstations to use methanol, which is a liquid rather than a gas.

The bigger problem is that there’s never likely to be a single approach to dealing with the coming change. Solutions will be piecemeal, iterative. This death of oil isn’t likely to be dealt with in any systematic way by the governments and corporate organisations that remain ready and willing to choke on rising oil prices for years to come. Reading Jared Diamond’s theories about how civilisations ignore or fail to perceive their problems in Collapse makes me realise just how little likelihood there is of us dealing with the disappearance of oil in a useful way. And what if we can’t really come up with a replacement for oil in a time-frame that makes sense?

Well, we’ll probably have that recession that Rubin is talking about. At the very least the convenience of global trade and transport will become highly inconvenient. Assuming that doesn’t simply land us in some kind of Mad Max death-tribe apocalypse it’s likely we’ll be faced with a far less accessible world. A Reprovincialised Rustic TechnoFuture, where greenhouses are going suddenly become rather more important to life. We’ll probably find ways to generate electricity – bring on the solar age! – and therefore have access to light, power, trams/streetcars, trains, and even electric cars, but the nature of distance travel will be very different. Vast fleets of oil-guzzling ships will be dead. Thousands of aircraft will rust. A few methanol biplanes and solar gliders might ply the skies, but the sky-bus megatransit will fall silent. Global trade will be reduce to small, easily freighted items, and global travel will eventually seem like an enormous luxury.

We’re already in a post-space age, but what will our world look like in a post commercial-airline age? Suddenly the other side of the world isn’t twelve hours away anymore. My Australian relatives will be painfully remote, and exotic fruit will once again be exotic. The invention of the internet seems infinitely more fortuitous. And we’ll be building new gamepads using extruded plastic from a homemade 3D printer. If we can find a bio-plastic that works with it, anyway.

3 Responses to “A World Without Aeroplanes”

  • Justin Pickard Says:

    Hey Jim,

    Will this matter as much when video & telepresencing really takes off?

    People of the Screen (IFTF)

    BBC R&D TV, episode 1. Check out the piece on so-called ‘surround vision’ (1:18-2:10).

    The DistanceLab

    Also, have a look at these future scenarios from the horizon-scanning bit of the UK’s science office.

  • Jazmeister Says:

    If we can become a race of people educated, employed, and entertained via the internet then I’m not half looking forward to that, actually. This is exactly the sort of thing I like to read about, incidentally; the games industry is irrelevant to those people who consider themselves especially relevant, but I think the people who expose themselves to computer games cultivate an attitude of examining alternate approaches. I don’t think anyone who thinks along these lines also thinks games are rubbish, and anyone who plays games is forced to consider these questions from time to time. (In saying that, though, this is the fifth time I’ve resisted asking where zombies fit into your predictions)

  • Rossignol Says:

    Justin: there are plenty of other ramifications of oil-powered travel, such as tourism, immigration, trade, etc.

    I’m sure remote-comms will pick up much of the slack, but it can’t replace physical movement.