Take Back the Future

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"He who controls the past, controls the future; he who controls the present, controls the past"

~ Eric Blair (aka George Orwell)

For most of the 19th and 20th century, the future was a place of hope for Americans. The future was a place where many old problems would be forgotten, and where new challenges were faced without fear. The future was a frontier, a frontier that Americans expected to settle.

When I was a small boy tending dairy cows in the early 1960s, the science fiction magazines offered a glimpse into this future frontier. The pages of Analog carried stories about asteroid mining, terraforming, and biomedical marvels. Those stories were set in the far-off times of the early 21st century.

Of course the technological predictions of the Analog writers were way off; they were far too conservative. In every technical field we have progressed farther and more easily than the most optimistic dreamer imagined. A practical nuclear rocket engine was developed in 1967, before the pulp pages had even yellowed. Men landed on the Moon in 1969. Robot probes have crisscrossed the Solar System. Knowledge of DNA, RNA and proteomics has exploded; we can put new genes into cells with viruses or electroporators, we can even take them back out with cre-lox. Our drought-resistant wheat is now part barley, our insect-resistant trees are now part bacteria.

And computers! No one in 1960 thought we would all have computers as fast as the one on your desk before the year 2200; most engineers would have said 3000 A.D., or never. No one even foresaw word processing, let alone the Internet. The most optimistic only saw early 21st century computers as replacements for the slide rules of a few mathematicians and engineers, and perhaps as an enhancement of the public library.

So today we have physical tools far beyond what the optimists expected. And we also largely avoided the catastrophes of the pessimists, both physical and social:

There has been no major global war. There have been a few big genocides during peacetime, but in recent years even those have receded into the backwaters of the Fourth World. The children of Mao’s destructive Red Guards and Pol Pot’s murderous Khmer Rouge are now busy running factories to make products for Wal-Mart. Despite Aid To Dependent Dictators programs, totalitarian regimes worldwide have mostly fallen into bankruptcy and been repossessed by their citizens, or at least by a less-militaristic class of kleptocrats.

The Earth was not covered by the ice sheets of the Final Ice Age, as the 1970s Global Cooling doomsayers had prophesied.

Pollution did not destroy all life in the oceans. (Overfishing of sharks did hurt some coral reefs; that is a result of the absence of ocean property rights.)

Limits To Growth turned out to be wrong; we did not run out of all metal ores and fall into a Dark Age.

Even the more pessimistic of libertarian futurists turned out to be at most partly correct. The US government has continued to get bigger and control more aspects of life in greater detail. However, around the world governments have tended to loosen up their controls in spite of themselves. The only way to maintain a closed society now is to turn off the Internet, and that means consigning your economy to the junkyard. Several dictators have elected to do just that, but US foreign aid can only maintain so many such dependencies. North Korea may simultaneously have oxcart agriculture and US-built nuclear reactors, but even the World Bank and IMF don’t have the money to extend this model across the globe.

Things are not perfect, but the reality of present-day 2005 is not that bad. We have all the physical tools we need to build a better future. But the vision of the future itself is missing. We have returned to the mental condition of the Roman Empire; there is no future, only an unchanging, infinite Present. Hitler had the same static viewpoint; he called it the "Eternal Return" and symbolized it by the Swastika.

The political classes in the US are focused on perpetual war in the Middle East and simultaneous perpetual war against their own citizens. In the name of preventing terrorism, we are stripped of all privacy, all rights, all nail files. In the name of preventing drug abuse, government agents invade even our bloodstreams. In the name of preventing ecological change, regulations are promulgated to prevent new technologies from displacing the old; "ecology" organizations prevented nuclear power plants from displacing coal. These wars are intended to last forever, to maintain the Eternal Return of the same political faction to office.

The Eternal Return is the vision that is forced into the defenseless young minds in the public schools. "Ecology" in the public schools says that Nature never changes, that the forests and oceans would always teem with life if it were not for the evils of industry. "Deep Ecology" is nihilistic; it teaches that human technology is a cancer on the living planet. For Deep Greens, the proper remedy for Mother Gaia is nuclear surgery and nerve gas chemotherapy to remove the metastasizing humans before they spread to other worlds.

As Orwell said, the future is controlled by the present, through its teaching about the past. If Hitler’s Eternal Return becomes the dominant vision, then we really will have a static future… or worse. It isn’t really possible to stay static; societies can only grow or die.

Physical reality will intrude into even the most powerful politician’s dreams. The world cannot be kept exactly the same forever. As an example, the bans on nuclear power cause increasing disruption whether oil supplies run out or not. If oil becomes scarce, that will force change; if it does not, in a few hundred years the atmosphere will be unbreathable (except for Jurassic Park escapees, who will love it), returned to Mesozoic proportions and temperatures.

Rather than wait for the passage of centuries and go through another Dark Age, I suggest that the libertarian movement must create a new vision of the future. We should not waste time arguing over the details of socialized medical programs, Social Insecurity, or the color of our electronic tracking collars. We must focus on reopening the Frontier.

That means homesteading the oceans, space, and perhaps even the 42% of the US land area still controlled by government (most of this is not parks or conservation area, but exploited and ecologically damaged forest, mines, and grazing land reserved for the politically favored). It means applying the First Amendment to the electronic media, as should have been done in the 1920s. It means opening the medical frontier under the control of the patient, the organ donor, the doctor… rather than the bureaucrats who keep it closed today.

It means that new technologies should be homesteaded, not pre-empted by the "property rights" of obsolete bureaucracies. The Sunday Supplement visions of flying cars could have been implemented already by decentralized GPS air traffic controls… but not by the 1950s-style FAA system of overcaffeinated guys staring into radar screens and yelling radioed orders to pilots driving 550 mph jets.

We should be arguing about who owns what part of Mars, the near-Earth asteroids, and prime ocean-farming areas. Instead, we are pretending that nothing exists outside our existing real estate registers. Hernando de Soto found in his Mystery of Capital that the West has progressed because it recognized the homesteaded property rights of its poor citizens. (I suspect that this was because poor citizens in the West had first longbows, and then squirrel rifles.) We need to make this part of the past live again; we need to recapture the worldview of the English yeomen and the American frontiersmen.

Our frontiers are our future. Those who close them off are Nazis, whether they wave the Swastika, the world-in-the-bombsight flag of the UN, or the Stars and Stripes.

Bill Walker [send him mail] works as a Research Associate in telomere biology at an undisclosed (thanks to legal threats from his tax-financed employer) location.

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