Empires are built from access to resources or at least having the wherewithal to get access to the resources. The latter usually means using innovative technology of some sort.
- The British empire started with the agrarian revolution, which made more food available for people and more people available to do work. The latter included inventing new things like steam power with the country having access of plenty of coal, which then forged the industrial revolution.
- The American ’empire’ was similarly built – food production improved through the use of factory farming techniques and they had access to coal for their own industry. The American ’empire’ continued because of its access to oil.
- China tried to build its recent empire on the access to rare earth elements (needed for amongst other things solar panels at the time and computer parts), only they priced themselves out of the market in about 2012. Which explains to some extent their stuttering progress.
Each of these empires was built using some form of technology. Leaders around the world can see this, which is why they want to invest in technology. But which technologies should they choose to do research in? And equally importantly, how do they control access to that research? After all, insisting on government research being published so that anyone can read and copy it means there is less lead time to establish an economic lead over other countries using that technology.
Choice of which areas of technology research to pursue is in the first instance dictated by need. Research into new antibiotics fulfils a more immediate need than improving the efficiency of communication satellites. If all other things were equal, then priority would be put into antibiotics.
But life is far from that simple. Other factors include environmental conditions (e.g. UK does not yet indigenous malaria), current access to resources (e.g. fresh water and money in the bank, or lack of it, as Greece has been unfortunately finding out) and access to destructive power (e.g. nuclear missiles) to keep others from ransacking their assets. There are many more factors.
Just to give you an idea of how complicated things are, I’m going to give you my interpretation (which could well be far too naive) of what is happening in the UK.
Like a lot of other western countries, the government, business and people borrowed too much without having sufficient assets secured against the loans. When the worth of those assets fell below the level of those loans and repayments were not forthcoming, we went headlong into the financial crisis of 2008. The government at the time looked to great depression of the 1930s and decided not to pursue the policy that they did then. Instead, they pumped money into the economy to keep people in jobs, albeit overall at lower wages in real terms. It kept people in work, prevented riots and starvation. A natural consequence was that a load more low skill jobs were created in this country.
This would have been a good thing for the short term, except for one complicating factor. The UK is part of the EU. It meant people in other EU countries desperate for work, wanted and did come to the UK to take those jobs. It got to the stage where there were cases of preferential treatment given to foreign workers instead of UK nationals. Other countries could have pursued a similar policy, but did not, which meant within the EU, the UK became a magnet for these workers. (Note – I don’t understand why Germany did not become a similar magnet for EU workers and they then had to welcome so many refugees to fill in their shortage of lower skilled workers.)
With the combination of austerity measures and the pressure of job-seekers from both within and outside the UK to get jobs, it is not surprising that there was a general feeling of misery. It got to the stage where people were looking for any relief. The Brexit vote was really a protest vote against the government of the day. It would have been a close vote in more normal circumstances, but the pressure of austerity on households made for a rebellion – people who did not normally vote came out to put their cross on the ballot paper against the government line.
People are beginning to wake up to what Brexit really means for them. And many don’t like the result. Hence the result of the last general election – a hung parliament. This comes with consequences on the international stage. The Prime Minister will be seen as not having the full backing of the UK people, and will therefore have less influence (which may or may not be bad thing, depending on your point of view). There will be confusion over the Brexit negotiations internally within the UK, which will inevitably spill over into the official negotiations themselves. And so the saga of one shambles after another is likely continue…
Of course this is a simplified view, but you can already see already how complicated it is even at this level. But at no point in the above description did I mention access to research or new technology, which could have got the UK out of the economic mess it found itself in.
So what is the right new technology that would bring the UK back onto its economic feet?
Well, that is where science fiction may be able to offer some answers. Science fiction asks the ‘What if?’ questions.
Well, one global challenge we need to face if global warming. Which is why there is flurry to get electric cars produced. Norway has a deal with Tesla to manufacture electric cars. Volvo have recently announced that all their new cars will be electric or hybrid from 2019 onwards. Volvo are now owned by Geely, a Chinese conglomerate. Interestingly, Geely also own the factory in Coventry that are making the battery powered London black taxis – which are the cabs that must be bought from 2018 onwards. (Did you see the connection here?)
Once the last snags of making driverless cars safe are sorted out, I suspect they will become mandatory in certain congested driving zones. It will save on the cost of car crashes and get people to their destinations more quickly on an overall basis.
Both these inventions have been predicted by science fiction.
But hold on you say. Where will the power come from for the batteries. Fusion, of the nuclear variety. The researchers are close to getting a commercial prototype working. It’s a matter of when not if. And yes, this too was predicted by science fiction.
The introduction of these technologies will slow down global warming, but not stop it. Eventually, we will be looking to a global controlled climate – or at least sufficiently controlled to make life comfortable. How long that will take is dependent on many factors, and I wish there was more science fiction to point the way.
In the meantime, there is one consequence of climate control that will need to be addressed. Where are we going to get the resources from? The Moon? Maybe some. More likely the asteroids. But this will have to be carefully controlled and thought out. There have been quite a few science fiction stories about mining the asteroids, but I’ve seen very little in the way of mining the asteroids in an Earth-friendly manner e.g. making sure that the transfer of valuable minerals does not adversely affect the Earth’s climate.
Global warming is only one of several crises facing humanity at the moment – and we can see even from the very limited snapshot of the above, how complicated that is. The other crises include the development of superbugs for which there is no currently no cure, diseases due to ageing (e.g. a super-dementia we don’t know about yet), the danger of super volcanic eruptions (there is a theory that this did for the Roman empire) and shortage of fresh water and soils to produce food for the growing population.
The solutions to any of these and other problems is in a way gaining access to resources or the technology to produce the resources. It will produce empires of one form or another. Human nature will ensure this is case. And where there is the potential for empire-building, no matter how small, there is a story, a science fiction story.