SUMMARY: Reflections on the future of humanity.
(About a 7 minute read)
I read a post yesterday on Bojana’s blog that got me thinking about the future of humanity. That’s a topic that is more or less always in the back of my mind, but which I seldom write about.
I seldom write about it largely because it’s such a complex topic that I’m not sure what can be said about it that might someday more or less pan out as true. Bojana’s approach to the topic was a pretty sound one — she mulled over her observations of her toddler and his friends as they were playing together. The future, of course, begins with how we raise our kids.
It seems like a lifetime now, but just a few years ago, I was quite optimistic about the future of our species. But when I now look back at the basis for that optimism I can see how naive it was. Largely, it was based on the fact that — in every age of humanity — some people have risen up to predict the end of the world, and they have always been wrong. Always. I was reasoning that all such predictions today were just as poorly founded as they have ever been.
Yet, within the last few years it has occurred to me that there is something new under the sun. For only the second time in human history, our species is facing a small handful of genuinely existential threats — or at least near existential threats.
Say what you will about things being the same as ever, the last time we were as close to possible extinction as we are today was over 75,000 years ago when an Indonesian volcano exploded with the force of several nuclear weapons, sending so much ash into the air that temperatures dropped worldwide for a thousand years, and humans died off by the tens of thousands.
At our lowest ebb, the genetic evidence suggests that we were reduced to between just 200 and 2,000 individuals — perhaps living along a single river in Africa. The event is known as “The Great Bottleneck”. There have been other bottlenecks in human evolution — you can somehow tell by reading our DNA — but that was as the tightest ever.
The fate of humanity hung on the reproductive chances of a mere few hundred individuals at a time with huge infant mortality rates, and — unless you believe in divine intervention — it could easily have gone the other way for us.
I believe that today we face just as great an existential threat, first and foremost from thermonuclear war. We’ve managed to hold off using those weapons more than twice, but consider: When have we ever invented a weapon we did not sooner or later use?
A war involving more than a handful of bombs would very likely wipe us out. All of us.
Then there’s global climate change. I do not buy into the coal and oil billionaire’s propaganda that the threat is not real. Ten thousand or more scientists, studying it over a period of decades, are unlikely to be too wrong about it. They might dispute the details, but the essential idea is now solidly established.
I used to hope we’d do something about global warming in time to prevent a massive die off, but now I’m fairly certain we will not. Even without considering coal and natural gas, the global oil reserves alone are worth more money than the economies of most nations on earth.
The only time in history that much money was surrendered, it took a civil war to make it happen. That is, the value of slaves in the American South once rivaled the value of oil today in proportion to the total economy. Short of war or its equivalent, that oil will be burnt. Life on earth will become concentrated around the polar regions.
So for me the question is what proportion of humanity is going to die? One estimate is 80%. But I don’t know how accurate that is. Then again, there is some possibility of a technological solution. Let’s hope for one. The billionaires have all but certainly destroyed the possibility of a political solution. They will sell their oil no matter what the cost to humanity.
If thermonuclear war or global climate change fail to get us, there are other threats as well, most of our own making. But putting those aside, the situation looks dire enough. I have been an optimist about the future most of my life. I no longer can count myself one.
Stephen Hawking predicted humanity had a thousand years before it went extinct on the earth. He later revised that to 100 years. The only solution he could come up with was for us to get into space.
Presumably, if we can colonize the moon, Mars, and the asteroids, we might stand a chance. But whatever happens, most of us will be left behind here on earth. Reaching space is far too expensive to transport billions there. Though that might someday change — there is the possibility of building a cheap-to-use “elevator” into space — it’s not to be counted on.
So who goes and who stays? I think that will most likely depend on who does the picking. Will it be us, the Indians, the Europeans, the Japanese, or the Chinese? All five have space programs and at least one (China) has announced its intention to colonize the moon. So let’s assume for a moment that China colonizes the moon and Elon Musk colonizes Mars, as he’s announced he plans to do.
Who do these fine folks plan to take with them? Will it be a cross-section of humanity? The advantage of a cross-section is genetic diversity — which is a huge advantage. But many people have stated that the only folks likely to go will be people who are absolutely needed to build and maintain colonies.
Will racial prejudices intervene in China’s selection process to exclude non-Chinese? What if India enters the picture with colonies of its own? Will they be anymore likely to invite non-Indians along?
So many questions and no reliable way to answer them. But here’s something I wonder about. When the powers that be sit down to figure out who will be the future of humanity, will they bother to take along the poets and other artists?
It sounds like a perfectly silly question. But consider: Perhaps there are genes for such things as poetry, music, sculpture, dance, etc. If no one bothers to take with them a few artists of all kinds, what are the chances that, a thousand years from now, space will produce anything like a Shakespeare, a Picasso, Leonardo, Hemingway, Yeats, Rodin, or Duncan?
I am not one to think of the arts as the sole heart and soul of humanity, but I do believe they are an essential aspect of who we are. I would hate to see them weeded out in a second “Great Bottleneck”.
My life has spanned an interesting age. When I was growing up, the science fiction I read was nearly universally optimistic. The popular magazines ran articles predicting a rosy future by the year 2000. We were all suppose to have flying cars and robot servants by now.
Today, I cannot say with intellectual honesty that Stephen Hawking is wrong. Perhaps our only real chance as a species is to abandon earth and its billions for space. But if we do so without bringing with us the arts, who will turn the lifeless moon into an emotional home for us? Who will dream of a futures vast and wonderful that might someday become realities? Who will be activists for just and fair societies in the tightly structured and controlled colonies?
Will we in the end be reduced to a species that merely survives, or will we be one that thrives in space?