“World belongs to humanity.”
“When you come to a fork in the road, take it!”
We are at a crossroads. Prove me wrong.
The two sentences above are among the most worn-out ones in the English language. Everyone and his brother use these to produce a very predictable short-lived adrenaline rush. The rush lasts about 100 milliseconds before you scroll to the next, equally hysterical squeal. We no longer read much besides the headlines, – most of the time very justifiably so. Filtering pearls of information out of a Niagara of garbage takes more time and effort than we can afford, – so many folks protect their sanity by refusing to let anything through. It’s getting really hard to get a message across. It’s getting hard to find words that haven’t been cheapened to the point of losing much of their original meaning.
Human storytelling is a reflection of our collective psyche. It’s a mirror we see ourselves in. And the picture isn’t pretty.
It has become fashionable to treat humanity with cynicism and contempt. Our bad news media routinely portray us as lemmings inexorably driven by some brain-eating virus to jump off a cliff. Our celebrities call us cancer, plague, locusts. “To insult someone we call him ‘bestial’. For deliberate cruelty and nature, ‘human’ might be the greater insult,” wrote Isaac Asimov, among other things—former President of the American Humanist Association and a Humanist Laureate in the International Academy of Humanism. With friends like these, who needs enemies?
The misanthropic message is so overwhelmingly prevalent that it does trickle through. 88% of the poll answers on debate.com website were – yes, we are a disease, we need to be eradicated. When asked to draw how they see the world fifty years from now, most kids in a test group aged six to twelve drew apocalyptic pictures.
Expectations—both high and low—are among the most reliable self-fulfilling prophecies known to humanity. After all, if you believe that you live among 8 billion locusts gobbling up the last remaining resources of the finite planet, the only rational course of action is to gobble up what you can, while you still can. Misanthropy is, quite literally, self-defeating.
Meantime, the most numerous, prosperous, healthy, peaceful and educated humankind ever inhabits this planet now. Sure, we started out as a few thousand unappetizing apes on the fallback lunch menu of big carnivores. But from these unremarkable beginnings, in only a million years or so, we have progressed to become nearly eight billion masters of our domain. The descendants of the merciless carnivores rummage through our dumpsters. We have conquered the highest mountains and the deepest trenches and both of Earth’s inhospitable poles. We have covered the planet with the World Wide Web, filled with an immense amount of knowledge. We somehow got from the caves to the Moon, and some of us have felt inexplicably compelled to create the Sphinx and the Taj Mahal and the Mona Lisa and the theory of relativity, and we dreamed of Mars and Jupiter and stars and galaxies. So, where do we go from here?
Wherever we choose to, that’s where. I am convinced that within a few decades from today, humanity, collectively, will have made its most important decision – deliberately or otherwise. We’ll have decided if we, as a species, are going forth to the stars, or back to the caves. Why? Glad you asked.
See, the story of human progress is, among other things, the story of replacing one main source of energy with another, better, more efficient one. That’s how we fueled our acceleration. And accelerating civilization is the only one we have any experience running. The most impressive acceleration in the history of our species has been fueled by the Sun energy in a very special, convenient and concentrated form: fossil fuels. Sun in a can.
We now use an estimated ten times more per-capita energy than the first agricultural societies did 12,000 years ago. We have indoor plumbing and flu shots and schools and the Internet and movies and vacations and retirement.
But we, as a species, aren’t using just ten times more power than we were using 12,000 years ago when we first tried building temples and observatories. We’re actually using about 16,000 times more. There’s 1,600 times more of us today than 12,000 years ago. And most of that increase happened rather recently. Just 220 years ago, there were a billion of us. Today, there are almost eight billion humans. That’s what we have done with most of that Sun-in-a-can: we converted long-dead plants and animals into live people.
More people are alive today than have ever been alive at the same time ever in the planet’s history. More people are available to contribute to Wikipedia today than could contribute to the Alexandria library of Ptolemy. More people can trade opinions on Quora than ever argued at Athenian gyms during the times of Plato and Aristotle. More people listen to TED talks than Socrates ever lectured.
Meantime, Sun-in-a-can is running out. It took oil and gas and coal hundreds of millions of years to form in the Earth’s crust, and now we are burning through them in just hundreds of years. Simple accounting suggests that we better find something else quick, or we are in trouble. We have about 50 years’ worth of oil and gas left, and 130 years’ worth of coal . The previous 50 years of trying to replace those with renewable energy left us with 80% of overall energy we use still being supplied by fossil fuels – and in transportation, it’s 92%. In air transportation, it’s 100%.
Charles Jones, an economics professor at Stanford, has recently published population dynamic modeling results, which I think paint a relevant broad-strokes picture of the options we have . What he found was that there are three steady states for a human society, only two of them stable. One stable steady state is an accelerating civilization climbing the Kardashev scale to the stars. The other is an empty planet left after the civilization has faded away.
The third, intermediate steady state between the forth-to-the-stars and back-to-the-caves scenarios, is inherently unstable. It’s a crossroads, a tipping point. Any external perturbation gets amplified by the system’s inherent positive feedback loops and sends the civilization to one of the two stable states: settling the Universe or going extinct.
Significantly, the controlling variable in Jones’s model was knowledge per person: a high knowledge civilization stays that way by growing its island of knowledge, – climbing the Kardashev scale, – while pastoralist society can hardly find the “excesses” of World Wide Web, Hubble telescope, GPS and Large Hadron Collider worthy of the resources spent. Once the retreat starts, it will become progressively easier to justify shutting down the opulent temples of global civilization – first Saturn Vs and Tevatron and Arecibo radiotelescope, then the nuclear power stations and air transportation, then megafactories and industrial farms, then seaports and large mining operations. Soon there won’t be any justification for the expense of maintaining United Nations and universities and museums and national governments, and these will be gone, too.
And there is no reason to believe that this self-destruction has a natural lower limit. There have been civilizations in human history that abandoned the development path to completely vanish in the mist of time, leaving us no living memory of what happened to them. Our historians may never know for certain what was the purpose of Nazca lines or moai of Rapa Nui (a.k.a. Easter Island statues) or Gobekli Tepe complex, or how Saksaywaman stone walls were built. The human tribes that created them couldn’t afford to keep the knowledge alive. They departed the accelerated path, and the departure cost them dearly. We call them the “dearly departed.” For a global tribe that never managed to plant backup copies of itself elsewhere, that would be curtains.
And right now, our global civilization will have to do one of two hard things, ready or not: quit the accelerating path or stay on it. I believe that most of the humans responsible for choosing between the two are alive today, as I write these words. I don’t think the people living today have the luxury of not making a choice, because—as usual in our time-constrained world—not making a choice is very much a choice. Often the worst one. Those who refuse to choose one of two alternatives frequently end up paying for both without benefitting from either.
We don’t know how to do either of these things: keep accelerating or quit. We have never tried. We, as a global civilization, have never quit accelerating. We have never attempted a deliberate global slowdown. We have no tools to give us reliable and detailed predictions of how the complicated intertwined systems we are trying to control—society, the economy, the biosphere, Gaia—would respond to us leaning on the brakes. And the broad-strokes predictions for that scenario that we do have – the Charles Jones’s empty planet model – don’t look very promising. There is no evidence that degrowth, intentional or otherwise, has a natural bottom. That way, apparently, lies defeat.
Nor do we know how to keep our global civilization accelerating beyond the dash fueled by Sun-in-a-can. We have never tried doing that, either. The tools to give us detailed predictions of how society, the economy, the biosphere, and Gaia would respond to us leaning on the accelerator are as unavailable as the tools for predicting the outcome of the leaning-on-the-brakes scenario. They’re kind of the same tools.
We’re the only global civilization we know facing this dilemma. There’s no prior experience to draw on. There’s no oracle to tell us how it’s going to turn out.
The one thing we can be sure of is that the massive resource investments needed to have even a shot at building a spacefaring civilization won’t happen accidentally. Especially our species’ most valuable resource, human talent. The time when being lucky was an adequate substitute for being good and ambitious is over. We have run out of freebies. We shall have to make the decision to invest in ourselves while we still can, or the decision will be out of our hands.
How do we make choices? Irrationally, as usual, that’s how. To make completely rational choices, you need to know things you can’t (yet) know – and then if you knew those things, these “choices” wouldn’t be choices anymore. Rational choice is an oxymoron. Sure, you can choose, say, a college by evaluating a lot of objective information about it – but your choices of evaluation criteria, and especially their relative importance, are irrational, and so is your choice of the moment to quit vacillating and make a decision already. In this intertwined world, you can easily rationalize sticking to one worldview or the other – after you’ve irrationally made the choice, that is. Others have the same information available yet make completely different decisions – and, after the fact, justify theirs every bit as convincingly (to themselves, at least) as you justified yours. There is plenty of data available that can be picked and interpreted every which way. Where you draw the line, and what you do with the data that happens to fall inside it, tells more about you than about anything, or anyone, else.
Why should we want to settle the Universe, like we have settled the Earth? Why should we behave as if we owned this planet, and had the right and responsibility to run it? Don’t these goals contradict each other? Is it fair to Gaia to ask it to support our dash to the stars?
These are all reasonable questions, and they need to be answered. Trouble is, we don’t have the luxury of answering them completely rationally: that would require knowing all outcomes of all possible choices, and the last I checked, there was no time machine in my basement to tell us those outcomes. A rational choice, when you look closely, invariably turns out to be either not completely rational or not much of a choice. So, owning our future is, IMHO, going to take (among other things) a leap of faith.
Faith in us humans, that is. A.k.a. humanism.
When I face questions that ask for a leap of faith, I usually end up doing a very simple exercise. It helps me; maybe it’ll help you too. All you have to do is to go out on a clear night and look up. I don’t know what you’ll see if you try it, – but what I see when I do that is, literally, a Universe of challenges and experiences and resources and opportunities.
The opportunity cost of refusing to even try to go up there is incalculable. You don’t know what you are missing, so you can’t put a price on it. It cannot be known in advance, not without a time machine. We can choose to take a leap of faith, or not. We can choose to believe the unknown opportunities to be better than the known ones; and then – if we are lucky, and so is our entire lineage – folks settling Milky Way Galaxy in a distant future may be our descendants. Or we can make the easily justifiable, commonsense, rational choice of the bird in hand over two in the bush; and then – if we are lucky, and so is our entire lineage – folks settling Milky Way Galaxy in a distant future may be visiting our descendants in some cosmic zoo.
Having done that irrational exercise, what did I learn? What personal, read biased, opinions about the questions above, – settling the Universe, owning this planet, relationship with Gaia, – formed in my mind?
Glad you asked. That will be discussed in the second part of the series. And also, in much more detail, in my upcoming book “Homo Exploratoris”. This article is, for the most part, an excerpt from that manuscript.
Alex Shenderov, Ph.D.
Editor’s note- This post is the first part of a new series by Dr. Shenderov, who has both a strong technical background as well as a deep appreciation for our natural world. He will be looking at possible futures, depending on the choices we make now.
About the Author
Dr. Alexander Shenderov, Ph. D. is a seasoned technologist, with scientific publications and over two dozen commercialized patents to his name; a serial entrepreneur (that’s how his inventions got commercialized); an educator; and an aspiring futurist and author of a book, Homo Exploratoris. Some of the ideas from that book will be presented in this series.
Alex is an engineer by training, trade, worldview and, some friends say, even nationality. His Master’s degree in Engineering Physics is from a country that is no longer on the map: the USSR. His Ph.D. is in Cell Biology, and it’s from Duke University. So is his teaching experience. He had a rare experience of licensing an invention to a University (rather than licensing one from a University, as it is usually done).
So, Alex’s been around. He treasures the following skills he learned during his life journey:
- Not taking himself too seriously
- Finding people who know more than he does
- Listening to people who know more than he does
- Learning from people with views different from his
- Avoiding pompous thickheads
In his spare time, Alex is a world traveler, avid outdoorsman, community organizer and an aspiring wildlife photographer. These hobbies give him ample opportunities to get connected with Gaia and Cosmos through a very simple exercise. What Alex does is he just goes out on a clear night and looks up – at the world of challenges and experiences and resources and opportunities. As a source of awe and inspiration and pride to be a conscious part of this glorious Universe, this exercise is hard to beat.