We Really Should Worry about the Deep Future of Humanity

It's widely agreed upon that planning for the future is a smart thing to do. Imagine that we have two options: option a) involves sitting around playing video games all day and never even wanting to achieve anything more; option b) involves going to school, getting an education, pursuing a worthwhile career, and seeking personal fulfillment in the real world.

There are a lot of people who might choose option a) and just play video games all day while crushing red bulls, especially when failing to take the future into consideration. If I'm only thinking on a day-to-day basis, then of course a day spent playing video games is far more enjoyable than a day spent at work or school.

But if you want to get beyond playing video games for the rest of your life and achieve more, it would be a good idea to go with option b) and plan for the future. Having long-term goals and ambitions is seen as the mark of a successful person in the making. Those who fail to plan for the future are often seen as failures themselves—we all know people who, month after month, blow their paycheck on partying and then aren't able to afford to pay their bills in the coming days or weeks.

And it's not like this is a one-off— it happens frequently, and they're always tight on cash. (Though I wouldn't say this is necessarily their fault. Some people are wired differently. Some people are a product of their environment. If they never had the opportunity to learn how to plan and manage their funds, we can't blame them for their inability to plan ahead. But when we're talking about humanity as a whole, planning ahead is necessary.)

Hitler War Room
Not all long-term goals are good goals. But at least it's a start.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Planning for the future is regarded as a mark of intelligence—it's part of what differentiates us from animals. We plan for seasonal changes in order to maximize agricultural yields. We plan for worst-case scenarios in order to avoid catastrophe. And we plan how to grow a small business into an empire. Human beings are natural planners, and we're wired to wonder about the future.

When we think of 'the future', we often think years or even decades out. But there are other, further kinds of futures.

There's a distant future, which people usually conceptualize in terms of their grandkids' generation. This can be many decades or even more than a century away. We often think of climate change on these terms; while our current actions with regards to fossil fuel burning won't have a huge impact within our own immediate futures, they could potentially have a world-shattering impact within the lifetimes of our offspring. That fact means that we do have some responsibility towards ensuring worst-case scenarios—like 4 degrees Celsius of global warming—don't happen down the road.

Then there's also a deep future. This is many centuries or even millennia away. And it's a space that's difficult to talk about. It's hard to plan for. No matter what we think it might be like, it's going to be different from all of our expectations. That's just the nature of the future—events compound on one another, and the further forward you try to look, the more likely it is that your predictions will be wildly off. There are just too many variables. But that doesn't mean it's not worth our best effort anyways.

Our one lethal blindspot as a species is that we're terrible at planning beyond our own lifetimes. And this is really bad, because today we have the ability to destroy our own species—and a large part of Earth's biosphere—both directly and indirectly.

Fossil Fuel Pollution
Burning fossil fuels could be responsible for extinguishing more lives than all human wars combined.
Image Credit: Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons

This is a problem because future generations are going to be paying for the mistakes of past generations. Our grandchildren are going to be wondering why we were so stupid about the climate issue, why we kept burning fossil fuels when we knew they were wreaking havoc on Earth's atmosphere. We'll be gone, so it's not like they'll be able to ask us directly. And it's not like we would have a good answer for them even if they could.

"Sorry, we were worried about cutting fossil fuels out completely because it might hurt our economies," or "Well, we thought future generations would be smart enough to figure out a way to fix all of the damage we caused,'"

Or some other such excuse.

Let's look at a more tangible scenario. Let's pretend a band of humans is living on a deserted island, and the island is full of fruit-bearing trees. The trees have enough fruit to sustain a small group of human beings indefinitely. On top of that, there's a medium-sized group of pigs living on the far side of the island, and if managed well they should provide a second steady food source indefinitely.

The band of humans on the island knows that there's no easy way off of the island, and that for all intents and purposes many generations of their offspring will inhabit this island after they themselves have all died off. It's up to them to ensure the island is well looked after for future generations.

While it would be possible for them to live happily and healthily just foraging for fruit and eating the occasional pig, they have other plans in mind. They convince themselves that they could live much happier lives if, instead of foraging for fruit, they would focus their efforts on hunting pigs. Because bacon is delicious, and they would much rather eat meat as an almost daily meal than subsist on the fruit that the jungle provides them.

So, the hunt is on. To supplement the hunt, the band of humans cuts down a lot of fruit-bearing trees for use as firewood and building material. Since they have such an abundance of food from the pig hunt, their population is also able to expand more rapidly than otherwise. With the men out hunting and the women not having to spend much time foraging for fruit, they're able to spend more time child-rearing. The population of the island expands to the point that its ongoing existence would no longer be sustainable.

One generation later, the band of humans has hunted the pigs almost to extinction. Meat is becoming rare. The pigs no longer have a viable breeding population—and even if they did, every time one is spotted it gets slaughtered for meat. The humans are forced to subsist primarily on fruit and whatever else the jungle provides - but they've now cut down over half of the island's trees for use as building materials and firewood, so there are far less fruit-bearing trees than there were previously. Now they could be facing death by starvation. So much for sustainability—sorry grandkids.

Easter Island
The scenario described above may have played out similarly on Easter Island.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The moral of the story is that, as a result of mismanagement, the band of humans has greatly compromised their ability to find food and expanded their numbers to the point of unsustainability. And that's really not too different from what's going on here on Earth right now. Instead of the island it's our whole planet. And instead of a few pigs and trees, it's a huge amount of natural resources.

A natural response is that maybe they should leave the island in search of more resources. But that's not an easy thing to do. There may not be a habitable island full of abundant resources nearby, just as there's no other habitable planet near Earth. And there are a few good reasons why we don't want a second Earth anyways—namely, that if we were to render our planet uninhabitable, then there's nothing stopping us from doing the same to a second planet.

But alas, this is a distant future problem. And we don't really have this precedent. In our current civilization, we've benefited greatly from the actions of our ancestors. In a few centuries, we went from being a primarily agriculture-based civilization to a primarily digital-based civilization. Everything we have today, we owe to the people who invented it in the past. We're the lucky beneficiaries of centuries, or perhaps even millennia, of human innovation.

It's not obvious that this upward trend will last forever. There's currently a small number of people who's lives are becoming worse every year due to climate change—and this number is increasing yearly. But this population is dwarfed by the immense number of people who are benefiting from the daily continuation of business (that is, environmental destruction) as usual. There may come a year when the number of lives made worse by climate change is greater than the number of lives made better by continued environmental destruction At that point, our civilization could collapse—we would need to halt all production in order to avoid human suffering, but doing so would only lead to more human suffering. It's a catch-22.

Nuclear Test
It's not just environmental destruction that's the problem. Our world could also end with a big bang.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

If we were to carry out proper long-term planning, we would want to adopt a multi-pronged approach. We would want to simultaneously outlaw fossil fuel use, adopt 100% renewable energy sources, de-industrialize and focus on growing our digital economies, and invest in educating future generations to better address the future problems that could be faced by a technological civilization.

Sure, it might be good enough to just invest more money in renewable energy sources. But a robust plan should ensure success and employ long-term solutions to future problems before they ever become problems. We should think of the distant future for this very reason. If we foresee a time when environmental destruction could potentially cause Earth's biosphere to collapse or even become uninhabitable, we should do everything we can to prevent such an outcome. Doing otherwise is morally deplorable.

And it's not deplorable just because it would lead to global suffering on a gigantic scale as all of humanity gets extinguished in the flames of environmental collapse. We also have to consider the would-be inhabitants of the deep future—that is, all human generations that could possibly exist in the future of our cosmos.

Let's crunch some numbers. Over 100 million humans are born each year on Earth. If human civilization continues on for another 1,000 years, then we can expect 100 billion new people—100 billion new lives over the next millennium. That's as many humans who have ever lived in all human history. But if our current course is unsustainable, the worst-case scenario is that humans will go extinct within the next century. 10+ billion more people may be born, but then everyone dies, and no future generations ever come into existence. That would mean 90 billion potential human lives extinguished due to the stupidity of past human generations. That's equivalent to a genocide 10,000 times worse than Hitler.

But it can get even worse. If human beings are able to exist for another one million years, things get even more interesting. Even if we never colonize other worlds, one million years of human civilization persisting would mean tens to hundreds of trillions of human lives lived. For every human being alive today, that's thousands of future humans that may come into existence.

And that number could get exponentially larger if we're able to survive as long as the universe itself.

This presents us with a huge responsibility, and a moral dilemma. If our actions today could decide the fate of trillions and trillions of future human lives, how seriously should we take that responsibility? Do we go about our lives as if we don't have this special knowledge? Or do we take on the challenge of ensuring our species doesn't go extinct and our planet doesn't succumb to human ignorance?

Of course, environmental catastrophe isn't the only we our civilization could potentially come to an end. Nuclear war, asteroid impacts, supervolcanes, epidemics, astronomical phenomena , overpopulation, and artificial intelligence each represent a unique potential threat to our survival as a species. Navigating these testy waters into the deep future of humanity isn't an easy task—the water is murky, we don't know all of the dangers that lurk below, and something unexpected could happen at any moment.

The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus
The Siege and Destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans Under the Command of Titus by David Roberts, circa 1850. Big catastrophes have occurred throughout human history, so there's no reason to assume they'll stop now.
Image Credit: David Roberts / Wikimedia Commons

This worry about the deep future of humanity is what inspired me to start this blog in the first place. And the more I've learned about how simultaneously indifferent and menacing the cosmos is, the more worried I become. This is what Death by Cosmos is all about. That we're not necessarily doomed tomorrow as long as we're capable of taking appropriate action today. As for what appropriate action is, well, I'll save that for another post.

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