“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 expressions in the English language, used to produce a very predictable and short-lived adrenaline rush that lasts about 100 milliseconds before one scrolls to the next equally manic squeal. We no longer read much besides the headlines and, most of the time, 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 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 in which we see ourselves. And the picture isn’t pretty.
Among some sets of people, 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 science fiction author Isaac Asimov, who was himself a former president of the American Humanist Association and a Humanist Laureate in the International Academy of Humanism.1
With friends like these, who needs enemies?
The misanthropic message is so overwhelmingly prevalent that it does trickle through. Only 6 percent of Americans believe the world is getting better.2 Most adults in wealthy countries believe that human civilization is unlikely to last another century.3 And children get the message, too. 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.4
Expectations—both high and low—can be quite reliable self-fulfilling prophecies. After all, if you believe that you live among eight billion locusts gobbling up the last remaining resources of a finite planet, you might conclude that 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 generation of 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 massive, merciless carnivores rummage through our dumpsters. We have conquered the highest mountains, the deepest trenches, and both of Earth’s inhospitable poles. We have covered the planet with the World Wide Web and filled it with an immense store of knowledge. We somehow got ourselves from the caves to the Moon, and in between some of us felt inexplicably compelled to create the Sphinx, the Taj Mahal, the Mona Lisa, and the theory of relativity, and we dreamed of Mars, Jupiter, stars, and galaxies. Where do we go from here?
Wherever we choose, 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.
Acceleration or Retreat
The story of human progress could be expressed as the story of replacing one primary source of energy with another, better, more efficient one. That’s how we fueled our acceleration. And an 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’s 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, flu shots, schools, the internet, movies, 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.5 Just 220 years ago, there were a billion of us. Today, there are 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 the website Quora than ever argued at Athenian gyms during the times of Plato and Aristotle. More people listen to TED talks than were ever lectured by Socrates.
Meanwhile, Sun-in-a-can is running out. It took oil, 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 had better find something else quick, or we are in trouble. We have about fifty years’ worth of oil and gas left, and 130 years’ worth of coal.6 The previous fifty years of trying to replace those with renewable energy left us with 80 percent of overall energy we use still being supplied by fossil fuels, and in transportation it’s 92 percent. In air transportation, it’s 100 percent.
Charles Jones, an economics professor at Stanford University, recently published population dynamic modeling results that I think paint a relevant broad-strokes picture of the options we have.7 He found that there are three steady states for a human society, only two of which are stable. One stable steady state is an accelerating civilization climbing the Kardashev scale8 to the stars. The other is an empty planet left after civilization has faded away.
The third, intermediate steady state 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 that population 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 does not see the value of the 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 the Saturn V rocket, the Tevatron accelerator, and the Arecibo radio telescope, 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 the United Nations, universities, museums, and national governments, and these will be gone too.
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 mists 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, Easter Island statues, the Antikythera mechanism, or Gobekli Tepe complex, how the Zhang Heng seismoscope worked, or how Egyptian pyramids and Saksaywaman stone walls were built. The human tribes that created them couldn’t afford to keep their knowledge alive. They departed the accelerated path, and the departure cost them dearly. For a global tribe that never managed to plant backup copies of itself elsewhere, that would be curtains.
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 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, continue accelerating or quit. We have never tried. 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—would respond to us leaning on the brakes. And the broad-strokes predictions for that scenario that we do have, such as Charles Jones’s empty planet model, don’t look very promising. There is no evidence that degrowth, intentional or otherwise, has a natural floor. That way, apparently, lies defeat.
Nor do we know how to keep our global civilization accelerating without the benefit of 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, and the biosphere 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.
We’re the only global civilization we know facing this dilemma. As a sample size of one, there are no other examples to learn from. 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. This is especially true for our species’ most valuable resource, human talent. The time when being lucky was an adequate substitute for being good and ambitious is over. 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, they 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 to them, yet make completely different decisions, and after the fact, justify theirs every bit as assuredly 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, says more about you than about anything, or anyone, else.
A Leap of Faith
Why should we want to settle the universe like we have settled the Earth? Why should we behave as if we own this planet and have the right and responsibility to run it? Don’t these goals contradict each other?
These are all reasonable questions, but we don’t have the luxury of answering them completely rationally because that would require knowing all outcomes of all possible choices, and, alas, there is no time machine in my basement that will allow me to report on 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, in my humble opinion, is going to take a leap of faith.
Faith in humans, that is. Also known as humanism.
When I face questions that ask for a leap of faith, I find a simple exercise helpful, and 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, experiences, resources, and opportunities.
The opportunity cost of refusing to even try to go up there is incalculable. We don’t know what we’re missing, so we can’t put a price on it. 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. If we and our lineage are lucky, the folks settling the 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. If we and our lineage are lucky, the folks settling the Milky Way galaxy in a distant future may be visiting our descendants in some cosmic zoo.
Having done that irrational exercise, here is what I conclude.
I suggest that asking Earth to support our dash to the stars is more than fair. It’s Gaia’s only shot at immortality. I suggest that a space-faring civilization is an evolutionary adaptation. Space is a shooting gallery, and every life-bearing planet will one day be sterilized one way or another. The only way our planet can immortalize itself is to evolve a civilization that can protect it from global catastrophes and/or plant its copies elsewhere. If someone does it for Earth, it probably won’t be bugs, slugs, or polar bears. It’ll be us. That is, if we choose to, and if we are lucky enough and persistent enough to succeed.
Once we, quite irrationally, choose to believe in ourselves and set our irrationally high goals, we’ll certainly need that other side of the human coin, rationality, to actually get us there. I suggest that our irrationality is not an alternative to being rational but the way we flawed, finite humans choose what to be rational about. And so far, this synergy has worked for us. It remains to be seen how far it can take us.
The question of us winning this round and moving on to the next one, which will be perhaps a lot more challenging than this one was, is to me the question of what “us” stands for. Who is the “us” we’re supposed to bet on? How far back can our germlines diverge for you to still mean me, too, when you say “us”? At the dawn of the species, it was our tribe versus the rest of the world, then our country, then our empire. Is our planet next in line for what “us” means? Our solar system? Our galaxy? Our universe? How big is the biggest community for which you are a patriot? How big is the biggest thing you feel ready to own? Is it six degrees of separation or six degrees of convergence? Are you ready for the seventh? Do you want to be?
What does it take to move to the next round of natural selection for future ownership of, for starters, the Milky Way galaxy? Your guess is as good as mine, but I’m going to offer mine anyway. The evolving self-organization of humanity is, to me, a story of learning to get more and more diverse folks involved in the pursuit of more and more intertwined goals. Learning to call other, very different humans “us” rather than “them.” Confluence, convergence, cross-pollination. Unity in diversity. Encountering concepts too bulky, fuzzy, and nuanced to fit in any one individual human mind, and nonetheless making them work for all of us. Constructing a stereoscopic view of this world by stitching together a mosaic from my little tile to yours and to billions of others’.
I reckon this mosaic is our species’ identity. Contributing to this mosaic is what it means to be “us.” I think that reconciling the freedom of diverse individual minds with their collaborative convergence into collective consciousness—making sense of it all, together—is the secret weapon of our story-telling species. Our claim to fame, our strong suit. Getting better at it is what our upward mobility means.
Upward mobility for humans, in every respect, is inseparable from upward mobility for humanity. Should we give up on ourselves and become what space visionary Robert Zubrin calls, sadly, Homo Mundanis, then the (very predictable) rollback likely won’t be limited just to demographics, economy, technology, art, and science. Human moral standards are closely linked to growth and progress too.9 Violence among diverse humans goes down and tolerance, mutual understanding, and respect go up when different people pursue common goals. When you’re busy pushing a civilization uphill, you have no time for sexism, racism, anti-Semitism, islamophobia, Sinophobia, or any other arrogant xenophobic nonsense. When you’re busy, you can’t afford to be smugly dismissing your competition, either. When our goals are ambitious enough, sometimes we fail (that’s how you know if you challenge yourself enough; if you succeed every time, your bar is set too low). But someone else may succeed, and it might be a good idea to learn from them so you can do better the next time around.
Aiming this high helps to see our little problems, petty squabbles, and dreamed-up grievances in a proper perspective. No less importantly, it helps resolve the real ones, too.
Investing in Oddballs
Remember running out of the Sun-in-a-can? Well, it’s no longer insurmountable once we have faith in humanity. The Sun is still shining just fine, but we are currently using a paltry 0.02 percent of what Earth gets from our home star. What’s worse, it took us over 50 years of campaigning and investment to get 1.4 percent of our worldwide energy use from solar. There is no reason to think that cynics will do much better than that in the next 50 years. What prevents us from using solar energy better than we already do is its intermittency: we need to store it someplace for the night, and storage costs an arm and a leg—both in money and in environmental damage. That’s the grim picture of a misanthropic worldview.
But once we choose to move upward, intermittency of solar ceases to be an unsolvable problem. At any given time, it’s daytime on half the planet. It turns out that if, instead of local storage, we build a global grid, solving the intermittency problem becomes technically and financially very doable in a few decades—as long as we can trust each other to sell energy the way we are already selling pretty much everything else: globally. By the “simple expedient” (just kidding) of learning to trust each other, we can get 67 percent savings: building a global grid instead of local storage is that much cheaper. Yes, keeping this civilization going even after these impressive savings will still cost as much as 2,000 Manhattan Projects or 300 Apollo programs. But we surely do have the resources to do it this way.
The three existential threats recently outlined at the World Economic Forum Davos10 were nuclear war, ecological collapse, and technological disruption. As I mentioned before, people building space-faring civilizations might be too busy with that to whack each other on the head with nuclear bombs. People busy building space-faring civilizations might take good care of their home planet, as a reassurance that planting its diverse and evolving copies elsewhere is a good idea.
What about the existential threat of technological unemployment, wherein we find ourselves devolving into terminally bored and useless people? After all, we can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet, right? That is, a finite planet of finite carrying capacity for a finite number of people with finite needs, needs increasingly met by robots rather than people. With this mindset, the notion of human uselessness is hard to avoid, especially when every young person around you is having trouble finding a decent job. Farm labor went from 95 percent of the population to 2 percent in under two centuries, and factory and office work are following suit, so we naturally start asking the very reasonable question: What the heck do we need ourselves for? The failure to find an inspiring answer is a serious problem of our affluent times.
But once we choose to move upward, this problem goes away too. The traditional view is that we can afford to either take care of this planet or expand our species beyond Earth. This zero-sum-game delusion makes no sense when we have a hard time finding a use for ourselves. The instant we shake its spell, the demand for human labor shoots up. The 58.5 person-hours humans spent exploring the Moon required 5.2 billion person-hours of work down here on Earth. Sure, some of that Earth-bound labor could now be performed by robots, but that would mean more humans, not fewer, can focus on exploring new worlds. And that’s where we outshine robots every day and twice on Sunday: we are the ones that make irrational decisions in an alien environment. In the adaptation department, we irrational humans outperform rational robots the way the internet outperforms carrier pigeons. The one trained human geologist who visited the Moon accomplished more in a few hours walking around there than pre-programmed robots without adult supervision managed to do in decades.
If we won’t bet on ourselves, no one will. Sure, supporting your species’ oddballs—visionaries and idealists—is a risk. You’re spending resources without any guaranteed return on your investment. You can fail if you do that. But you absolutely can’t succeed if you don’t. It’s a fair bet that somebody else somewhere else in the cosmos is trying while we aren’t, and if we aren’t trying then whoever succeeds at it won’t be us.
There is another existential threat to our civilization, which I regard as more serious than nuclear war, ecological collapse, and technological disruption combined. That threat is the misanthropy, cynicism, and risk-aversion that may prevent us from choosing the stars, allowing the other three threats to send us back to the caves. Humanism 2.0 is a simple, uncluttered faith, and its first commandment is that we can, should, and shall aim for the stars.
1. The International Academy of Humanism is a program of the Council for Secular Humanism, copublisher of Free Inquiry.
2. Ronald Bailey, “American Pessimism: Only 6 Percent Think the World Is Getting Better.” Reason, July 7, 2016. Available online at https://reason.com/2016/07/07/american-pessimism-only-6-percent-think/.
3. Ronald Bailey, “The End Is Nigh.” Reason, August 14, 2015. Available online at https://reason.com/2015/08/14/the-end-is-nigh/.
4. Irene Banos Ruiz, “How Children Imagine Our Climate Future.” Deutsche Welle (DW), October 13, 2017. Available online at https://www.dw.com/en/this-apocalyptic-
5. Jaia Syvitski et al., “Extraordinary Human Energy Consumption and Resultant Geological Impacts Beginning around 1950 CE Initiated the Proposed
Anthropocene Epoch.” Nature, October 16, 2020. Available online at https://www.nature.com/articles/s43247-020-00029-y.
6. Worldometer. “Oil Left in the World.” Available online at https://www.worldometers.info/oil/#:~:text=There%20are%201.65%20trillion%20barrels,levels%20and%20excluding%20unproven%20reserves.
7. Charles I. Jones, “The End of Economic Growth? Unintended Consequences of a Declining Population.” American Economic Review vol. 112, no. 11, 2022, pp. 3489–3527. Available online at https://web.stanford.edu/~chadj/emptyplanet.pdf.
8. The Kardashev scale is a method of measuring a civilization’s level of technological advancement based on the amount of energy it is able to use.
9. B. M. Friedman, The Moral Consequences of Economic Growth. New York, NY: Vintage, 2005.
10. Yuval Harari, “Read Yuval Harari’s blistering warning to Davos in full.” World Economic Forum, January 24, 2020. Available online at https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/01/yuval-hararis-warning-davos-speech-future-predications/.
“World belongs to humanity.” —Dalai Lama “When you come to a fork in the road, take it!” —Yogi Berra We are at a crossroads. Prove me wrong. The two sentences above are among the most worn-out expressions in the English language, used to produce a very predictable and short-lived adrenaline rush that lasts about 100 …