Petra Söderling, my good friend and former colleague on the Symbian Foundation launch team, raises some important questions in a blogpost yesterday, Transhumans H+. Petra remarked on the fact that I had included the text “UKH+ meetings secretary” on my new business card. A TV program she watched recently had reminded her of the topic of transhumanism (often abbreviated to H+ or h+) – prompting her blogpost:
…I haven’t changed my mind, David. I still think this is not pressingly important or urgent. In my view, the single biggest problem we have at hand is that people are breeding like rabbits, and the planet cannot feed us all. Us rich westerners consume so much natural resources that just supporting our lifestyle would be a burden. But, we are not only idiots in our own consumption manners, we are idiots in showing the rest of the world that this is the preferred lifestyle. Our example leads to billions of people in developing and underdeveloped countries pursuing our way of living. This is done by unprecedented exploitation of resources everywhere.
We’re in a process of eating our home planet away, and helping the richest of us to live healthier and longer is no solution. What’s the point of living 150 years if you’re breathing manufactured air, all migrated to north and south poles from desert lands, and eating tomatos that are clone of a clone of a clone of a clone of a clone? As rich and clever as we are, I think we should solve first things first…
The mention of “first things first” and “single biggest problem” is music to my ears. I’m currently engaged on a personal research program to try to clarify what, for me, should be the “first things” that deserve my own personal focus. Having devoted the last 21 years of my work life to mobile software, particularly for smartphones, I’m now looking to determine where I should apply my skills and resources for the next phase of my professional life.
I completely agree with Petra that the current “western consumer lifestyle” is not sustainable. As more and more people throughout the developing world adopt similar lifestyles, consuming more and more resources, the impact on our planet is becoming collosal. It’s a very high priority to address this lack of sustainability.
But is the number of people on the planet – our population – the most important leverage point, to address this lack of sustainability? There are at least four factors to consider:
- World population
- The resource consumption of the average person on the planet
- The outcome of processes for creating resources
- Side-effects of processes for creating resources.
Briefly, we are in big trouble if (1.)x(2.) exceeds (3.), and/or if the side-effects (4.) are problematic in their own right.
My view is that the biggest leverage will come from addressing factors (3.) and (4.), rather than (1.) and (2.).
…the correct statement about power from the Sahara is that today’s [global energy] consumption could be provided by a 1000 km by 1000 km square in the desert, completely filled with concentrating solar power. That’s four times the area of the UK. And if we are interested in living in an equitable world, we should presumably aim to supply more than today’s consumption. To supply every person in the world with an average European’s power consumption (125 kWh/d), the area required would be two 1000 km by 1000 km squares in the desert…
In parallel with thoughtfully investigating this kind massive-scale solar energy harvesting, it also makes sense to thoughtfully investigate massive-scale CO2 removal from the atmosphere (the topic of a blogpost I plan to write shortly) as well as other geo-engineering initiatives. In line with the transhumanist philoosophy I espouse, I’m keen to
support and encourage the thoughtful development and application of technology to significantly enhance human mental and physical capabilities – with profound possible consequences on both personal and global scales
There are, of course, large challenges facing attempts to create massive-scale solar energy harvesting and massive-scale CO2 removal from the atmosphere. These challenges span technology, politics, economics, and, dare I say it, philosophy.
In a previous posting, The trend beyond green, I”ve spelt out some desired changes in mindset that I see as required, on a global scale:
- rather than decrying technology as “just a technical fix”, we must be willing to embrace the new resources and opportunities that these technologies make available;
- rather than seeking to somehow reverse human lifestyle and aspiration to that of a “simpler” time, we must recognise and support the deep and valid interests in human enhancements;
- rather than thinking of death and decay as something that gives meaning to life, we must recognise that life reaches its fullest meaning and value in the absence of these scourges;
- rather than seeing the status quo as somehow the pinnacle of existence, we must recognise the deep drawbacks in current society and philosophies, and be prepared to move forwards;
- rather than seeing “natural” as somehow akin to “the best imaginable”, we must be prepared to engineer solutions that are “better than natural”;
- rather than seeking to limit expectations, with comments such as “this kind of enhancements might become possible in 100-200 years time”, we should recognise the profound possible synergies arising from the interplay of technologies that are individually accelerating and whose compound impact can be much larger.
Helping to accelerate these changes in mindset is one of the big challenges I’d like to adopt, in the next phase of my professional life.
Whatever course society adopts, to address our sustainability crisis, there will need to be some very substantial changes. People embrace change much more willingly, if they see upside as well as downside in the change. The H+ vision of the future I see is one of abundance (generated by the super-technology of the near future) along with societal harmony (peaceful coexistence) and ample opportunities for new growth and exploration.
To return in closing to the question raised earlier: what is the “single biggest problem” that most deserves our collective attention? Is it population growth and demographics, global warming, shortage of energy, the critical instability of the world economic order, the potential for a new global pandemic, nuclear terrorism, or some other global existential risk?
In a way, the answer is “none of the above”. Rather, the single biggest problem is that, globally, we are unable to collaborate sufficiently deeply and productively to develop and deploy solutions to the above issues. This is a second-level problem. The economic, political, and philosophical structures we have inherited from the past have very many positive aspects, but many drawbacks as well – drawbacks that are becoming ever more pressing as we see accelerating change in technology, resource usage, and communications.