<Snapshot of material whose master copy is kept here>
The decade 2010-2019 will be a decade of crises for humanity:
- As hundreds of millions of people worldwide significantly change their lifestyles, consuming ever more energy and generating ever more waste, the planet Earth faces increasingly great strains. “More of the same” is not an acceptable response.
- Alongside the risk of environmental disaster, another risks looms: that of economic meltdown. The massive shocks to the global finance system at the end of the previous decade bear witness to powerful underlying tensions and problems with the operation of market economies.
- The rapid rate of change causes widespread personal frustration and societal angst, driving a significant minority of people into the arms of beguiling ideologies such as fundamentalist Islam and the militant pursuit of terrorism. Relatively easy access to potential weapons of mass destruction – whether nuclear, biological, or chemical – transforms the threat of terrorism from an issue of national security into an issue of global survival.
In aggregation, these threats are truly fearsome.
To improve humanity’s chances of surviving, in good shape, to 2020 and beyond, we need new solutions.
I believe that these new solutions are emerging in part from improved technology, and in part from an important change in attitude towards technology. This book explains the basis for these beliefs. This chapter summarises the crises, and the remaining chapters summarise the proposed solutions.
In the phrase “Humanity+”, the plus sign after the word “Humanity” emphasises that solutions to our present situation cannot be achieved by people continuing to do the same as before. Instead, a credible vision of wise application of new technologies can bring humans – both individually and collectively – to operate in dramatically enhanced ways:
- Humans will be able, in stages, to break further free from the crippling constraints and debilitations of our evolutionary background and our historical experiences;
- We will, individually and collectively, become smarter, wiser, stronger, kinder, healthier, calmer, brighter, more peaceful, and more fulfilled;
- Instead of fruitless divisions and conflicts, we’ll find much better ways to cooperate, and build social systems for mutual benefit.
This is the vision of humanity fulfilling its true potential.
But there are many obstacles on the path to this fulfilment. These obstacles could easily drive Humanity to “Humanity-” (humanity minus), or even worse (human annihilation), rather than Humanity+. There’s nothing inevitable about the outcome. As a reminder of the scale of the obstacles, let’s briefly review five interrelated pending crises.
1.1 The environmental crisis
Potential shortages of clean drinking water. Rapid reductions in the available stocks of buried energy sources, such as coal, gas, and oil. Crippling impacts on our environment from the waste products of our lifestyles. These – and more – represent the oncoming environmental crisis.
With good reason, the aspect of the environmental crisis that is most widely discussed is the potential threat of runaway climate change. Our accelerating usage of fossil fuels means that carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has reached levels unprecedented in human history. This magnifies the greenhouse effect of the atmosphere, tending to push the average global temperature higher. This relationship is complex. Forget simple ideas about increases in factor A invariably being the cause of increases in factor B. Think instead about a dance of different factors that each influence the other, in different ways at different times. (That’s a theme that you’ll notice throughout this book.)
In the case of climate change, the players in the dance include:
- Variation in the amount of sunlight striking earth landmasses, due to changes over geological timescales in the axis of the earth, the eccentricity of the earth’s orbit, and the distribution of landmass over different latitudes;
- Variation in the slow-paced transfer of heat between different parts of the ocean;
- Variation in the speed of build-up or collapse of huge polar ice sheets;
- Variation in numerous items in the atmosphere, including aerosols (which tend to lower average temperature) and greenhouse gases (which tend to raise it again);
- Variation in the amounts of greenhouse gases, such as methane, being suddenly released into the atmosphere from buried frozen stores (for example, from tundra);
- Variation in the sensitivity of the planet to the various “climate forcing agents” – sometimes a small change in one will lead to just small changes in the climate, but at other times the consequences are more severe.
What makes this dance potentially deadly is the twin risk of latent momentum and strong positive feedback:
- More CO2 in the atmosphere raises the average temperature, which means there’s more H2O (water vapour) in the atmosphere too, raising the average temperature yet further;
- Icesheets over the Antarctic and Greenland take a long time to start to disintegrate, but once the process gets under way, it can become essentially irreversible;
- Less ice on the planet means less incoming sunlight is reflected to space; instead, larger areas of water absorb more of the sunlight, increasing ocean temperature further;
- Rises in sea temperatures can trigger the sudden release of huge amounts of greenhouse gases from methane clathrate compounds buried in seabeds and permafrost – another example of rapid positive feedback.
Indeed, there is significant evidence that runaway methane clathrate breakdown may have caused drastic alteration of the ocean environment and the atmosphere of earth a number of times in the past, most notably in connection with the Permian extinction event, when 96% of all marine species became extinct about 250 million years ago.
Of course, predicting the future of the environment is hard. There are three sorts of fogs of climate change uncertainty:
- Many of the technical interactions are still unknown, or are far from being fully understood. We are continuing to learn more;
- Even where we believe we do understand the technical interactions, many of the detailed interactions are unpredictable. Just as it’s hard to predict the weather itself, one month (say) into the future, it’s hard to predict the exact effect of ongoing climate forcing agents. The effect that “a butterfly flapping its wings unpredictably causes a hurricane on the other side of the planet” applies for the chaos of climate as much as for the chaos of weather;
- There are huge numbers of vested interests, who (consciously or sub-consciously) twist and distort aspects of the argument over climate change.
The vested interests include:
- Both anti-nuclear and pro-nuclear campaigners;
- Both anti-oil and pro-oil campaigners, and anti-coal and pro-coal campaigners;
- Both “small is beautiful” and “big is beautiful” campaigners;
- Both “back to nature” and “pro-technology” campaigners;
- Scientists and authors who have long supported particular theories, and who are loath to change their viewpoints;
- Hardened political campaigners who look to extract maximum concessions, for the region or country they represent, before agreeing a point of negotiation.
Not only is it psychologically hard for individuals to objectively review data or theories that conflicts with their favoured opinions. It is economically hard for companies (such as energy companies) to accept viewpoints that, if true, would cause major hurdles for their current lines of business, and significant loss of jobs. On the other hand, just because researcher R has strong psychological reason P and/or strong economic incentive E in favour of advocating viewpoint V, it does not mean that viewpoint V is wrong. The viewpoint could be correct, even though some of the support advanced in its favour is non-logical. As I said, there’s lots of fog to navigate!
Despite all this uncertainty, I offer the following conclusions:
- There is a wide range of possible outcomes, for the climate in the next few decades;
- The probability of runaway global warming – with disastrous effects on sea levels, drought, agriculture, storms, species and ecosystem displacement, travel, business, and so on – is at least 20%, and likely higher;
- Global warming won’t just make the temperature higher; it will make the weather more extreme – due to increased global temperature gradients, increased atmospheric water vapour, and higher sea temperatures that stir up more vicious storms.
A risk of at least 20% of a global environmental disaster deserves urgent attention and further analysis. Who among us would enter an airplane with family and friends, if we believed there was a 20% probability of that airplane plummeting headlong out of the sky to the ground?
1.2 The economic crisis
The controversies and uncertainties over the potential threat of runaway climate change find parallels in discussions over a possible catastrophic implosion of the world economic system. These discussions likewise abound with technical disagrements and vested interests.
Are governments, legislators, banks, and markets generally wise enough and capable to oversee the pressures of financial trading, and keep the systems afloat? Was the recent series of domino-like collapses of famous banks around the world a “once in a lifetime” abnormality, that is most unlikely to repeat? Or should we expect a recurrence of fundamental financial instability? What is the risk of a larger financial crisis striking? Indeed, what is the risk of adverse follow-on effects from the “tail end” of the 2008-2009 crisis, generating a so-called “double dip” in which the second dip is more drastic than the first? On all these questions, opinions vary widely.
Despite the wide variation in opinions, some elements seem common. All commentators are fearful of some potential causes of major disruption to global economics. Depending on the commentator, these perceived potential causes include:
- Clumsy regulation of financial markets;
- Bankers who are able to take catastrophic risks in the pursuit of ever greater financial rewards;
- The emergence of enormous monopoly powers that eliminate the benefits of marketplace competition;
- Institutions that become “too big to fail” and therefore derail the appropriate workings of the market system;
- Sky-high accumulation of debts, with individuals and countries living far beyond their means, for too long;
- Austerity programmes that attempt to reduce debts quickly, but which could provoke spiraling industrial disputes and crippling strikes;
- Bubbles that grow because “it’s temporarily rational for everyone to be irrational in their expectations” and then burst with tremendous damage.
We must avoid a feeling of overconfidence arising from the fact that previous financial crises were, in the end, survived, without the world of banking coming to an end. First, these previous financial crises caused numerous local calamities – and the causes of major wars can be traced (in part) to these crises. Second, there are reasons why future financial problems could have more drastic effects than previous ones:
- There are numerous hidden interconnections between different parts of the global economy, which accelerate negative feedback when individual parts fail;
- The complexity of new financial products far outstrips the ability of senior managers and regulators to understand and appreciate the risks involved;
- In an age of instant electronic connections, the speed of cascading events can catch us all flat-footed.
For these reasons, I tentatively suggest we assign a ballpark risk factor of about 20% to the probability of a major global financial meltdown during the 2010s. (Yes, this is the same numeric figure as I picked for the environmental crisis too.)
Note some parallels between the two crises I’ve already discussed:
- In each case, the devil is in the mix of weakly-understood powerful feedback systems;
- Again in each case, our ability to discern what’s really happening is clouded by powerful non-rational factors and vested interests;
- Again in each case, the probabilities of major disaster cannot be calculated in any precise way, but the risk appears large enough to warrant very serious investigation of solutions;
- Again in each case, there is deep disagreement about the best solutions to deploy.
Worse, these two looming crises are themselves interconnected. Shortage of resources such as clean energy could trigger large price hikes which throw national economies into tailspins. Countries or regions which formerly cooperated could end up at devastating loggerheads, if an “abundance spirit” is replaced by a “scarcity spirit”.
1.3 The extreme terrorist crisis
What drives people to use bombs to inflict serious damage? Depending on the cirumstance, it’s a combination of:
- Positive belief, in support of some country, region, ideology, or religion;
- Negative belief, in which a group of people (“the enemy”) are seen as despicable, inferior, or somehow deserving of destruction or punishment;
- Peer pressure, where people feel constrained by those around them to follow through on a commitment (to become, for example, a suicide bomber);
- Personal rage, such as a desire for revenge and humiliation;
- Aspiration for personal glory and reward, in either the present life, or a presumed afterlife;
- Failure of countervailing “pro-cooperation” and “pro-peace” instincts or systems.
Nothing here is new for the 2010s. What is new is the increased ease of access, by would-be inflictors of damage, to so-called weapons of mass destruction. There is a fair probability that the terrorists who piloted passenger jet airlines into the Twin Towers and the Pentagon would have willingly caused even larger amounts of turmoil and damage, if they could have put their hands on suitable weapons.
Technology itself is neutral. A hammer which can be used to drive a nail into a piece of wood can equally be used to knock a fellow human unconscious. Electricity can light up houses or fry someone in an electric chair. Explosives can clear obstacles during construction projects or can obliterate critical infrastructure assets of so-called enemies. Biochemical manipulation can yield wonderfully nutritious new food compounds or deadly new diseases. Nuclear engineering can provide sufficient energy to free humanity from dependency on carbon-laden fossil fuels, or suitcase-sized portable weapons capable of tearing the heart out of major cities.
As technology becomes more widely accessible – via improved education worldwide, via cheaper raw materials, and via easy access to online information – the potential grows, both for good uses and for bad uses. A saying attributed to Eliezer Yudkowsky gives us pause for thought:
The minimum IQ required to destroy the world drops by one point every 18 months.
(This saying is sometimes called “Moore’s Law of mad scientists“.) The statement was probably not intended to be interpreted mathematically exactly, but we can agree that, over the course of a decade, the number of people capable of putting together a dreadful weapon of mass destruction will grow significantly. The required brainpower will move from the rarified tails of the bell curve of intelligence distribution, in the direction of the more fully populated central region.
We can imagine similar “laws” of increasing likelihood of destructive capability:
The minimum IQ required to devise and deploy a weapon that wipes out the heart of a major city drops by one point every 18 months;
The minimum IQ required to poison the water table for a region drops by one point every 18 months;
The minimum IQ required to unleash a devastating plague drops by one point every 18 months…
Of course, the threat of nuclear annihilation has been with the world for half a century. During my student days at Cambridge University, I participated in countless discussions about how best to avoid the risk of unintentional nuclear war. Despite the forebodings of some of my contemporaries at the time, we reached the end of the 20th century unscathed. Governments of nuclear-capable countries, regardless of their political hues and ideological positions, found good reason to avoid steps that could trigger any nuclear escalation. What’s different with at least some fundamentalist terrorists is that they operate in a mental universe that is considerably more extreme:
- They live for a life beyond the grave, rather than before it;
- They believe that divine providence will take care of the outcome – any “innocents” caught up in the destruction will receive their own rewards in the afterlife, courtesy of an all-seeing, all-knowing deity;
- They are nourished and inspired by apocalyptic writing that glorifies a vision of almighty destruction;
- They operate with moral certainty: they seem to harbour no doubts or questions about the rightness of their course of action.
Mix this extreme mindset with sufficient raw brainpower and with weapons-grade materials that can be begged, bought, or stolen, and the stage is set for a terrorist outrage that will put 9/11 far into the shade. In turn, the world’s reaction to that incident is likely to put the reaction to 9/11 far into its own shade.
It’s true, would-be terrorists are often incompetent. Their explosives sometimes fail to detonate. But that must give us no ground for complacency. The same “incompetence” can sometimes result in unforeseen consequences that are even more destructive than those intended.
1.4 The sense of profound personal alienation
Environmental crisis. Economic crisis. Extreme terrorist crisis. Added together, we might be facing a risk of around 50% that, sometime during the 2010s, we’ll collectively look back with enormous regret and say to ourselves:
That’s the worst thing that’s happened in our lifetime. Why oh why didn’t we act to stop it happening? But it’s too late to make amends now. If only we could re-run history, and take wiser choices…
But there’s more. Here’s a probability that I’ll estimate at 100%, rather than 50%. It’s the probability that huge numbers of individuals will look at their lives with bitter regret, and say to themselves:
This outcome was very far from the best it could have been. This human life has missed, by miles, the richness and quality of experience that was potentially available. Why oh why did it turn out like this? If only I could re-run my life, and take wiser choices, or benefit from improved circumstances…
The first three crises are global crises. This fourth one is a personal crisis. The first three are highly visible. The fourth might just be an internal heartache. It’s the realisation that:
- Life provides, at least for some people, on at least some occasions, intense feelings of vitality, creativity, flow, rapport, ecstacy, and accomplishment;
- These “peak experiences” are generally rare, or just glimpsed;
- The majority of human experience is at a much lower level of quality than is conceivable.
The pervasive video broadcast communications of the modern age make it all the more obvious, to increasing numbers of people, that the quality of their lives fall short of what could be imagined and desired. These same communications also strongly hint that technology is advancing to the point where it could soon free people from the limitations of their current existence, and enable levels of experience previously only imagined for deities. Just around the corner lies the potential of lives that are much extended, expanded, and enhanced. How frustrating to miss out on this potential! It brings to mind the lamentations of a venerable French noblewoman from 1783, as noted in Lewis Lapham’s 2003 Commencement speech at St. John’s College Annapolis:
[A] French noblewoman, a duchess in her eighties, …, on seeing the first ascent of Montgolfier’s balloon from the palace of the Tuilleries in 1783, fell back upon the cushions of her carriage and wept. “Oh yes,” she said, “Now it’s certain. One day they’ll learn how to keep people alive forever, but I shall already be dead.”
Acts of gross destruction are often motivated by deep feelings of dissatisfaction or frustration: the world is perceived as containing significant wrongs, that need righting. So there’s a connection between the crisis of profound personal alienation and the crisis of extreme terrorism. Thankfully, people who experience dissatisfaction or frustration don’t all react in the same way. But even if the reaction is only (as I suggested earlier) an internal heartache, the shortcoming between potential and reality is nonetheless profound. Life could, and should, be so much better.
We can re-state the four crises as four huge opportunities:
- The opportunity to nurture an amazingly pleasant, refreshing, and intriguing environment;
- The opportunity to guide global economic development to sustainably create sufficient resources for everyone’s needs;
- The opportunity to utilise personal passions for constructive projects;
- The opportunity to enable individuals to persistently experience qualities of human life far, far higher than at present.
I see Humanity+ as addressing all four of these opportunities. And it does so with an eye on one more crisis, which is the most uncertain one of the lot.
1.5 The existential crisis of accelerating change and deepening complexity
Time and again, changes have consequences that are unforeseen and unintended. The more complex the system, the greater the likelihood of changes leading to unintended consequences.
However, human society is becoming more complex all the time:
- Multiple different cultures and sub-cultures overlap, co-exist, and influence each other;
- Worldwide travel is nowadays commonplace;
- Increasing numbers of channels exist for communication and influence ;
- Society is underpinned by a rich infrastructure of multi-layered technology.
Moreover, the rate of change is increasing:
- New products sweep around the world in ever shorter amounts of time;
- Larger numbers of people are being educated to levels never seen before, and are entering the worlds of research, development, manufacturing, and business;
- Online collaboration mechanisms, including social networks, wikis, and open source software, mean it is easier for innovation in one part of the world to quickly influence and benefit subsequent innovation elsewhere;
- The transformation of more industries from “matter-dominated” to “information-dominated” means that the rapid improvement cycle of semiconductors transforms the speed of progress.
These changes bring many benefits. They also bring drawbacks, and – due to the law of unintended consequences – they bring lots of unknowns and surprises. The risk is that we’ll waken up one morning and realise that we deeply regret one of the unforeseen side-effects. For example, there are risks:
- That some newly created microscopic-scale material will turn out to have deleterious effects on human life, akin (but faster acting) to the problems arising to exposure from asbestos;
- That some newly engineered biochemical organism will escape into the wild and turn out to have an effect like that of a plague;
- That well-intentioned attempts at climate “geo-engineering”, to counter the risk of global warming, will trigger unexpected fast-moving geological phenomenon;
- That state-of-the-art high-energy physics experiments will somehow create unanticipated exotic new particles that destroy all nearby space and time;
- That software defects will spread throughout part of the computing infrastructure of modern life, rendering it useless.
Here’s another example, from history. On 1st March 1954, the US military performed their first test of a dry fuel hydrogen bomb, at the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The explosive yield was expected to be from 4 to 6 Megatons. But when the device was exploded, the yield was 15 Megatons, two and a half times the expected maximum. As the Wikipedia article on this test explosion explains:
The cause of the high yield was a laboratory error made by designers of the device at Los Alamos National Laboratory. They considered only the lithium-6 isotope in the lithium deuteride secondary to be reactive; the lithium-7 isotope, accounting for 60% of the lithium content, was assumed to be inert…
Contrary to expectations, when the lithium-7 isotope is bombarded with high-energy neutrons, it absorbs a neutron then decomposes to form an alpha particle, another neutron, and a tritium nucleus. This means that much more tritium was produced than expected, and the extra tritium in fusion with deuterium (as well as the extra neutron from lithium-7 decomposition) produced many more neutrons than expected, causing far more fissioning of the uranium tamper, thus increasing yield.
This resultant extra fuel (both lithium-6 and lithium-7) contributed greatly to the fusion reactions and neutron production and in this manner greatly increased the device’s explosive output.
Sadly, this calculation error resulted in much more radioactive fallout than anticipated. Many of the crew in a nearby Japanese fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon No. 5, became ill in the wake of direct contact with the fallout. One of the crew subsequently died from the illness – the first human casualty from thermonuclear weapons.
Suppose the error in calculation had been significantly worse – perhaps by an order of thousands rather than by a factor of 2.5. This might seem unlikely, but when we deal with powerful unknowns, we cannot rule out powerful unforeseen consequences. Imagine if extreme human activity somehow interfered with the incompletely understood mechanisms governing supervolcanoes – such as the one that exploded around 73,000 years ago at Lake Toba (Sumatra, Indonesia) and which is thought to have reduced the worldwide human population at the time to perhaps as few as one thousand breeding pairs.
It’s not just gargantuan explosions that we need fear. As indicated above, the list of so-called “existential risks” includes highly contagious diseases, poisonous nano-particles, and catastrophic failures of the electronics infrastructure that underpins modern human society. Add to these “known unknowns” the risk of “unknown unknowns” – the factors which we currently don’t even know that we should be considering.
The more quickly things change, the harder it is to foresee and monitor all the consequences. There’s a great deal that deserves our attention. How should we respond?
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