The Worst Possible Scenario – Humanity Stuck on This Damn Dirt Ball
Humans evolved in a context of horrendous competition. The default state for the vast majority of humans in human history was brutish, violent, very short and miserable. While Pleistocene humans lived fairly sedate lives (with skeletal evidence showing not much evidence of injury or starvation), as soon as populations started sharply increasing (at the ice melted at the end of the last ice age), there is evidence that human populations succumbed to ever increasing tribal violence.
The more humans had to compete for scarce resources, the more humans were inclined to use force to get what they needed. That led to the development of states, governments, taxation and (and yes, I’d regard that as a form of violence) organized religions. Organizational power became a way to address scarcity, generally at someone else’s expense. While violence was mainly directed outwards, to other tribes, it was also increasingly directed to the poor of the tribe.
The population growth we have seen in the last few centuries is, by any reasonable metric, insane. Nothing similar happened before on the planet and, even if humanity were to go extinct tomorrow, there would be a striking demarcation between the geological strata of Earth corresponding to before humanity and after humanity. In fact, the remains of human civilization would become the most visible fossil record on the planet. The amount of stuff that we are leaving behind doesn’t even compare to the KT boundary – humans are leaving an irreversible entropic imprint on the planet that will be visible to future (alien?) forensics for more than a billion years.
Space Colonization or Dante’s Inferno
This universe does not provide our species with any guarantee or consolation. We can argue the human predicament from a faith-based perspective, and claim that there might be a higher force “up there,” which more or less guarantees a good outcome. But there are many extinct civilizations. People in lost civilizations also had expectations and faith, but their faith was invariably squashed by harsh reality. The fact remains that lousy policies lead to collapse, and if the collapse is bad enough most people involved die.
In the past, nature may have capriciously dumped mass death randomly. These days we are actively setting the stage for mass extinctions all through our own industrial activity. And we all seem to realize that we are in for bad times, as it has become evident in the negative trend in our fictional tales. Right now Dystopian fiction is popular, arguably by crowd-sourcing decree. At least a third of the movies I watched recently (and do excuse me if you see reason to accuse me of having a lousy taste) were about a collapsed Earth where invariably young and attractive teenagers symbolize whatever hope humanity has left.
The sad fact is that even in a worst case scenario not all humans will die. It takes an incredibly implausible effort to kill all humans on the planet. In other words, the effort required to annihilate humans goes up exponentially and with diminishing returns. To kill the last hundred million humans becomes functionally (or economically) impossible. That may sound like good news until you try to visualize in what kind of world humans might have to survive. There are quite a few possible dreadful worlds that we can envision, I am sure we’ll be able to create some in a few decades. But even if we combine the most dismal projections of climate change, Fukushima-like nuclear accidents, resource depletion, global thermonuclear war, a combination of Ebola, SARS, and the black plague – we’ll see only half of humanity die.
It’s worth remembering that in a world where suddenly 90% of humans are dead, most military hardware will still be around a-plenty. Imagine a world that’s ravaged by resource depletion, diseases, wars, nuclear wars, where only half a billion humans survive, and I’ll show you a planet that is uncannily similar to the current worst of the worst places on the planet – North Korea, Afghanistan, Sudan. But even if turmoil and war do not succeed in reducing human populations permanently, even under the most gruesome conditions this planet might sustain an utterly impoverished population of billions of traumatized human beings for centuries.
What is the point of human life? What is the point of living as a human being? My first answer would be happiness and comfort. I am personally less than enthusiastic about hard work, cruelty, suffering, affliction or fear. My personal preferences entail health, happiness, security, ambition, justice, hope, culture and freedom.
So the logical conclusion is that on this planet a whole lot of things can go wrong. The upside of things going is usually that things get better again after a while. But that is where the problem lies.
The vast majority of our affluence on this planet is based on non-renewable resources, in particular non-renewable petrochemical resources. Once these are consumed, they are gone. One way to avoid the problems posed by terminal consumption of non-renewable resources is to evolve out of outdated needs. That is what we did in the last two centuries. Humans have evolved many new technologies and organizational models to avoid depleting resources, but there has never been any reasonable or plausible guarantee along the way that we would have made it this far. In essence, that things are still working means pretty much we as a species have been lucky.
All seems to indicate that our luck is running out. Never before have we had it so well, but never before has the potential for mass death and untold suffering been so high.
The risk we face is not the total extinction of humanity. The risk we now face is that humanity falls back to the viciously primitive state that we find in the worst places of the planet. In such a hellish future, we might even be able to sustain vast population numbers under gruesome conditions (and, like it or not, humans breed more when they are miserable).
The world we want is the world of Star Trek, unbridled economic growth, and advancing medical and other technologies. The world I want is a world where problems are solved, and people become happier and happier. We are now actively risking making such positive scenario’s effectively impossible.
There is one way out of this trap, and that is to quickly develop new energy sources. It seems unlikely that we can sustain a modern society with only planetary renewable and sustainable sources of energy. I think we can’t. I think we can not have consumerism and democracy and personal freedom in a world that runs only on solar, hydro and wind power. We’ll need something else, and that something else can be probably found only off-planet.
We may have a window of only a few more decades to ensure total and irreversible energy availability, and all scenarios that include unconstrained growth involve developing resources in the inner solar system. The best case scenario involves Space Based Solar, but even at this time such a project is often regarded as sheer fantasy. Too big, too “expensive,” economically nonviable, it would threaten existing monopolies – or some other flimsy pretext.
At some point, the precious window of opportunity will be closed, and we’ll be unable to get ourselves off-planet. Technological ability will deteriorate, science will become neglected and we might fall back to a more primitive condition.
The metaphor of Dante’s Inferno would apply. The world would become an unbearable pit of senseless and pointless suffering, especially since survivors will be able to view how life used to be in 2014 on the surviving media devices. We’ll all remember what we have lost, and we will all be left fighting tooth and nail to hold on to a few precious remnants of our past glory.
Images from Wikimedia Commons.