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Going Beyond the End of the World
Alex Steffen, 21 Apr 05

Worldending is easy. That is, predicting that horrible, cataclysmic events will occur is far easier than imagining that humanity will in fact rise above all the awful forms of "game over" destruction which face us to build a better, perhaps perpetual, future. (Thought experiment: when was the last time you imagined humanity never ending, but continuing on to the final moments of our universe -- perhaps beyond. When was the last time you regarded the human future as infinite?)

But still, anticipating the truly awful is one way to help our species live long enough to become perpetual. Along those lines, check out this list of 10 prominent scientists' greatest fears:

1: Climate Change. 2: Telomere Erosion. 3: Viral Pandemic. 4: Terrorism. 5: Nuclear war. 6: Meteorite impact. 7: Robots taking over. 8: Cosmic ray blast from exploding star. 9: Super-volcanos. 10: Earth swallowed by a black hole


Worth reading, though I recommend immediately countering it by planting a nut tree or in some other way directly investing in the long-term future. It's not healthy to stay in a state of nervous exhaustion worrying about these things. While it is certainly true that, as Richard Posner says

[T]he challenge of managing catastrophic risks is receiving less attention than is lavished on social issues of far less intrinsic significance, such as race relations, whether homosexual marriage should be permitted, the size of the federal deficit, drug addiction, and child pornography.

I think it is also true that the challenge of imagining worthwhile futures receives far less attention than it ought to. Indeed, I am pretty sure that they're two sides of the same coin. The very blindness that has us believing that Michael Jackson's alledged pedophilia deserves thousands of hours of media attention also has us believing that we have somehow reached the highpoint of civilization. Our society is unable to respond to the massive dangers we now face (and to hell with the distant and improbable ones: we're talking epidemic disease and climate change here: things experts agree are disasters waiting to happen right now) for precisely the same reasons we are unable to envision a radically better future. Which, I'd even go so far as to say, are the same reasons so many people find millenarian prophecies and fundamentalist beliefs appealling.

But here's the great thing: while spending too much time thinking about all the ways the world can end will make you depressed, mean and non-rational, thinking about what the world would be like if a given set of problems were solved tends to make you (or at least me) happier, more energized, and more creative. And I personally find this to be more true, the more real the possibility of actually solving those problems is. Pragmatic optimism (and the creative will to express it) is, I think, not only the antidote for what ails us in contemporary society, but may be the best path forward for tackling these gigantic species-level challenges, these looming disasters, as well.

Imagine a civilization which could go on forever, joyfully. That is ultimately what sustainability has to mean. But we can't build it, if we can't imagine it.

Worldchanging starts inside our heads. Everything else is an after-effect.

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Yes, lets work on making The Culture a reality! (for those who don't get the reference, see this piece by Iain M. Banks the Wikipedia article about The Culture, a sf creation by Iain M. Banks)

It is much more productive to work toward clear goals than to just try to solve problems as they come along. Without vision, the chances of getting where we'd want to be are slim.

Posted by: Mikhail Capone on 21 Apr 05

An excellent analysis! I thought that the best aspect of Freeman Dyson's Imagined Worlds was the optimism it takes to think in a non-fictional sense about a million years in our future.

On the psychological level, though, I wonder about the processes that people go through as their perspectives evolve. I think any attitude to be advocated for getting us through our rough patches has to be flexible enough to allow pessimism, in a sense. There's that old adage about the stages of facing death - denial, anger, etc., then acceptance. Could there be a similar arc to coming to terms with looming societal catastrophes? If "pragmatic optimism" is the final, healthy stage, does badgering people about their pessimism help them along or skew a process? Isn't it natural to get a bit down about such weighty things? I guess the point is to not let negative reactions get solidified into cultural tendencies - while hopefully not being absolutist about the "correct" way to respond, in a personal sense.

Posted by: Gyrus on 22 Apr 05

Thanks for a very thoughtful piece Alex. You're right - envisioning a hopeful future is far more effective than wallowing in gloom. But I worry that we can be seduced by fragments of good news, especially news of technological innovations. Oh look, we've improved nanotubes and buckyballs - now everything will be okay!

Of course we'll need all the technological skill, advanced materials, elegant design, distributed computing, etc. But we are also going to have to learn how to behave differently.

Imagine a parallel Earth, just like ours, with one key difference: on Alternative Earth, the geology is such that buried plants and animals aren't cooked into oil, gas and coal. There are no hydrocarbon fuels.

What was the history of that Earth from, say, 1700 to 2005?

The answer depends on a choice the alternative Earthlings make. It's exactly the same choice we face: what do you do to address exponential growth of population, conversion of natural habitat (mainly for agriculture) and consumption of materials and energy?

Lacking hydrocarbons, Other Earth might become a planet-wide Easter Island. Clever technology might stave that off for a while. But if, on that other Earth, humans endure, it would be because they decided to stop physically growing. They keep developing; their culture becomes richer, their technology more advanced. But they stop increasing their numbers and consumption.

There isn't a technical way to decide to do that. There may be a cultural and spiritual way to do that. Transcendent Sustainability, if you will. It's hard to consider the likelihood of that and not become depressed sometimes.

There are many in this virtual community who see things differently. I think of all of you as friends, and honestly admire your optimism. Thank you.

And by all means, let's keep planting those trees.

Posted by: David Foley on 22 Apr 05

I've found it interesting to consider that the human race is pretty much intelligent enough to figure out how to avoid these dangerous catastrophes. On the other hand, the difficult part is getting enough humans to *care* enough to make their implementations a reality.

Showing the positive potential of our possible future will get more people envisioning the same , rather than the frequent dystopian scenarios we see in almost every sci-fi movie and book. When enough people see the positive future, and understand that its not somebody else who will make it happen it will begin to happen.

The other thing that keeps people from caring is that the fruits of these labors will not be likely to appear in their lifetime. Human nature seems to be mostly self-interested, whether it's ignoring the future of our great-grandchildren, or ignoring the present suffering of people on other continents or in our home town. It starts with inducing a true sense of connection with all other people and the world, and a realization of where we could take our world.


Posted by: Joel Gilbertson-White on 23 Apr 05



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