A reader asked why scientists are so pessimistic when discussing the likelihood of humans surviving our own worst impulses. Well, not all scientists are pessimistic, but most are realistic. They are also aware of the history of life on Earth, specifically the millions of species that once occupied the land and seas and are no more; i.e. extinct. A realist looks at the world from a practical and “common sense” point of view. He or she observes the world objectively and fact based without wishful thinking or emotional influences, or at least tries to.
When a science-minded person looks at humanity and considers our chances of pulling off a happy ending, from an objective point of view there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of positive things there to cling to. The optimist or idealist would counter with the argument that humanity has been in tight spots before but always managed to find a way to save the day. That is true, but with the caveat that millions of people died in the process.
No matter how we may categorize humanity up to this point with nearly constant conflict and wars, with vast plagues that spread through populations, with natural disasters that wiped out entire civilizations, with millions of people led to their doom by charismatic but maniacal leadership, and the list goes on, yet there is one important point to make: We are still here. Somehow, and as unlikely as it would seem to an outside observer, we have not committed species suicide, yet.
So, then, are the optimists right? Can we continue into the future confident that somehow, someway humans will persist? Perhaps we can draw a rough parallel between the prophets of old and the scientific community. Are the scientists that sound warnings on issues like climate change, unsustainable human population growth, decimation of Earth’s biosphere, and pollution really modern day prophets that we should pay attention to or, as in past ages, do we ignore them at our own peril?
When there is no doubt the ship is taking on water and sinking fast, everyone grabs a bucket and no one cares about religious, political, or social differences. The overriding preoccupation is not who is or isn’t going to be born again in the afterlife or who is going to burn in hell or who has the biggest stock portfolio or the most “toys” or which candidate should be the next leader. The overriding preoccupation in an immediate and obvious crisis is survival that requires cooperation, the great equalizer, and suddenly everything else becomes trivial. But the challenges that face humanity today may not be readily apparent. The leaks in the “ship” are not seen as gushers at the moment and so the average person is not alarmed. A skeptical reader once said to just look around Northern Minnesota. Do you see overcrowding? But Northern Minnesota is not representative of the concentrations of humans planet wide. In order to appreciate the magnitude of the developing problems, i.e. a slow moving catastrophe, one has to step out of our local cocoon. Surprise! The world does not end when you get past Duluth.
When the Sumerian Civilization crumbled thousands of years ago, the survivors merged with other cultures. When drought, desert, war, and disease consumed the Hittites, the survivors fled to other lands. But where do you go if there is nowhere to escape, if nearly the entire human population is linked and interdependent and overcrowded? If the entire world’s population is at risk? Musk and others would say that is why we must colonize Mars, to provide a “safety valve” for the human population. But how does colonizing Mars, if it is even achievable, prevent humanity from simply bringing our problems there?
Given our present heading and based on human history and the history of life on Earth, what is the most realistic and objective analysis for the future of humanity? By overwhelming odds, chances are that the human population will reach an unsustainable tipping point and civilization and the human population will collapse. The chance of long-term survival is more a matter of hope, because if we haven’t totally decimated the planet by then, a few may be left to pick up the pieces and start again, maybe as post-human biomechanical hybrid life forms.
Email Terry Mejdrich at firstname.lastname@example.org.