Thursday, November 15, 2007

Optimism and the Future of Humanity

I like humanity's chances for a future that's better than today.

Without ignoring the many ways we've discovered to kill, wound, oppress, terrorize, and otherwise harm each other (and we have definitely been very good at such invention), we have also found ways to beat those swords into plowshares many times over, and discovered uncountable ways to support, strengthen, heal, and nurture each other as well. For all the real suffering caused by humans, there have been good acts as well.

To see only the evil men do, as Mark Antony claims to do when mocking Brutus, is to willfully close one eye to the whole picture. No forecast of humanity's future can hope for accuracy that doesn't also factor into its equation the decency and optimism and creativity and love of which we're also capable.

The ability of the human race so far to solve all the problems it has caused itself, examined fairly, is astonishing. There is no obvious reason to conclude that we as a species have somehow suddenly become incapable of fixing the messes we get ourselves into. If for example enough of us see sufficient hard evidence that CO2 is as much a problem as some currently claim it is, then we can and we will take steps to solve that problem. If "global warming" (which I place in quotes to give it weight equal to the "global cooling" science abuse of the '70s) really is or becomes a human-caused problem, we can fix it and we will, and we'll do so while making lots of other things better as well.

Perfect? No. Humans are finite and fallible; living in perfect harmony as human beings is not in the works. We'll always be screwups. Like Scott Adams, I don't really think our future will be like Star Trek (especially on the political/economic side).

But that doesn't mean there's any good reason to conclude that a dystopian hell of self-inflicted conquest, famine, war, and death is our only possible future. Our existence here today demonstrates that improvements in human well-being enjoy a kind of ratcheting effect: as liberal democracy -- the single greatest force for good in all of human history -- has spread over the years, it takes two steps forward and one step back. The one step back is real... but so are those two steps forward. (The late Julian Simon has also done yeoman's work in this area, repeatedly demonstrating the errors of the often-wrong-but-never-in-doubt Paul Ehrlichs and Lester Browns of the world. I wish Simon were still here to comment on the rhetorical excesses of the Goracle and his cultists.)

Anyone who believes that we as a species will voluntarily strangle ourselves holds that belief because he chooses to do so in spite of the facts -- not because of them. The steady climb of human history points in the other direction, suggesting that we may reasonably hope that our descendants will inherit a happier and more prosperous Kardashev Type I civilization. Their future appears on track to be a world in which basic human needs are met across the entire planet and perhaps other planets as well.

That doesn't mean we're guaranteed immortality as a species, of course. The Big One (of whatever origin) could take out Earth tomorrow. But that won't be our fault. I'm only rejecting the various claims that we're slowly committing mass suicide, because the evidence of human history does not support any such conclusion -- just the opposite, in fact.

But maybe Ray Kurzweil's "singularity" will get here first. In which case, I saw a bumper sticker on my way to work this morning: "If the singularity comes, an AI will be driving this car". :)