“In the long run, you die”, said a famous economist (Keynes) when asked about the long-term consequences of one of his points. But we humans have something that lasts much longer than a human lifespan. Call it culture, call it civilization, call it our heritage, call it whatever you want. But the fact is, we do care about the long run. If everybody really, truly believed, for example, that global warming is going to to wipe out humanity in 100 years (it won’t), then we’d damn well take measures now to stop it. But right now we’re not sure, so we put it off for another generation to deal with.
I once read a fascinating book by a scientific illustrator who paints beautiful pictures of animals in their natural habitats. He decided to create a set of imaginary creatures as they might be 50 millions years from now, assuming that humanity has managed to make itself extinct. He started with the assumption that the two main mammalian lines to survive humanity are rodents, primarily rats and rabbits, and so he concocted a whole zoo-full of animals based on the basic platform: rat-like big grazers, rabbit-like carnivores, and so on. It was a fascinating exercise in imagination.
But it raised another question in my mind: do we really think that humanity will be here 50 million years from now? The idea seems preposterous. And in fact, there are good reasons to believe that we won’t survive the next few hundred years. Here’s the argument:
I’m sure you’re familiar with the basic argument that there are so many galaxies and so many stars that there must be planets with intelligent life on them. I find those arguments compelling; I believe that intelligent life has arisen many thousands of times in our galaxy. However, let’s take it to the next step. Let’s assume that intelligent life has indeed arisen thousands of times in our galaxy. Wouldn’t we expect that these creatures would develop science and technology, and eventually develop space travel? Yes, we would. However, what we often forget is just how old the galaxy is. The universe is about 14 billion years old; the earth has been around for a scant 4 billion years of that. Let’s assume that intelligent life takes 4 billion years to develop on a fresh new planet. From what we know of the galaxy, there are plenty of stars that are millions and millions of years older than our sun; we would therefore expect a great many of those planets that developed intelligent life would have developed the power of space travel millions of years ago. And with millions of years to spread through the galaxy, they should have pretty well populated the whole galaxy by now. The question therefore isn’t, “Is there intelligent life out there?”; the real question to ask is, “Why aren’t we knee-deep in little green men?”
(This is known as the “Fermi Paradox”.) There are a lot of possible explanations but the one that seems most compelling to me is simple: it is likely that thousands of intelligent civilizations have developed in this galaxy, but not a single one has successfully developed space travel. Is it perhaps because space travel is impossible? I think not; we have already sent out probes that will leave the solar system. Surely within a mere hundred years we’ll be able to do much better. But the fact is, out of thousands of civilizations scattered all over the galaxy for millions if not billions of years, nobody has ever reached that imaginary point in technological development that permits space travel. We’re only a hundred years away from reaching that point—but nobody else has ever pulled it off. What makes us so special? The odds seem to be that we too will fail.
Uh-oh! That means that something very big and nasty awaits us in the 21st century. Something that will prevent us from continuing our technological progress. What might that be?
We can speculate all day. I don’t think it will be global warming; I’m thinking of something much more destructive. Perhaps a massive nuclear war producing a nuclear winter. Perhaps a lethal pathogen that some idiot or terrorist maniac sets loose. Perhaps a combination of factors.
But there’s a much more compelling way to think about this problem. Let’s think in terms of systems. The biosphere is a system. Civilization is a system. Every system consists of components that interact in complicated ways. But now let’s focus our attention on the degree of interconnectedness and the complexity of the interactions among the various parts of the system. The basic law here is that systems evolve in such a manner as to increase the degree of interconnectedness and the complexity of interactions among their components.
Let’s take as an example an imaginary Pacific island with a volcano that blows up, wiping out all life forms on the island. Within a few years, we start to see a few plants colonizing the island. The biome (biological system) on the island is what I call first order: the plants worry about just one problem, getting sunlight and nutrients and water. After a while, we start to see a few insects showing up to eat the plants. Now we have a second order system: plants creating nutrients that bugs eat. Then come small carnivores to eat the bugs, and countermeasures by the plants to discourage the bugs, and then bigger carnivores to eat the smaller carnivores, and so on. After a while we have a complex biome in which each species is directly or indirectly interacting with just about every other species. This is the climax stage of the biome; it has reached maximum interconnectedness and maximum interaction among species.
Now let’s shift over to economics. The basic drive of the global economy has been to increase the interconnectedness of all producers and consumers while increasing the overall complexity of the economy. And we’re sure getting there: the computer you’re using right now has bits and pieces coming from all over the planet. Your own economic activity is now smoothly integrated into and combined with the economic activities of billions of people all over the planet. The global economy hasn’t reached climax yet, but it’s certainly making big strides in that direction.
But now let’s consider what happens to a system at climax. Such a system can be very robust against small perturbations. If a disease wipes out 90% of the rodents on our Pacific island biome, the system will be able to adjust and accommodate the perturbation. If the banana crop in Costa Rica fails this year, the price of bananas will go up and people will eat fewer bananas and more of some other fruit. The system adjusts.
But what happens when a climax system gets hit with a big perturbation? For example, what if humans discover the Pacific island and bring snakes who proceed to kill all the birds by eating their eggs? Without the birds, some insect populations will explode—which in turn will cause some plant species to be eaten out of existence—which will cause many herbivores to starve—which will cause all the larger carnivores to starve. Or suppose a major war in the Middle East causes oil supplies to shrink dramatically. Prices of oil go way up. Lots of industries are no longer price-competitive. Airlines stop flying because only a few people can afford the hugely expensive tickets. Business people can’t do business properly because they can’t get together to meet. Tourist industries shrivel up and die. The whole damn economy could collapse. And as people lose confidence in the economy, they stop working together and start working as individuals. The earth can only sustain about a hundred-thousand to a million hunter-gatherers; unless we all work together, we all starve together.
My point is that civilization has gotten so complicated that it is becoming more and more vulnerable to perturbations. Suppose that a diplomat informed Napoleon that the Arabs were cutting off the supply of oil. How much would that hurt Napoleonic France? Not at all! If house prices in medieval Germany collapsed, it would be no big deal. Indeed, the bubonic plague swept through Europe and killed a third of the population, and they just kept going, albeit a little more slowly. If you killed a third of the earth’s population today, the economy would collapse. Our economy relies heavily on economies of scale. Cut the scale back by one-third, and all of a sudden lots of things that were profitable yesterday and no longer profitable today. Entire industries simply vanish.
So what’s happening here is humanity is building a house of cards called civilization. That house of cards is fragile, but strong enough to handle the problems. But we keep building it higher and higher, and it becomes ever more vulnerable to perturbations. At some point, we will build it so high that it MUST collapse. It’s inevitable.
One manifestation of this problem was noticed 40 years ago by Alvin Toffler. In his book, Future Shock, he observed that the pace of change was increasing. Change is coming faster and faster, yet the human mind has limited ability to change—especially when it comes to moral issues. And so we get travesties like the opposition to abortion, something that made sense in a previous time but makes absolutely no sense nowadays. Indeed, we’re seeing in fundamentalism—both Christian and Islamic—a bull-headed rejection of rationalism in favor of “traditional values”—values that worked well in a 19th century environment but are completely out of place in a 21st century world. If change comes faster and faster, and people simply refuse to accommodate to change, what is the inevitable result?
The conclusion is stark: civilization is certainly doomed and homo sapiens is probably doomed. We have perhaps a century, perhaps two if we’re lucky, perhaps less if we’re really stupid and elect the Republicans this November. Enjoy life while you can.