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Posted: 29 October 2008 09:23 AM   [ Ignore ]
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“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.

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Posted: 29 October 2008 09:26 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Quite possible. I’ve had similar thoughts. But it’s a counsel of despair and so not of much real use to contemplate.

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Posted: 29 October 2008 09:36 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Too much to read.I think the first paragraph is way to altruistic.

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Posted: 29 October 2008 09:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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But it’s a counsel of despair and so not of much real use to contemplate.

Not at all. We could move to Idaho, build personal fortresses, and stock upon guns and food.  grin

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Posted: 29 October 2008 10:37 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Interesting stuff to speculate about, but I’m automatically skeptical of anything “inevitable” since we;ve been wrong so many times before. Anyway, I’d rather have my survivalist base camp in Yosemite, thank you very much! grin

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Posted: 29 October 2008 10:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Yeah but when Yellowstone goes up we’ll lose probably two thirds of the country ...

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Posted: 29 October 2008 11:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Specialness of Intelligent LifeI see some problems with your argument. First we can’t be sure how often intelligent life actually occurs we have only existed for 100,000 years of the earths 4,000,000,000 year history of earth. We don’t know how rare earth like planets are. Finally we don’t know how special the conditions have to be to create intelligent life.

Space travel  My second major problem is that aliens would have a reason to come to our planet. There are about 100,000,000,000 stars in our galaxy alone many of which have planets. Why come to our planet is it special? I don’t see how space travel will not all ways be very expensive and risky. The closest star to us is four light years away so just getting from their to here could take hundreds of years even if that civilization had a lot of energy. Unless of course space travel is done by wormhole which we aren’t sure if wormholes exist or are something that can be made. Even if space travel is cheap and easy we don’t know how many civilization are out their with it and since the universe has about 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars it is hard to say how likely it is they would pick our planet to visit.

Global Catastrophe My third problem is that there is going to be some massive global catastrophe that humankind can not survive. I don’t think it will happen I think the reverse in fact, I think if humanity makes it a hundred years or two we will be the safest we have ever been.

I think it literally may be possible for life to continue on indefinitely if we can find a way around that pesky entropy.

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Posted: 29 October 2008 11:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I think it literally may be possible for life to continue on indefinitely if we can find a way around that pesky entropy.


Yes,kind of like the second law of thermodynamics?Is that right-I’m making a stretch—-guess there?

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Posted: 29 October 2008 12:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Dan, you’re absolutely right in noting the speculativeness of my case. There is no proof whatsoever—just a synergy of three very different arguments (Fermi’s Paradox, system dynamics, human cultural inertia). Let me expand a bit on that third argument, which I now realize is not well developed in the original piece.

Look at it this way: all living creatures rely on genetic change to adapt to changing environments. That rate of change is (I believe) optimized for the likely rates of change in the environment, which usually take place on a geological time scale. In other words, we are programmed to develop mutations at a rate roughly appropriate to the rate at which our environments naturally change.

But genetic change is sometimes not fast enough. For example, infectious diseases can mutate much more rapidly than we can, so we have developed immune systems that are capable of learning about and responding to new infectious diseases much faster than our regular genetic responsiveness.

We humans have come up with an even faster system: culture, which allows us to adapt to different environments and change on a time scale of centuries. However, culture still has its own inertia: we are not capable of changing our culture on a time scale of decades. Consider, for example, how race relations are STILL a problem 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. Or how abortion is still rejected by many people because of norms arising from an agricultural society to which large families are necessary—even though we shifted to an urban society about a hundred years ago. Culture takes centuries to change.

But humans are changing their environment at an increasing rate. The difference between civilization in 2008 and civilization in 1958 is much greater than the difference between civilization in 1958 and civilization in 1908. As population and wealth increases, and technology advances, our civilization changes more rapidly. This means that the goodness of fit between our mores and our environment must necessarily fall. The world we are creating is changing faster than we can learn to adapt to it.

Therefore, our adaptiveness to our environment is steadily falling. And guess what happens to species that are not well-adapted to their environments? They go extinct.

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Posted: 29 October 2008 12:27 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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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.
....
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.

The crucial point missing from your argument is that systems don’t necessarily build “up” to a point where they collapse. Systems adapt. So changes in one part of the system force other parts to recreate or restructure themselves, thereby (hopefully) avoiding an ultimate collapse.

It’s simply evolution at its finest.

Edit: Oops! I posted before I saw your second post. I need to address the question of ‘rate’....

[ Edited: 29 October 2008 12:30 PM by Shawn ]
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Posted: 29 October 2008 01:13 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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Chris Crawford - 29 October 2008 12:07 PM

The world we are creating is changing faster than we can learn to adapt to it.  ....And guess what happens to species that are not well-adapted to their environments? They go extinct.

I fail to see how “we” can fail to adapt to changes “we” are creating…. If we have instigated the change, haven’t we’ve already adapted to it?

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Posted: 29 October 2008 01:15 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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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.

Most of this speculation is based on the European concept of what is “intelligent” behavior.  So the aliens are assumed to think like that.  39 years after the moon landing and most people can’t figure out planned obsolescence is going on in automobiles.  I think that is pretty stupid.

The knowledge is used to play power games in this culture and a lot of that is based on information hiding.  90+% of the so called information flying around it is not worth paying attention to at all.  Would alien cultures necessarily be that dumb?  How much of the global warming problem is the result of doing stupid things with technology for the last 50 years? 

I suppose all we need is 50% of light speed combined with lives extended to about 300 years and some kind of hibernation technique.  Robot probes could be sent to nearby stars with planets and they could send reports back on whether a colonization ship should be sent.  So with an average expansion rate of 10 light years per century that would cover a huge of space in 10,000 years.

But I think it is somewhat absurd to try to predict what kind of culture would exist after 2,000 years of advanced technology.  We have hardly had 100 years of it and I think most of our problems today are the result of still holding on to pre-technology thinking.  Arguing about capitalism and communism when we can’t even make accounting mandatory in the schools.  Totally idiotic.

We are playing power games on the basis of some people who think they are smart wanting to keep other people ignorant.

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Posted: 29 October 2008 02:38 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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I fail to see how “we” can fail to adapt to changes “we” are creating…. If we have instigated the change, haven’t we’ve already adapted to it?

Well, we have changed the environment by adding lots more CO2 to the atmosphere. Do you consider that we have adapted to that change?

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Posted: 29 October 2008 02:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Chris Crawford - 29 October 2008 02:38 PM

Well, we have changed the environment by adding lots more CO2 to the atmosphere. Do you consider that we have adapted to that change?

We’re not dead -yet. We are still “adapting”.

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Posted: 29 October 2008 03:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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OK, good point. But consider that we are responding to the problem in so dilatory a manner that it is unlikely that we will stave off some pretty serious environmental impacts. The Arctic Ocean is going to be ice-free no matter what we do. If the positive feedbacks are as big as some scientists have suggested, then even a steady reduction in CO2 emissions of, say, 1% per year will still lead to a significant rise in temperatures. And the political situation is now pretty hopeless. Yes, an Obama administration would implement a cap and trade system that will slowly start reducing CO2 emissions, but China has already overtaken the USA as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases—and China has no intention of retarding its growth by controlling CO2 emissions. India is in the same position. And the rest of the Third World is also going to be dramatically increasing its use of fossil fuels. So do you really think humanity will EVER reduce its CO2 emissions?

The same thing goes for a great many other problems. What happens when laser isotope separation, which has already been demonstrated at industrial scales, becomes widely available? The basic technology is much simpler than centrifuge or gaseous diffusion and doesn’t need gigantic housing facilities or enormous amounts of electricity, so a terrorist group could set up the equipment and operate it with little fear of being detected. Homemade A-bombs! What fun!

Or how about genetic modification technology? That same technology that can be used to create wonder crops can also be used to build killer diseases of astounding lethality. And it’s getting cheaper every day. How long will it be before some nutcase bent on revenge eschews the oh-so-boring rampage-with-guns and instead builds a bacterium that kills millions? 

Technology empowers, and has been noted many times, technology itself is neutral: it can be used for good or for ill. But as we bestow more and more technological power upon more and more people, what’s to protect us from that tiny number of people who could use technology to wreak enormous damage?

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Posted: 29 October 2008 04:39 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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Chris Crawford - 29 October 2008 03:06 PM

OK, good point. But consider that we are responding to the problem in so dilatory a manner that it is unlikely that we will stave off some pretty serious environmental impacts. The Arctic Ocean is going to be ice-free no matter what we do. If the positive feedbacks are as big as some scientists have suggested, then even a steady reduction in CO2 emissions of, say, 1% per year will still lead to a significant rise in temperatures. And the political situation is now pretty hopeless. Yes, an Obama administration would implement a cap and trade system that will slowly start reducing CO2 emissions, but China has already overtaken the USA as the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases—and China has no intention of retarding its growth by controlling CO2 emissions. India is in the same position. And the rest of the Third World is also going to be dramatically increasing its use of fossil fuels. So do you really think humanity will EVER reduce its CO2 emissions?

The same thing goes for a great many other problems. What happens when laser isotope separation, which has already been demonstrated at industrial scales, becomes widely available? The basic technology is much simpler than centrifuge or gaseous diffusion and doesn’t need gigantic housing facilities or enormous amounts of electricity, so a terrorist group could set up the equipment and operate it with little fear of being detected. Homemade A-bombs! What fun!

Or how about genetic modification technology? That same technology that can be used to create wonder crops can also be used to build killer diseases of astounding lethality. And it’s getting cheaper every day. How long will it be before some nutcase bent on revenge eschews the oh-so-boring rampage-with-guns and instead builds a bacterium that kills millions? 
Technology empowers, and has been noted many times, technology itself is neutral: it can be used for good or for ill. But as we bestow more and more technological power upon more and more people, what’s to protect us from that tiny number of people who could use technology to wreak enormous damage?

This is what I was getting at earlier Chris.In reference as to whether humanity/civilization is improving,worsening,or just staying the same.I wanted to stay clear of earlier contexts,but this is the meat.This is where we stand.On the learning curve of time,man has learned nothing.Oppenheimer,Einstein,both appealed to leaders greater moral aptitude.But for nothing.I guarantee you both those men went to their grave apprehensive and perhaps forlorn.Defeated.


Why,since the time of the Greeks or the Hebrews or before that,hasn’t humankind learned from experience that humankind continues to flounder.In the end people die on battlefields for no good reason.19th century environmentalists pointed to the dangers inherent in chemical refineries and tanneries.They even decried excess horse traffic and the ensuing amounts of manure.
Later,scientist decried the dangers inherent in fossil fuels.Like you said people put it off,shrugged it off to the next generation.Now,as you stated there could be a real point of no return.Especially when you factor in the burgeoning 3rd world and the fact that we or any other industrialized nations aren’t taking any actions close to what should be done-now.

[ Edited: 29 October 2008 04:42 PM by VYAZMA ]
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