Sharp Blue: Living at the fulcrum


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On the largest scales and and with the coarsest focus, there are only two significant futures:

In the first, life burns dimly in the vast, cold spaces of the universe. One by one, those flames flicker and die into the greater darkness. For a few short aeons, brave embers glow on, but in the end they too burn cold. Then, after its bright dawn, the universe is empty of life for all eternity. All hope, all dreams, all love and hate and desire and friendship are gone. Nothing remains but the mindless churning of matter and energy. In time, the stars fade and die, and matter decays and even black holes fizzle and pop into energy that cools into frigid desolation. Everywhere, there is a blackness darker than the night.

The second future is more hopeful. In this history, the flame of life never dies. Instead, it burns ever more brilliantly and is carried across the abyssal depths, setting fire to worlds and galaxies. Modes of consciouness dance in and out of existence, vast chains of sparks across the starry expanses. In the end, the whole universe burns with a dazzling, varied, kaleidoscopic brilliance whose constant change never dies. There is ever more and deeper thought, more hope, more fear, vaster dreams. We cannot hope to grasp all the wonders and terrors of this future, for our minds are as yet too small and dim.

When we look out into the universe, we can see tens of billions of stars in our galaxy and countless billion galaxies beyond the Milky Way, and yet nowhere can we see artifacts made by other minds. We see no Dyson spheres, no stellar engineering, nothing other than pristine wilderness. In our own solar system, there is no evidence of alien visitors (and certainly none at, for example, the Earth-Moon Lagrange points). Looking into the fossil record, we find that there have never been other species with brains as developed as those of hominids, let alone other technological civilisations. Even given the favourable conditions of Earth, the evolution of cultural toolmaking is vanishingly rare. In all the hundreds of millions of years of dinosaurs and mammals, it has happened only once. Taken together, these observations suggest that certainly technology, most likely intelligence and possibly life itself are rare in the universe. Possibly, we are unique in all of cosmological history to date.

The extreme rarity of intelligent, technological life makes humankind extremely precious. Since humans first began using stone axes and making fires, the possibility that humans would colonise and transform the universe has become ever heavier in the space of possible histories. The agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution in turn have made the future of life in the universe ever more nearly coincident with the future of humanity. There have, of course, been steps backwards as well as forwards. Civilisations have fallen as well as risen, but even in the darkest hours there has always been hope. Amid the ruins, future generations have always carried the seeds of new beginnings. But today, things are categorically different.

Our civilisation has burned humanity's bridge from agriculture to industry. We have mined and dispersed and degraded all the most accessible ores. If our societies collapsed tomorrow, future generations would find it very hard to start over and build their own technological civilisations. And, of course, our society won't collapse tomorrow, and that will make things worse if disaster comes at last. If we consume all of the oil that is easy to extract, we will build an even larger barrier between future pre-industrial societies and industrialisation. Within a century, it seems to me that we will forever foreclose the option of a temporary reversion to and then recovery from an agrarian economy. What's more, by the time geology has reconcentrated seams of those ores and generated new oil reserves, it may well be that Earth will have become inhospitable to life (some estimates suggest that the future viability will be less than a billion years).

Together, these observations mean that not only is the industrial future of humanity coincident with the future of our current civilisation, but so are the futures of Terran life on the longest timsecales, and the future of all life in the universe. (And if, as seems moderately likely, we invent immortality in the next fifty or a hundred years, this cosmological history will also be the history of people currently alive.) Our century is the fulcrum on which turns the destiny of aeons, and the leverage we apply here will determine how things work out for the whole universe. We have a narrow window for action: if we do not break free of Earth's scarcity of resources soon, then we will never do so. Already, humanity is turning inwards, and away from the expansion into and industrialisation of space. Disasters loom in the near future, and it is imperative that we avoid them. HG Wells said that the future will be a race between education and catasrophe, and now we see more than ever that he was right.

I do not know if we will make our technological civilisation work, and transcend the limits of Earth. It seems that we are evenly balanced between the two paths, one leading outward to the stars and the other to decline and decay and ultimate failure. It's a heavy responsibility that we bear and it is our duty to ourselves, our descendants and all life to make the right choices. The challenges we face are so ferocious that it will take the leverage of all our talents to shift the future onto its right course. Everyone alive today, at the fulcrum of history, is more important than anyone who has lived before, and at least as important as anyone who will ever live. We must all try, as I have tried and will try in the future, to always act in ways that favour the future of life over the future of death.

We must not turn our faces from technological progress as the environmental barbarians would have us do (for to do so is to choose, ultimately, the extinction of all Earthly life). We must not limit the progress of our technologies, whether genetic engineering or nanotechnology or artificial intelligence. Science must defeat superstition, for science is our best guide to the workings of the world, and true philosophy must drive the philosophies of ignorance and confusion from our universities. We must choose transparency over secrecy, equality of opportunity over oppression, globalisation over isolation. We must not allow powerful states to wage wars that turn the world into a charnel house, for we cannot afford the tragic waste of another century haunted by the nations of the dead. We must not dissipate our talents and skills in indolence but always turn to industry. We must live as if our actions were vitally important, for so they are.

This is not a manifesto, although it is a call for the writing of manifestos. This is not a declaration of war, for the battle is already joined. Instead, it but one small salvo in that war, the most important war in the history of humankind, of the universe. This is not a struggle we can choose to postpone. It is not a struggle we can ignore. Most of all, it is a struggle that we must win. If we prevail, our victory now, here, in this society and in this age, will be but the opening of a greater struggle that will take us to the ends of time and the limits of complexity in some future as yet unforeseen. If we lose, we lose forever.

Update (29/8/2003):In reading over this again, I've realised that I should make clear here (as I have in comments elsewhere) that by "environmental barbarians" I definitely do not mean reasonable and rational environmentalists, but rather the extremist fringe who think we should revert to a medieval or even neolithic technological base. I have, unfortunately, encountered rather too many such zealots.


Excellent essay. The only disagreement I have would be, probably, over how we can best ensure equality of opportunity triumphs over oppression; and how to avoid turning the world into a charnal house.

I agree both of those things are absolutely necessary, but how we get there...well, there's the rub.

I'm glad you liked it. Sometimes it's just fun to work up a head of steam and then just write and see what happens! And I don't think I have all the answers... or even any of them, really.

Dear Rich

What you say about the depletion of resources and that as a potential barrier to future industrial transitions is interesting from at least two perpsectives.

The first is the one you give that there is no going back. Either we accept the world we live in and make it as humane as possible, or we involute and stagnate. This argument is broadly what the big discussions on free trade and rights hinge on. Broadly speaking I am on the openess side, with the qualification that the weak should not be forced to play a game they are bound to lose, even if it seems "fair" for them to do so.

The second is more disturbing. The relationship between now and future agrarian societies you outline is interesting. But actually you are describing a relationship that applies to less techno-economically powerful countries now. The global competition for dwindling primary resources affects us little, as currently we are winning. But it does affect the notion of global equality quite profoundly, and to promote human rights and democracy whilst ignoring the realities of contemporary international poltical economy is in fact a political strategy that is actively promoted by powerful governments. Beware of what seems self evidently true, but is in fact an incomplete picture. Power operates thus.

Very interesting, Rich. In some ways my thinking has paralleled yours. I think perhaps there should be some mention of avoiding shortsighted thinking and short-term solutions to long-term problems. I think that your call for manifestoes is a necessary one. I for one believe that it is time for those of us who do believe in progress and 'the future' to stand up and make a difference. I'm also glad you stood up to the eco-zealots out there; political correctness has made them untouchable recently, and all the loud voices expounding the 'evil of humanity' and other ideas don't make them right. The same goes for archconservatives, religious extremists, moralist preachers et al.

Congratulations on a persuasive and (unusual for the internet!) well-written essay!

"We have a narrow window for action: if we do not break free of Earth's scarcity of resources soon, then we will never do so. Already, humanity is turning inwards, and away from the expansion into and industrialisation of space. Disasters loom in the near future, and it is imperative that we avoid them. HG Wells said that the future will be a race between education and catasrophe, and now we see more than ever that he was right."

This is something I have worried about now for two and a half decades or so.

Either we break out and colonize space and its resources, or mankind is condemned to a pre-industrial agrarian existence in the future, with a probable die-off in population.

Not a pleasant image.

Per ardua ad astra!

I haven't been up to much lately. I've basically been doing nothing , but it's not important. I can't be bothered with anything recently. I've just been letting everything happen without me lately.

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