A Guide To Humanity’s Next 100,000 Years

New Scientist: The Deep Future

New Scientist: The Deep Future

I picked up the current issue of New Scientist (03 March 2012, #2854) at the weekend and it’s been a thought-provoking companion throughout the last few days. With a retina-piercing dayglo cover washing out everything else on the magazine shelves, the reader is clearly supposed to take notice of the issue’s special feature on the ‘Deep Future’. What’s that, you say? Well it’s a very long time… a very, very long time. In fact, Deep Time is a term you’ll be hard-pressed to find outside of science fiction (Alastair Reynolds’s House of Suns comes to mind) or the scholarly literature of geology or evolutionary ecology. It requires the kind of perspective typically lacking in the human animal, the ability to replace our selfish, short-term goals and gains with ‘forecasts about the situations in which out descendants will find themselves’.

Writing previously New Scientist (05 Sep. 2007, p. 51) Princeton astrophysicist J. Richard Gott gives good odds that Humanity could be around anywhere up to 7.8 million years. Mind-blowing for sure, but as the IUCN Red List points out, ‘Humans have the widest distribution of any terrestrial mammal species’; based on that alone our very long term survival is far from impossible (and, as the Red List goes on, the sky isn’t even a limit for us as ‘a small group of humans has been introduced to space, where they inhabit the International Space Station’; I just love how that’s phrased).

Now a span of millions of years is difficult to comprehend and so New Scientist confines itself to a much more reasonable timescale: the next 100,000 years, a mere fifty times as long as the Gregorian calendar has clocked up so far or a little over eight times as long as agriculture has been around. I’m sure you’re thinking that still provides plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong, however the first thing I notice about the ‘Deep Future’ feature is how incredibly optimistic it is. The issue’s thesis is never framed as ‘will we still be here?’ but instead ‘why we’ll still be here’, ‘what we’ll be like’, ‘what we speak’, ‘where we’ll live’, ‘what out descendants will know about us,’ and so on. Moreover, the introduction to these eight short articles takes the time to refute the usual bogeymen of nuclear war, out-of-control nanotech, viral pandemics, and supervolcano eruptions. Of the latter – which occur every 50,000 years or so – Bill McGuire, director of the Benfield Hazard Research Centre at UCL, says ‘the likely death toll would be in the millions, but it would have to happen twice in that timescale for a realistic chance of human extinction’. Our ‘species may flourish,’ the editorial chimes in, but ‘a great many individuals may not’. That’s the kind of survival we’re talking about, yes, but it’s still nothing to be sniffed at.

On a cosmic scale, ‘solar flares, asteroid strikes, and bursts of gamma rays from supernova explosions or collapsing stars’ may pose significant challenges to the Human race, but there is no question here that future archeologists won’t be digging up our polystyrene cups millennia hence. Uniformly, the New Scientist feature is a much needed rebuttal of the pessimistic thinking which faddishly colours a lot of current thinking about our prospects. It’s understandable that contemporary economic and environmental circumstances have pushed many towards those kinds of worldviews but they restrict us as a species. Recession, war, and climate change all tempt us to gaze into the dystopian navel even though, again, that’s just short term thinking.

‘Will we run out of resources?’, asks Richard Webb’s contribution here, a piece addressed directly to just such pessimistic scaremongering. His answer is a compelling description of how difficult it is to predict the raw materials and fuels our civilization will require in the future. Past efforts to do so – on the scale of decades, let alone centuries – now seem little more than embarrassing footnotes in the history of Futurology (consider Ira Joralemon’s declaration to the Commonwealth Club of California in 1924: ‘The age of electricity and of copper will be short,’ he said, as ‘the copper supply of the world will last hardly a score of years’). Webb’s point is that both our raw materials and our technology are in a constant state of change, with the latter increasingly coming to dictate the former. It’s almost impossible to believe that we won’t find a way to innovate our way around bottlenecks in the supply of raw materials. Keep an eye on the predicted shortages of rare-earth elements over the next few decades. Can’t build iPhones or energy-efficient light bulbs without them? Yeah, we’ll think of something. Whether that will be asteroid mining, nanoscale material manipulation, or something even more exotic is difficult to tell for now, if only because we insist on thinking about the future using already outdated concepts. Still, chin-up, Human race, for while science cannot yet offer us a post-scarcity society, there’s nothing to say that it won’t be able to offer us a taste of that in the coming decades and centuries.

Where Webb’s article looks forward with excitement, Anne-Marie Corley’s essay ‘Where in the cosmos will we explore?’ fumbles its potential in the face of technical challenges and unimaginable distances. Fair enough, this is a science – not a science fiction – magazine, but Corley’s piece talks about ambition without ever really exhibiting it. While no one can argue that realistic Interstellar missions are ‘at least two to five centuries away’, this is the one article in the New Scientist feature which fails to truly engage with the idea of the Deep Future. The usual candidates of Mars, near-Earth asteroids, Titan, and Europa are rolled out as possible destinations, with the 100 Year Starship project getting a mention along the way (even if participants are depicted as starry-eyed dreamers) even so, Corley’s contribution is limited by the kind of present-day thinking Webb’s essay cautions against. There’s no acknowledgement that technology will advance, that our knowledge of physics will increase… No, we’re not likely to circumvent the light-speed barrier but look at the last 100 years alone and tell me that, in the coming centuries, we won’t be able to get the travel time to Alpha Centauri down from the 115,000 years mentioned here.

This lack of either optimism or speculation leaves Corley’s essay feeling out of place. Case in point is the invocation of ‘god, glory, or gold’ as the only motivations for exploration. ‘If history is any guide…’ she writes, seeming to miss the point of this feature entirely. Citing the English Puritans who sailed to America in the 17th century, she suggests religious groups might be among the first to populate moon bases or Martian settlements. It’s not something I’m going to discount, however I think it requires a tweak: Is it not more likely that the spearhead of off-world or interplanetary colonization is made up of groups choosing to live free from economic persecution, groups wishing to pursue co-operative or socialist alternatives? Their long-term success would require some radical developments to our values and perspective, it’s true, but given the time scales involved it’s not impossible that the society of our science-fictional dreams, that which aims for the betterment of all Humanity, may come into existence sometime in the next 100,000 years.

Similarly downbeat, at least at the start, is Michael Marshall’s article on the future of biodiversity which begins with projections of increasing habitat destruction and, again, climate change over the near term. ‘I don’t have much hope for blue macaws, pandas, rhinos, or tigers,’ Kate Jones of the Institute of Zoology tells him, however the (very) long term perspective is much better. It is likely that life will ‘ultimately’ recover, Marshall says, consulting with the University of Bristol’s Mike Benton on the mass extinctions of the past. Unlike Corley’s use of relatively recent events to predict the future, Marshall looks back further than 500 or a thousand years. With Belton’s help he delves into the deep stratigraphic past: the Permian Extinction 252 million years ago, and, closer to the present, the Cretaceous Extinction 65 million years ago. Though it took an astonishingly long time, nature recovered in all cases, and that’s without Human beings at all. With our help, damaged wetlands can be restored in only two generations, species can be relocated to places where they can thrive, evolutionary engineering is well within our grasp and, with a little forethought and responsibility, it will be possible to build biodiversity hotspots and even completely new ecosystems (something we may need to do anyway if global temperature rises render large swaths of the Earth essentially uninhabitable).

In all, the ‘Deep Future’ essays are a great feature. I say that as someone with an interest in but no formal education in the sciences and so, I guess, someone who’s safely inside New Scientist‘s target demographic. Nonetheless I think I would have enjoyed this feature even if I’d never picked up the magazine before. Equal parts realistic assessment and speculative gazetteer, the tenor of it all appeals to me. To paraphrase the editorial, thinking about the Deep Future is a way of focusing on the challenges of today. There’s a lot the Human race can accomplish and, if we work together, the time ahead ‘is brighter – and more knowable – than it might seem. It’s a soppy sentiment but, honestly, we need to get over ourselves and just embrace it; we need to be more like New Scientist’s bright orange cover: Glowing with positivity.

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