The Future’s Ultimate Dilemma

Our future, the future of the planet, is cloudy, shrouded in numerous dilemmas, many of which threaten the continued existence of Earth civilization and perhaps Earth life itself. Can our precarious condition persist indefinitely? What is the longevity of a technologically competent civilization?

We stress that the problems facing civilization today are not similar, not even in principle, to those of previous generations. The recent exponential advance of technological achievements and the inability of much of society to cope with them have led to global problems basically different from those confronting earlier peoples on Earth. In no other time of recorded history have humans commanded the means to affect the status of large segments of life on our planet. In one way or another, it’s not inconceivable that the entire planet could be rendered lifeless in the near future.

Examined from afar, the whole predicament before us seems paradoxical. Evolution of matter is responsible for our Galaxy, Sun, planet, and life. And evolution of life is responsible for our intelligence, culture, and technology. But now this very same phenomenon—change—seems to be threatening us. Change has caused many of our present problems, yet to circumvent those problems we need more change. The cause of it all is that humanity is in the process of sliding into the driver’s seat; we have indeed become agents of change. Humans now affect change more rapidly than Nature ever could have.

In the past century, we have increased our speed of communication by more than a million times, our speed of travel a hundred times, and our energy consumption a thousand times. Within the past couple of decades alone, we’ve enhanced by several million times the speed of data processing and the efficiency of weapons development.

Some people, unable to cope with rapid change, argue that technology is the main cause of many of today’s troubles. Exponential population growth, environmental pollution, depletion of natural resources, shortages of food and energy, threats of nuclear incineration, the potential for genetic degeneration, and a host of other ills are now, or soon will be, threatening the viability of Earth civilization and quite possibly all of Earth life itself. Some of these problems are in fact by-products of technology. Yet the saddest problem of all is that our social and political organizations seem unprepared to provide the innovative, foresighted responses needed for our continued existence.

For better or worse, our civilization is fast approaching finite natural limits. A fundamental change in the way things change is now upon us—at least for human life on Earth. This doesn’t necessarily mean an end to civilization. But we are doubtless approaching a finale for the rapid changes we’ve self-inflicted. We cannot communicate faster than light velocity, a speed already achieved by radios and televisions. We cannot travel around the Earth faster than orbital velocity, an ability already attained by space probes and astronauts. We cannot solve the population glut by copping out into space. We cannot consume fuel to the point of thermally polluting the air and melting the polar ice caps. And when it comes to weapons manufacture, we cannot be deader than dead!

Our civilization is now in transition, the likes and scope of which no Earth society has ever before encountered. What are we to do? There are only a few options.

First, our fast-paced society can fail to solve any one of the global problems soon to face us, in which case, for all practical purposes, civilization does go down the tube and perhaps human life becomes extinct. This is the view of the doomsayers. Out of the remnants of such a dead civilization, another could perhaps arise anew—like a phoenix from the ashes—but this “solution” admits that advanced civilizations don’t survive long after crossing the technological threshold.

Second, our civilization might successfully resolve each of Earth’s global problems as each in turn becomes critical. Resembling a person navigating a minefield, we can take one step at a time, using technology to lighten our burden, to help us progress, and thus survive. This is the view of the technological optimists. This solution seems reasonable at face value, but deeper thought suggests a fundamental dilemma.

To avoid any of our impending worldwide troubles, civilization must be willing to sacrifice. To avert, suppress, or otherwise alleviate any one problem requires our civilization to exercise some restraint. And yet, as we solve them all—and to survive we must solve each and every global problem—the required restraint accumulates. Should our descendants elect to choose this second route into the future, then our species is destined to become less free to do what it wants, more constrained to do exactly whatever is needed to guarantee survival. This second route aims us directly toward a state hallmarked by regimentation—perhaps one that lessens democracy and favors authoritarianism—a state hard to define but one where personal freedom, dignity, curiosity, and many other cherished qualities of human nature are diminished, perhaps even eliminated. Complete stability would seem to imply a stagnated, unprogressive state where human rights are not only absent but perhaps not even understood.

We might then wonder: If curiosity dies, does intelligence die also?

We might also wonder: Do either of these two routes—extinction or stagnation—represent the normal route of cosmic evolution on into the future? Of course, we don’t know.

What we do know is that continued development of our civilization—and thus any further attempt to extend technological longevity—will require a delicate balance between opposing hazards, each of them unacceptable. On the one hand, we face the danger of extinction if even one global problem goes unsolved. On the other hand, we face the temptation of becoming a stagnated society because of the increased stabilization and restraint needed to ensure survival.

After billions of years of evolution, life on Earth has arrived at the greatest possible dilemma for any neophyte technological civilization. Will our generation—humankind at the turning point—make some contribution to the long-term survival of the species? Are we willing to face the issue of survivability of humankind in a world threatened both by physical extermination and by various forms of dehumanization? Is there a narrow path between the danger of extinction and the temptation of stagnation?

A Potential, Lofty Solution Some scientists now suggest that there is a recipe for avoiding stagnation, while still surviving. The vehicle needed to guide us along such an intermediate course may well be a two-fold program of simultaneously colonizing the nearby planets and searching for galactic civilizations. Such a project may sound far out—and literally, it is—but sober reflection suggests that bold, prescient outreach of this sort makes more sense than bland, inward-looking pronouncements offered under the guise of raising social consciousness or reviving religious fervor. Turning inward, while trying to halt change, cannot indefinitely preserve our species on this small planet; looking outward, while accepting change, should now be embraced as the means to our coming of age as an intelligence in the Universe.

Humans can and should begin to terraform and colonize other planets and their moons. This isn’t tantamount to abandoning ship. Nor is this a wild-eyed scheme to look to the stars for solutions to our Earthly problems. (Indeed, our present double-trouble potential for population glut and nuclear war must still be checked by changing the social climate here on Earth, and quickly at that.) Instead, this is a rational program that mostly transcends our present problems, while at the same time identifying a common objective to divert both sides’ military-industrial complexes from misusing vast amounts of human resources. Of greatest importance, a program of partial movement away from our planet would enable us to disperse Earth’s civilization throughout larger pieces of interplanetary real estate—to get “all those eggs out of a single basket,” as noted earlier in this FUTURE EPOCH.

Recall also the criticism of space colonization in this FUTURE EPOCH. Planetary colonization is a demonstrably different proposition. Terraforming, the process of transforming planets or moons into Earth-like objects, may at first sound far-fetched, yet it’s probably cheaper, safer, and more realistic than constructing monstrous interplanetary bottles for people to inhabit the insides of. Planets and their moons provide solid foundations for habitats, and quite naturally so. Some of them, Mars and Venus, for example, have enough mass to retain their own atmospheres, thereby enabling people to reside naturally on the outside. Admittedly, substantial environmental changes would be needed to transform the mostly CO2 atmospheres of those two planets into breathable oxygen. But known natural processes could help, such as the seeding of copious amounts of blue-green algae that could convert their alien atmospheres, via photosynthesis, into oxygen-rich environments.

The prime motive for planetary colonization is the dispersal of the human species. Any of the above-noted global problems is a real danger to societies confined to a single planet. Yet once a society scatters over astronomical distances, it then becomes a good deal less vulnerable to local catastrophe. Invulnerability—that’s the key to the survival of our technological civilization. Individual colonies of dispersed humans might fail to survive, especially if they encounter many of the ailments now or soon to be confronting 21st-century Earthlings. But the chances are lessened that all such colonies would so perish. Even if only one planetary colony were to survive terrestrial and extraterrestrial onslaughts, that would be enough to preserve our civilization, our species. Said another way, when a life form is confined to a single planet, probability theory works against it surviving over the long haul, yet when dispersed across many planets, those same probabilities work in favor of its indefinite survival.

Now is the time to inaugurate a dedicated, preferably international effort to lay the groundwork for planetary colonization. The more quickly we begin to exploit the natural resources of our Solar System, thereby converting some of its matter into biological living space, and especially dispersing our kind throughout a larger volume, the better the chances that Earth’s great experiment—intelligent life—will not end in failure.

The second program that humans should now undertake is a dedicated search for galactic civilizations. Although the chances of success are probably small, do recall that we’ve come to recognize that we inhabit no special place in the Universe. All experimental tests made since Renaissance times embrace the idea that we’re residents of an undistinguished rock, circling an average star, someplace in the suburbs of the Milky Way Galaxy. If we’re examples of anything in the cosmos, it’s probably magnificent mediocrity.

With one exception, there’s nothing unique about planet Earth. The exception is that Earth is the only place in the Universe where we know that life definitely exists. We might prefer to think that cosmic evolution has brought matter to a sufficiently complex state elsewhere in the Universe but, to be truthful, we know of no other location in the entire Universe where life has arisen. To stress a point made at the start of this FUTURE EPOCH, this doesn’t imply that life is necessarily absent beyond our planet. It means that if extraterrestrial life does exist, we haven’t yet become sophisticated enough to know it.

The case favoring the prospects for extraterrestrial life can be summarized by noting what are sometimes called the “assumptions of mediocrity.” Since (1) life on Earth depends on just a few basic molecules and since (2) the atoms composing those molecules are common to all stars, and if (3) the laws of science as we know them apply to every nook and cranny within the Universe, then, given enough time, life may well originate at many places in our Galaxy and galaxies beyond. In other words, given the enormity of space and the vastness of time, cosmic evolution likely drives the emergence of life in many locales throughout the Universe. Even if planets having congenial environments for life are as rare as 1 in a billion star systems, at least several hundred such candidates likely reside in our Galaxy alone.

The opposing view maintains that intelligent life on Earth is the product of extremely fortunate accidents—astronomical, geological, chemical, and biological events that are unlikely to occur anywhere else in the Universe. The grand idea of cosmic evolution is not challenged, in fact it’s also judged correct in this alternative view. Life is still a natural consequence of the evolution of matter; it’s just not inevitable. Simply stated: The steps leading to life—especially intelligent life—are considered so rare as to make it unlikely that any advanced beings reside beyond Earth.

Researchers subscribing to this latter view argue that searches for extraterrestrial beings are unreasonable and unwarranted. They claim that the assumptions underlying the prospects for extraterrestrial intelligence contain too many uncertainties. The search strategies themselves involve additional uncertainties. They conclude that any expenditure of time, effort, and money for a search is unjustified by the meager evidence at hand.

Proponents of a search for extraterrestrials admit there is only a slight chance of making contact in the near future. But they contend that now is the time to test the hypothesis that other technological civilizations inhabit our Galaxy. Failure to do so is tantamount to committing the cardinal sin of pre-Renaissance workers—thinking without experimentally testing.

Earth now stands on the threshold of membership in the community of galactic civilizations—provided we really want to join, and provided such advance aliens really do inhabit the depths of space. With the aid of modern equipment such as radio telescopes, robot space probes, and digital computers, our civilization is now capable of taking what may be the next great evolutionary leap forward—making contact with extraterrestrial intelligent life.

If a galactic empire does exist, we might profit greatly by communicating with its members. We have, after all, only decades ago acquired a technological competence, only recently gained the ability to engage in an interstellar dialogue. Accordingly, we are quite likely to be currently among the dumbest intelligent life forms in the Galaxy.

At the least, discovery of advanced galactic life will assure us that it’s possible for technological civilizations to avoid doomsday—to survive. At the most, by establishing an interstellar dialogue, our civilization may well be able to strive toward a higher level of consciousness heretofore unimagined.

This is not to suggest that contact itself will grant us instantaneously greater intelligence, though it might. Nor will extraterrestrials necessarily provide us with solutions to our global predicaments, though they might. The suggestion now being made by some researchers is that the very program of searching will stretch our imaginations, widen our horizons, and enhance our curiosity. The search itself becomes humankind’s instrument of survival.

Should any of this reasoning be valid, the establishment of a galactic culture might well be the normal route of cosmic evolution—for those who survive by taking it.

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About bruceleeeowe
An engineering student and independent researcher. I'm researching and studying quantum physics(field theories). Also searching for alien life.

4 Responses to The Future’s Ultimate Dilemma

  1. Meisen says:

    I liked your principle of mediocrity…well quite reasonable,I think ui we should accept extraterrestrials exist.

  2. Pingback: Dying Civilizations And Fermi Paradox « Bruceleeeowe's Blog

  3. Pingback: Colonizing Galaxy With Self Replicating Probes « Bruceleeeowe's Blog

  4. Pingback: Implications to Extraterrestrial Civilizations and Fate of Our Civilization « WeirdSciences

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