Time to escape the gravity well (on the cheap).

This is the second in a series of three posts, in which I consider which tasks human beings should prioritize within various time frames, in order to improve quality of life for the most possible people.  Nothing in particular qualifies me to make these lists — it’s just a topic that interests me.  I don’t think enough people are thinking and talking about what kinds of progress *should* be made in the next 100 years.  A Google search for “goals for humanity next 100 years” returns scant relevant results.  There are plenty of predictions, but that’s a different game.  Intention is what I’m interested in.  What are we trying to do, as human beings, on this spinning ball in space?  An impossibly broad question?  Maybe.  Impossible to achieve consensus?  Of course.  There are at least as many legitimate answers as there are people.  So my  list-making is a thought experiment and a conversation starter, and isn’t meant to be definitive.

I can't wait for the future.

What kind of world did people imagine for their great-grandchildren, circa 1910?  In this fascinating article, Michael S. James collected quotes from various newspapers in 1900, considering life at the end of the 20th century.  Some seem overreaching, predicting flying cars, the eradication of disease, and the end of drunkenness.  Others are spot on, predicting gains in human height, improvements in health and longevity, and progress towards work equality for women.  In at least two areas — telecommunications and electronic computation — the predictions fall short of actual advances.

While future technological progress is impossible to predict, it’s largely irrelevant for the purposes of this list.  What I’m interested in is what our priorities should be, not how we’ll accomplish them.


1. Create and distribute enough real wealth so that the vast majority of human beings have access to nutritious food, clean water, education, healthcare, clothing, internet/information, entertainment, travel, nature/open spaces, and any future good/services that will be considered “basic” (virtual spaces, cognitive and biological enhancement, etc.).

This is tricky — the curve of human progress (so far) has consistently upped the ante in terms of what is considered “wealthy.”  While perfect equity is both an unrealistic (and ultimately misguided) goal, some semblance of equity fuels our happiness (we judge our own wealth by the wealth of our neighbors, and if our neighbor has much more than we do we feel poor even if all of our material needs are satisfied).

Kooky shortsighted nutbag.

The capacity of human beings, operating in a relatively free market, to create real wealth (goods and services that actually improve the quality of human life) is so great that providing sustenance and “basic luxuries” for nearly all citizens shouldn’t be that much a of reach.  Some countries (most of them Scandinavian) are already doing it.  The key factor seems to be an attitude of “we’re in it together” combined with high degrees of personal and economic freedom.  It’s the magic middle ground in-between the warring insanities of the Objectivists and the Communists.

Pipe dreams of a stateless, classless society.

If you think either philosophy still has any real-world merit, consider 1) Ayn Rand’s great prince, Alan Greenspan, has repented, and 2) Fidel Castro, the Communist poster child, has recently acknowledged the economic weakness of “the Cuban model.” Both men have since retracted (or “clarified”) their statements and are back to toeing their respective party lines, but the truth of the matter is that countries that manage to combine free market principles with progressive taxation and strong social welfare are some of the nicest places in the world to live (at least according to Newsweek — and their list was created via impressively empirical methods).  Emulating the best of the systems, ideas, values, and infrastructures of these countries should be a 100 year goal for the rest of us.

2. Implement economic systems that account for externalities (and thus allow the biological layer to flourish).

Our current economic system is criticized by environmentalists because it discounts the effects of our activity on natural ecosystems, on the biological layer that ultimately sustains all of us.  When humankind was small and the great forests and seas loomed large, it perhaps made more sense to consider the bounty of the natural world as “limitless.”  Consider this 1783 account from a Swedish traveler to the new world, describing the primeval (old growth) forest of what is now the eastern United States:

The forest is so thick that the treetrunks almost touch, by their height and their matted branches making a dimness, cold and fearful, even at noon on the clearest day.  All beneath is grown up in green and impenetrable bush.  Everywhere lie fallen trees or those half fallen, despite of their weight not reaching the ground, making every step uncertain, and beneath lies a fat bed of the richest mould that sucks up like a sponge all the moisture …. One can with difficulty penetrate this growth even a little way.

(from Johann David Schöpf’s Travels in the Confederation, 1783-1784)

With nature looming so large and powerful, it must have been more difficult to consider timber, water, soil, clean air, and fresh water is limited resources depending on the health of relatively fragile ecosystems.  Today, of course, we have no excuse.  Negative externalities of our economic/production models include pollution, destruction of natural habitats, loss of arable land, global warming, and declines in health from poor food quality, exposure to dangerous chemicals, and the modern sedentary lifestyle (obesity, diabetes, heart disease, asthma, cancer, malnutrition, depression, substance abuse, etc.).

Oops -- guess we shouldn't have cut down all those trees.

When a civilization doesn’t intervene in its free market and protect the common good, it perishes.  Read Jared Diamond’s Collapse for numerous fascinating examples of this principle.

In the United States we have many protected parks and wilderness refuges, but many parts of the country suffer from poor air and water quality.  And everywhere, we conduct numerous uncontrolled experiments on our bodies with industrial chemicals like bisphenol A.  Some substances which have been shown to have insidious effects on human health (like high fructose corn syrup) are actually subsidized by our government.  Gains in quality of life that we make from access to luxury commercial goods (like laptops, cosmetics, and appliances) are lost to the effects of pollution and chemical poisoning (if not to us directly, than to those that reside in the country where the goods are manufactured).

In mountaintop removal mining, plants and animals that lie above the desired resource are called "overburden."

Once again, some countries are far ahead of others in terms of sustainable manufacturing processes and agricultural practices.  Still, I don’t think anybody gets an “A” on their report card yet.  We are still acidifying our oceans and soil, cutting down our forests at alarming rates, bleaching the ocean’s great reefs, blowing up mountains to extract coal, building cheap ugly suburban housing on high quality farmland (instead of living more densely and efficiently in our cities), ingesting high levels of poorly tested chemicals (with completely untested synergistic effects), and consuming far too much of our caloric intake in the form of refined carbohydrates and processed vegetable oils (which makes us shorter, fatter, dumber, and sicker).

There is plenty of evidence that we can turn things around.  Dietary practices can be changed with education and a return to more traditional foods (à la Weston Price).  Alternatives can be found to dangerous chemicals.  Rain will lose its acidity once we switch to zero emission vehicles and energy sources (solar, wind, nuclear).  Reefs and forests recover surprisingly quickly when intelligently managed.  Climate change may be irreversible within the next 100 years, but we can adapt.

The externality problem has been with us since our hunter-gatherer days.  Hominids killed off the (delicious) megafauna on every continent except Africa (where the megafauna co-evolved with hominids, and thus remained difficult to kill — at least until the advent of guns).  And humans have been running out of firewood ever since we invented fire.  There is no sustainable Eden we can return to. Strong governmental environmental regulation, and encouraging a public understanding of the real effects of our economic system (for example, Annie Leonard’s work) is the unglamorous and pedestrian (but hopefully effective), way forward.

This item is the flip side of Item 1 — the underproduction of goods and services and systems that have positive externalities — things like education, public health, home ownership, parks, libraries, police and fire departments, public transportation, intelligently designed cities, etc.  We all become wealthier if these areas are not left to the free market alone, but are instead subsidized and at least partially managed or regulated by the state.

Are these topics too obvious to be worth mentioning?  Maybe — so far all I’ve really said is that we should try to lift all people out of poverty and stop sabotaging the biological layer that supports us (and is us, at least corporeally).  I’ll try to make the rest of the list more interesting.

3) Build at least one fully functionally space elevator.

True space exploration and colonization won’t really start until we have a cheap way of escaping our own gravity well.  The space elevator is our best bet.  In order to pull it off we’ll need breakthroughs in materials science, as well as international cooperation regarding air traffic planning.  If we do build one, space mission price tags will plummet.  This item is key in implementing some of the goals I’ll discuss in the 1000-year time frame list.

4) Make energy, bandwidth, and computing cycles essentially free.

A jar of tallow, once a precious commodity.

As one commenter points out, the phrase “not worth the candle” originates from the high cost of tallow — is the action worth the cost of lighting a candle?  Today, many people can afford far more energy and computing cycles than they have any conceivable use for.  Broadband remains relatively expensive in the U.S., but is quite cheap in some countries (Japan and Korea, for example).  It’s conceivable that we could develop the technology and infrastructure, within the next 100 years, to make energy, bandwidth, and computing cycles as cheap as tap water.  Perhaps we will ultimately implement Nikola Tesla’s plan to wirelessly transmit electricity through the ionosphere (this technology was scuttled by J.P. Morgan, who realized that unmetered electricity would gouge his pocketbook).

Why is this important?  Ultimately, it’s an extension of human freedom.  Bandwidth, energy, and computing cycles extend our bodies and brains cybernetically.  These factors don’t automatically make us more powerful or intelligent, but at least they increase our potential to learn, create, and live well.

The razing of the Tesla tower to make way for the Waldorf Astoria -- bye bye free energy transmission for all humankind.

5) Create artificial consciousness.

The Zeroth Law -- "A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm."

Crossing this barrier would considerably “open things up” for human beings.  If we can create artificial emulations of ourselves, we essentially create a new layer of reality — artificial beings can inhabit artificial worlds, and artificial worlds can be programmed to run by whatever rules we choose.  Teleportation, telepathy, telekinesis, and direct manifestation (thinking things into existence) immediately move from the realm of fantasy and science fiction to reality when we cross this barrier.  We can’t have true immersion in artificial worlds until we emulate human consciousness (and thus create artificial beings that can have all their needs met in the artificiality).  In addition to the fun stuff above, here are a few more areas that open up once we cross this barrier:

  • immortality — when we expired physically we could “upload” into an artificial world; an artificial human could then seamlessly move between artificial worlds and the real world via a temporary robot or cyborg “mind host”
  • full backup — we could create full resolution backups of our brains/minds at various times in our lives
  • replication — we can create versions of ourselves to explore different life paths or work on different problems
  • space travel/colonization — with sufficient computational density we could send an extremely small artificial world, inhabited by artificial people, into space; upon arriving they could build robotic or cyborg versions of themselves with local materials to physically explore and inhabit the alien world

Is this desirable … a worthy goal?  Personally, I’d love to have these capabilities.  If you disagree, please share your own top five 100-year goals below.