Since the advent of the nation state in the 19th century, human beings have been collectively obsessed with comparing the relative merits of our sovereign entities. Who has the biggest navy and the fastest planes? Who has the most territory and natural resources? Who has the most modern, efficient infrastructure, the fastest broadband, and the best recycling program? Whose educational system produces the smartest workers? Who is the most free, the most happy, and the most innovative? And so on …
But what if we zoom out a few hundred miles and look at the big blue marble. How are we doing collectively, as an intelligent species/civilization?
So far, we have no other intelligent technology-using species to compare ourselves to (yes, I know dolphins are smart, but they chose the easy life of swimming and fish many years ago, thus giving up any chance of evolving opposable thumbs — and you can’t make tools with flippers).
If and when we do make contact with an extra-terrestrial intelligence, no doubt one of the first things we’ll do is compare our GPP’s (gross planetary product). Then we’ll start a galactic Top 40 chart and see whose planet’s artists are more popular.
Until then, we’re left with a myopic view of our own progress, or lack thereof. How are we doing, as a species? We have no reference point.
There are strong arguments to be made for almost any opinion of humanity’s progress to date. On the plus side, we have managed to replicate nearly seven billion of ourselves, more of whom are overfed than underfed. Many of us live in more-or-less democratic societies, and have a great deal of freedom and choice in our personal lives and in the way we govern ourselves. We have developed a huge number of technologies that make life more convenient and less precarious, enhancing our ability to communicate, get around, have enough to eat, process information, and so on. We have an incomplete but wide and deep understanding of how the world works on many levels, and a fairly reliable method for discovering more.
On the downside, hundreds of millions of people don’t have access to clean drinking water, nutritious food, education, health care, and the most basic human rights and freedoms. Many of our planetary resources are dangerously overtapped (oil, fish, rare metals), and we have destroyed or permanently altered the native ecologies over most of our planet’s surface. We are in the midst of a mass extinction of species due to human habitation and climate change which is likely linked to our carbon-emitting activities. Multi-national corporations wield a disproportionate amount of power and abuse workers, the environment, and community rights in the relentless pursuit of profits and growth.
Nobody can say for sure if the negatives are the “growing pains” of a species coming into a more enlightened existence, or if they are the early warning signs of a self-generated planetary apocalypse.
What Are We Going For?
What is humanity’s summum bonum, the thing of ultimate importance?
This is another problem with judging our own progress. We can’t agree on what progress is, or even if it exists at all. Some cultural critics view a sustainable hunter-gatherer existence as humanity’s ultimate achievement, with technological “improvements” only degrading our quality of life and spiritual character.
My own view is that while civilization strains the limits our of evolutionary adaptiveness, on the whole it’s worth the trouble and the effort. Also, going “back” is no longer an option.
In terms of what it would mean for humanity to radically “progress,” there are at least two major schools of thought:
1) The Libertarian Space-Men
This group, perhaps best personified by Pay-Pal alum Peter Thiel, prioritizes scientific research, technological innovation, frontier (space, deep-ocean) exploration and exploitation, life extension/anti-aging technologies, artificial intelligence, economic expansion and growth. Government and taxation should be minimized, personal human freedom should be maximized. Key values include free market capitalism, private property, individualism, personal responsibility, disruptive change, technological innovation, and cultural novelty. Prominent members of this group include Elon Musk, Google, Ray Kurzweil, the Transhumanist movement, James Cameron, and Richard Branson. Politically, members of this group are more likely to be libertarian. Demographically, this group is male-dominated, and skews both young and white. Emotionally, members of this group are likely to be more optimistic and less empathetic. Philosophically, this group is most aligned with deontological libertarianism (self-ownership, the non-aggression principle).
2) The Gaia Collective
This group has a different hopeful vision for the future of humanity, one that includes economic justice, environmental sustainability, government regulation, an end to poverty, protection and restoration of native ecologies, peaceful co-existence, human and civil rights for all, and spiritual/inner growth. Key values include sustainability, fairness, justice, protection of the weak and the poor, community, education, progressive change, and cultural preservation. This group includes activist Van Jones, and (somewhat surprisingly considering his capitalist/monopolist background) billionaire Bill Gates. Congresswoman Barbara Lee is a member of this group, as is the writer Naomi Wolf and the journalist Chris Hedges. Politically, members of this group are most likely to lean towards democratic socialism. Demographically, this group is more balanced and diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, and cultural background. Emotionally, members of this group are likely to be less optimistic but more empathetic. Philosophically, this group is most aligned with utilitarianism (maximizing overall happiness).
Who Writes the Future?
Are the visions of the Libertarian Space-Men and The Gaia Collective mutually exclusive? Not at all. Priorities are different, but both groups essentially have a “realistic utopian” perspective. Both groups see and strive for a better future for humanity. The Libertarian Space-Men are not anti-environment, and the members of the Gaia Collective are not anti-technology. The two groups have different beliefs and goals, but they are not necessarily at odds (at least not all the time).
A best-case scenario for our species includes strong influence from both groups. We need the Libertarian Space-Men to push technological progress forward, so that we’re able to cure rare diseases, explore frontier landscapes, create cleaner and more efficient modes of producing energy, expand throughout the solar system, and so on. We need the Gaia Collective to keep the multi-national mega-corporations and other power-mongerers in check, to stand up for the dispossessed, to protect our environment, to create and maintain public wealth (education, healthcare, public infrastructure), and to generally promote the common good and the greater good.
Unfortunately, most people, organizations, and institutions are a member of neither group, and don’t care to think carefully and act intentionally in regards to the future of our species, planet, and global civilization. The “non-participators” include people just trying to get by/make a living/make it through the day (I think this group includes everybody on at least some days), as well as individuals and groups pursuing various nationalist, corporate, racial-tribal, fundamentalist, wealth hoarding, and other zero-sum agendas.
If this latter “everyone else” group prevails, then we get future-by-inertia. Instead of an intentional future for our species and planetary civilization, we get a future that is a mash-up of special interest group squabbles, an extrapolation of existing trends, and rule by the lowest common denominator. Future-by-inertia might turn out alright, or it might result in a 100 year dark age (or even worse, fascism, or global systemic collapse).
So What’s Holding Us Back?
Your idea of “human progress,” and if you believe in that idea at all, depends on your values and your experience. Chris Hedges, a journalist who has authored a book subtitled Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress, nonetheless occasionally displays hope about the future of humanity, as you can see in the video clip embedded in this post. Hedges has seen both the worst (war, torture, slavery) and best (peaceful revolution, the Berlin Wall coming down) sides of human nature.
Which is more important, ending slavery or building a space elevator? Finding extra-terrestrial intelligence or digging wells for impoverished communities with no access to clean drinking water? I think it’s all important — I donate monthly to both The SETI Institute and charity:water. I find the prospect of a future dominated only by the vision of the Libertarian Space-Men to be cold and heartless, while a future dominated only by the vision of the Gaia Collective might be a bit boring, even stagnant. But what really scares me is future-by-inertia, a future created by powerful entities that don’t think clearly about the global future at all (religious fundamentalists, profit-obsessed corporations, oligarchs, rabid nationalists, billionaire hedonists, etc.).
In my next post I’ll explore what’s holding us back from radically and rapidly improving our civilization, from meeting all the goals of the The Gaia Collective and the Libertarian Space-Men.
So what have I missed? Is there a group or philosophical school thinking about humanity’s future in a way that doesn’t fit into the Gaia Collective or the Libertarian Space Men?
And are there goals for humanity that each group holds that are actually mutually exclusive? Like what? In my mind the real battle is not among various visions for humanity’s future, it’s between vision and complete lack of vision, a complete refusal to consider our long-term (or even medium-term) future.
But maybe I’m completely wrong. Please share your views.