First the bad news, then the good news.

The bad news is, sometime during the next 50 years or so there’s going to be a worldwide collapse. The end of civilization as we know it. Billions of people will die in messy, painful ways. It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. (Hopefully, not within my lifetime.)

This prediction has nothing to do with the Mayan calendar, nor with the Christian idiocy about Armageddon. It’s about overpopulation. We have already long passed the point at which our planet could support its human population. Resources are being depleted at a breakneck pace — and meanwhile, more babies are being born.

If it were just a matter of billions of people dying, that would be good news. But it’s worse than that. What will happen to all those nuclear power plants when the economic and technical infrastructure no longer exists to maintain the huge pools of spent fuel? Answer: Fifty or a hundred disasters on the scale of the Fukushima meltdown — but without any effort at containment. Large parts of the globe may well be rendered uninhabitable.

And not necessarily in obvious ways. A band of humans (your grandchildren, perhaps) spot some arable land with a supply of water, so they settle down and start growing crops. And then they start dying of radiation sickness, and their babies are born deformed. Radiation is invisible, but it kills. That’s the legacy of nuclear power.

The good news is, we live today in an utterly amazing time. We understand things about the world we live in that have never been glimpsed before! We have seen that our own galaxy, which contains billions of stars, is only one of billions of galaxies. We know how stars are born, and how they die. Thanks to microscopes, we know quite a lot about tiny invisible organisms. We know how single molecules are constructed. We have a pretty good estimate of the age of our own planet. We know quite a lot about how the human brain works, even the parts that can’t be brought into consciousness by introspection. We can send messages around the world in the blink of an eye, and perform mathematical calculations in an afternoon that would have taken a thousand Medieval scribes a thousand years.

We’ve traveled to the moon. We know what our own world looks like from space. Using surgery and chemicals, we can repair, for a while, many of the defects that the human body is subject to. Using computers, we can create visual and auditory illusions of fantastic complexity and realism. We know quite a lot about species of animals (including our own ancestors) that walked the Earth millions of years ago.

The thing is, you can’t have one without the other. The same technologies that give us such stunning insights into the universe we live in are the technologies that will destroy us. Starting 10,000 years ago with the invention of agriculture, the end has been inevitable. But would you want to live in a world populated solely by hunter-gatherers? A world without writing or hospitals, a world where science and logic were unknown, a world entirely bounded by the few square miles where you lived, the stars wheeling overhead, and the fanciful tales sung around the campfire by the elders?

No, if I had to choose a time in history to live in, it would be this one. There has never been anything remotely like it. And there will never be again.

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5 thoughts on “Marvels

  1. The technologies themselves are not what threaten to destroy us. What threatens to destroy us is our basic nature. Like a rock star who suddenly has enough money to indulge his every self-destructive whim, we have become too powerful to continue screwing around like we have been. And the stone-age mentality of killing the other guy to take his resources won’t do it either.

    There’s plenty enough food to go around. We, the world elite, who live in middle America, need to get our acts together and pull the 3rd world out of its deep poverty. We won the cold war — the third world was that which was neither free nor commie — so the next question is what we do next. We have got to pull them out of deep poverty for our own good, and as a species we have to get the idea that Good Enough is… good enough.

    IMHO.

    1. You’re right that the problem is our basic nature — human instinct, in other words. Instincts that evolved in sub-Saharan Africa over the course of several million years, and in Eurasia over the course of about 150,000 years, cannot be changed within a century. They can be contained (perhaps). But there is no cultural force capable of containing them.

    1. Depends on what you mean by “overcome,” doesn’t it? Simple example: You have a mating instinct, but the lady says no. At that point, your other, competing instincts — for self-preservation and following social norms — come into play, so you don’t rape her. In some sense, your mating instinct has been overcome, yes. But it’s still there. It just isn’t as strong, at that moment, as your other instincts. Also, your capacity for long-term planning may kick in, so you may be thinking you’ll wear down her resistance by next week, or next month.

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