Are we wise enough to make decisions that will avoid the pitfall of short-termism? Even from a very long perspective, this century is special: for the first time, one species – ours – is in a position to determine the future of our entire planet. If humanity is to reach yet higher levels of development and complexity, the biggest challenges that we face are not scientific or technological, but political.
Astronomers like myself have a long perspective. We know that our Earth is 45 million centuries old, and it’s got 60 million more before the Sun dies. We humans surely aren’t the culmination of evolution – we may not even be the halfway stage in the emergence of ever more wonderful complexity. But even on this compressed time chart, stretching billions of years into the future as well as into the past, this century is special. It’s the first when one species, ours, is so empowered and dominant that it can determine the planet’s future. It’s the century when we could jump-start the transition to post-human and electronic intelligence, and spread beyond the Earth. Or – to take a darker view – the century where our follies could foreclose this immense future potential.
The stakes are high. And the threats are real. It’s a wise maxim that ‘the unfamiliar isn’t the same as the improbable’ There are concerns that we may not properly cope with the runaway advance in novel technologies – biotechnology, cybertechnology and Artifical Intelligence.
These technologies should be our friends. Without applying new science, the world can’t provide food and sustainable clean energy for an expanding and more demanding population. They offer inspirational challenges for young scientists and engineers.
But these same technologies have downsides – they lead to new vulnerabilities.
Even on a compressed time chart stretching billions of years into the future as well as into the past, this century is special.
Our world increasingly depends on elaborate networks: electric-power grids, GPS, international finance, globally-dispersed manufacturing, and so forth. Unless these networks are highly resilient, their benefits could be outweighed by catastrophic (albeit rare) breakdowns that cascade globally – real-world analogues of the 2008 financial crash. Cities would be paralyzed without electricity, and supermarket shelves empty within days if supply chains were disrupted.
Air travel can spread a pandemic worldwide within days. And social media can spread panic, rumour and economic contagion, literally at the speed of light.
Advances in microbiology – diagnostics, vaccines and antibiotics – offer huge potential. But the same research has controversial aspects. ‘Gain of function’ experiments can make viruses both more virulent and transmissible. The new CRISPR gene-editing technique is hugely promising, but concerns are raised about unintended consequences of ‘gene drive’ programs to wipe out parasitic species. In addition, biotechnology now involves small-scale, dual use equipment. Indeed, biohacking is even burgeoning as a hobby and competitive game. It is very possible that whatever regulations are imposed on prudential or ethical grounds can’t be enforced worldwide any more than the drug laws or the tax laws can.
And there’s another set of global threats that stem from humanity’s ever-heavier collective ‘footprint’ on the planet – depleted resources, impoverished ecologies and changed climate. How much should we care about these trends? We’re clearly harmed if fish stocks dwindle to extinction.
There are plants in the rain forest whose genes may be useful to us. But this is too anthropocentric a focus – biodiversity surely has intrinsic value over and above its benefit to us humans. To quote the great ecologist E O Wilson, if our despoliation of nature causes mass extinctions “it’s the action that future generations will least forgive us for”.
There seems to be no scientific impediment to achieving a sustainable and secure world, where all enjoy a lifestyle better than those in the ‘West’ do today. We can be technological optimists. But the intractable politics and sociology – the gap between potentialities and what actually happens – engenders pessimism. Politicians look to their own voters and the next election. We downplay what’s happening even now in far-away countries. And we discount too heavily the problems we’ll leave for new generations.
This short-termism is saddening – and immoral, when we ourselves cherish and depend on the heritage left by past generations.
Those who built Europe’s great cathedrals thought the world might only last another thousand years – they knew of nothing beyond Europe. But despite these constricted horizons in both space and time, they devoted their energy to works that would not be completed in their lifetime – and that still uplift our spirits centuries later.
Unlike our forebears we know we’re stewards of a ‘pale blue dot’ in a vast cosmos whose fate depends on humanity’s collective actions this century. So it’s shameful that our horizon is shorter than theirs. Spaceship Earth is hurtling through the void. Its passengers are anxious and fractious. Their life-support system is vulnerable to disruption and breakdowns. There’s too little horizon-scanning to minimize long-term risks.
Activists and experts by themselves can’t generate or sustain political will. Their voice must be amplified by a wide public and by the media – other-
wise long-term global causes can’t compete on the political agenda with the immediate and the local.
Without a broader perspective – without realizing that we’re all on this crowded world together – governments won’t properly prioritize projects that political perspectives consider long-term.