The global pandemic and climate crisis are worse than they seem. I know… we are all struggling through, trying to sort out how to thoroughly wash our hands, keep our kids from going stir crazy, and not glare at people who don’t seem to understand the concept of six feet, so why–for fuck’s sake–make it worse?
But it is and I have sorted out why. It’s not as Debbie Downer-ish as you’d think. It’s actually a little bit hopeful. The reason that all existential crisis–crisis that could wreck human society–are gonna be worse for us and the next two to three generations is because failing to solve them eliminates humankind’s opportunity at a truly mesmerizing future.
Before you poo poo posterity, think on this: humans have been doing modern science roughly since the time of Galileo, circa 1600. It took us 350ish years to work out how to create our first universal machine, the classical computer, which has given rise to science and industry propelling us toward truly intelligent machines and quantum computational ability like that which is fundamental to the universe.
So where does another 70 years of computational progress or another 350 years of science place humans?
It is difficult to imagine the new technologies, the range of our interstellar travel, or our computational sophistication–but one thing is certain–the understanding of the human brain and therefore our states of well-being will be positively transcendent when compared to even the most gifted flow or meditation practitioner of today.
Our progeny in this scientific future will still have complex problems to solve and life will not be wholly without its unsavory bits, but our species will not be threatened again for billions of years if we get through the bottleneck of the coming generations. We can be heroes. Our statues can stand on distant planets thanks to our solutions to the issues our fits and starts in science sometimes caused, other times obscured.
The rest of the world has figured out this pandemic’s playbook, even if America has not. COVID–19 is a JV scrimmage compared to other possible viral pandemics and we will have a lot of error correcting to do to get our response honed. Political decision making has not been characterized by great uses of data and improvements in scientific knowledge development needs to be put in place, but there are signs that we will learn from this year's errors.
But climate change posses a far more daunting challenge. Unlike masks and social distancing for the pandemic, there are no simple solutions for climate change. Politics, economics, technology, and conservation need to collaborate more adroitly than they ever have before, the developed world and emerging industrialized nations will need separate solutions that respect human well-being and self-determination, and governments are going to have to foot the bill for the R&D on large projects, few of which will ever show impact for any private partners.
There is no greater legacy than solving species threatening problems. For the first time in our history, we have the capabilities in place to creatively speculate, draw on rich computational characterizations of components of the issue, and engage vast resources efficiently and effectively to create technological solutions.
However, the bottleneck is not technological, instead we lack good collaborative and decision making methods to counter global problems. Even when we look at the data, we do so behind a veil of national interest. Our history of national success blinds us to the likelihood that most existential problems must be solved at a different level and with global partners.
A Green New Deal is a step in the right direction, it combines economic and scientific efforts to reduce climate change, but electoral incentives are not in place to encourage conservatives to improve this legislation. This is unfortunate decision making on a historic scale. Making existential risks and their solutions taboo increases costs and harmful impacts while diminishing our options. Solutions are never perfect, but bad faith arguments based on a false fidelity to a present power dynamic will reduce opportunities available even to great technical advances.
The problems are looming, global, and existential; however, they are all solvable. Our scientific, technical, and computational creativity is up to the task. What remains to be seen is if we can overcome our bickering to triage and define issues and collaborate on their solutions. If we can do that, a long future of transcendent human well-being is very likely.