|1. First Edition
|23 September 2017
|2. Minor changes
|18 May 2018
|Blog, Environment, Future
John Valentine is a writer of fiction and physical sciences. This article is a speculative view of humanity's deep future.
What is the legacy of humanity? What can be seen from deep space?
How might our current activities work against our long-term survival?
John Valentine, 23 September 2017Photo credit: ESA/NASA
To survive in the long-term, humans should:
Most of our time is spent sustaining our lifestyle. Most people spend most of their days doing some form of work, creating or maintaining something for someone else. In ten years' time, how much of that work activity will be traceable back to its origins?
While questions like this might seem depressing, especially if the answer is "I don't think I will make much of a footprint on the future", there is a point. If we extend the timeline further, the question becomes more difficult to and important to answer, because it addresses the survival of the species.
In 1000 years' time, what will be left of today's civilisation, its data, or the way we live? Most of our online storage media degrades in less than ten years, relying on a constant supply of replacements to perpetuate our data. The data only persists thanks to a schedule that accepts this degradation, and renews data by retiring redundant copies on failing media.
If technology collapses into a dark age, then how do we archive our data for humans without technology, and also make it robust enough to wait for technologically-recovered humans?
If we do not recover quickly, we can expect very little of our data to survive the movements of the Earth for more than a few millennia. What else is there?
Some possible failures:
It is acknowledged that we face a future food crisis, with the global population increasing exponentially. Scarcity will present a restricting limit on our numbers. It will be ugly. We will not voluntarily control our population, because selfishness is built into genetic life. We will prefer our own genes to exist in the next generation, at the expense of someone who does not share our genetic pattern. Combined with an individual's right to reproduce, and likely rejection of the morally questionable position of population control measures, we will soon be in crisis.
Food production will become insufficient. Even if we adopt sustainable mass-production, or we change from inefficient meat production, the exponential population growth will only delay the onset of resource scarcity. Scarcity limits populations. We see it in ecosystems: bacteria will reproduce until they are starved. Some may adapt to limit their reproduction or metabolism, to survive in the long term, but humans are likely not to exercise their 'off switch'. Likewise, predator populations can only grow within the constraints of land and food. The human predator is soon to reach its limit.
The pressing question is not whether we will reach this limit, but how we fall: do we somehow stay at the top of our threshold of supply (by discriminating who will be fed), or will we die out in vast numbers, in a near-extinction event, and risk the fall of civilisation?
Given our ever-recurring tendency escalate disagreements of ideology into destructive wars, it might seem inevitable that we are doomed to mutually-assured destruction. I do not believe that is the case, but extreme military actions could set back the progress of nations by generations, and compromise the safety of regions of the landscape. Still, I do not believe that is a threat to the species.
A far more urgent threat, presented by militarisation, is that of distraction. While we are throwing rocks at each other, and making resource grabs at the expense of others, we are neglecting our long-term goals of surviving as a species.
We hope that Climate Change is well-known enough not to need addressing here. Whether or not it has a human root cause (and evidence seems to strongly suggest that it has), the activities of humans are having a detrimental impact on the balance of our climate systems. A significant proportion of humans love their meat-food, their energy-hungry technologies, carbon-producing lifestyles, and the products manufactured without regard for sustainability.
Our mention of recovery is making an assumption that we will survive a significant reduction in our ability to maintain a civilisation, be that from military misadventure, over-population, or climate calamity. It seems optimistic to presume that we can survive in the long-term while embracing unsustainable heavy industrial and military technologies.
Future humans, if we are lucky enough to survive that long, will look back on our existence as quaint and misguided: the everyday struggles that do not look to the long-term future of humanity.
This plan should not be neglected. It is the most important work our species can be doing. By continuing on our current path, we must be either very confident that we are making enough effort to achieve long-term survival, or we are denying the reality of the likely futures we face, in favour of short-term gains. Our pre-frontal decisions, for building complex systems of greed, are working against our genetic and animal imperatives to survive in the long-term. We are buying comfort at the price of genocide. This is not acceptable.
What is this important plan?
Chances are, we've already blown it here on Earth. The climate is on the cusp of runaway failure, which might trigger the collapse of civilisation and technological advancement.
If we were to fail, our legacy would be a lightly scarred, blanketed planet. Thinking of the future of the Earth itself, there is the possibility that its climate will recover, rather than becoming like Venus (runaway greenhouse) or Mars (stripped of useful atmosphere), to become a platform for new or migrated life. Whatever the fate of out planet's atmosphere, it's remains unlikely that any human artefacts would survive the onslaught of physical degradation over time.
The best strategy for humanity to enjoy a distant-future, is to execute many diverse opportunities for survival, by creating many pockets of humanity that may thrive, in the event that the others fail. These plans need to be different enough, and distributed enough, that they are resilient to the many dangers we face.
Firstly, we colonise places away from Earth. By extending our frontiers into space, we are removing our sole dependence on a failing planet (one that is not capable of sustaining our species). By colonising many places, which may be planets or artificial constructions, we conduct many experiments, in the hope that one may flourish.
There are even longer-term goals, billions of years ahead, like a plan for when the sun's life cycle makes the Earth uninhabitable. We can think of those closer to the time, with millions of years' luxury, because if we don't address our immediate concerns, all those long-term considerations will be moot.
It could be argued that if the human species fails with the Earth, then the species does not deserve to colonise space, to impose their unsustainable ways upon the natural order of the places they touch. Setting aside the contentious concept of 'deserving', is the collapse of Earth's ecosystems an acceptable price if we genuinely learn from our mistakes? Should humans can be a judging authority on this question? Whatever the answer to these questions, we must try to 'do it right'.
If the species dies on the Earth, without ever having left it, then our legacy is limited to the physical evidence of our presence on the Earth's surface, and anything we have sent into space, be they objects or data transmissions.
If the transmissions are never heard, interpreted and used, then our history lacks purpose, and our lives lack purpose beyond our short-term interests and for 'having lived'.
To date, we have sent very little into space: a handful of deep space probes, and a thin shell of radio waves that will lose coherence before they propagate a significant distance. Questions like, "Will we be heard?", and "Is it a good idea to broadcast?", despite being interesting, are too speculative, and beyond the scope of this article .
Our only guaranteed legacy is to do our best to ensure the sustainable survival of the species, and to preserve our data beyond our survival.
To do this, humans must adapt to the resources available. In the distant future, this will involve revolutions in ideology, biology, and the environments we inhabit. As current humans, we would likely be horrified by those future revolutions, and not recognise them as human. This is what we will need to do to survive until the end, as the last particles that are able to interact in an otherwise dead universe. That's a whole other article.
To survive in the long-term, we should: