by Bruce Tonn
Like most people, when I hear the word future, or when I think about futures, my thoughts often confine themselves to my personal sphere. My thoughts focus on personal finances, job, relationships, and health–not only my own, but those of my spouse, children, and close friends and colleagues. I enjoy anticipating the release of a new movie or attending a concert. I pine for a future where my vote will make a difference.
However, as one who has contributed to the futures literature for a number of years, when I hear the word future my thoughts veer off in many other directions, where the time horizons of my thoughts could be decades, centuries, millennia, or even longer. Hearing the word prompts a profound reframing of my perceptions of and relationships with physical and social realities. This reframing is in some ways as pronounced as jarring new reality experienced by Neo, the protagonist in the movie The Matrix. Upon taking the red pill, Neo came to realize that the world he thought he lived in was simply a computer-generated simulacrum. In this world, his body–and those of hundreds of millions of others–was used by Earth’s AI [artificial intelligence] overlords to power the world’s computer infrastructure. After taking the pill, he was forced to see the world in a more fundamental way and to deal with reality in a more fundamental manner. Although it was a struggle, he eventually found the courage to accept and deal with the actual world.
My goal for this piece is to similarly set the stage for mindful transformation, from thinking about futures in the present and personal tense to thinking about futures in an expansive global tense. I should note that I am using the plural futures instead of the singular future. The plural form is preferred amongst futurists because it indicates that humanity has the ability to co-create futures and that there are many potential pathways and images one can have about life over time. Its use also facilitates imagined futures that are attractive and futures that we need to avoid. Conversely, thinking in terms of “the one and only future” is not a useful way to approach futures-thinking. Futurists do not believe that the future is pre-determined.
Figure 1 presents a graphical representation of much of what I think of when, as a futurist, I hear the word “future.” The timeline covers one billion years. Let’s eschew temporal linearity at this point in favor of storytelling and begin this exploration at the end of the timeline, one billion years into the future.
Year One Billion -- One billion years from now, give or take 500 million years, the earth will become uninhabitable to life of any sort. This is because, paradoxically, as the sun nears the end of its life, scientists theorize that it will expand tremendously, eventually engulfing the innermost planets in the solar system, including the earth. Way before this actually happens, intense heat from the sun’s expansion will boil off the oceans and scorch the earth. Life will not survive this inferno. From a futures perspective, this is a hard stop for life on Earth.
I understand that one billion years is a long time and extraordinarily challenging to grasp when we are consumed with meeting the demands of everyday life! However, in the grand scheme of things, one billion years is not that long. For example, one billion years is a substantial fraction of the current age of the universe, which is 13.8 billion years (estimated), and an even higher fraction of the age of earth itself, which is about 4.5 billion years (estimated). One billion years is even short compared to how long ago life first sprang up on earth, about 3.8 billion years ago (estimated). From this perspective, resorting to an American football analogy, life on Earth is actually in its fourth and final quarter, even though to humans it seems as though we are still early in the first minute of the first quarter of our existence in this universe! In any case, the Year One Billion provides the ultimate planning horizon. I believe that we should set the goal of maintaining life on earth until the earth becomes uninhabitable.
Take-Home Point #1: One billion years is approximately how much time earth will continue to be inhabitable.
Year Ten Million -- Even though one billion years is, well, one billion years into the future, humanity should already be thinking ahead to that bitter end and making plans to colonize other solar systems in our galaxy. We should be looking for solar systems with suns that are expected to have lifetimes well beyond the lifetime of our sun. We are making good progress in detecting planets that are orbiting distant suns. So far, most do not appear to reside in the Goldilocks zone that Earth inhabits around our sun: not too close as to be too hot and not too far as to be too cold. Also, most appear to be gaseous giants like Jupiter instead of planets the size and composition of Earth that could more easily support life. Still, the search for inhabitable planets is really still in the initial stages. Potentially inhabitable homes will be found. This is the easy part.
The hard parts are getting there and then terraforming planets to meet our needs. Travel time alone could take tens of thousands of years. Terraforming will take even more time. For the sake of argument, let’s say that new, terraformed homes could be ready for habitation 10 million years from now. This achievement could add a few additional billions of years to humanity’s existence if these planets are located in solar systems whose suns have longer lifetimes. Still, this achievement cannot save all life on Earth. It is unlikely that the resources will be available to move all humans off planet Earth, much less all animal, plant, and micro-biotic life. Thus, we will still be celebrating the end of life on Earth about one billion years from now.
Take-Home Point #2: A goal should be to establish homes elsewhere in the galaxy yet it could take millions of years until other homes in the galaxy are found and terraformed.
Year 2500 – Let us take another perspective on 50 million years–an energy perspective. From an anthropogenic standpoint, energy is needed to power an advanced civilization of any form. Energy powered the Industrial Revolution and the Information Technology Revolution as well as all succeeding economic revolutions. Consumption of energy infuses our built environment, transportation systems, manufacturing plants, and telecommunication systems. The preponderance of our energy still comes from fossil fuels. Given modern capitalist system modes of ownership, it seems quite likely that the owners of fossil fuel resources will continue to thwart efforts to limit fossil fuel consumption to, in turn, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other emissions that pollute our air and water. They demand maximum value for their resources and they will not get maximum value until the resources are extracted and consumed.
Potential impacts of catastrophic climate change from the consumption of all the world’s fossil fuels are discussed below. For the moment, let us first focus on this non-renewable resource. How many more years can fossil fuels be consumed at about the current rate until, for all intents and purposes, this resource is fully depleted? A review of various estimates related to coal, natural gas, and oil reserves puts the period at about 500 years–around the Year 2500, with coal being the last fossil fuel standing.
Many energy analysts are content that natural gas supplies seem to be plentiful for the next decade or two, that we may not move past peak oil production until 2050 or so, and that, yes, we have plentiful supplies of coal for the next several hundred years. But, now, let us put on our futures hats. Five hundred years is but a drop in the bucket of time compared to a planning horizon of at least 10 million years.
Conversely, in many ways, five hundred years seems to be a short time to completely transition away from fossil fuels. It seems a short time to build the renewable, nuclear, energy storage, and the smart grid capacities to handle the world’s increasing energy demands. It seems a short time to essentially completely wean the transportation sector off of fossil fuels. Being sanguine that the world has ample supplies of fossil fuels and can quickly transition to other sources of energy and infrastructures is embarrassingly short-sighted given the time scales addressed in this piece.
Take-Home Point #3: Depletion of non-renewable resources over the next couple of centuries could impact human civilizations for thousands and millions of years into the future if the difficult transition to a portfolio of non-fossil fuels is not begun now and completed expeditiously and effectively.
Year 2100 -- The earth appears to be on an irreversible path towards climate change over the next century. We are already witnessing: increases in mean global and regional temperatures; sea-level rise; disappearances of glaciers; changes in geographic locations of the habitats of flora and fauna; and increases in the severity of extreme weather events, from droughts to storms. Unfortunately, climate change is just one of a long list of potentially catastrophic risks facing humanity that are anthropogenic in nature. Included in this longer list are: nuclear war; spread of other weapons of mass destruction; pandemics; soil erosion; species extinction; and the pollution of our air and water. More exotic risks include: the emergence of super-intelligences, destruction of the earth by runaway nano-technologies (i.e., the grey goo scenario), and destruction of the earth by a tear in the space-time fabric caused by the operation of high energy particle colliders. In combination, these risks threaten the lives of billions of the world’s citizens and some even worry humans could become extinct within a century. 
Humanity will not survive to visit the stars to establish new homes unless anthropogenically-based extinction risks are greatly reduced soon. Let me draw upon Fermi’s Paradox and the Drake Equation to support this assertion. The former addresses the fact that we have not detected other intelligent life anywhere in the universe despite the existence of billions and billions of other solar systems, and, as we are now finding out, even more exo-planets. The latter explains this conundrum by positing that civilizations that have achieved the technological prowess we are approaching ultimately destroy themselves with their powerful new toys. I believe human civilization can be an exception only if humanity firmly addresses, mitigates, and ameliorates anthropogenic-based threats of extinction in the year 2100 -2200 timeframe.
Take-Home Point #4: Reducing existential risks is an essential component of long-term sustainability thinking.
Year 2050 -- By this year, a second set of existential risks needs to be addressed and dealt with. These risks also have their roots in technology but are not so overtly destructive in nature. These risks are related to the integrity of life on Earth (what nature is and means) and what it means to be human. These risks stem from the development and use of technologies to alter the genetic composition of species.
Genetic engineering technologies have produced numerous benefits for humanity. Crops of various sorts are more productive and resilient to pests, disease and fluctuations in weather. A new technology, called clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats (CRISPR, pronounced crisper) has emerged recently that greatly enhances the ability of scientists to manipulate the genetics of species. Specifically, this technology allows scientists to insert genetic sequences, either natural or synthetically developed, into the genomes of species in ways that ensure that these sequences are passed down to succeeding generations. This technology is often referred to as gene drive technology. Researchers are currently exploring driving genes into Asian carp and brown rats to eliminate their invasion of non-native habitats and into mosquitos to reduce malaria. The technology is also being considered to drive genes into American chestnut tries to protect them from the chestnut blight.
The existential issue is this: at what point does human manipulation of other species’ genomes pass a threshold to where the naturalness of nature ceases to exist, to where life on earth loses its dignity and essentialness, to where life on earth is a means only for the achievement of humanity’s goals and not its own entity? With respect to long-term futures, what is it then that we want to preserve for future generations, if anything? Will natural evolution be so constrained by the anthropocene that for all intents and purposes it will cease to exist and if so, is this an acceptable potential future for earth? We need to answer these questions much sooner than later because a raft of changes to earth’s species are close to being unleashed around the globe, many of which are largely irreversible.
These same questions are also pertinent with respect to the future of humanity. Though CRISPR technology may not have much impact on the human species, one can imagine that other genetic engineering technologies, combined with nano-, information and cognitive technologies, could be used to ultimately create transhumans or even new species of humans. My thinking about long-term futures of humanity is based on an assumption that humanity retains its essential humanness over time. At this point in time, I cannot completely describe what essential humanness means but it probably excludes potential futures where “humans” exist only as computer constructs. Is essential humanness preserved in cases where humans live for centuries aided by technologies that will able to grow new organs for transplant, drugs and other treatments to stave off dementia, enhance cognitive abilities and memory, and genetically- manipulate eggs, sperm and fetuses to virtually eliminate inheritable genetic diseases and build protections against common environmental risks (e.g., to manipulate skin cells to withstand cancer causing impacts of the sun)? I do not know, but I do know that these capabilities will be available to humans much sooner than later. I also believe that such changes to humans are likely to be irreversible. Thus, we need to practice responsible foresight and deal with these deep existential threats to nature and humans within the next several decades.
Take-Home Point #5: Over the course of several decades, humanity must be wise about the development and use of technologies that could pose deep existential risks to nature and humans.
Year 3000 -- We have discussed how we need to address how advanced technologies could threaten the essential nature of nature and humans and the many anthropogenic-based threats to the overt destruction of humanity and life on earth. We also addressed energy issues, which need to be resolved within the next several centuries. One can imagine that to achieve these and other goals, humanity will have to evolve new economic and political systems, new life styles and ways of life, new cultures and forms of identity, and maybe even new religions and belief systems. By then, we should have achieved long-term environmental sustainability, a world where environmental regulations are no longer necessary. If all of these changes are achieved, the world will be vastly different from what we experience today.
By Year 3000, humanity should work towards, plan for, and successfully pass through the proverbial Singularity (to borrow terminology from Ray Kurzweil). To successfully traverse the singularity, much will need to be learned over time about potential new political systems, for example. Humanity should collectively decide to implement innovative and long-term experiments to gently but effectively test new socio-political-economic institutions, instead of engaging in wars (figuratively and literally) about whose systems of what are best. Failure to prepare for and transverse the singularity will probably result in humanity becoming another data point supporting the verisimilitude of the Drake Equation and yet another civilization that others throughout the universe will never detect.
Take-Home Point #6: Around the year 3000, one of two things will have happened: civilization will have collapsed or every aspect of society will have radically changed to achieve long-term sustainability.
Year 10,000 -- The Year 10,000 has special significance for humanity. It is around this year when the nuclear wastes generated by the world’s nuclear power plants in the 20th, 21st, and probably 22nd centuries will have become harmless to humans and other life on earth. It is interesting that the field of futures studies, at least the branch that addresses concerns about obligations to future generations, arose, in part, because of the prospect of having to deal with the specter of nuclear wastes for thousands of years. It seemed to many that it was unfair for current generations to bequeath to future generations the risks and responsibilities for managing these radioactive residues.
It is also interesting that it seemed to some that over the course of ten thousand years that human civilization would undergo such upheavals and displacements that it was important to design timeless communications to embed in indestructible signs and markers to warn future generations of the risks in the buried nuclear waste repositories. It is important to manage these wastes over ten millennia. I imagine a specially-designed and designated-organization, such as a Stewardship Institution, could do the job. Of course, if humanity through the course of time loses track and memory of these repositories, humanity will not have survived and met the milestones discussed immediately above. In other words, if the nuclear waste repositories become dust-covered ruins to be discovered by future generations, it is probable that there will be no future generations in existence to discover said ruins.
Take-Home Point #7: Humanity needs to successfully manage nuclear waste repositories for ten millennia or more.
Year 20,000 -- Serious discussions are taking place in scientific circles around the world on the topic of geo-engineering. The idea is to put in place technologies of some sort to ameliorate global warming and thereby prevent the most calamitous consequences of global climate change. Ideas range from seeding the oceans with iron to promoting the accelerated growth of carbon consuming micro-organisms to spreading sun reflecting sulfur particles in the atmosphere to placing giant sun reflectors in space. Many are quite worried, rightly I believe, about the potentially negative and even more destructive unintended consequences of these schemes.
Implementing risky geo-engineering schemes simply because humanity does not have the wherewithal to change our behavior in the near-term to reduce consumption of fossil fuels seems misguided at best. Again, it also seems to mean that we intend to rely on technological solutions instead of working towards the Year 3000 singularity. This perspective is distressing to say the least.
On the other hand, eventually, humanity will need to learn to manage the earth’s climate. We will not survive into the distant future if global warming turns the earth into an uninhabitable hothouse. Humanity also will not flourish and may not survive a period of extreme global cooling, especially a snowball earth scenario where ice and glaciers from the north and south eventually meet at the equator. It is proposed that humanity takes it time to learn how to geo-engineer the earth’s climate so as to maximize the benefits to all species and generations while avoiding potential unintended existential risks. Year 20,000 seems like a reasonable time period to achieve this goal.
Take-Home Point #8: Eventually the earth will need to be geo-engineered to ensure long-term sustainability of life on earth.
Year One Million -- The goal for Year One Million is to thoroughly restore natural evolution to planet earth. In other words, the era of the Anthropocene will have ended to be replaced by a new era. Humans have appropriated, changed, and manipulated nature for its own benefit for many millennia. It can be argued that few if any terrestrial ecosystems exist that can be considered natural (i.e., unchanged and unfettered since before the emergence of Homo sapiens ~125,000 years ago). Over the past 20,000 years, humans have been implicated in the extinction of scores of megafaunas and in recent decades as the perpetrators of a sixth massive extinction. Additionally, human interventions in nature through genetic engineering further constrains the process of natural evolution that resulted in an explosion of wondrous species diversity in previous epochs.
My vision for the earth in the Year One Million is a world where large swaths of earth and oceans have reverted to a natural state. This state would not resemble nature before humans evolved, because that world is irretrievably lost. This state is probably better described as a resetting of nature to reboot natural evolutionary processes. Humans would have vastly reduced their agricultural footprints across the globe and even intricately designed nature to co-evolve with humans’ highly sustainable and environmentally friendly settlements. Humans would resist the temptation to meddle with nature and allow processes to carry on until the Year One Billion. I believe that this is both an ethical goal, to stop interfering with natural processes, and a practical goal because allowing natural evolution reduces unintended consequences of our own manipulation of nature.
Take-Home Point #9: It is important to restore natural and unfettered evolution on planet earth.
Year Fifty Million -- Assuming humanity successfully colonizes the Milky Way Galaxy, it is natural to assume that humanity will explore other galaxies for new homes. Of course, this will take even more time, even with exceedingly advanced technologies. For the sake of this story, let us assume that humanity plans on colonizing other galaxies by the Year Fifty Million.
Take-Home Point #10: It should be a goal of humanity to find homes in neighboring galaxies.
Conclusion, Beyond Year One Billion -- What happens beyond the Year One Billion? Humanity will have colonized other solar systems in our own galaxy and also in neighboring galaxies. And then what? Will humanity eventually build Type III Kardashev civilizations, where humanity is able to control all energy sources in an entire galaxy? Will humanity be able to colonize other universes to avoid the loss of functional energy sources in our own universe? Or even create other universes? Maybe, maybe not. I really have no idea. But, I would love to see what happens one billion plus years from now!
Take-Home Point #11: Humanity should set its sights on grand achievements beyond the death of our sun.
Observations – I hope that now when the reader hears the word future or futures, the experience provokes expansive thoughts. There are important global milestones within our personal lifetimes, such as addressing insipient threats to nature and humanity to reducing more overt threats to humanity’s existence to transitioning the world’s energy systems away from fossil fuels. Plans and activities are needed to successfully transverse the Year 3000 singularity and meet the Year 10,000 and 20,000 goals of managing nuclear wastes and successfully geo-engineering the earth’s climate. And there is no better time than the present to begin to meet goals for restoring natural evolution to the planet and finding new homes for earth life amongst the stars. If we are unable to meet the most important of these goals, Fermi’s Paradox wins again.
Underlying the arguments presented above is an essential but implicit assumption: that we should care about future generations of humans and the future of life on earth. It assumes that the journey of life through time not only is worth living but also preserving for all of time. For many people, the question of why we should care for future generations is an open question that my next post will address.
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