10.02.2008

Pale Blue Doomsday Machine


“And so – because of the automated and irrevocable decision making process which rules out human meddling, the doomsday machine is terrifying, simple to understand, and completely credible and convincing.”
–Dr. Strangelove, 1964


We take this pause in your blog surfing for a moment to consider the countdown clock to assured human destruction – which is different than the so-called Doomsday Clock, an instrument for measuring a set of presumed and hypothetical circumstances that could lead to a very un-hypothetical nuclear war.

Now, the current Doomsday Clock is set at something like five minutes to midnight, due to the fact that both North Korea and Iran are supposed to be actively seeking nuclear weapons. But the countdown clock to assured human destruction is currently set to midnight. That is, the planet is not about to explode any second now, but rather, the set of hypothetical circumstances that would lead to the complete annihilation of every human being is moving closer and closer to overlapping our actual set of circumstances. In other words, we are actively working to turn our own planet into a doomsday machine – virtually ensuring that humanity has no future beyond the next five to ten generations.

In fact we may soon reach a point where our ability to forestall our civilization’s doomsday scenario is effectively taken out of our hands.

Now, no one knows for sure what shape our assured destruction is going to take. But at the moment there are so many possible end-of-the-road scenarios without any possible solutions on the horizon, that we might conclude that humanity as a viable species is doomed. This presents a very interesting paradox:

We have become so technological and so successful that we are almost certainly going to destroy ourselves. At the same time, we have also become advanced enough so that we can see we are going to destroy ourselves. And yet we do not appear to be doing very much about it.

For most of us, this paradox apparently has very little meaning–which is probably the main reason we are in this mess. Our evolutionary path has not prepared us for this situation. We’re only wired to be forward-looking and forward-thinking for about one growing season. This means we’re wired more or less like squirrels. We can store enough food away to get us through another year, except we do this very well, so much so that just 1% of us feeds the other 99%.

Generally we only move beyond our basic squirrel-impulses (mating, territorialism, food storing) for three motive-driven reasons: great need, great profit, or great vision. In all of these cases we have shown a much better capacity to look many years into the future and prepare ourselves. Great need simply means threats to our survival, such as war. Great profit is self-explanatory. And great vision means every now and then we go beyond ourselves and do something truly extraordinary, such as embark upon an Antarctic expedition or a moon landing.

So the way we are going to save ourselves–if at all–will likely come from exploiting these tendencies. A few possibilities come to mind, in descending order…
  • A 100% renewable energy economy. There is certainly great need for the implementation of this. Possible great profit could be involved. And it would require great vision to succeed.
    Giant solar farms are just the beginning.
  • A gradual phase-out of the use of plastics, except for essential technologies. (Many plastics are critical to things like medical devices, synthetic medical membranes and the like, not to motion contact lenses. We ought to be conserving this precious resource for plastics-critical applications. And no, bubble-wrap is not one of these.)
  • Protecting carbon sinks (i.e. rainforests). Okay, we’re failing miserably here. The chainsaws are cutting, and the forest are burning. If you want to hold up one pitiful example to show how our situation is growing sketchier by the day, this is it. Ahem, how long have we been aware of this problem?
  • Protecting ourselves against civilization-ending events. Okay, this one is a bit of a catch all, but it points to a solution that could be our next Apollo Program. And no, we’re not talking Mars.
Thinking about our future is no longer just thinking about what comes next, but what comes after. Think beyond Mars. Great need, great profit, great vision. It is time. The clock is ticking.