Thursday, July 19, 2007

The End Is Nigh

Think big for a moment. How big? Iraq war big? Bigger. International security big? Bigger still. Civilization big? Recorded history big? Yep, more like that—or at least pretty close.

See this NY Times piece for details. Apparently we’re running out of time, at least as far as this planet is concerned. Someone’s done some base-level probability/actuarial/whatever type calculations on how long we can reside on this rock, and things aren’t looking so good.

Here’s the gist. If we happen to live in a typical, unremarkable moment in history, and if our particular civilizational experiment is typical, then time’s running out on a new colonial project to escape the damage done to our current living quarters. Traditionally, human society has survived at least in part by expanding, and we seem to have stopped doing that. The longer we wait to colonize another planet (that being the next available place to expand to), the less likely it is, judging from experience, that we’ll bother doing so.

Thus: we’ve got a little under a half century to start expanding to another world, or we’re unlikely to bother. If we don’t, something or other (climate change, killer asteroid, take your pick) is likely to off us in the long run.

So how does this work? The governing assumption at work here is pretty simple: most likely we live at a typical moment in history. If so, the statistical probabilities at play in past comparable scenarios (past expansions of civilization, and so on) should be applicable now.

So the question to ask is this—just how typical is the present moment? Perhaps it’s arrogant to assume we’re different. Perhaps we’re just like all the others—eventually doomed to suffer for our own limitations.

Or, conversely, is it arrogant to assume we’re typical? The mistake might be to resign ourselves to a typical fate: our current situation is politically, technologically, and in many other ways unique in human history. How can the outcome fail to differ—and how can we not want to determine it?

The lesson is as old as the Chinese curse: we live in interesting times. We ought to seize them.

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