The very long term future and how our actions shape it

Which will come first: the end of humanity or our spread outwards from Earth?

This may seem like a very arcane or abstract question of the far future, but we might be the ones to decide the actual answer over the next few decades. The outcome and final trajectory may well become clear in the near-term; by this I mean within a few hundred years at most.

The fact that we might describe the next few hundred years as being “the near-term” gives some perspective to the kind of time-scales we ought to be hoping for our species to see. Against the imperceptibly slow tectonic ticking of the Clock Of History, communists’ Five Year Plans seem mayfly in their narrow vision of the future, and politicians’ news cycles sound like the tiny hum of a quartz crystal vibrating in a watch. But the genuine long-term is the range we should be aiming for.

However, individual apes of the Homo genus have consistently and depressingly shown ourselves to be incapable of acting in our own long term interest. Actions being taken today — this very day in 2017 — may contribute significantly to the story of our species when it comes to be told. Whether that story is being told by our distant descendants flying around other stars or by alien archeologists puzzling over our ruined cities and boiling planet depends on how we think about our future right now.

What makes us so special, then?

It may seem like hubris to think that this moment in history could be pivotal. All periods in history seem to their inhabitants as though they are key moments in our shared story. We seem to be having quite a lot of history going on at the moment, it’s true: Trump and Brexit and various other things are shaking up the political status quo, but that’s just politics. In a thousand years almost none of the politicians alive today will be known to anyone other than a few scholars of our period. So why would anything we do today make any difference to our long-term narrative?

Dead white guys

To answer this, I think it’s important to distinguish between history in terms of politics, wars, kings and so on, and the long tale of our species (pun intended). The course of the first type of history can be occasionally turned by individuals, but the longer-term is a slow, massive tide that is shaped by emergent trends and the summation of the actions of millions of people rather than individual grand actions, at least up until recently.

The march of science has put larger and larger quantities of energy into the hands of humans over time. Now we have some individuals, the leaders of the nuclear-armed nations, who have under their fairly direct control more energy than was likely expended by all our prehistoric ancestors put together over thousands of years. That concentration of power (in purely physical terms) does give individuals the power to turn the course of our long history, too.

But that’s not the kind of action I’m thinking of — hopefully global thermonuclear war remains an unlikely outcome. The kind of power I want to evoke is the emergent power of trillions of tiny actions combined, which is the other way the course of our long history gets diverted. At the moment, and for the whole of the Anthropocene so far, humans have been making choices that have been contributing to climate and ecosystem changes. The question that defines whether our species will last more than the next few hundred years or not is what we do about that fact.

We’re going to need a bigger boat

The changes we see in our climate and the general degradation in our environment are not going to reverse themselves, and there is no sign at present that humanity in the round is doing anything to halt them — quite the opposite, on aggregate. We are on course for at least a 2 degree rise in average temperatures, quite possibly higher, which will significantly change the world physically and politically, but our whole species is in the grip of a combination of a tragedy of the commons and severe normalcy bias.

Some organisations have spotted that Plan A (which is to say, living on Earth for the foreseeable future) isn’t necessarily going to work out for us as a species, and they’re working on various Plans B — many of which include travelling to space. To some this may seem frivolous or science fictional, or even immoral (why spend all that money putting a few folk into orbit when there are people starving in Yemen or Syria or Rakhine?). However if we take the longer-term view it leads us to the conclusion that failing to pursue space travel and colonisation is essentially planning to go extinct. All our eggs are in one basket and that basket is on fire. We can and should pursue aggressive decarbonisation but that may not succeed. We also need self-sustaining, internationally-launched colonies on other planets within the next few hundred years, or we are never leaving Earth and we will die in the ashes of our civilisation.

The fulcrum of history

This brings me at last to why our present time really is pivotal in the long tale of our species. What we do, collectively, over the next few years and decades in terms of both addressing climate change and pursuing space colonisation will determine the long term survival of our species. We are building our sandcastle tower to take us to the stars, but the tide is rushing in around its base. If we get a foothold in the sky then we stand a good chance of blossoming and becoming serious survivors on a geological scale — a long-burning flame, not the fast-dying flicker of light we risk our history becoming. But if we fall, we will not rise again.