|posted 1 September 2003|
William H. Calvin, A Brief History of the Mind (Oxford University Press 2004), chapter 14. See also http://WilliamCalvin.com/BHM/ch14.htm
William H. Calvin
Only now are we beginning to sense a hinge in history, a time when the earth is beginning to move beneath our feet. In the near term [of an exponential increase in technology affecting human capabilities], the world could divide up into three kinds of humans. One would be the Enhanced, who embrace these opportunities. A second would be the Naturals, who have the technology available but who, like today’s vegetarians, choose not to indulge for moral or esthetic reasons. Finally, there would be The Rest – those without access to these technologies for financial or geographic reasons, lagging behind, envying or despising those with ever-increasing choices. Especially if the Enhanced can easily be recognized because of the way they look, or what they can do, this is a recipe for conflict that would make racial or religious differences quaintly obsolete.
– Joel Garreau, 2003
There is no more powerful law of nature than that of unintended consequences. However carefully we might think out the possible results of our actions, they are likely to give rise to difficulties we hadn’t thought of – and fixing secondary problems of our own making is often more difficult than addressing those presented to us by Nature.
– Ian Tattersall, 2002
The Future of the Augmented Mind
A combustible mixture of ignorance and power?
Are there genetically engineered prospects of super genius – maybe even a do-it-ourselves successor species to Homo sapiens sapiens? Or some lash-up of computers and people that will create a hybrid?
Not soon, I suspect – and to get to the long term, civilization has to first survive the short term. (For example, how would we avoid genocides in the transition period?) I have already expressed, in chapter nine, my doubts about the course-plotting skills of the “not ready for prime time” prototype that escaped prematurely from the African cradle and took over the world.
Most popular speculations about mind’s future (say, those mind-liberated-from-body enthusiasms featured in slick magazines advertising cooler-than-cool gadgets) lack any cognitive perspective on the limitations of our prototype. Nor do such articles seem to offer any anthropological perspective of the evolutionary trajectory we’ve been on. Nor any neurobiological concern with the stability problems already evident in seizures and mental illness. The implications of the growing divide between The Enhanced and The Rest is seldom addressed.
This brief history of the mind is not the place to critique these blinkered views of the future, nor the place to sketch out why genetic manipulations may not turn out to be quite what we would hope. By offering a rather low-tech glimpse of the future, I can focus on patching up the prototype and addressing what we will build atop it. This final chapter is not a speculation about specific futures, though I will mention some cautions.
Scientists have no special wisdom in areas of ethics and stewardship, just a strong tradition of skepticism and theorizing. And, in common with the technologists such as Bill Joy, we sometimes have the knowledge from which to give early warnings of trouble ahead. That’s different from knowing what to do about it, or where wisdom lies.
But we do have a major responsibility, to get across to more general audiences and policymakers the nature of the challenges coming up, so that initiatives can properly focus on the long term. Some things really are important and it has proven easy to lose sight of them in the gee-whiz version of the future.
Unfortunately, no one seems able to discuss the future of the mind without marveling about this exhilarating speed of technology and the power of human-computer hybrids. They do tend to grab the attention. So perhaps I should first offer some perspective about the setting in which mind’s future might unfold – graying, speedups, wireheads, pumping up IQ, and emergent properties more generally – before I tackle the properties of future mind per se.
One of the more pervasive changes in average mind may occur because the average mind becomes much older. More experienced and less prone to beginners’ mistakes, perhaps, but likely far less energetic and adventuresome.
I was recently asked to imagine a day in my life, assuming that I lived until the year 3000. I thought about walking around the neighborhood on my artificial hips and my artificial knees. I suspected that my mood would be sad. I would be thinking about how we had dug ourselves into a deep hole, and that it would be hard to escape from it.
On average, people turn more and more conservative with age, self-centered and disinclined to rock the boat. By the year 3000, I would be experiencing the loneliness of the last liberal.
Extrapolating speed is easy to do and exponential growth curves abound, such as the Moore’s law doubling of memory chip capacity and processor speeds every several years over the last few decades.
Many technology aficionados suggest that as exponential technological change continues to accelerate into the first half of the twenty-first century, “it will appear to explode into infinity, at least from the limited and linear perspective of contemporary humans,” as the inventor Raymond Kurzweil says of “the singularity,” resulting in “technological change so rapid and profound that it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.” Like Malthus and the population bomb, it’s possible – unless something else slows it down before it rips the social fabric. Or uses the new technological capabilities, in the manner of Aum Shinrikyo in the sarin attack in Tokyo, to hasten some rapture-promoting Armageddon.
Things usually happen in the meantime to interrupt or re-channel exponential growth. Recall those 1950s extrapolations of leisure time, where the wage earner would get a shorter and shorter work week. Back then, one salary often supported an average family of five. And what happened to this vision of enhanced leisure time? Now it takes two salaries to support a family of four. Someone forgot about the Red Queen principle in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass.
“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little,
“you’d generally get to somewhere else — if you ran very fast for a long
time, as we’ve been doing.”
Our technological lifestyle has already begun changing so rapidly that a person’s working lifetime has to include one career after another after another. But only the best and the brightest can cope with such frequent retraining, leaving most of the population constantly battered by insecurity and lack of job satisfaction, alienated by the situation in which they are trapped.
So there are big problems with the speed of change. The faster you go, the more easily a pothole can spin you out of control. But as I earlier noted, it usually isn’t speed by itself that matters; it is relative speed. Army generals love the blitzkrieg concept, of overrunning the enemy before it can effectively react. People (and societies) can overrun themselves, too. Your own speed of travel must be judged relative to your speed of reaction. If you can’t shorten your reaction time commensurate with your faster speed, or cannot find better headlights to give you a longer view, then things that would give you no trouble at normal speeds can give you a lot of trouble at higher speeds.
And reaction times are only the simplest application of speed differences. When innovation operates in one area faster than in related ones, when one is nimble and the other is ponderous, things can bend and break. Contrast the speed of technological advance with that of societal consensus. It took less than a decade to put together an atomic bomb, once the physics was understood. It took only four years after the first free web browser appeared until there were a billion web pages worldwide, indexed by a free search engine that even children could use without formal instruction. Compare those technological spurts to one of the best examples of political progress, short of shaky revolutions: the European Union took 50 years, two generations of politicians, to get to the stage where the Euro started to circulate. And that’s fast for consensus building.
The science and technology of mind may move far more quickly than we can create consensus about what to do – say, for insuring that things go on, that individuals’ independence and upwards mobility in society is maintained, that costs and benefits are distributed, that stratification does not develop in society and become a caste system.
We do get better headlights from science – something increasingly important as things speed up – but the political reaction times are so slow that it hasn’t helped much. It has been clear for at least 30 years that greenhouse problems were upon us, but denial still reigns in high places (so too does ignorance of science). The same nimble-ponderous problem will likely be seen as the future of the mind unfolds and its societal implications become manifest.
Wireheads are technology enthusiasts who want to plug their brains into a computer. I’m not one of them but three decades ago, I was among the neurophysiologists who regularly wiretapped individual nerve cells in the brains of awake patients and used computers to analyze the meaning of their conversations among themselves. (It’s in Conversations with Neil’s Brain.) The technology of doing that hasn’t improved very much since then. Each time some press release offers yet another photograph of a brain slice in a dish with wires attached, I get phone calls from reporters wanting to know about this exciting new prospect.
What I tell them is that I have been seeing such “news” every few years since 1964 and that, while it is nearly always competent state-of-the-art research, it hasn’t yet provided much of a foundation from which to wire a wirehead – that the problems of a permanent interface are considerable, that bandwidth is still narrow (about at the Morse Code stage), and that we still don’t know how to “talk” the language of the brain well enough to get across conceptual-level stuff.
The problems of doing something useful for an awake human from a carry-it-around computer are severe in the cognitive realm, though more approachable in the assisted movement applications. Someday we’ll see a cognitive adjunct (probably in the area of supplementing memory, as in the “Brain in a Biceps” described in my The River That Flows Uphill where all that silicon memory does double-duty as a silicon augmentation of a breast or biceps). But, until we solve the interface problems, I’d bet on educational technologies. I also think improved education in the early years is what will influence far more people than either genetic engineering or the wirehead approaches.
“All the children are above average” in Lake Wobegon. While intended as humor, you’d think that we were heading for such an impossible utopia. While everyone tends to talk about the average as a stand-in for the whole bell-shaped distribution, the average need not change to get important effects – some of which we will surely see long before anything shifts the whole curve to the right.
Indeed, the bell curve of IQ probably began to spread early in the last century when coeducational colleges began to supplement separate men’s colleges and women’s colleges. So in the typical years for finding partners and settling down, the handy choices were those who could also pass the entrance exam for the college. Where you would have had more of a genetic mixing under normal circumstances between average and high (as, say, in Israel where everyone spends several years in the army before going on to college, and many mates are found in the wider choices available in this less selected population), the high-entry-requirement college tends to produce more high-high matings.
It isn’t necessarily changing the average of the population. When the cream rises to the top, what’s left behind is thinner – but there’s no change in the milk bottle’s average of fat. There are things like that, where there is no attempt at manipulating average intelligence, which nonetheless affect its distribution.
The Luke Effect (the biblical “the rich get richer”) is likely to occur when parents try to assure the best for their baby via germline gene technology and by elective abortions of low-IQ fetuses. But the same exaggeration of differences can happen with education via private schools – even if the public schools catch up a decade later, you will still have an ongoing disparity, The Enhanced always well ahead of The Rest. So for at least two reasons, the IQ average just doesn’t tell you what you need to know.
There’s a third big reason: variability is the real stuff of evolution. There isn’t a standard type, but always a highly variable population of unique individuals. The distribution is capable of being biased this way and that. But it isn’t easy to engage in what we call “population thinking.” It takes years to train biologists to think in terms of a variable population of unique individuals instead of a type (Platonic essences is what we default to). Without achieving that viewpoint, it can be difficult to appreciate how evolution occurs over time. “He who does not understand the uniqueness of individuals is unable to understand the working of natural selection,” said Ernst Mayr.
There are many surprises that emerge from the intrinsically unpredictable aspects of the world. Small changes can produce big effects, and the future of mind will surely include some novelties arising from self-organization tendencies.
Some examples from the simpler world of geology: When there is a high throughput of energy, things like convection cells form. Whenever you see cliffs of basalt with hexagonal columns, remember that there are emergent properties lurking in anything that produces a steep gradient. Hot to cool may be what causes the hexagons to form (you can see it in cooking oatmeal, when you forget to stir the pan), but I can imagine softwiring emergents in the brain from intensively engaging in structured stuff at earlier ages. The steeper gradients between rich and poor may produce surprising social effects unless we do something about the rich getting richer. Emergents are hard to predict, and they are not all beneficial – such as gridlock.
But many of the surprises aren’t even emergents. Mentally we can invent a scheme that makes a difficult task easy. Consider trying to move a big, heavy object like the box containing a new refrigerator. You cannot lift it. You cannot easily push it across the floor because the friction is considerable. It seems an impossible task. But in trying to maneuver it, you discover the technique of walking it across the room: you tilt it back onto the near edge, then rotate it around one corner, then the other corner, “walking” it across the room with little more effort than it takes to keep it on edge. It is much like sailing into the wind at an angle, tacking back and forth – something else that initially seems counterintuitive. Our mental life often makes such shortcut discoveries on more abstract levels, and we might get even better at it in the future.
So much for the general principles and the gee-whiz settings that usually distract us. What about the properties of future mind per se?
Speculation is never a waste of time. It clears away the deadwood in the thickets of deduction.
– the novelist Elizabeth Peters, 2000
Where does mind go from here, its powers extended by science-enhanced education and new tools – but with its slowly evolving gut instincts still firmly anchored to the ice ages? With the mental hardware still full of the shortcomings of the rough-around-the-edges prototype, the preliminary version that evolution never got a chance to further improve before the worldwide distribution occurred?
Perhaps we will come to manage our minds better, as some Buddhists aspire to do, learning how to put things on the back burner and revisit them, rather than worrying continuously.
Evolutionary psychiatry will probably give us some alternative ways of looking at common disorders – and perhaps offer us some paths to improving mental functioning. Mood disorders like depression are, of course, the most common of problems, exerting a pervasive bias on what interests us. Of all the mental illnesses, depression is the easiest to appreciate as an evolutionary adaptation as it seems widespread in mammals. A wounded animal holes up, doesn’t move much, loses its appetite and interest in sex – all of which makes perfect sense if there is a broken bone or wound to heal.
While the mood disorders do not seem related to higher intellectual function in basic mechanism, the behaviorally modern transition and its imperfections may have made mood disorders more common in settings not part of the usual evolutionary rationale for depression, triggering the reclusive reaction when there is nothing broken. Stress is also a possible setup for depression. Adding a layer of intellect modifies this simple picture; some think that many clinical cases of depression involve the pending failure of something that the patient is emotionally committed to, that depression serves to help disengage.
Hallucinations, delusions and dementia are also the stuff of our nighttime dreams, where we see cognitive processes freewheeling without much quality control. Fortunately our movement command centers are inhibited during most dreams, so we don’t get into trouble acting on dangerous nonsense. When similar incoherence is the best thing our consciousness has available during waking hours, it may be part of a thought disorder.
Obsessions and compulsions are lower-level stuff, somewhere between thought and mood disorders, but they seem related to agendas and their updating. Our cat may have some instincts for keeping track of the field mice in the back yard and revisiting each of our closets every few weeks, but behaviorally modern humans have very versatile, structured agendas. Yet we sometimes get stuck and fail to move on, with respect to both thought (obsessions) and action (compulsions). Just imagine the “Give him…” advertising agency able to craft an ad that causes a more normal person to obsess over the product and then go out and compulsively buy it.
Real mental illness may be prominent in the future of the mind. Much as I think that we will learn how to treat mental illness better, one must also consider that the number of cases might rise at the same time, perhaps just because of the speed and complexity of everyday life. And new types of malfunction may appear.
There have been several disturbing trends of late. The age of onset of major disorders has been dropping, so that psychoses are seen earlier and earlier in life. And the number of cases of autism has greatly increased in the last two decades. It takes a long time to sort out the causes of such things and, to some extent, we must suspend judgment. But the possibility of society having to cope with much more mental illness is real.
Our society has also changed in ways to make us much more vulnerable to even rare acts of mental illness. As Bill Joy said of the Unabomber, “We’re lucky Kaczynski was a mathematician, not a molecular biologist.” Most of the mentally ill are harmless. Those who aren’t are usually too dysfunctional to do organized harm.
But I’d point out that there is a class of patients with what is called “delusional disorder.” They differ greatly from schizophrenics and untreated manic-depressives because they can remain employed and pretty functional for decades, despite their jealous-grandiose-paranoid-somatic delusions. Like the sociopaths, they usually don’t seek medical attention, making their numbers hard to estimate. Even if they are only 1 percent in the population (and I’ve seen much higher estimates), that’s a lot of mostly untreated delusional people. You don’t have to be mentally ill to do malicious things, and few of the mentally ill perform them, but 1 percent of sociopaths or delusional types in an anonymous big city is sure different from 1 percent in a small town where everyone knows one another and can keep tabs on the situation. And bare fists are quite different from the same person equipped with technology.
As we’ve seen several times in recent years, it doesn’t take special skills or intelligence to create the fuel-oil-and-fertilizer bombs. Many fewer will have the intelligence or education intentionally to create sustained or widespread harm using high-tech means. But even if that is only 1 percent of the 1 percent, it’s still a pool of 3,400 high-performing sociopathic or delusional techies just in California alone - and you can scale that up to the nation and world. That bad things happen so infrequently from the few Unabomber types among them isn’t too comforting when the capability of that tiny fraction is growing enormously. Small relative numbers still add up to enough absolute numbers to be worrisome. With cults, you may get some warning. But here we are talking about the escalating power of the often suicidal one-person cult where deterrence doesn’t work.
Fatalism, which is essentially what Bill Joy describes among the technologists, is one way of dealing with the future. But with it may go an abdication of responsibility for seeing that things go on and that everything turns out well.
It is important to distinguish between science and technology here, because the connection between them is so often oversold and simplified. Even without more new science, technology would continue producing many new ways in which society could get in trouble from unintended consequences. (The explosion of the world wide web didn’t require any new science.) Science, whatever it may also do in occasionally seeding new technology, tends to provide society’s long-range headlights. It is science that can detect instabilities before they cause collapse. And in combination with such technological marvels as massively parallel computers, science can provide the working models that show us the probable consequences of our actions, an important ingredient of ethical choices.
The future is arriving more quickly than it used to, and, since our reaction time is slowed by the necessary consensus building, it makes foresight more important than ever.
Will we also shift mental gears again, into more-and-faster – juggling more concepts simultaneously, making decisions even faster? As a mundane example, consider how we struggle with remembering even 7-digit-long telephone numbers – then imagine your grandchildren able to recall 15-digit telephone numbers a day later, and even say them backwards.
It probably doesn’t take genetic engineering to do this. Better training in childhood, based on understanding brains and childhood development better – as in my softwiring examples for syntax and reading – could do a great deal in preparing us to deal with more things at the same time, to hold more agendas and revisit them, and to make decisions more reliably.
Very little education or training is currently based on scientific knowledge of brain mechanisms. But that will change in the next several decades. To imagine what a difference it could make, consider the history of medicine.
Two centuries ago, medicine was largely empirical; vaccination for smallpox was invented in 1796, and the circulation of the blood was known, but scientific contributions were a tiny proportion of medicine. Digitalis was used for congestive heart failure because someone tried foxglove extracts and they worked.
Physicians often overgeneralized and it took forever to get rid of bleeding and purging. Generations of physicians were convinced that bleeding worked, but now we know it just weakened patients more quickly than the disease would have done – unless you were one of the few patients who had an iron overload disease, where bleeding could be lifesaving. Purging works for acute poisoning but not much else. A “grain of truth” is often massively misleading.
Even when they guessed correctly and avoided overgeneralization, these early physicians didn’t know how their treatment worked, the physiological mechanism of the drug action or vaccination. When you do understand mechanism, you can make all sorts of improvements and guess far better schemes of intervention. That’s what adding science gets you.
One century ago, medicine was still largely empirical and only maybe a tenth had been modified by science. It wasn’t until 1896, for example, that Emil Kraepelin proposed the separation of the psychoses into schizophrenia and manic-depressive types.
These days, medicine is perhaps half empirical and half scientific (where you know not only what works, but a lot about how and why it works). It is only a slight exaggeration to say that the transition from an empirical to a semi-scientific medicine has doubled lifespan and reduced suffering by half.
Now consider education. Today, it is largely empirical and only slightly scientific, much as medicine before 1800. We know some empirical truths about education but we don’t know how the successful ones are implemented in the brain, and thus we don’t know rational ways of improving on them.
Yet once education has the techniques and technology to incorporate what is being learned about brain plasticity and inborn individual differences, we are likely to produce many more adults of unusual abilities, able to juggle twice as many concepts at once, able to follow a longer chain of reasoning, able to shore up the lower floors of their mental house of cards to allow fragile new levels to be tried out, meta-metaphors and beyond – the survival of the stable but on a higher level yet again.
We may expose students to the common beginners’ mistakes in computer simulations, for example, so that they will become sensitized to the common logical fallacies and hone their critical thinking skills. We already do advanced versions of this; medical students now learn the consequences of not thinking ahead in simulated emergency-room situations. (“Because you didn’t order a CT scan an hour ago to check for a bleeder in the brain, the patient’s hidden hemorrhage has now progressed to the point of irreversible brain damage. You missed the window of opportunity to save the patient. THE END.” At least it’s not a real patient.) Such simulation of common errors will trickle down to educating ten-year-olds about how advertising manipulates them; done in small groups, where repeatedly getting fooled causes some embarrassment, critical thinking skills might become a more regular feature of the teen-aged mind set.
Such education, perhaps more than any of the imagined genetic changes, could make for a very different adult population. We would still look the same coming out of the womb, would still have the same genetics, but adults could be substantially different. A lot of the elements of human intelligence are things that, while they also have a genetic basis, are malleable; we ought to be able to educate for superior performance.
I think that as we move into a new generation of creative teachers augmented by teaching machines to handle the more rote aspects, they will tune into the individual’s weak points and strong points. We will have children coming out of the school system who will perform very differently from the ones today – maybe not uniformly, but the high end may be substantially higher. We might bring up the bottom by more timely interventions.
Maybe those improvements in mental juggling ability will help many people think more productively, so as to head off trouble before it happens. Ethics might be a beneficiary of such improved foresight, and so might stewardship. The amount of time we spend considering the possibilities versus rushing to judgment is an example of a variable where you finally move away from making beginner’s mistakes to having a much more nuanced view of things. We may be able to train for that. Our higher education pushes people in that direction, and science trains for skepticism, but there is quite a lot that we can do in childhood.
Will only the rich get smarter, or will everyone’s children gain from the new flowering of education?
What will happen to consciousness? And to those related things called conscience and self-consciousness? There are many subconscious aspects of mind operating in the background, such as our agendas, but in the foreground is something much more personal, the narrator of the life story capable of aspirations and reflections, capable of great achievement and pathetic meanness. To some degree, we can invent — and daily reinvent — ourselves.
And what about higher consciousness, you may ask? I’m not sure what it is (you may have noticed that I tend to talk instead about higher intellectual functions and the decision-making process), but can we jack “it” up even higher?
A great deal of our consciousness involves guessing well, as we try to make a coherent story out of fragments. The neurologist Adam Zeman lumps it all into the search for meaning: “Eye and brain run ahead of the evidence, making the most of inadequate information – and, unusually, get the answer wrong…. What we see resonates in the memory of what we have seen; new experience always percolates through old, leaving a hint of its flavor as it passes. We live, in this sense, in a ‘remembered present.’”
The neurologist Antonio Damasio speaks of an extended consciousness having an enhanced level of detail and time span. But note that this likely could not be achieved without an equivalent in thought of syntax’s past and future tenses and the long sentences made unambiguous by structuring. In short, Damasio’s extended consciousness needs syntax’s structuring aspect, even without overt planning or speech, just to keep mental life from blending everything like a summer drink. And to keep from getting muddled when more than maybe three concepts have to be juggled at the same time. Nor can you speculate about the future without an ability to improve novel thoughts into something of quality.
To come back to what I said at the beginning of this brief history of mind, we tend to see ourselves situated as the narrator of a life story, always at a crossroads between past and future, swimming in speculation. I think that some people today have a lot of this sense of being a narrator-in-charge, while others have less of the creative imagination needed to analyze the past and speculate about the future. In the future, we might see enhanced conscience, with the higher-order emotions like embarrassment, envy, pride, guilt, shame, and humiliation changing as well.
But at the high end, what might pump us up even higher? If our consciousness is a house of cards, perhaps there are techniques, equivalent to bending the cards, that will allow us to spend more time at the more abstract levels. Can we shore up our mental edifices to build much taller “buildings” or discover the right mental “steel?”
We could certainly use some help, as we have some giant problems to solve soon, problems of vulnerability that civilization faces from its success. Even if we manage to fix all the rough spots and augment the higher-order stuff, we will still need to cope with two major products of higher intellectual function so far. One is population size, associated with the metaphor “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.” The second is relative cultural speed, as in my earlier discussion about “speed kills” and “we need better headlights.”
Thanks to simple planning applied to farming, population size has gone up about 6,000-fold since the beginning of agriculture. This productivity is what makes big cities possible, but we usually forget the unfortunate consequences of size. For example, if a mouse falls off a cliff, it is likely to land and get up, shake itself, and scamper off into the undergrowth. An object the size of a dog that falls off a cliff is likely to break half the bones in its body. Anything the size of a horse will splatter. To apply this to civilization, recall the earth scientists who say, “Earthquakes don’t kill people, but buildings do.”
Lurches can come from many things that last longer than hurricanes and earthquakes, which are over in a day and localized enough so the rest of the country can bail you out. But droughts can last for decades – far longer than the Dust Bowl of the 1930s in the United States – and affect wide areas. Some even last for centuries (North Dakota had one that lasted 700 years).
Will the farmers still be able to support 70 times their own population if we have a widespread drought? What about droughts that are both century-long and widespread? Alas, five of the last 20 centuries in North America have featured widespread droughts in the Great Plains and West that each lasted for more than a hundred years. So, just from the paleoclimate records, the present century has at least a 25 percent chance of suffering from drought conditions in which agriculture could no longer feed our large cities.
Or what happens when an agricultural monoculture gets in trouble from a widespread disease, as happened in the 1848 potato famine in Ireland? (Eliminating the seed varieties via the efficiency of a centrally manufactured seed – already a problem, which genetically modified seed will make worse – may put too many eggs in one basket.) Will the city populations quietly starve in place, or flee to further disrupt the agricultural areas?
What if such a lurch were so widespread and long-lasting that it affected much of civilization? (Worldwide droughts – usually known under the name of “abrupt cooling episodes” – have occurred many times, the average interval being 3,000 years but with the most recent one 12,000 years ago.) A collapse of civilization would not merely reduce world population size to what it was a few centuries ago. The attendant genocides during downsizings might also take us into an everyone-hates-their-neighbors hole from which it would be difficult to escape. The harder we fall, the deeper the hole we will create.
A collapse can be augmented by speed: stampedes can kill many more people than their direct cause could have done (urban panic was what Aum Shinrikyo was trying, but failed, to stir up with their Tokyo subway attacks). Our speed of communication helps set us up for panics, where a lot of people head for the door at exactly the same time.
The economic area is probably just as vulnerable to abrupt impacts as climate, and the 1997 currency crisis in Indonesia caused a lot of starvation even though food production was still working. We can now have widespread panics in the world’s economies, accelerated by having 24/7 markets.
Our transportation systems are now moving a lot of insects and viruses around the world. Sometimes they find a new niche and are off and running. It takes time to detect them and even longer to devise effective strategies to contain the problem; this slowness of response allows a major epidemic to establish itself.
The number of people an epidemic directly kills may be only part of the problem. If you cannot get truck drivers to go into a contaminated city, a lot of people die from starvation. Lawlessness springs up and amplifies the problem. (Recall how even Baghdad hospitals were inexplicably looted when the police disappeared for a few days in 2003.)
Gradual change (as in our notions of gradual greenhouse warming) seems to be the default setting for our minds, even though evidence abounds for whiplashes. Some people assume that a free marketplace of ideas and products will solve any problem, given enough time, without realizing that many natural causes are more like a 1940 blitzkrieg invader than like a 1916 back-and-forth battlefront. We are very vulnerable to a lurch, whether from climate, disease, or economic panic. Yet we continue to treat these problems as if simple extrapolation from present-day conditions will suffice. Sustainability must also encompass surviving the lurches.
For a lurch, only a lot of organized prevention will head off the consequences – and defense is expensive, having to cover so many routes to collapse, all at the same time. (The generals say that offense is much easier than defense because you get to choose the time and route.) Judging from the past, creeping climate could suddenly turn into a blitzkrieg against civilization. Some things are too important to be left to on-the-fly improvisation and competition – and that now must include the abrupt aspects of public health, economic stability, and climate change.
Though I’m generally an optimist, it is easy for me to sound pessimistic when forced to list the hazards. It’s a fundamental asymmetry; a pessimist can be much more concrete about the downside than an optimist can ever be about the upside. In comparison, the possibilities imagined by an optimist will always seem fuzzy when contrasted with the known dangers having a substantial track record.
Yes, in the face of the “not ready for prime time” aspects of our intellects that I earlier mentioned, we have some serious problems. Yet much the same could have been said in earlier periods – and civilization nonetheless improved greatly in both technological and humanistic terms. As David Brin observed, “In two or three centuries our levels of education, health, liberation, tolerance and confident diversity have been momentously, utterly transformed.” We cannot neglect the creeping trends and incipient lurches that endanger us, but we can also feel hopeful, given our frequent ability to transcend our apparent limitations, once we have a clear view of the challenges. Fatalism is a cheap copout.
We need to shore up civilization’s foundations to deal with any type of lurch, whether climatic or economic or epidemic. And humanity has done it before: there is a famous example of shoring up your foundations called the flying buttress, and it is emblematic of our situation today.
Consider that prime example of the large-scale projects that western civilizations have undertaken in the past: just reflect on the amount of energy and labor – the percentage of the GNP, if you like – that went into building cathedrals. And then what it took a century later, when retrofitting them with flying buttresses. This example from a thousand years ago gives us some perspective on the situation we face today, where we cannot even find the money to pay for high quality public schools and long-term projects like coping with climate change, because we are so overcommitted to less essential things.
Like some other commentators on the future, I think that we are heading into a dangerous period – full of opportunity, but precarious. We may not be gods, but it is as if we were – in our impact on the world and our own evolution – so perhaps, as Stewart Brand once said, we had better get good at the god business.
The River That
copyright ©2003 by William H. Calvin