The more deadly dangers of the status quo.
Read Time: 8 minutes
When a star produces iron at it's core, is it doomed. The process occurs at the end of the lifecycle of supermassive giant stars. From the instant that the first iron atom is fused, it is a mere galactic blip until the life of the star is over. Many of these giants end their existence as brilliant and violent supernovae that for a short time can out shine the entirety of the galaxy to which they belong.
I've been fascinated by this occurrence, mostly because it's a frightening allegory to the philosophical notion of the "tipping point." The instant that star fuses a single atom of iron, it's fate is sealed. No matter what else might happen, it's a goner. It is nearly impossible for this to not lead one to contemplate the "tipping point" scenario of our own civilization. In ages past, the tipping point concept revolved around religion and morality. The Great Flood. Sodom and Gomorrah. Ragnarök. Pralaya. Apocalypse. In today's world, most tipping point talk is discussed in terms of science and warfare. Climate change. Nuclear armageddon. Resource/energy depletion. The Robocalypse (that last one is mine). Some of us live in fear that we're nearing or have unknowingly reached a tipping point in terms of our own impact on the Earth and have already subsequently ensured out own demise. Much like the ill-fated supermassive stars, we may be on a collision course for our own massive explosion with no chance of achieving any other outcome.
In fact, some philosophers believe that being the source of your own demise is the inevitable omega of any advanced civilization. In a universe so ancient and large, with mathematical modeling telling us there are likely millions of "earth-like" worlds eons older than our own, how can it be that we have not detected any signs of extraterrestrial civilizations? The answer, some philosophers say, lies as part of explaining the Fermi Paradox. One line of reasoning with significant support is that intelligent species are destined to be destroyed by their own technology. In essence, a "tipping point" is reached through a combination of their energy production (to meet advanced needs), weaponry, and artificial intelligence that is simply unsustainable in a non-reactive balance. #BOOM.
Countless science fiction works and futurism-prognostications have imagined how this might go down. Possibility leads to probability which turns to inevitably. The more we advance, the closer we are to our own annihilation. And there certainly must be a tipping point somewhere along the way.
Being the happy contrarian
"Happy" and "contrarian" are two words that are rarely used together, but that is how I'll style myself in this argument. Looking back over our recent history, I can identify three distinct eras of tipping-point mentality many have (and continue to) argue will lead to apocalyptic eventuality.
First I think came with the onset of the Atomic Age. Humans became capable of building and deploying weaponry that could cause unimaginable destruction. We may not be able to "blow up" the planet...yet, but we could certainly cause another mass extinction that would likely hasten our own. Like most mischievous genies, the nuclear one likely won't ever go back in the bottle, either. Nuclear weaponry represents a clear, present, and monumentally consequential danger to humanity. However, we have been able to turn our technological capabilities to deterrence quite effectively. I do believe that one day we will have a global system that renders large-scale nuclear destruction virtually impossible. One of several positive outcomes to spring from a scary technology.
Climate Change Fanaticism
The second tipping point era - one which we are still in - is that of global warming/climate change. For me this is piece is now one of those ahhhhhhhhh moments when I haven't been paying attention to where I'm going and all of a sudden look up and find myself in the middle of Political Island surrounded on both sides by cannibals waiting to pounce. I've never gone "on the record" with my thoughts on this phenomenon before, and I hope in doing so it doesn't become a distraction to the larger point of this piece. I also understand a lot of cannibals don't comprehend very well, so whatever, here goes.... Yes data says the temperature of the earth has risen steadily and slightly over the past several decades. Yes, this coincides with rapid global industrialization tied to the proliferation of internal combustion engines. Is global warming man made? Yes, some of it. To what degree, I won't speculate as I'm not qualified. I think it may be a larger portion than the absolutists on one side say, and I think mankind has had a far less impact than the absolutists on the other side say.
I'll invoke a tangent here for just a second. I specifically referred to "global warming" in the passage above. I see this phenomenon and "climate change" as two totally separate events. Ask me if "climate change" is happening and my response is "absolutely." Ask me if it is manmade, I'll say "it doesn't matter." (Over one shoulder, I just heard chants of 'burn the heretic' whilst in my other ear a whisper just offered me a cushy spot on the Privy Council.) Please allow me to explain myself. First, OF COURSE climate change is happening. That's what the climate does...IT CHANGES. It always has. Ask phytoplankton, the dinosaurs, the Vikings, and George Washington. If carbon-emitting machines and mankind's livestock is responsible for some global warming, then I guess technically there is some culpability in climate change as well, but at a very specific level. You see the Earth and it's systems do a great job of checks and balances. A system to which humans are not exempt. This is true during natural disasters such as elongated periods of volcanic activity, extraterrestrial disasters such as hyper solar activity, or human-induced "disasters" such as CO2 blankets.
Earth's pendulum-governing mechanisms are numerous. One I have found fascinating concerns cloud production. Apparently one of the few areas of the globe that hasn't experienced a rise in temperature is over the Antarctic. Here the polar ice caps are extremely white, which reflects sunlight back into space thus negating a heating effect. The same can be said of a much smaller but significant region of southern Spain, although in this instance it is manmade and not natural. Over 26,000 hectares of the Almeria region is covered by greenhouses sporting white, highly reflective roofs. Studies have shown that the temperature over the past decade in this usually arid region has actually cooled nearly as much as the average temperature across the wider Spanish region has risen. Clouds - specifically cloud tops - have the same effect. Prolonged warming periods tend to create more lengthy evaporation periods thus producing more clouds. Over time more clouds means more sunlight reflecting back into space rather than being soaked into the ground. The pendulum indeed swings, but the Earth is pretty good at limiting it's arc.
As for the manmade part of all of this, well, that stems primarily from the burning of fossil fuels. From which we're rapidly moving away. Sprinkled with a smattering of altruism, this shift is being driven mainly by economics and underpinned by geopolitics. Sustainable energy, specifically solar, is getting cheaper and cheaper, and our storage capabilities are getting better and better. The tenuous political structure of much of the oil-rich world has always been suspicious to everyone else, at best. The stability and openness of the entity underlying energy-producing resources will always be a factor in its viability as a power source. In short, I don't see solar becoming less of an option. That is, unless our Sun goes supernova. Which it won't. And this doesn't account for new innovations in energy, all of which are believed to be non-carbon emitting.
Our Robot Overlords
AI is the soup de jour for doomsday peppers. I'll admit, among atomic bombs, a hotter planet, and robot overlords, the latter is actually what I see as the most feasible. Elon Musk and a host of other Silicon Valley royalty have founded a non-profit to help make sure artificial intelligence works "for and not a-gin' " us. Whether or not we actually become enslaved by the Matrix, the more immediate disruption lies in the economic impact of automation. Estimates are that 45% of jobs - some quite "white collar" in nature - will be taken by machines. I'm not going to belabor this point, as I've written extensively on it before. This disruption also won't be civilization destroying as much as it will be society-reordering, more akin to the societal effects left in the wake of Black Death Europe than a Death Star blast to Aalderaan. The Future of Work will change, for sure, and there will be pain. But it won't by any means come close to being civilization ending. Sorry if that drops the market value of your recently-purchased New Zealand estate.
The Real Villain: Dinosaurs
If our civilization is to end in a calamity of one type or another, I don't believe it will come as a result of advancement. Quite to the contrary, I think the biggest danger lies in "hitting the wall" and becoming complacent. Maybe the best corollary I can draw is to the dinosaurs. (To which you just collectively turned your heads aside and muttered, good LORD he is CRAZY.)
Please, lemme 'splain...
No, the dinosaurs were not a "civilization" as we understand the construct. But what, really, is "civilization?" There are many different definitions that take into account various elements and criteria. I'd like to offer my definition: A civilization is a group that can: 1) innovate both reactively and proactively and 2) recognize and capitalize on innovation for the betterment of the group.
By "reactively and proactively," what I mean is that a civilization innovates to solve existing problems while also actively experimenting/innovating to either solve problems that haven't arisen yet, or to make a system work better. By "recognize and capitalize" I mean to understand when an innovation has occurred (even, or especially, if by accident), and work to incorporate the innovation in a way that is more beneficial to a society than detrimental.
Now clearly the thunder lizards didn't do innovation on these two levels. Therefore, when the asteroid hit, or the climate changed, or the pandemic broke out, or the Space Illuminate began showering the globe with plasma rays, the dinos had no other option than to die. I mean, they were just fine before the calamity. Fine for several million years, in fact. But several million years of no innovation turned out to be their downfall.
Would we really be that different from the dinosaurs if we became civilizationally complacent? If we fall in love with the status quo to lose our innovative curiosity, could we survive? Probably not.
There's a reason we call innovation curmudgeons "dinosaurs." I'm reminded of a conversation I had with some old geezer right after one of our tragic space accidents in which some astronauts lost their lives.
"If God had wanted us messin' around up there, He'd of given us the ability to get up there."
Horrible grammar aside, what an ASININE thing to say. Seriously, say it with a British accent. It barely sounds any more intelligent...and that's rare. First of all, God DID give us the ability to get "up there." It's called a cerebral cortex coupled with a voracious curiosity (although I might question both aspects in reference to this guy). It would have been more accurate to say "If God wanted us to not understand how to save humanity from an asteroid impact, he would have not given us the brains enough to get into space."
I don't see humanity slowing down in it's total output of innovation at present, but I do detect a slight downtick in curiosity, generally speaking. This is no tipping point, but it is certainly a harbinger. Yes, most of us have it decent. Some of us have it pretty damn good. Pushing and risking and swinging for the fences doesn't always seem like the smartest thing to do, but it may very well be the only way that we survive. When the time comes that an apocalyptic event is on the horizon - an asteroid, or climate change, or a pandemic, or Space Illuminate - I hope generations of "being satisfied with the status quo" doesn't lead us the way of the dinosaur. But it probably would. #Innovate2Survive.
A Happy Epilogue (sort of...)
Of course there is always the chance this hypothesis is totally wrong and we do, in fact, use technology to blow ourselves to smithereens. But take heart, perhaps all is not lost! To revisit my opening analogy of the supernova, the fact is that most of the precious, useful, and rare material in our universe - including the stuff of which we're made - was a byproduct of eons of exploding stars. The heavy metals, noble gases, and life sustaining elements such as carbon and oxygen were flung far and wide across the cosmos as a result of being expelled from these numerous "little bangs." Ever the optimist, I am profoundly hopeful that if we are, in fact, the root our own demise, that the legacy we leave is somehow useful and precious to another set of sentient beings who share some of our better curiosities and sensibilities.