Friday, June 29, 2018

The Extinction Test

One of the reasons I became interested in humanity's extinction was because it provides a clear test of whether a set of actions is good or evil. If your actions contribute to extinction, then they are evil (but you aren't). If your actions help avoid it, then they are toward the good end of the spectrum between good and evil. The rationale for this is based on placing the highest value on human life, because without humans there can be no values.

Another reason for my interest was awareness of a non-zero probability that it could happen in my lifetime. While studying the energy crisis as a teenager in 1976, before I ever heard of global warming, I realized that the pursuit of unlimited energy consumption could mean a hothouse-like death if it was confined to our planet, which forced a decision between limiting our consumption or moving it into space. 

Nearly two decades later, after the famous impact of a comet with Jupiter, I prepared a presentation to my local astronomy club on the potential for the impact of a comet or asteroid with Earth, and learned that it was a serious threat to the survival of our species. This was in addition to the long-term inevitability that our planet and all life on it would be exterminated by our Sun warming as part of its natural aging process. Asteroid impacts and solar warming also made the case for at least some people leaving Earth so some of us could survive.

So began my research into the possible ways that humanity could not only avoid extinction, but maximize the number of people over time. This and some happy accidents drew me to the growing movement inside and outside the professional space community to pursue the settlement of Mars. As a founding member of the Mars Society, I promoted that vision while investigating the limits of the ultimate goal: settling the rest of the Universe. 

While trying to estimate how many people could live on another planet, I became familiar with the estimation of how many people could live on this one. Space enthusiasts and environmentalists have long had an adversarial relationship due to a fundamental disagreement about both the existence and acceptability of limits to human activity, and until I began seriously studying the issues I came down on the space enthusiasts' side of that debate. 

Another chance event, my attendance of a lecture by prominent physicist Albert Bartlett on the consequences of exponential growth, especially regarding energy supply and consumption, convinced me that the environmentalists had a point. It wasn't lost on me that I should have seen it myself with years of studying and using both math and physics. 

An update of a famous study relating human behavior to environmental impact provided more detail which I could use to inform my research, and made an even more convincing case that people could conceivably die off, on any settled world such as our own, long before an asteroid impact or solar event did them in.

In 2005 my research became a presentation to the Mars Society, along with a published paper. It concluded with several options:

  1. Change nothing and commit to a minimal population living a brutal life.

  2. Stretch our resources on Earth with a limited population living well until natural disaster strikes. Deflect asteroids to extend that time.

  3. Settle the Solar System and have a large population until the Sun dies.

  4. While settling the Solar System, develop the technology for stellar travel, which may help us outlast the Sun.

After thirteen years of studying ecology, social science, environmental science, and many related subjects, as well as constructing additional mathematical models, I think it's highly probable that extinction is imminent: we have pursued the first option for too long, making it far too optimistic and ruling out the remaining options.

Still, those last two options beckon. My imagination has run wild with ways to yet make them viable, fueled by insights from my latest mathematical model. Exploring those ways and how to make them a reality is why I quit my job, along with realizing that the alternative was a life of failure and despair that would not be worth living.

The Fix timeline is one of those ways. It is a variant of the second option that might help most of us survive for a few decades, if we're lucky, and create a new version of civilization that would be able to responsibly take the next steps: settling other planets. To live for more than short exploration periods on far less habitable worlds than ours, settlers would need to have a basic commitment to sustainability – both physically and socially – with a default respect for all life they encounter since that life would already be adapted to survival in the environment. 

Commitment to sustainability and respect for life would have already been learned as a basic requirement for living on Earth, and may therefore take more than one generation to cultivate before leaving. This points to another way of making a large interplanetary population possible given the short window of opportunity we have to avoid our immediate fate: overwhelming social pressure to enforce the requirements for living in that future world now. The brief amount of time we can live in relative comfort that kills our future selves would be jettisoned like going on a crash diet with the impending absence of food.

While considering the difficulty of these and other ways to save the future, I must remind the reader as well as myself that we are all subject to the extinction test, whether we choose to be or not: assisting the death of our species is the ultimate evil.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018


Uneasiness in social media led to a conspiracy theory of my own making. But if it was true, what did it mean and what should we do?

I have a confession. I got pulled down the Rabbit Hole again. As before, my feelings were triggered by a series of events and words in the news, resulting in an overwhelming need to react. The reaction involved publicly sharing both the triggers and the emotional meaning I assigned to them, along with implicit and explicit cries for help to deal with them and options and insights for doing so. Because the reaction was public, it offended people who were not triggered while resonating with others who had been similarly triggered. 

Others have experienced the same thing as interacting groups formed along pre-existing values, biases, and identities, and moved to dominate, cooperate with, or isolate each another based on how much they had in common. This dynamic has been repeated with more and more frequency as feedback loops developed. Triggering events and communications have proliferated, like the effects of a virus that has found an efficient way of delivering its load to the most people, and is simultaneously mutating at such a rate that its impacts cannot be anticipated and therefore defended against. The end result may well be the dissolution of the society.

Intellectually, it is straightforward to deduce through basic logic and observation that the origin of the "infection" and "mutations" might be a very small group of people using psychology and information technology in a sophisticated version of the classic divide-and-rule strategy to hold onto personal power they perceive as jeopardized by most people collaborating with each other. They are gambling that whoever emerges victorious from the conflict will be easier to control than the unified group that was emerging before it; and judging from the experience so far, they could be right. This understanding, which needs to be verified, points to a solution that mirrors treatment of a runaway virus: isolate the source from the population; find and stop the means of transmission in the population; and then safely eradicate the contagion. 

If the problem has been accurately defined, then before such a solution is implemented two big questions need to be answered, in large part because avoiding them has significantly contributed to the emergence of the problem. 

The first question is whether the "problem" is really a problem. Part of the population, in addition to those directly responsible, wants to live in a smaller group that is at least selectively isolated from others, with unrestricted access to all the resources they might conceivably exploit. It is not uncommon for them to complain that they and their values are not respected by the majority, even though they identify with people who for many years have held most of the social and economic power in the world. Competition is the arbiter of what is right, in their minds, and the "problem" is in reality a means of creating the best world.

Needless to say, the majority think differently, myself included. Everyone has an inherent right to live the way they want to, to the extent it does not infringe on another's ability to do so – which means that someone, an agent of all of us such as a government, must track and police the impacts people have on each other. Constantly raising the baseline quality of everyone's lives is as close to a definition of "best" as we have, which includes universal access to basic resources which are considered common and therefore off-limits to private control.

The second question is whether the "source" is a proximate rather than ultimate cause of the problem. If the putative engineers of disruption have specific traits and experiences that can only exist now, then they are collectively the ultimate cause. If those traits and experiences can be manifest in other people, or if some other variable is responsible for their direct involvement, then they as the source are the proximate cause. 

Common wisdom appears to come down on the side of a mix of both answers. Every once in a while, a few people with certain traits get enough power to do serious damage to the majority and must be treated as ultimate causes of whatever problem they are dealing with. The actual ultimate cause may be a combination of genetic and environmental factors interacting over a range of experiences that manifests those traits, which in turn find expression under chance conditions; but that's irrelevant since we can't control it.

I expect that humanity's long evolutionary and cultural history has cultivated a range of traits and behaviors in all populations that offer the best chance of survival over a broad range of environmental conditions. As conditions change, those traits and behaviors that enable survival in those conditions become dominant. The world is definitely undergoing major environmental changes, some which are very obvious (such as climate change) and others which are not (such as chemical impacts on our microbiome), so we should expect and perhaps encourage corresponding adaptive changes in our biology and culture. 

My own research has exposed strong correlations, if not outright causation, between environmental impact and multiple biological and cultural variables. This reflects the tenor, if not the specifics, of more detailed studies than mine, and suggests that what I've called attention to is not so much a problem in itself as a symptom of a larger "disease" we are all suffering from, in different ways and to varying degrees. 

The competitive preferences of the minority and manipulations of those who stand the most to lose from stagnant growth may be proximate causes of the population peak and decline that my simulations imply are most probable. In what feels perverse to someone like me, a decline in population that concentrates consumption among a few, albeit not for long, might enable a smaller number of people to survive longer – but not much longer.

As I am drawn to peer again into the abyss of the Rabbit Hole, I am toying with the idea of focusing all of my public discussion on issues and perspective rather than on individual people (which could still include links to relevant information), including the asking of leading questions and proposal of meaningful answers. The solution I've proposed as an alternative to a population crash will no doubt be a topic I revisit over and over, and necessarily include the treatment of public sabotage as a problem.