Advances Vs. Consequences: What Does The 21st Century Have In Store For Humanity?

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ESO/B. Tafreshi/TWAN

It’s pretty easy to look at the world we live in today and come away feeling either extremely pessimistic or optimistic, depending on which aspects you focus on. Optimistically, you could look at our life expectancy, our technological conveniences, our high standard of living and the scientific breakthroughs we continue to make and pursue. From biotech to space exploration, from robotics to artificial intelligence, the present is incredible and the future looks even brighter.

Of course, there’s the flipside: a pessimistic point of view. Even a course look at the world shows a growing rejection of science in favor of ideology on issues from climate change to vaccinations to dental health to whether the Earth is flat or humans have landed on the Moon. We are rolling back environmental protections and seeing a rise in bigotry, isolationism, and authoritarianism. Our prospects are simultaneously both bright and dim, and what the 21st century holds will depend largely on our collective actions during the next critical decade.

Jim Peaco / NPS

When you think about your own dreams for the future of humanity, what does it include? Do you think about the existential, large-scale problems the world is facing today, and how we might improve them? Depending on where you live and what issues plague your local corner of the globe, you might see:

  • plants and animals struggling to survive in locations where they’ve previously thrived for millennia,
  • extinction rates rising,
  • food and water insecurities,
  • increases in wildfire, hurricane, drought, and other extreme weather frequency and/or severity,
  • mass extinctions and deforestation,

all while we burn more fossil fuels and consume more energy, as a planet, than ever before.

Fyodor Yurchikhin / Russian Space Agency

The history of humanity is a history of survival through endurance, tool-making and tool use, and through outsmarting every other form of nature: animal, plant, fungus, and even non-living threats. We have leveraged our acquired knowledge of the natural world ⁠— including the laws and rules that govern how it works ⁠— to rise to prominence and defeat so many of the natural challenges that every other species has been constrained by.

The development of agriculture, first by farming and later through ranching, revolutionized humanity’s relationship with food. Sanitation, through infrastructure projects like granaries, sewers, and (more recently) transit systems have enabled our population centers to grow from villages to towns to cities to the modern metropolis. And the industrial revolution, coupled with the rise of electricity, has led humanity to conquer a multitude of inconvenient obstacles, including even the darkness of night itself.

Craig Mayhew and Robert Simmon, NASA GSFC; data from Marc Imhoff/NASA GSFC & Christopher Elvidge/NOAA NGDC

But our dominance over the environment and our technological progress comes with a cost: as we’ve gained the ability to transform our planet, we’ve ended up transforming it in more ways than we imagined. This was true in the 20th century as well, as problems like:

  • antibiotic-resistant disease,
  • the dust bowl,
  • air pollution and skyrocketing asthma and COPD rates,
  • unsafe drinking water,
  • acid rain,
  • and the hole in the ozone layer,

all plagued our society. Each one of these problems, at the time, seemed like an existential threat to our advanced civilization continuing as we know it.

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However, for each of these problems, humanity was able to band together and address these obstacles. Improved sanitation practices and new medical therapies help manage or even cure those afflicted with a myriad of infectious diseases and illnesses. Better farming practices have ended the risk of another dust bowl. Air and water regulations make it safe for us to breathe air and drink water.

Even the two most recent problems we faced ⁠— acid rain and the ozone layer ⁠— were able to be solved. Through worldwide agreements on what can and cannot be produced and sold to consumers, we’ve seen the pH of rain return to normal and the hole in the ozone has not only stopped growing, but has begun to repair itself.

W.T. Ball et al. (2018), Atmos. Chem. Phys. Discuss., doi.org/10.5194/acp-2017-862

Of course, the 21st century poses challenges for humanity that we’ve never faced before. The internet has been a great force for the worldwide spread and access of factual information in places where it had previously never reached, but it’s also a great force for the spread of misinformation. We’ve explored more of our planet than ever, and are realizing that humanity is responsible for a currently ongoing mass extinction that Earth has not witnessed for tens of millions of years.

The CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is higher than humans have ever experienced. Global average temperatures continue to rise, as do sea levels, now at an accelerated rate, and will continue to do so for decades. The human population continues to grow, and the past 12 months has seen our species add more CO2 to the atmosphere than any other 12 month span in history.

US Energy Information Association / eia.gov

We now live in a time where the actions of a small group of people ⁠— whether through malicious or benign intentions ⁠— are capable of leading to global catastrophe. It’s not just climate change or the threat of nuclear war that hangs over us; it’s a slew of facts.

It matters that a mass extinction is occurring right now: we’re destroying this planet’s proverbial “book of life” before we’ve even read it.

It matters that computers are permeating ever-increasing facets of our life, as humanity’s recently rising electricity use (after a plateau earlier this decade) is almost entirely due to new computational uses, like cryptocurrencies and blockchain.

It matters that the population is greater than ever before, as managing and distributing the edible food and drinkable water we produce is a greater challenge than ever before.

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The big questions facing our species now is how we will tackle these problems, and many of the other existential worries facing humanity today. Can we survive our technological infancy? Can we overcome our greed, our bigotries, and our squabbling nature? Can we band together to find and enact solutions that benefit us all: friend and foe alike?

This Wednesday, October 2, 2019, at 7 PM Eastern Time (4 PM Pacific Time), Sir Martin Rees of Cambridge will deliver a public lecture at Perimeter Institute entitled “Surviving the Century.” Martin’s latest book, On The Future: Prospects For Humanity, was released in 2018, and his lecture will closely follow much of the ground covered in that tome.

I’m so pleased to be able to live-blog this talk, which you can follow along with in real-time below, or by reading at any time after the conclusion of the lecture. It’s always wonderful to get a firsthand perspective on science and society from someone who’s concerned with the ever-changing role of a good scientist — who pushes our understanding forward for the betterment of humanity — and their responsibility to society.

After all, as climate scientist Ben Santer eloquently put it:

“[I]f you spend your entire career trying to advance understanding, you can’t walk away from that understanding when someone criticizes it or criticizes you. There’s no point in being a scientist if you walk away from everything you devoted your life to.”

Our understanding of practically everything is more advanced than ever. Maybe, if we listen to that understanding, we can figure out the best way forward.


(The live-blog will begin, below, just before 7 PM Eastern/4 PM Pacific time. All times are displayed in bold and in Pacific time, and correspond to the actual time the commentary was published.)

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