What’s to become of human beings?
Whether you believe that human beings were created by an all-powerful God in a universe designed for their sustenance and enjoyment or, on the other hand, that the universe Big Banged itself into existence, and humanity resulted from a long string of spontaneous chemical reactions and mutations and now occupies a lonely niche in an unfathomably huge emptiness, in either case, humans were never inevitable and their continued existence is not assured.
This somber notion serves as background for an article by Adam Kirsch in the current edition of The Atlantic. In “The End of Us” Kirsch describes two emerging schools of thought about the future of humanity:
“Anthropocene anti-humanism” holds that humans have thoroughly despoiled the only place in the universe that’s fit for them to live and that their elimination, suddenly by, say, nuclear war or gradually, then not-so-gradually, by climate change, is inevitable. But for anti-humanists, this is nothing to be regretted; the Earth will get along just fine without us. To imagine otherwise is a “symptom of human arrogance.”
“Transhumanism,” on the other hand, is embraced by thinkers who are more interested in the future of the human mind than of the human body. Transhumanists picture the brain as a carbon-based computer that creates our experiences according to patterns that can be emulated by silicon-based computers. With enough computing power, the “mind” part of human beings can be uploaded and sustained by sophisticated artificial intelligence that has learned how to perpetually improve itself, erasing the need — or burden — of the human body entirely.
Neither of these outlooks on the future of humankind is very attractive. In fact, they remind me of the opening words of filmmaker Woody Allen’s “Speech to the Graduates”: “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”
Between the anti-humanists and the transhumanists, I wonder if there is a third, middle path, one that doesn’t result in the annihilation of humanity as we know it. Is such a path possible and what would it look like?
Human societies have always had trouble living within the constraints of their local environments. In his 2005 book “Collapse,” Jared Diamond describes the typical sequence: As cultures begin to thrive, population growth requires more intensive agricultural production and greater utilization of marginal farmland. Food shortages, starvation and disease ensue, as well as wars over dwindling resources. The end stage is collapse.
In retrospect this process seems entirely predictable, but sophisticated societies — the Mayans, the Aztecs, the Rapanui of Easter Island — have repeatedly been victims of it. As our global culture pushes up against the limits of earth’s resources, is there hope that we can do any better?
We have certain advantages: We have a better understanding of the limitations of our resources and we have better technologies for exploiting them. Still, traveling a sustainable middle path between the extremes described above would require profound modifications in our behavior.
We would have to be satisfied with less. We would have to fly less or not at all. We might have to sacrifice the freedom and comfort of a personal automobile. We might have to live in smaller houses. In order to preserve humanity, would we be willing to have fewer children and dispense with the pleasures produced by an economy that depends on continuing growth? Could we live without kiwifruit and tomatoes in the dead of winter?
Some will argue that we haven’t yet reached the point that requires these hard choices, but on our current course we will inevitably get there, probably much sooner than we imagine.
Three paths: One leads to the annihilation of the humanity; another imagines that the human mind can somehow be uploaded to the cloud and transcend the need for corporeal existence; a third will require changes in behavior that will challenge the very idea of what we’ve always thought it meant to be human.
Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.