A plan for the future
Many look at the world around us and conclude that the world will become ever richer and more prosperous, that the problems that beset us are transient and are amenable to technological and social fixes. We are, after all, an intelligent species that has created a world embracing culture, a culture that has an ever accelerating base of technology and scientific knowledge.
Such optimism is misplaced. Civilization is not on the edge of new triumphs; it is on the edge of the descent into chaos. The reason is simple enough; the world society is unstable and structurally unsound. Worse, as a species we are not competent to deal with the problems we are creating for ourselves.
What are some of these problems?
The globalized economic system is not stable either in the short run or the long run. As it becomes more complex, there are more and more feedback networks that act faster and faster, and more shifting dependencies. The collapse of 2008 is a harbinger of things to come.
The world is over populated. Population growth continues despite the fact that we are already mining the biosphere past its carrying capacity. It will not stop; it is not in our nature to stop; it is not within our ability to control our overbreeding.
As more and more of the biosphere is pre-empted by humans for the monocultures that feed them, natural ecological cycles are disrupted. Worse, monoculture agriculture is increasingly vulnerable to disruption by plant diseases, resource failures, habitat destruction, and climate change.
The world population is contaminated by pathological religions and social ideologies that are inconsistent with rational action in response to the problems of the world system. Irrespective of belief systems, the human response to really sticky situations turns to violence, war, and the struggle to be the last one left in the lifeboat. In short, striving for individual short term advantage destroys the common good.
In the coming century there will be technological triumphs accompanied by devastating economic collapses, wide spread famines, plagues, and really nasty local wars. Billions will die as the over-extended world system collapses. And then things get worse.
The effects of global warming began to be overwhelming in the latter half of the century. The need for populations, industry, and agriculture to migrate destroys much of the remaining cultural cohesion. By the twenty second century the world population is under a billion, with most of it engaged in subsistence agriculture. There will be pockets of technology and science, but they will be scattered, and will mostly at the service of local war lords.
For all practical purposes the achievements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries will be gone. Nor will they be easily recovered. The physical records of the accumulated knowledge will be scattered and gone. Even if they existed there will not be enough people left to grasp all of the many specialties.
Still, humanity will not go extinct, and will recover in time. The question is: How long will it take and what will the price be. The governing factors here are the duration of the global warming pulse and the state of ignorance of the survivors. Certain calculations suggest that there may be as much as thirty thousand years of barbarism before civilization re-establishes itself.
This is a truth that cannot be admitted. No government, no activist movement, can accept that all their efforts will come to naught in some decades. None of us raise children thinking that their fate is destruction in catastrophe. It is not in our nature to accept the inevitability of ruin. Still, something can be done.
One of the most destructive effects of the collapse will be the scattering and destruction of knowledge. Physical records will cease to exist; the internet will be gone. One thing that can be done is to prepare a permanent account of human knowledge in a form that will physically survive. There should be multiple copies complete with tutorials. How can this be done?
I propose that we create Encyclopedia Foundations to gather this knowledge and encapsulate it in durable physical form. There should be at least two Foundations, at opposite ends of the world, one in the East and one in the West. They should be founded now, while all of the wealth of world is yet available, so that the knowledge to rebuild civilization will be there when society recovers.
The outcome is uncertain; the future is an unknown. Still, certain calculations and studies suggest that this preserving of the knowledge of humanity in a Encyclopedia Humanica will shorten the interregnum of barbarism from thirty thousand years to a mere thousand.
This page was last updated July 1, 2009.