(You can view these readers’ full comments in the comment section of the previous post.)
Lyle T wrote “While Mr. More is correct regarding most specifics, I think the conclusions he draws are misguided …” For example, More is right that air quality has improved but that is mostly because of government regulation, something More opposes. Furthermore, much societal progress has brought about environmental destruction. Lyle thinks we need to learn to live with less.
Chris Crawford agrees “that people fail to recognize the enormous improvements we have enjoyed.” But no matter how many metrics show progress we cannot know that these trends will continue in the future. Furthermore, Crawford fears “that we will reach a point where the progress of technology will outpace the progress of our ability to keep it safe.” Thus he concludes that “civilization will destroy itself before the end of this century.”
Ed Gibney’s critique is direct. “This is entirely human-centered. The dread comes from looking at what all this human prosperity is doing to the rest of the planet, which is certain to haunt us as well. Until the techno-optimist people engage with the Planetary Boundaries literature they will stay stuck in a dangerous fantasy.
Bruce Watson is receptive to the progress message. “I have given up trying to convince people that life is better now. I believe most people somehow feel better by feeling worse about the world. If the world “sucks now,” you are freed of responsibility, justified in your own disappointments, and in good company among fellow depressives. That is why news is more negative — because negativity sells.”
I agree with the critics that 1)much of what we call progress has destroyed the ecosystem, and 2)progress in the past is no guarantee of future progress.
A further critique of optimism about the future is the many existential risks we face. No matter how much progress we have made previously there are many ways humanity might go extinct shortly. (I have previously discussed, for example, the recent UN report on the destruction of the ecosystem, and Jared Diamond’s and Bill McKibbon’s worries about whether the human race will survive our current crises.) Things may be going along just fine and then … it can all be over. This is the best time to live—no doubt—but that says little about whether the future will be better.
Nonetheless, I am sympathetic with Mr. Watson’s view. I’ve often found gloom and doom to be the preferred sentiment of both intellectuals and regular folks. Such an attitude can be helpful if meant to awaken us to the many dangers we face, but it is counterproductive if it leads to despair or apathy.
What I do believe fervently is that, for better or worse, science and technology are the only means by which we might have a better future—we must evolve. So, for the moment I still believe in the transhumanist credo. Transhumanism is:
The intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition through applied reason, especially by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate aging and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities … transhumanism is a way of thinking about the future that is based on the premise that the human species in its current form does not represent the end of our development but rather a comparatively early phase.1
However, I may be mistaken, and perhaps humanity will become more morally and intellectually virtuous by less drastic means. Or even if the successful advance of science and technology is the key to our future survival and flourishing it may be that we will destroy ourselves first. I simply do not know how best to proceed into the future or if we will even have one. (Niels Bohr, the Nobel laureate in Physics and father of the atomic model, is quoted as saying, “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future!”)
I simply don’t know the future, and I don’t know how best to proceed into it.
But I certainly prefer to live in the present time compared with any time in the past, and I hope that future beings will say the same.
1. from the Humanity+ website’s FAQ section.
I just became aware of “Despite Climate Change, Today Is the Best Time To Be Born” and “Stop Telling Kids They’ll Die From Climate Change.”