“Our world faces a crisis as yet unperceived by those possessing power to make great decisions for good or evil. The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.” – Albert Einstein, telegram to a group of prominent Americans, 1946
On the one hand, I’m optimistic about what problems human discovery and innovation will solve in the future that we haven’t solved yet. We seem to be on the verge of a remarkable number of game-changing breakthroughs.
But on the other hand, I’m pessimistic about what new problems human discovery and innovation will create in the future that we haven’t created yet. We seem to be on the verge of a remarkable number of game-changing dangers.
The scientific method that took off during The Enlightenment continues to produce a slate of options for human beings that give them power over their natural circumstances — power that can be used for the flourishing of humankind or for its destruction.
So, we have made advances in medical science that can increase the life span of human beings by hundreds of years by returning aging cells to their initial stem cell state. We are not far off from tweaking our cells to the point that a human could live up to five-hundred years.
Nearly one billion people across the world still don’t have regular access to clean drinking water, but the number technologies developed in the last ten years to purify drinking water will soon eliminate this problem entirely. The price has always been the major problem for water purification. Non-filtering methods require high energy consumption and filtering methods require frequent replacement of costly filters since the water has to pass through a membrane that clogs quickly. A couple of years ago, however, chemical engineers at MIT developed a “membraneless separation system” that’s a simple, cheap, and effective method for separating water from contaminants. It’s called shock electrodialysis. Flowing water is hit with an electric shockwave that separates H2O from everything else. It can be used on virtually any kind of contaminated water. The masses can drink the ocean. And this is just one of many remarkable water purification technologies that have been developed in the last ten years.
It’s easy to stop here and marvel at the positive contributions that science and technology have made to our lives, but stopping here leaves out the rest of the story. Science and technology have also produced some enormous threats to our lives.
Meanwhile, we also see developments in nuclear technology that makes nuclear weapons smaller, cheaper, and easier to produce. Nuclear technology is already over sixty years old, and the greatest obstacle to the proliferation of nuclear weapons has always been procuring and enriching uranium. But with every ounce of uranium that is pulled from the earth (the leading uranium source being Kazakhstan, of all places), it becomes that much more common above the ground. Enriching uranium is getting easier too. We are not far off from millions of people owning nuclear weapons you could store in a briefcase in your closet. Chemical and biological weapons are getting cheaper and easier to produce as well.
So what will the future be? Flying cars, five-hundred year lifespans, and near elimination of poverty, or a radiating desert planet that leaves only the cockroaches to rule the world? The level of human power we’re achieving seems to leave little room for anything in between.
It can be a future that mitigates human suffering or a future that increases it.
But which is more likely?
I’d bet on destruction. Seven billion people could all be dedicated to the flourishing of the human race, living together in a peace and harmony like a 70s Coke commercial, and it takes just a few people dedicated to the opposite end to ruin the party.
This is not the age old question about which of the two bends in human nature will win out: that part of us that desires to help or that part of us that desires to harm; our capacity to empathize with others or our capacity to pursue our own interests at the expense of others. No, a dystopian future is fully compatible with 99.9% of the world population behaving themselves and working together. A planet of seven billion do-gooders just isn’t enough if everyone isn’t on board.
What will likely determine the planet’s fate is a simpler principle at work in the world: It’s always easier to destroy than to create. Raising a child to become a giving, caring, productive, human being that beautifully enriches the lives of others requires investing many years of training, hard work, and love on the part of a parent. Destroying that all beauty and the work invested in creating it takes only the twitch of a finger. For thousands of years, civilizations in the Middle East created paintings, sculptures, architecture, and infrastructure, but once a band of primitive extremists didn’t like it, they destroyed these cultural artifacts just by knocking them over. Things that took lifetimes to create get destroyed in seconds.
Creation is hard; destruction is easy. This principle is everywhere. It’s far easier to criticize an idea than it is to come up with one. You can spend hours preparing a gourmet meal and then drop it on the floor. Parents can put in great effort to clean and organize the house, only to have children swoop in and wreck it without even trying. Stock investors tell me that when stocks go up they take the stairs and when they go down, they jump out the window. The US government can easily destroy nations, but it rarely, if ever, succeeds at nation building.
Maybe it all has something to do with the second law of thermodynamics, entropy at work. Disorder being the tendency. Something like that. There are billions of ways that something can go wrong and only a few ways they can go right. Everything we know about the universe tells us that heat and life are rare; cold and death are common.
Already, we are on edge about the prospect of a nuclear holocaust brought on by a handful of radical national leaders. Right now, we have to worry about the potential actions of only a handful of people because, at this point, only a handful can acquire nuclear weapons. But how long until scientific discovery and innovation give us a world where just about anybody could get a nuclear weapon?
Who of us really believes that if millions of people had the power to annihilate the world at the push of a button, that every single one of them would resist the temptation? Who of us hasn’t been hurt and angry in a moment, lost to a blind rage to such an extent that if we had the option, we ourselves would have pushed that button? Inevitably, in a world with nuclear weapons in the hands of so many people, someone will suffer some wrong or perceived wrong that will leave them wanting the whole world to burn. If absolute power corrupts absolutely, fathom the corruption produced when millions of people have absolute power to change the entire world with a small single act.
Perhaps more scientific discoveries will save us from a future where we’re destroyed by scientific discoveries. Maybe someone will develop a machine that shoots a wave over a large area and neutralizes enriched uranium. Maybe. But nuclear weapons are only one scenario for how the world goes wrong. We still have to keep up with a rolling number of technological achievements that make it possible for just a few people to bring it all to an end. Don’t bet on technology always being able to save us from technology. What no technology can solve is the problem that it’s far easier to destroy than to build.
All things are possible, but some things are more likely.
Salvador Dalí, The Three Sphinxes of Bikini, Oil on canvas, 1947.