Survival of the species
July 7, 2006 6:05 AM   Subscribe

How can the human race survive the next hundred years?

Stephen Hawking asked Yahoo "In a world that is in chaos politically, socially and environmentally, how can the human race sustain another 100 years?" I'm interested in how Metafilter would answer the same question.
posted by seanyboy to Religion & Philosophy (42 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Pfft. 100 years isn't such a long time. If I may paraphrase from "Angels in America", before life on earth becomes impossible it will first be for a very long time completely unbearable.

I am jealous of fundamentalists with apocalyptic mentalities; the possibility of everything ending in a forseeable amount of years, however sad and frightening that may be, is far easier to fathom and bear than the idea that a catastrophic degradation in the quality of human life could stretch itself out over centuries. But hey, whatever lets you sleep at night.

Who else here is pissed that we get this question second-hand? I take it Stephen considers himself too good for the green?
posted by hermitosis at 6:32 AM on July 7, 2006

The human race will almost certainly survive, the human race as we know it will have much iffier chances. Just the impending threat of peak oil alone is going to have major consequences for how societies around the world function on a day-to-day basis.
posted by 1024x768 at 6:40 AM on July 7, 2006

Eating and fucking? Same as always?
posted by popechunk at 6:40 AM on July 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species. I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment, but you humans do not. You move to an area, and you multiply, and multiply, until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. A virus.

any student of history will tell you that, at least politically and social, the world has been in chaos for, like, ever. we'll be fine.

and frankly, i'm less pissed that we didn't get asked this question as i am pissed that there are sixteen thousand answers, and a good number of them are like this one: "how about TRUST IN JESUS CHRIST, pal!"

people are saying that to stephen hawking. stephen fucking hawking!
posted by sergeant sandwich at 6:40 AM on July 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

I see no reason why the next 100 years should not be the best century ever. We've made huge gains in fighting awful tropical diseases. We're seeing responsible policies on third world aid, development and debt relief for probably the first time ever. Medical science is progressing at an amazing pace. Where they are present, prosperity and democracy seem to be doing a good job of preventing large-scale wars. People can communicate more easily than ever before, it wasn't that long ago that Hawking himself was appearing in a TV commercial talking about how important that is.

In short, I don't really agree with the premise of the question.
posted by teleskiving at 6:42 AM on July 7, 2006

If you asked this question in the 1300s, I might take it seriously. (And wonder where you got a computer.)

They dealt with a plague that wiped out 1/3 of Europe (just reflect on that for a moment), the Great Schism undermining the social and political backbone of civilization for nearly a millenium, a horrible famine, the 100 Years War, and the dawning of a Little Ice Age.

There is no comparison in the 21st century.

There will always be political strife, there will always be social unrest, and there will always be environmental instability.

I think we'll make it through the next 100 years just fine.
posted by rentalkarma at 6:44 AM on July 7, 2006

I don't have any real concerns about the human race sustaining the next one hundred years. None of our problems are insurmountable, we just need leaders with the political will to actually address the problems.

Of course (at least here in the US), we haven't shown any real desire for those kinds of leaders.
posted by COD at 6:45 AM on July 7, 2006

The only way we can survive on a much longer time scale than what we have now is to spread the population partially off world on a permanent basis. We may well survive a 100+ years by avoiding man made idiotices, but not much would help us in case of scenarios of such maginitude as a large meteor strike, as a species we might survive any single disaster, but disasters that severely reduce the population only put it at greater in the long run. Any scenario that cuts power to the globe would kill off a significant chunck of people to start with by secondary means, so as uncle Bill use to say, "Whadda we here for? We're all here to go!"
posted by edgeways at 6:47 AM on July 7, 2006

Human beings are such adaptable and resourceful creatures, short of the end of all living things on the face of the planet, we'll be around to some degree for many more centuries to come.
posted by Atreides at 7:04 AM on July 7, 2006

"We will not be alive in the next 100 years because Our Lord Jesus Christ will be coming back sooner than that."

The mind boggles. Jesus is now just about 2000 years overdue - he promises in the Bible to return within the lifetime of those hearing him - don't you feel a little bit, you know, stood up?

Dr. Hawking, if you're reading this, I'd be happy to help you get an account here. Ask Metafilter may not provide good answers to questions about the nature of space-time, but I'd bet it would answer questions like "What is the best electric wheelchair?"
posted by jellicle at 7:10 AM on July 7, 2006

What others have said--the premise of the question is flawed. Probably the most positive development in the next 100 years will be moving away from the oil economy into new sources of energy, likely fusion. The leveling off and steep decline of the world population (not via catastrophe but because wealthy people have so few kids) will provide the greatest challenge.
posted by LarryC at 7:19 AM on July 7, 2006

Maybe the more interesting question is: "How can the next hundred years survive the human race?"
posted by hangashore at 7:20 AM on July 7, 2006

The human race will survive as long as the earth has oxygen. So barring a major catastrophic asteroid hit or the sun going supernova our species should be fine for many hundreds of centuries to come. Civilized society on the other hand may not last for another hundred years but that's a question for another thread.
posted by JJ86 at 7:23 AM on July 7, 2006

To qualify my answer; this is from a non-religious standpoint. Mix in evangelical bible study and you'll get a differnet answer. We won't go there.
posted by JJ86 at 7:26 AM on July 7, 2006

Derail, but this quote has always bothered me...

"Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment"

This isn't true. The environment forces a population into equilibrium. The individuals consume and reproduce at the highest rates they can and have no sense of balance.

"You move to an area, and you multiply, and multiply, until every natural resource is consumed"

This is how every species operates in the absents of predators or disease. It is also the normal behavior of the top predators. Humans are top predators and our natural checks on population size are the depletion of resources, depletion of space and disease.
posted by 517 at 7:30 AM on July 7, 2006

Here's some interesting scenarios (think this was posted on the blue a while back when Bush was making lots of noises at Iran). I love the last scenario --> Excerpt:
All this time you're working with other groups to help people get food and water and medical care, to transform the infrastructure, and to deter violent crime, or clean up after it. There are drug gangs, right wing death squads, and the occasional marauding horde of government troops and/or bandits. There are giant storms and hard summers and winters. But the vast majority of your friends are not killed, and people go about their lives less fearful than they did at the peak of the Empire.

If you don't have kids, you help raise other people's kids. They don't go to school, but jump right in doing what adults do, and spend a few weeks learning to read and write when they're ready. By 2030, the city is full of gardens and orchards. You don't know anyone with a car, but a few techies are still using old computers and surviving satellites and fiber optic lines to connect to a patchy internet. You hear strange stories of distant lands, and wonder where it's all heading. At the end of a long and very interesting life, like all your ancestors (except the most recent), you die at home surrounded by people you love.
So, that's the first thirty sorted - I'd imagine the following seventy will be much the same...
posted by Happy Dave at 7:31 AM on July 7, 2006

I agree, for all his vaunted intelligence Dr. Hawking asked the wrong question. The human species will almost certainly survive to the next century. It's global civilization that's threatened. The system we've created isn't sustainable, isn't defensible, isn't resilient & there's a number of significant threats on the horizon.

If we want to retain something approaching our current standard of living, extend something approaching it to the rest of the world & preserve & extend our understanding of the world around us, we need to work on developing better systems of government based on the network form of organization. If you haven't read it yet, check out Yochai Benkler's book The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom.
posted by scalefree at 7:51 AM on July 7, 2006

I think another interesting way to re-form the same question is to ask:

How bad will things have to get before we really begin to change the way we're living?

I mean, how serious do the floods and storms really have to get? How expensive does gas have to get? How corrupted will the government have to be (North American government, it's all I have any first-hand experience with) before the voting public snaps and forces a significant change? I mean, people throw the word 'revolution' around in all kinds of inappropriate contexts, but (here in North America, again) in our lifetimes will we be given the choice of picking up guns in the name of revolution... and actually seriously consider it because of how bad things have become?

I agree with the above posters that the question is slightly off-base. Humans will survive through almost anything - we're pretty ingenious. I think that some kind of massive change needs to happen in order to correct our course, anyway. I am more concerned with what form that massive change will present.
posted by Elle Vator at 8:56 AM on July 7, 2006

Quite frankly, I'd be more worried about the future of the human race if everything was absolutely peachy right now. You know something terrible is going to happen then.

Why, I think that it was sometime in the late Cretaceous period that dinosaurs learnt to love one another.
posted by Serial Killer Slumber Party at 8:59 AM on July 7, 2006

Rosa Luxemburg's Junius Pamphlet laid out her thoughts on this question.
posted by By The Grace of God at 9:01 AM on July 7, 2006

I concur - there is nothing (not even a major nuclear exchange, as unlikely as that is these days) on the radar that threatens to annihiliate the species utterly. The threats are to society and civilization.

Anyone who has seen "An Inconvenient Truth" knows that we are just a few relatively small deveopments away from major civilizational upheavals and refugee movement on a scale unseen in human history. Though these events (worldwide coastal flooding) would author staggering human misery, mass death, and economic disruption, the species will survive them. The worldwide political/economic order may not.
posted by BigLankyBastard at 9:09 AM on July 7, 2006

I don't think Dr. Hawking was asking a question that he wants the answer to, but rather asking a question so that he can see how it's answered in a more widespread and possibly statistically significant manner.
posted by gallois at 9:29 AM on July 7, 2006

I know it's not much of an answer, but with nearly a 100 year lifespan and 6 billion + plus of us, how can we not survive 100 years?
posted by kc0dxh at 9:37 AM on July 7, 2006

Happy Dave, you meant to link here, right?
posted by teleskiving at 9:52 AM on July 7, 2006

Yeah, what popechunk said. No lack of oil, no economic incentives for population control, no massive third world war is going to slow this train down, baby.

Things are better now for human beings on this planet than they have ever been. Anyone who thinks differently is smoking something.
posted by ewkpates at 10:12 AM on July 7, 2006

They dealt with a plague that wiped out 1/3 of Europe (just reflect on that for a moment), the Great Schism undermining the social and political backbone of civilization for nearly a millenium, a horrible famine, the 100 Years War, and the dawning of a Little Ice Age.

There is no comparison in the 21st century.

Um, an HIV epidemic in Africa, and some massive cultural and political schisms exist that make global politics quite sketchy (post-Colonialism and religious battles are two big ones.) It terms of climate, we have uncontrolled global warming.

Now certainly I'll agree that humans will survive because humanity is a resourceful generalist like cockroaches, crows and rats.

Things are better now for human beings on this planet than they have ever been. Anyone who thinks differently is smoking something.

Or looking beyond a relatively priveleged and secure existence in a post-industrial nation.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:14 AM on July 7, 2006

how can the human race sustain another 100 years?

It would be nearly impossible to eliminate the human race in 100 years. I'm not promising that New York City will still exist - it might be under 50' of water, or too radioactive to live in, whatever. That has nothing to do with the question as phrased. If he asked about 1000 years, one might be able to imagine extinction scenarios, but that gets extremely speculative.

Whether this means "we'll be fine" or not, depends entirely on your definition of fine.

How bad will things have to get before we really begin to change the way we're living?

Pretty bad. From part 3 of Ronald Wright's Massey Lecture, A Short History of Progress:
Rapa Nui, as Polynesians call the place, was settled during the 5th century AD by migrants from the Marquesas or the Gambiers arriving in big catamarans stocked with their usual range of crops and animals: Dogs, chickens, edible rats, sugar cane, bananas, sweet potatoes, and mulberry for making bark cloth. Easter Island proved too cold for breadfruit and coconut palm, but was rich in seafood: fish, seals porpoises, turtles and nesting sea birds. Within five or six centuries the settlers multiplied to about 10,000 people - a lot for 64 square miles. They built villages with good houses on stone footings, and cleared all the best land for fields. Socially, they split into clans and ranks: nobles, priests, commoners. And their may have been a paramount chief or king.

Like Polynesians on some other islands each clan began to honour its ancestry with impressive stone images. These were hewn from the yielding volcanic tuff of a crater and set up on platforms by the shore. As time went on the statue cult became increasingly rivalrous and extravagant, reaching its apogee during Europe's high middle ages while the Plantagenet kings ruled England.

Each generation of images grew bigger than the last. Demanding more timber rope and manpower for hauling to the 'ahu' or alters. trees were cut faster than they could grow, a problem worsened by the settlers rats, who ate the seeds and saplings. By AD 1400 no more tree pollen is found in the annual layers of the crater lakes. The woods had been utterly destroyed by both the largest and the smallest mammals on the island.

We might think that in such a limited place, were from the height of Terevaca islanders could survey their whole world at a glance, steps would have been taken to halt the cutting, to protect the saplings, to replant. We might think that as trees became scarce the erection of statues might have been curtailed and timber reserved for essential purposes such as boat building and roofing. But that is not what happened. The people who felled the last tree could see it was the last, could know with complete certainty that there would never be another, and they felled it anyway.

All shade vanished from the land, except the hard edged shadows cast by the petrified ancestors, whom the people loved all the more because they made them feel less alone. For a generation or so there was enough old lumber to haul the great stones and still keep a few canoes sea worthy for deep water. But the day came when the last good boat was gone. The people then knew there would be little seafood, and worse, no way of escape. The word for wood 'rakau' became the dearest in their language. Wars broke out over ancient planks and worm eaten bits of jetsam. They ate all their dogs and nearly all the nesting birds and the unbearable stillness of the place deepened with animal silences.

There was nothing left now but the moai, the stone giants who had devoured the land, and still these promised the return of plenty if only the people would keep faith and honour them with increase. "But how will we take you to the alters" asked the carvers. And the Moai answered that when the time came they would walk there on their own.

So the sound of hammering still rang from the quarries and the crater walls came alive with hundreds of new giants, growing even bigger now that they had no need of human transport. The tallest ever set on an alter is over 30' high and weighs 80 tons. The tallest ever carved is 65' long and more than 200 tons. Comparable to the greatest stones worked by the Incas or the Egyptians, except of course that it never budged an inch. By the end there were more than one thousand Moai. One for every ten islanders in their heyday. But the good days were gone. Gone with the good earth which had been carried away on the endless wind and washed by flash floods into the sea. The people had been seduced by a kind of progress that becomes a mania, an ideological pathology as some anthropologists call it.

When Europeans arrived in the 18th century the worst was over. They found only one or two living soles per statue. "A sorry remnant" in Cooke's words "small lean, timid and miserable." The Europeans heard tales of how the warrior class had taken power. How the island had convulsed with burning villages, gory battles, and cannibal feasts. Daggers and spearheads became the commonest tools on the island, horded in pits like the grenades and assault rifles kept by modern day survivalists. Even this was not quite the nadir.

Between the Dutch visit of 1722 and Cooke's 50 years later the people again made war on each other, and for the first time on the ancestors as well. Cooke found moai toppled from their platforms, cracked and beheaded, the ruins littered with human bone. We do not know exactly what promises had been made from the demanding moai to the people. But it seems likely that the arrival of an outside world in floating castles of unimaginable wealth and menace might have exposed certain illusions of the statue cult. Replacing compulsive beliefs with equally compulsive disenchantment.

Whatever its animus the destruction on Rapa Nui raged for at least 70 years, each foreign ship saw fewer upright statues, until not one giant was left standing on it's alter. The work of demolition must have been extremely arduous for the few descendants of the builders. Its thoroughness and deliberation speak of something deeper than clan warfare, of a people angry at their reckless fathers, of a revolt against the dead.
posted by Chuckles at 10:28 AM on July 7, 2006

I said that wrong.

Evidence demonstrates that we will not change the way we are living. As a true optimist - or someone with a martyr complex - I think it is worth trying for change anyway..
posted by Chuckles at 10:30 AM on July 7, 2006

I take it Stephen considers himself too good for the green?

might just not want to risk getting called out for "chatfilter"

Yeah, the complete obliteration of the species in a mere 100 years is pretty much inconceivable by any but the most random and unlikely events. Honestly, I don't even see a huge amount of evidence that civilization is gonna regress or anything. Things are chaotic these days, I think not least because we have far more information than we've ever had before about everything that's going on out there - about how chaotic the world is. But I don't know that that means the world is actually more chaotic - we might just see more of it. This has been building up over the last 50 years, but it's really hard to miss now, so that even if no bombs or floods or tsunamis or school shootings or plane crashes or epidemics or wars occurred anywhere near you, it still certainly feels as if more of them are happening than ever. But I do not know if that is actually true.

I mean, read about the plague and try to compare! We thought HIV was going to be the new plague, but in the US it's been reduced to just another chronic condition... sure, we've got problems, and there's never been & never will be a guarantee that things'll be alright, but I would bet that as much of this is a response to information as to actual events. How many of us would be worrying about the future of humanity based strictly on our own direct experience? That's not to say we should ignore the info, but just that we shouldn't presume that there were fewer dangers in other times just because they weren't as well publicized. Death and disaster have always been part of life and civilization. Until a significant portion more are dying than living, things are just going on the way they always have. Even if a significant portion more die, we could easily take a reduction in world population without it ending up being really detrimental to the species - some people advocate it.
posted by mdn at 10:41 AM on July 7, 2006

One weird statistical piece but philosophical bit of evidence for an impending crash I've considered is the chance of me being born at any particular point in history. Apparently, roughly 5% of the humans that have ever lived are alive today; that ratio appears to have rising throughout history. If one assumes that humanity will go extinct at some point, be it next year or millions of years from now, and one retrospectively looks over the distribution of humans throughout its history, the most likely time for any individual to be born is basically one lifetime before the population hits its peak. Assuming a random distribution of consciousnesses (heh), and given that the population is currently at its peak and still climbing, the fact that I was born now seems to slightly suggest that the population will soon decline. Of course, it has ever been so, but the argument becomes more pressing with each passing century.
posted by gsteff at 11:14 AM on July 7, 2006

mdn: ...but in the US...

There is the rub. A majority of humanity does not live in the US. And as we've seen with antibiotics, the efficacy of antiviral therapies today is little indication of how they will work for future generations.

Personally, I find both extremes: the fear of a global apocalypse and pronouncements of intense optimism to be equally irrational and unsupported by the available evidence.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 11:27 AM on July 7, 2006

Since few of the answers so far really answer the question, I'll play devils advocate for a moment, and suggest some possible technology based doomsday scenarios.

With cheap energy (fusion, or whatever) and nanotechnology we may be able to produce vast amounts of killer robots - able to walk around like humans, probably connected wirelessly to a some very power computers with very clever ai, with the ability to self-assemble and replicate.
Alternatively, we could use cheap energy to build extraordinarily big bombs, or radiation weapons. Consider the log improvement in weapons over the last 100 years.
With advances in biotechnology we may put the ability to write unsurvivable viruses into the hands of just about anyone with the will to do it. Or, we may continue the anti-biotic -> supervirus cycle until viruses become insurmountably powerful.
Finally, we could fundamentally alter the species through genetic manipulation, possibly introducing irreversible errors, or bioengineer the species so that we may no longer be called human, or turn ourselves into cyborgs, or just upload our minds and let our bodies die, and exterminate all who stand in the way.

Or, we could do all of the above at the same time, while fucking up the planet good and proper, so any survivors of all the technological mayhem would be left in a planet uninhabitable by humans.

But don't take my word for it, here's Bill Joy, Co-Founder & Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems, suggesting humanity has a 30% chance of extinction by 2100.
posted by MetaMonkey at 11:45 AM on July 7, 2006

Forgot about the article Bill Joy wrote on this very topic, from Wired 8.04.
posted by MetaMonkey at 11:47 AM on July 7, 2006

Or, we may continue the anti-biotic -> supervirus cycle until viruses become insurmountably powerful.

This is not how antibiotic resistance works! First of all, antibiotics target bacteria, not viruses. Second, evolving antibiotic resistance imposes a fitness cost on the organism; its generally small, and meaningless from a medical perspective, but given the chance to develop again in the absence of the antibiotic, the bacteria will generally, though not always, lose resistance and recoup some of their prior fitness loss. But if the whole world were to stop using an antibiotic, the bugs targeted by it would likely regain vulnerability (though it might take a few years).
posted by gsteff at 12:26 PM on July 7, 2006

Okay, humans, since you asked, here is what you must do to increase the odds of your continued relative collective comfort and safety for the next hundred years: Start thinking ahead. That's all. For instance, to take one of your more immediate but easily-solved problems, you know that the available quantity of crude oil, on which you run so many engines, is going to start declining soon. It doesn't matter whether it's this year or ten years from now. You know it's coming, and that it takes a great deal of time and effort to prepare. Start building alternatives. Waiting until (even more) people are starving to death because the use of some crucial resource for food production is competing with its use for care-free shipping around the world of manufactured goods that nobody needs, and for moving every day across the cities people who'd rather stay home, isn't really the best way to go about things.

The list of long-term problems that you will face in the next hundred years is a long one. You've reached that critical point in the development of a planetary economy where so many of your resources of matter, energy, and space will start getting tight as your technological progress faces diminishing returns. This next few hundred years is where you decide to live well or collapse back into the mud, peoples of earth.

I congratulate you on noticing that global climate change is going to cause some discomfort, but perhaps it's time you started actually doing something about it, rather than just guessing at how bad it will be. It may not be your most pressing problem for now, but I suppose that since so many of you are already aware of it, it's a good place to start. If your civilisation can't start doing something about that within the next few decades, I suggest to those of you paying attention that you start making arrangements to move to some other planet less crowded with self-destructive fools.
posted by sfenders at 12:30 PM on July 7, 2006

gsteff: First of all, d'oh. I knew it was bacteria, honestly. Secondly, are you arguing that antibiotic resistance won't be a problem because we can just stop using antibiotics? Given current trends, this seems unlikely. Or are you suggesting that there is no such cycle of antibiotic use and resistent bacteria? Or that there is some other solution? Apologies in advance if I'm misunderstanding, as my learning in this matter is rudimentary at best.
posted by MetaMonkey at 12:42 PM on July 7, 2006

I'm just suggesting that we'll never completely run through our antibiotic stockpile. Reducing the overuse of antibiotics doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing proposition; if resistance becomes a problem, and most of the world is willing to eliminate the use of one particular antibiotic, the strains of the bugs that evolve in response will outcompete the resistant strains, and the drug will become potent again eventually. As long as we're taking the long view of history, we may be able to do something like crop rotation with antbiotics to preserve some of their utility.
posted by gsteff at 1:02 PM on July 7, 2006

No chance of humans becoming extinct in the next hundred years??

I remember seeing a piece about the top ten times a nuclear war almost occured, and the fact that you could even make a top ten list about it tells you something.

And yes, as genetic engineering of virus/bacteria becomes easier the more chance there is for something to go wrong.

I hate referencing Wired Mag., but they had a nice graph once that was a plot of the average number of people one person could kill before he himself was killed, and the graph grew at an exponential rate.

I mean come on people, use your imagination. Global warming leads to world wide flooding, land resources (crops, livestock, liveable space etc) become more scarce, fresh water supply even more so. People fighting over these resources, eventualy a nuclear bomb is set off, starting a chain reaction as nation states fight to come out on top, a cloud of dust covers the earth for several decades blocking out the sun and grinding photosynthesis to a halt.

The Earth will belong the roaches, and bacteria until a few hundred million years down the line someone else gets the chance.
posted by rosswald at 1:16 PM on July 7, 2006

Secondly, are you arguing that antibiotic resistance won't be a problem because we can just stop using antibiotics?... Or that there is some other solution?

posted by staggernation at 1:36 PM on July 7, 2006

You can't say it is impossible, an asteroid could wide out a huge percentage of species tomorrow. Humans wouldn't be the first to go, but they would go soon enough.. The odds against such a huge impact in any given 100 years are astronomical.

I remember seeing a piece about the top ten times a nuclear war almost occurred, and the fact that you could even make a top ten list about it tells you something.

Which would radically alter our way of life, certainly, but it wouldn't cause extinction. I don't even think the gravest scenarios, which were probably deliberately exaggerated for political purposes, ever suggested such a thing.

For references, check out the wikipedia talk page for the Nuclear Winter article, and dhartung's comment in the Nuclear War Survival Skills thread.

worries about a pathogen causing extinction are just as exaggerated. AIDS has been similar in scope to the plague, for Africans, but life still goes on.

As for the purely speculative ideas like grey goo and intelligent vengeful robots.. Are these more likely than a world killing asteroid? Personally, I'm more worried about the asteroid.

What I completely fail to comprehend is why many people need the issue to be so melodramatic. There is a very good reason not to have nuclear bombs, their only purpose is killing people. Isn't that enough? The arguments for environmentalism are much harder, much more subtle, but we have attempted to address the issue before fairly effectively: Help me understand the anti-progress crowd.
posted by Chuckles at 2:11 PM on July 7, 2006

First, I'd say Hawking and this question are a overly optimistic with the time frame. I personally don't think we stand a chance of surviving another 50 years, excepting the solution of some things I'll mention below. (Hopefully Gates & Buffett can save us?)

Issues whose solution is pretty much required for survival, and these are the basics, they never really change, just the scale does with the size of our population:

1) Potable water. Forcasts going 20 years out show
the majority of the worlds population simply not having enough water to live on. If "peak oil" is so bad, is anyone even thinking about "peak water"?

2) Energy sources better than fossil fuels. Pretty much an obvious, inconvenient truth by now. ;)

3) Shelter. The majority of the worlds population will not
have the building necessities to construct shelters we would consider acceptable by our living standards.

4) Feasible space travel. And 20 years in a capsule to get to Mars just won't cut it. Basically, a human needs to be able to leave Earth and go live somewhere else. How it's done remains to be determined. The next level of our ascendence really is to get the hell out there and start exploring.
As a building block, this would change so much about
the way humanity works, on all levels. Sure, the scientifically uneducated think only of sci-fi TV shows, like Star Trek, and the scientifically educated think only of impossibilities which they've learned verbatim and lack only the drive or ingenuity to conquer. But this is critical. We certainly can't camp out for the next millennium on Earth, not with what we've learned during the past 500 years.

"Big Picture" issues whose solution would help ensure survival:

4) As much of the third world as possible needs to "catch up". Homogenizing the world's economies and societies to be roughly competitive will go a long ways towards stabilizing political and social conflicts. Maybe then the world can sit down and seriously talk about nuclear disarmament, armies can stand down and centuries of wasted resources can be pooled into more utopian directions, like education, health and space travel. When the world is land-locked by parking lots, shopping malls and chain stores, then, and only then will world peace be feasible on a capillary level.

If this means "The West" needs to lower it's standard of living in order for the rest of the world to rise, then so be it. It's better anyways to lose dead weight and focus on the long-term.

5) It would be extraordinarily detrimental in the long-term for the US to remain the sole global superpower. Sure, we might benefit from the short-term benefits, and it's a no-brainer for politicans to use employ such policies to win elections, but eventually such a strategy will come back to bite us, and badly. USA at the the top, rogue terrorist states like Iran and N. Korea sprinkled in, China and the rest of the world pouring their surplus savings into our debt, it's just unsustainable at some point, and it endangers the entire world with countless, little trickle-down instabilities.

6) Science needs to come up with something to put more nails in the coffins of the world's religions. We have reached a point where religiously generated ignorance seems to be driving too much of our instabilities.
And yes, this includes Texas(thanks Dubya!). Even if this means some kind of quantum-neurological-mystical-mumbo-jumbo to displace ground staked out by religion.
A pacified, consumer culture proud of and wallowing in their own ignorance, who's contributing nothing to society other than taking in bread & circuses and keeping up with the joneses is a catastrophic diversion of scare resources. Just think of the 300 million strong Indian middle class, and try to imagine the damage wrought when China gets there too.
posted by archae at 1:30 AM on July 8, 2006

There is the rub. A majority of humanity does not live in the US.

the question here is about the obliteration of the species, not about an ideal standard of living being available to any creature born. Life has always included a lot of death, and in most times in the past, it's been a lot worse. What we think of as tragic today would be just plain old normal to most of our ancestors. I am well aware that 'life is suffering,' but let's not get caught in some kind of cultural egotism, as if this is some new part of life we haven't had to face before. Soldiers were probably more willing to go into battle back when because they had a pretty good chance of dying of tuberculosis anyway - they were less afraid of death because death was more a given. It is still a given in a lot of the world: but the unfairness is only that the first world has gotten itself out of that way of life, not that it has pushed the third world into it.

The disparity is painful, and trying to help other people balance resources and needs is an excellent goal, but when those resources and needs are not balanced, that will not result in the species dying out. It will result in some large number of individuals dying out. And this is what has always happened. Sadly, sometimes intervention makes things more difficult, because we save the babies only to bring about an unsustainable population which then dies in famine or war over resources. It could be argued that saving those babies is misguided, but as human beings we feel empathy, and want to work out a way that our enormous wealth in the west can be shared with those who have so little. But it's not as simple as it seems, because we cannot just give them resources; we have to work out ways to help build infrastructures that will allow self-sustaining economies, etc.

Anyway, all of this is very important work - but has nothing to do with the obliteration of the species. It has to do with progress, not regress - at one time, we all lived in the third world. The species survived. Now, most of the world still lives in the third world, but the population of the first world is larger than the entire global population of 1000 years ago.

even if 90% of the population died tomorrow, the species would not really be in much danger, or at least, no more danger than most of our history. In pure numbers, we're doing too well - our biggest threat is really that not enough people are dying anymore, so the population keeps increasing, which means we have to deal with more waste / pollution, which will eventually cause disease and death - which will balance things out somewhat, but it kinda sucks that we can't plan ahead a bit and use birth control instead of going through the misery...
posted by mdn at 8:15 AM on July 8, 2006

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