Going to Mars next or civilizational collapse instead?

Has the future for humanity ever been as uncertain as it is now? The views in my social network reflects this:

  • my more Silicon-Valley-oriented tech friends marvel at the potential of artificial intelligence, biotech, automation, and so forth; they expect tech to eliminate human drudgery before long, eliminate diseases and create plenty for all. They also can’t wait to get to Mars.
  • the more environmentally-focused expect temperatures to rise by far more than 2º Celsius this century, a corresponding rise in natural disasters, multiple bread-basket failure leading to global famine, hundreds of millions of refugees, followed by widespread ecosystem and state failure and then civilizational collapse.

Even the mainstream media reflects this split: you can read plenty of gushing articles on the tech and space exploits of people like Elon Musk, and for regular coverage of the apocalyptic scenaries look no further than the Guardian, e.g. here.

How can there be such a big disconnect?

Pondering this, I remembered the famous quote by Sci-Fi writer William Gibson:

“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed.”

Perhaps collapse is already here — and it is just not evenly distributed?

Armed with this idea, let’s see whether we can find some places where collapse might have occurred already, and some places where it clearly is nowhere to be seen:

  • Let’s take Syria. I think civilizational collapse clearly occurred there a few years ago: crop failures leading to economic failures, little food and water, civil war, gruesome public execution and no prospect for a promising future. As good an example for civilizational collapse as I can think of.
  • Venezuela? Maybe not as stark as Syria, but close.
  • But also closer to home: we have an opioid epidemic in the US, and it’s my understanding that many of the affected live in places that are essentially abandoned by the rest of civilization, with skills that are no longer relevant, their culture derided by “the elites”, at the edge of existence. In some fashion, the civilization that they knew and grew up with has collapsed, and for them, nothing has quite replaced it.
  • On the reverse side, if you work, say, in a high-flying Silicon Valley-based startup that investors just threw billions of dollars at, collapse is as far away as anything: life is good, growing, and you are working on amazing things that you truly believe will change “everything”.

So I created the following diagram to capture this: the square contains “everybody”. Depending where you are (say Syria vs US) you are further to the left or right. And depending on your personal situation inside your region, you may be further up or down in the diagram. If you find yourself in the red zone, collapse is here already for you in your location. If you are in green, everything still seems to be fine and you wonder what the fuss is all about. In between is a front, like a front of bad weather, that separates the two areas.

So it turns out both are right! Collapse has arrived already in some places and is nowhere to be seen in others. And this diagram gives us a mechanism by which we can start to understand each other, even if we personally stand in very different areas of this map.

For example, we can argue now how big the red and green areas are relative to each other. Chances are that today as I write this, there are more green zones in the world than there are red ones. However, as we all continue to fail to effectively address critical problems such as carbon emissions, species extinction, and so forth, the collapse front is moving, and probably in the wrong direction.

I would argue this collapse front is moving up and to the right. And as the effects of global warming intensify (and even grow faster than linearly), the front’s movement will continue to accelerate. If you are lucky, so far in 2019, that you are highly skilled in a modern industry in an advantaged region, then life is indeed great and you can plan great plans for yourself and your friends in your green area. But if one, or all of those, are not true for you, collapse is already here or threatening with dark clouds on the horizon that keep moving in your direction.

Seems to me that if you are in the green zone today so far, it might make sense to use this advantaged position to think of and do something about this front. Not everybody is as lucky as you are. But then, naked self-interest is also a good motivator: if the front keeps moving like it does now, sooner or later it will hit you, too.

P.S. What is worse than inaction on carbon emissions? Wasting the best brains of a generation on ad placement algorithms. Just saying.

P.P.S. Hit me up if you agree.