seth_lloyd's picture
Professor of Quantum Mechanical Engineering, MIT; Author, Programming the Universe
Quantum Mechanical Engineer, MIT, Author, Programming the Universe

Once and Future Optimism

I am optimistic about the past. It's looking better and better every day. A couple of hundred years from now, when the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps have melted and sea levels have risen by two hundred feet, our genetically engineered descendants will be sitting by their ocean-front property in Nevada reminiscing about the high old times in those now submerged cities of New York, London, and Tokyo. From their perspective, the past is really going to look good.

I'm also optimistic about the future. It is well within our power as a species to avert the environmental catastrophe envisaged in the previous paragraph.  Prudent investment in carbon conserving technologies and economic strategies can postpone or prevent entirely the more extreme consequences of global warming. I am hopeful that policy makers will realize that relatively small sacrifices made voluntarily now, can prevent much larger, involuntary sacrifices later.

Let's be realistic: we human beings are addicted to damaging ourselves and others. When one rationale for conflict loses force, we seek out a new one, no matter how trivial, for prolonging the strife.  Nonetheless, we are capable of pulling back from the brink. During the cold war, the strategy pursued the United States and the Soviet Union was officially called MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction: anyone who started a nuclear war was guaranteed to be annihilated themselves. While risky in the long run — if the radar confuses a flock of geese with an incoming missile, we're all dead — the strategy worked for long enough for our leaders to realize just how mad MAD was, and to begin to disarm.  We are currently on the brink of a major environmental catastrophe; but there is still time to pull back.

Even if global warming does flood most of the world's major cities, human beings will survive and adapt.  Just how they will adapt, we can't predict: but they will. Technology got us into this mess in the first place by providing the wherewithal for modern industrial society. I am optimistic that our descendants will develop technologies to cope with whatever mess we leave them. The technologies for survival into the twenty third century need not be high technologies: simple, low technologies of water and fuel conservation will suffice. If we're careful with our basic resources, there should be enough left over to keep on playing video games.

We need not even leave the world a mess. The key to using resources wisely is to distribute them fairly. If only because the global distribution of resources such as money and energy is currently so skewed, I am guardedly optimistic that our increasingly globalized society can make progress towards a world in which each human being has equal access to food, clean water, education, and political representation. This optimism is tempered by the acknowledgement that the world's 'haves' have little motivation to share the world's resources with its 'have nots' We are unaccustomed to thinking of democracy as a 'technology,' but that is what it is: a systematic arrangement of human beings into a social machine that functions better in many respects than the social machine of totalitarianism. The real technology that we currently require is not a more fuel-efficient SUV, but rather a political system that gives each human being on earth a voice in policy.

Finally, I am wildly optimistic about the future of scientific ideas. Wherever I travel in the world — first, second, or third — I meet young scientists whose ideas blow me away.  The internet distributes cutting edge scientific work much more widely and cheaply than ever before. As a result, the fundamental intellectual equality of human beings is asserting itself in a remarkable way: people are just as smart in Peru and Pakistan as they are in London and Los Angeles, and those people can now participate in scientific inquiry with far greater effectiveness than ever before.  Human beings are humanity's greatest resource, and when those humans start becoming scientists, watch out!