In the article I made the point that the idea of the simple, low-to-the-ground society as more resilient to disaster seems, so far, to be a myth. A speculative extension of this idea that I didn’t think was appropriate to get into the magazine article is how to deal with the following objection: “OK, but how do we know that this will always continue to be true in the future?”
Icarus theorists argue that modern societies are unsustainable because they have some critical flaw that the Icarus theorist can see, but that the herd of sheep who get in their cars and drive to the office park every weekday morning can not. While specific theories can be rejected based on facts, the nagging feeling that we are all doomed can never be refuted by logic – one is always faced with the problem of induction. It can only be refuted by irrational faith in the future, which in practice usually means religious faith. Because unless we live in a providential universe, we are doomed.
Without providence, no matter how much our choices about lifestyle lower the odds of the annihilation of humanity in any given year or century, as the future rolls out toward infinity something is certain to happen eventually that will do the job. In the end, even the smartest hedging strategy will fail, and just as each individual dies, the human species will go extinct. It will be Game Over – not just for you and me, but for everybody, forever.
Confronting this realization tends to produce a variety of reactions: gloominess, craziness and denial, chief among them. It also tends to drive thoughtful people to attempt some sense of identification with something beyond the human species. Of course, in the physical universe this is a sucker’s game. As we race up the ladder of abstraction from humans to intelligent life to some notion of consciousness or whatever, we keep confronting the fact that everything, even all information, will eventually die when the universe either achieves heat death or implodes back into a point-mass. As physicists colloquially put the three laws of thermodynamics: you can’t win, you can’t break even and you can’t get out of the game.
But even if you believe that we live in such a universe, and further accept that pursuing economic and technological development would shorten the lifespan of the human species, it still doesn’t follow that we would purposely retard material development. I would rather humanity have 1,000 more generations of Shakespeare, city life and space exploration than for humans in the 100,000th generation to emerge from their huts near crystalline clear rivers and look up at the night sky wondering what all those pretty lights are.
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