Earlier this week, I was trying to think of ways to talk about the gap between notions about the future we’ve all absorbed from the last three hundred years of fossil-fueled progress, on the one hand, and the ways of thinking about what’s ahead that might actually help us make sense of our predicament and the postpetroleum, post-progress world ahead, on the other. While I was in the middle of these reflections, a correspondent reminded me of a post from last year by peak oil blogger Ugo Bardi, which set out to place the crises of our time in the context of the next ten billion years.
It’s an ambitious project, and by no means badly carried out. The only criticism that comes to mind is that it only makes sense if you happen to be a true believer in the civil religion of progress, the faith whose rise and impending fall has been a central theme here in recent months. As a sermon delivered to the faithful of that religion, it’s hard to beat; it’s even got the classic structure of evangelical rhetoric—the awful fate that will soon fall upon those who won’t change their wicked ways, the glorious salvation awaiting those who get right with Progress, and all the rest of it.
Of course the implied comparison with Christianity can only be taken so far. Christians are generally expected to humble themselves before their God, while believers in progress like to imagine that humanity will become God or, as in this case, be able to pat God fondly on the head and say, “That’s my kid.” More broadly, those of my readers who were paying attention last week will notice that the horrible fate that awaits the sinful is simply that nature will be allowed to go her own way, while the salvation awaiting the righteous is more or less the ability to browbeat nature into doing what they think she ought to do—or rather, what Bardi’s hypothesized New Intelligence, whose interests are assumed to be compatible with those of humanity, thinks she ought to do.
There’s plenty that could be said about the biophobia—the stark shivering dread of life’s normal and healthy ripening toward death—that pervades this kind of thinking, but that’s a subject for another post. Here I’d like to take another path. Once the notions of perpetual progress and imminent apocalypse are seen as industrial society’s traditional folk mythologies, rather than meaningful resources for making predictions about the future, and known details about ecology, evolution, and astrophysics are used in their place to fill out the story, the next ten billion years looks very different from either of Bardi’s scenarios. Here’s my version or, if you will, my vision.
Ten years from now:
Business as usual continues; the human population peaks at 8.5 billion, liquid fuels production remains more or less level by the simple expedient of consuming an ever larger fraction of the world’s total energy output, and the annual cost of weather-related disasters continues to rise. Politicians and the media insist loudly that better times are just around the corner, as times get steadily worse. Among those who recognize that something’s wrong, one widely accepted viewpoint holds that fusion power, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration will shortly solve all our problems, and therefore we don’t have to change the way we live. Another, equally popular, insists that total human extinction is scarcely a decade away, and therefore we don’t have to change the way we live. Most people accept one or the other claim, while the last chance for meaningful systemic change slips silently away.
A hundred years from now:
It has been a difficult century. After more than a dozen major wars, three bad pandemics, widespread famines, and steep worldwide declines in public health and civil order, human population is down to 3 billion and falling. Sea level is up ten meters and rising fast as the Greenland and West Antarctic ice caps disintegrate; fossil fuel production ground to a halt decades earlier as the last economically producible reserves were exhausted, and most proposed alternatives turned out to be unaffordable in the absence of the sort of cheap, abundant, highly concentrated energy only fossil fuels can provide. Cornucopians still insist that fusion power, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration will save us any day now, and their opponents still insist that human extinction is imminent, but most people are too busy trying to survive to listen to either group.
A thousand years from now:
The Earth is without ice caps and glaciers for the first time in twenty million years or so, and sea level has gone up more than a hundred meters worldwide; much of the world has a tropical climate, as it did 50 million years earlier. Human population is 100 million, up from half that figure at the bottom of the bitter dark age now passing into memory. Only a few scholars have any idea what the words “fusion power,” “artificial intelligence,” and “interstellar migration” once meant, and though there are still people insisting that the end of the world will arrive any day now, their arguments now generally rely more overtly on theology than before. New civilizations are rising in various corners of the world, combining legacy technologies with their own unique cultural forms. The one thing they all have in common is that the technological society of a millennium before is their idea of evil incarnate.
Ten thousand years from now:
The rise in global temperature has shut down the thermohaline circulation and launched an oceanic anoxic event, the planet’s normal negative feedback process when carbon dioxide levels get out of hand. Today’s industrial civilization is a dim memory from the mostly forgotten past, as far removed from this time as the Neolithic Revolution is from ours; believers in most traditional religions declare piously that the climate changes of the last ten millennia are the results of human misbehavior, while rationalists insist that this is all superstition and the climate changes have perfectly natural causes. As the anoxic oceans draw carbon out of the biosphere and entomb it in sediments on the sea floor, the climate begins a gradual cooling—a process which helps push humanity’s sixth global civilization into its terminal decline.
A hundred thousand years from now:
Carbon dioxide levels drop below preindustrial levels as the oceanic anoxic event finishes its work, and the complex feedback loops that govern Earth’s climate shift again: the thermohaline circulation restarts, triggering another round of climatic changes. Humanity’s seventy-ninth global civilization flourishes and begins its slow decline as the disruptions set in motion by a long-forgotten industrial age are drowned out by an older climatic cycle. The scholars of that civilization are thrilled by the notions of fusion power, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration; they have no idea that we dreamed the same dreams before them, being further in our future than the Neanderthals are in our past, but they will have no more luck achieving those dreams than we did.
A million years from now:
The Earth is in an ice age; great ice sheets cover much of the northern hemisphere and spread from mountain ranges all over the world, and sea level is 150 meters lower than today. To the people living at this time, who have never known anything else, this seems perfectly normal. Metals have become rare geological specimens—for millennia now, most human societies have used renewable ceramic-bioplastic composites instead—and the very existence of fossil fuels has long since been forgotten. The 664th global human civilization is at its peak, lofting aerostat towns into the skies and building great floating cities on the seas; its long afternoon will eventually draw to an end after scores of generations, and when it falls, other civilizations will rise in its place.
Ten million years from now:
The long glacial epoch that began in the Pleistocene has finally ended, and the Earth is returning to its more usual status as a steamy jungle planet. This latest set of changes proves to be just that little bit too much for humanity. No fewer than 8,639 global civilizations have risen and fallen over the last ten million years, each with its own unique sciences, technologies, arts, literatures, philosophies, and ways of thinking about the cosmos; the shortest-lived lasted for less than a century before blowing itself to smithereens, while the longest-lasting endured for eight millennia before finally winding down.
All that is over now. There are still relict populations of human beings in Antarctica and a few island chains, and another million years will pass before cascading climatic and ecological changes finally push the last of them over the brink into extinction. Meanwhile, in the tropical forests of what is now southern Siberia, the descendants of raccoons who crossed the Bering land bridge during the last great ice age are proliferating rapidly, expanding into empty ecological niches once filled by the larger primates. In another thirty million years or so, their descendants will come down from the trees.
One hundred million years from now:
Retro-rockets fire and fall silent as the ungainly craft settles down on the surface of the Moon. After feverish final checks, the hatch is opened, and two figures descend onto the lunar surface. They are bipeds, but not even remotely human; instead, they belong to Earth’s third intelligent species. They are distantly descended from the crows of our time, though they look no more like crows than you look like the tree shrews of the middle Cretaceous. Since you have a larynx rather than a syrinx, you can’t even begin to pronounce what they call themselves, so we’ll call them corvins.
Earth’s second intelligent species, whom we’ll call cyons after their raccoon ancestors, are long gone. They lasted a little more than eight million years before the changes of an unstable planet sent them down the long road to extinction; they never got that deeply into technology, though their political institutions made the most sophisticated human equivalents look embarrassingly crude. The corvins are another matter. Some twist of inherited psychology left them with a passion for heights and upward movement; they worked out the basic principles of the hot air balloon before they got around to inventing the wheel, and balloons, gliders, and corvin-carrying kites play much the same roles in their earliest epic literature that horses and chariots play in ours.
As corvin societies evolved more complex technologies, eyes gazed upwards from soaring tower-cities at the moon, the perch of perches set high above the world. All that was needed to make those dreams a reality was petroleum, and a hundred million years is more than enough time for the Earth to restock her petroleum reserves—especially if that period starts off with an oceanic anoxic event that stashes gigatons of carbon in marine sediments. Thus it was inevitable that, sooner or later, the strongest of the great corvin kith-assemblies would devote its talents and wealth to the task of reaching the moon.
The universe has a surprise in store for the corvins, though. Their first moon landing included among its goals the investigation of some odd surface features, too small to be seen clearly by Earth-based equipment. That first lander thus set down on a flat lunar plain that, a very long time ago, was called the Sea of Tranquillity, and so it was that the stunned corvin astronauts found themselves facing the unmistakable remains of a spacecraft that arrived on the moon in the unimaginably distant past.
A few equivocal traces buried in terrestrial sediments had suggested already to corvin loremasters that another intelligent species might have lived on the Earth before them, though the theory was dismissed by most as wild speculation. The scattered remnants on the Moon confirmed them, and made it hard for even the most optimistic corvins to embrace the notion that some providence guaranteed the survival of intelligent species. The curious markings on some of the remains, which some loremasters suggested might be a mode of visual communication, resisted all attempts at decipherment, and very little was ever learnt for certain about the enigmatic ancient species that left its mark on the Moon.
Even so, it will be suggested long afterwards that the stark warning embodied in those long-abandoned spacecraft played an important role in convincing corvin societies to rein in the extravagant use of petroleum and other nonrenewable resources, though it also inspired hugely expensive and ultimately futile attempts to achieve interstellar migration—for some reason the corbins never got into the quest for fusion power or artificial intelligence. One way or another, though, the corvins turned out to be the most enduring of Earth’s intelligent species, and more than 28 million years passed before their day finally ended.
One billion years from now:
The Earth is old and mostly desert, and a significant fraction of its total crust is made up of the remains of bygone civilizations. The increasing heat of the Sun as it proceeds through its own life cycle, and the ongoing loss of volatile molecules from the upper atmosphere into space, have reduced the seas to scattered, salty basins amid great sandy wastes. Only near the north and south poles does vegetation flourish, and with it the corbicules, Earth’s eleventh and last intelligent species. Their ancestors in our time are an invasive species of freshwater clam. (Don’t laugh; a billion years ago your ancestors were still trying to work out the details of multicellularity.)
The corbicules have the same highly practical limb structure as the rest of their subphylum: six stumpy podicles for walking, two muscular dorsal tentacles for gross manipulations and two slender buccal tentacles by the mouth for fine manipulations. They spend most of their time in sprawling underground city-complexes, venturing to the surface to harvest vegetation to feed the subterranean metafungal gardens that provide them with nourishment. By some combination of luck and a broad general tendency toward cephalization common to many evolutionary lineages, Earth’s last intelligent species is also its most intellectually gifted; hatchlings barely out of creche are given fun little logic problems such as Fermat’s last theorem for their amusement, and a large majority of adult corbicules are involved in one or another field of intellectual endeavor. Being patient, long-lived, and not greatly addicted to collective stupidities, they have gone very far indeed.
Some eight thousand years back, a circle of radical young corbicule thinkers proposed the project of working out all the physical laws of the cosmos, starting from first principles. So unprecedented a suggestion sparked countless debates, publications, ceremonial dances, and professional duels in which elderly scholars killed themselves in order to cast unbearable opprobrium on their rivals. Still, it was far too delectable an intellectual challenge to be left unanswered, and the work has proceeded ever since. In the course of their researches, without placing any great importance on the fact, the best minds among the corbicules have proved conclusively that nuclear fusion, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration were never practical options in the first place.
Being patient, long-lived, and not greatly addicted to collective stupidities, the corbicules have long since understood and accepted their eventual fate. In another six million years, as the Sun expands and the Earth’s surface temperature rises, the last surface vegetation will perish and the corbicules will go extinct; in another ninety million years, the last multicellular life forms will die out; in another two hundred million years, the last seas will boil, and Earth’s biosphere, nearing the end of its long, long life, will nestle down into the deepest crevices of its ancient, rocky world and drift into a final sleep.
Ten billion years from now:
Earth is gone. It had a splendid funeral; its body plunged into stellar fire as the Sun reached its red giant stage and expanded out to the orbit of Mars, and its ashes were flung outwards into interstellar space with the first great helium flash that marked the beginning of the Sun’s descent toward its destiny. Two billion years later, the gas- and dust-rich shockwave from that flash plowed into a mass of interstellar dust dozens of light-years away from the Sun’s pale corpse, and kickstarted one of the great transformative processes of the cosmos.
Billions more years have passed since that collision. A yellow-orange K-2 star burns cheerily in the midst of six planets and two asteroid belts. The second planet has a surface temperature between the freezing and boiling points of water, and a sufficiently rich assortment of elements to set another of the great transformative processes of the cosmos into motion. Now, in one spot on the surface of this world, rising up past bulbous purplish things that don’t look anything like trees but fill the same broad ecological function, there is a crag of black rock. On top of that crag, a creature sits looking at the stars, fanning its lunules with its sagittal crest and waving its pedipalps meditatively back and forth. It is one of the first members of its world’s first intelligent species, and it is—for the first time ever on that world—considering the stars and wondering if other beings might live out there among them.
The creature’s biochemistry, structure, and life cycle have nothing in common with yours, dear reader. Its world, its sensory organs, its mind and its feelings would be utterly alien to you, even if ten billion years didn’t separate you. Nonetheless, it so happens that a few atoms that are currently part of your brain, as you read these words, will also be part of the brain-analogue of the creature on the crag on that distant, not-yet-existing world. Does that fact horrify you, intrigue you, console you, leave you cold? We’ll discuss the implications of that choice next week.