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...should you choose to accept it
OK, so here’s a first shot at an introduction to the Apocalypse Aversion Project book (discussed here and here, in case you’re late to the party). It’s a rough draft, and gets a bit rougher as it goes along, but I think it’s more or less intelligible. Please feel free to comment, including on such questions as: Is this a good way to start an AAP book? Does it get and hold your attention? If not, what might be a better way to start the book? What parts of this didn’t you like/understand? What parts do you think were missing? And (especially if you basically like it as a way to start a book) what would you want the next chapter to be about? And, by the way: Don’t worry about hurting my feelings! This is just a first shot at a rough draft of a first chapter. Usually, in my experience, these things wind up in the dustbin of history. And usually they deserve it.
There’s a cosmic map that somebody came up with a few decades ago that literally put the human species in its place. It was an image of the Earth’s galaxy—that fuzzy pinwheel of light comprising a couple hundred billion stars, give or take a hundred billion—with an arrow pointing to the rough location of the Earth’s solar system. Alongside the arrow was the phrase “You are here.” For a while it was fairly common to see this on posters and T-shirts.
I always took this map as an attempt to underscore our insignificance in the scheme of things, and it was sometimes explicitly deployed that way. I also took it as a failed attempt. At least, it failed in my case.
I mean, why would you measure significance in cubic feet? Sure, we occupy a tiny fraction of the universe’s real estate, but there’s a difference between the space we occupy and the space we don’t occupy: Our space is conscious. We can feel pleasure and pain, experience red and green, be delighted or troubled or puzzled. It is, as the philosopher Thomas Nagel phrased the meaning of consciousness, like something to be us.
All those stars are impressive (What I’d give to have their energy!), but if one of them suddenly flares out, that has no moral consequence unless there’s a conscious being—a being with subjective experience, with sentience—whose welfare is affected by the flaring out.
So, sure, you can say we occupy only a tiny part of our galaxy, and a super-tiny part of the universe. But you can also say we occupy one of the most special, the most meaningful, places in the galaxy and the universe, way more special and meaningful than 99.999 percent of physical reality, even assuming our planet isn’t the only one featuring life. Humility has its virtues, but let’s not overdo it.
The fact is that if there are any regions of space that should feel insignificant, it’s the ones located just about everywhere but Planet Earth. But of course, they’re not capable of feeling insignificant. That’s my point.
If this isn’t enough to make you feel special, I recommend another “You are here” map. It’s a map of time, not space. It charts, among other things, the emergence of the aforementioned consciousness. This map wouldn’t fit easily on a T-shirt, but here’s the basic idea:
After biological evolution got started on this planet, it slowly, erratically carried life to higher and higher levels of complexity and organization: from simple cells to complex cells to multi-celled organisms to societies of multi-celled organisms. Then, after a few billion years, one of these multi-celled social species (I won’t hide the ball: I’m talking about us) got smart enough to launch a second kind of evolution—an evolution of technologies and ideas and customs—that is called cultural evolution. And this cultural evolution sustained the trajectory toward higher levels of complexity and organization.
Only 20,000 years ago, the largest and most complex form of human social organization was a hunter-gatherer village. Then came chiefdoms, city-states, empires. Today we have globalized commerce, globalized science, globalized entertainment. We are on the threshold of forming a true global community.
And we better hurry! Because the planet faces a number of epic threats that call for international cooperation. I won’t list them all here. (That’s how many there are—pausing to recite them would be a momentum buster.) But I will say three things about them:
(1) They involve various technological scenarios, ranging from the traditionally horrifying (nuclear or biological warfare) to the newly plausible (arms race in space that threatens the global communications infrastructure, tit-for-tat cyberattacks that paralyze power grids) to the soon-to-be plausible (arms races in artificial intelligence or in human genetic engineering) to the already happening (carbon-based fuels generating climate change, miscellaneous other budding environmental calamities).
(2) Only one of these—climate change—is getting much attention, and it isn’t even the most literally existential of them.
(3) None of these can be fully addressed without an unprecedented degree of cooperation among nations, including much more in the way of new international laws and norms (one of the new norms being actual adherence to the laws).
I don’t expect to convince you, with such a brief summary, that all the threats I’m identifying are truly grave, much less that there are additional threats, also ominous, that demand our attention. That piece of persuasion takes longer than a few pages, and accomplishing it is one goal of this book. For now I would just ask you to grant that, if what I just said is true, then the following follows:
It looks as if our choice is between going up—up to the planetary level of social organization, up to a true global community, with true international governance—or going down: down into disarray, into chaos, maybe even into extinction.
To return to our map of time: It has taken 3.5 billion years for organic organization to rise from the level of the cell to something approaching the level of the whole planet, and you are living in the century—the moment, relatively speaking—when the success or failure of this endeavor may well be determined. You are here.
There. Feel special? We don’t just occupy that rarest of spatial regions—a region with consciousness and therefore moral meaning. We also occupy that rarest of temporal regions, the moment when the fate of that source of meaning may be decisively shaped—the moment when the consciousness that has slowly emerged on this planet could blossom or wither or even die.
I have to say: If I could choose any intersection of time and space in the entire space-time continuum for the molecules constituting me to occupy, the one they occupy would certainly be in the running. We live in interesting space-times! (Though, admittedly, there could be some interesting spots on the continuum I don’t know about. It’s a big continuum.)
And this isn’t the half of it. By that I don’t mean I can come up with two or three other dimensions, in addition to space and time, whose momentous intersection we reside at. So far as I can tell, space and time about exhaust things, dimensionwise. What I mean is that the fundamental challenge we face—the challenge of solving non-zero-sum problems among nations—entails ancillary challenges that provide even more reason to consider our situation dramatic, momentous, pivotal.
Some of these ancillary challenges are kind of dispiriting, but some are kind of uplifting. To put it another way: some underscore the depth of the fundamental challenge, and some underscore the rewards of meeting the fundamental challenge. I’ll start with the first kind.
One thing that deepens the fundamental challenge is the usual human penchant for pointless international hostility. There is talk of a new cold war, and meanwhile various hot wars (between nations and within nations) rage or simmer. As if it weren’t bad enough to ignore huge planetary problems that demand international cooperation, we’re spending the time thus saved sabotaging future progress on these problems, poisoning the well of future cooperation.
Alongside this question of international cohesion is the question of national cohesion. Extensive and institutionalized cooperation among nations can happen only if the nations themselves are functioning well politically and have a strong sense of identity. Contrary to stereotypes prevalent in some circles, international governance doesn’t mean subjecting nations to the tyranny of world government or squashing them under the weight of global bureaucracy. It means enlisting them in the cooperative endeavor that technological evolution has rendered essential to their continued survival and flourishing.
In other words: solid international governance has to rest on solid nations. And lately national solidarity has often been in short supply. In America, for example, the main political tribes not infrequently seem to hate each other.
And this antipathy among political tribes reflects, to some extent, a deeper fragmentation. Information technologies divide us into big and little groups, and more than a few of the groups are organized around discontent or alienation. And the accelerating rate of technological change can feed the discontent and alienation. In fact, the accelerating rate of technological change is at least somewhat disorienting for pretty much all of us.
OK, enough dispiriting news. Let’s turn to the uplifting news (which is partly the flip side of the dispiriting news, the flip side of the antagonism we see between and within nations). There are at least three things about saving the world—in addition to the salvation of the world itself, I mean—that would give our species cause for deep pride.
(1) Forming a global community isn’t just a question of making political progress; it’s a question of making moral progress. It’s a question of finally putting aside—or at least greatly subduing—the gratuitous-to-the-point-of-absurdity antagonisms that have tended to divide people by race, language, religion, nationality, and ideology. Achieving this would entail better understanding, and better appreciating, people on the other side of various tribal divides.
(2) Forming this global community will require a kind of transcendence—a rising above some of the less exalted parts of our psychology. In particular: We need to transcend the psychology of tribalism. That means liberating ourselves from some parts of human nature that made a kind of sense as evolutionary adaptations—made sense in terms of the cold Darwinian logic that shaped our brains—but that have become, on balance, liabilities. Which leads to:
(3) Enlightenment! Believe it or not, to talk about our mission as one of “transcendence” is to soft-pedal the challenge. “Rising above” your bitter hatreds and pointless resentments and facile judgments doesn’t sound easy, and it doesn’t sound inconsequential, but in a way I think this formulation understates both the subtlety of the challenge and the magnitude of the rewards. To achieve what needs to be achieved, we’ll have to change patterns of perception and cognition and affect in ways that are hard but that can render our vision much clearer, our apprehension of reality much truer to reality itself.
When you put these three bullet points together, I think you’re close to being able to call the threshold we need to pass through “spiritual”. There are other parts of the global salvation mission that further justify this label (IMHO), and I’ll get to them in the course of this book.
Does all of this sound daunting? Does it seem like a campaign that, however rewarding the rewards, is too demanding, and may offer too little chance of success, to warrant the work?
Don’t worry: Enlistment is optional. The army that will fight this war is an all-volunteer army. However: Before you opt out, you should be made aware of some possible benefits of enlistment.
Benefits such as: Having a richer, more morally defensible life. Doing fewer things (on social media, for example) that induce remorse and self-chastisement. Doing more things that make you feel enduringly good. Having more peace of mind, more equanimity. Maybe even being, on balance, happier.
That would be nice, right? I don’t just mean being happier would be nice. I mean it would be nice if it turned out that becoming happier and becoming a better person just happened to mesh, if helping yourself could harmonize with helping the world, helping your nation, helping your town, helping various other groups you’re part of—and even (here’s the most miraculous part) helping groups you’re not part of.
I strongly believe this harmony is possible. And I believe we owe it to ourselves to find out for sure.