Monday, February 21, 2011

One Planet; Two Futures

If you've been reading this blog in the last few months, you know I've been focusing many of my cult-movie reviews on dystopian science fiction films (Z.P.G., THX-1138, Zardoz, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, and Gattaca, so far).

The reason?  Well, the mysteries of the future endlessly fascinate, don't they?   Two roads diverge before us, and we cannot travel both, to paraphrase the poet Robert Frost.

In that spirit of curiosity about the shape of things to come, I read two very intriguing news stories this morning about humanity's possible future.

One article portrays a rather grim future, where income disparity grows worse and food supplies run scarce (Soylent Green?). 

The other gazes at the next (mostly-positive) step in human evolution, perhaps: "Singularity" (which is also a term from the 1990s series, Dark Skies, by the way.).

Here's the link to the grimmer of the two future stories, titled: "Planet could be 'unrecognizable' by 2050, experts say."  And here's a snippet:

"...a growing, more affluent population competing for ever scarcer resources could make for an "unrecognizable" world by 2050, researchers warned at a major US science conference Sunday.

The United Nations has predicted the global population will reach seven billion this year, and climb to nine billion by 2050, "with almost all of the growth occurring in poor countries, particularly Africa and South Asia," said John Bongaarts of the non-profit Population Council.

To feed all those mouths, "we will need to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have in the last 8,000," said Jason Clay of the World Wildlife Fund at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

"By 2050 we will not have a planet left that is recognizable" if current trends continue, Clay said.

And here's the link to a Time Magazine story I read via Andrew Sullivan's blog.  It is titled "2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal" and it lays out an amazing, optimistic vision involving man's ability to purposefully re-shape his world; and even his mortality:

"It's impossible to predict the behavior of these smarter-than-human intelligences with which (with whom?) we might one day share the planet, because if you could, you'd be as smart as they would be. But there are a lot of theories about it. Maybe we'll merge with them to become super-intelligent cyborgs, using computers to extend our intellectual abilities the same way that cars and planes extend our physical abilities. Maybe the artificial intelligences will help us treat the effects of old age and prolong our life spans indefinitely. Maybe we'll scan our consciousnesses into computers and live inside them as software, forever, virtually. Maybe the computers will turn on humanity and annihilate us. The one thing all these theories have in common is the transformation of our species into something that is no longer recognizable as such to humanity circa 2011. This transformation has a name: the Singularity."

So will the wonders of Singularity transform us all into immortal beings in 2045? Or will we be crowding public squares for scraps of leftover food in 2050?

Being that we have but one planet here, we cannot travel both routes. Is it in our hands, I wonder, to choose?  Or has our trajectory already been fixed?

Today I'll hope for the Singularity scenario, and ponder Robert Frost again, who notes in "Our Hold on the Planet" that if you take nature altogether since time begain -- including human nature, in peace and war -- that it "must be a little more in favor of man (say one percent or so...)."

Let's hope so.


  1. Perhaps another option exists. The possibility of other possible outcomes is certainly viable.

    I always admire your optimism for the future. On a personal level I'm a very hopeful, positive person, but yet when it comes to the grand scheme of things I do have an udnerlying pessimism about human nature and what people are willing to do to fix problems or capable of doing.

    I can't say that I'm entirely hopeful and that's unfortunate because technologically-speaking it's a wonderful time to be alive.

    There is certainly good in the world. I'm just not sure it's enough.

    Anyway, great food for thought and there definitely was that trend in your writing. I've enjoyed the posts very much.

  2. Hi SFF:

    Great, thoughtful comment, my friend.

    I vacillate between optimism and pessimism about the future.

    Some days, I look at the ugliness in the world and get very discouraged.

    And then I think about the Cold War and the fact that we didn't blow ourselves up.

    Or I remember that man walked on the moon the year I was born.

    We're just a few discoveries or inventions away from the real beginning of "the human adventure," I hope...


  3. This was a fascinating and succinct piece, John.

    I think you can take Dr. Jason Clay’s pessimistic outlook for what it is: A negative possible future which offers a warning to the scientific community about the dangers of overpopulation. The ones he should be warning are the governments of the third world countries that have yet to provide a consistent educational system that promotes birth control. Until the world governments can form a tactical policy the world population will continue to outgrow its ability to feed itself. Unfortunately, history teaches us that uncontrolled population growth usually ends in war, famine and mass death. I honestly don’t think this is a problem that can be solved with technology, but only through education, diplomacy and cooperation.

    I hope somewhere in Andrew Sullivan's blog he credited Vernor Vinge for being the first to use the term “singularity” for the creation of superhuman intelligence that would represent a breakdown in the ability of humans to model the future thereafter in an article Vinge wrote way back in 1983. I’m no computer scientist, but it seems to me that we’d have to create a completely different way to create computers capable of evolving to this level, as our current electron-based computers have just about reached their peak. Being a scientist, Vinge also sees the human mind as a mere biological computer and doesn’t leave any room for what makes a human more than just a walking biological machine. I always laugh when scientists act like they understand everything there is to know about the human mind and body. If that was the case, there would no longer be human pain, disease or death – at least for the wealthy!

    I find as I get older I worry less and less about the future. I only hoped I’d live long enough to see humans living in space and going on to the stars. Unfortunately, our species has turned inward instead of outward, so this is one future that seems unlikely. Still, I remain hopeful for at least the immediate future and that’s all I care about right now.

  4. Hi "Doc,"

    I loved your comment. Written with a lot of knowledge and insight, for certain.

    I agree with both your points.

    We certainly need more education about birth control in the developing nations of the world, and on the second front, we need to fully understand the human machine before we can take a quantum leap forward in improving it. I think you made both points better than I did!

    I too hope to live long enough to see man achieve a magnificent feat: to set foot on another world, whether it be Mars or Pandora.

    When (not if...) that happens, let's make sure to say a toast together about it (even if it is across the Net...)

    Thank you for your great comment,


  5. I enjoyed Doc's remarks and I certainly understand the less intense one becomes over concern for the future.

    I feel I do enjoy the moment a little more, but is that because I see so much that would depress me to tears? Maybe.

    At any given time of day my opinion of the state of the world and specifically America's future can swing from positive to negative and back. It is indeed a dynamic feeling. Maybe this endless swinging is why so many of us do step back and simply enjoy what is.

    Moments like 9/11 certainly give me pause. That was a deeply disturbing moment in history on American soil. The decentralized nature of war is changing how we perceive things and with that decentralization and the shift in economic powers one can feel quite uneasy and uncertain what the future holds.

    So kick back with a vodka tonic while you can. :)

  6. Grayson12:01 AM

    I am reminded of the phrase from Full Metal Jacket: "The duality of man."


  7. Hi JKM;

    I think the ultimate difference between horror and science fiction is that the latter is, ultimately, optimistic. The most dystopian and downbeat movies in the genre are still stories of triumph - THX discovers his individuality and escapes, APES' Taylor reconnects with his own humanity (even though his cynical view of humanity at the film's outset is confirmed in spades by the end, that scene draws its power from Taylor's humanity, which he has earned during the movie). I'd suggest "Silent Running" as possibly the best example of this - its a hopeless film about triumph. What I'm getting at here is that people who love BOTH horror and science fiction as genres would naturally vacillate between optimism and pessimism. I'm generalizing wildly of course (where does this leave Carpenter's "Thing"?)but I think there's a germ of something in the concept.

    I'm skeptical of the Singularity hype because it reminds me of a dozen other imminent sci-fi horizons that didn't come to pass (where's my moon colony? Jet pack? Solar car?) but which were considered sure things only a a few decades away a few decades ago. Same with the bleak forecasts of want and ruin - really, the solutions to hunger and energy depletion are tantalizingly close IF a wealthy nation or two could get its act together and shift its war resources into technological plowshares. It CAN happen. Will it? Here's where the pessimism come in.

    I think the most accurate SF films at predicting the future a few decades down the road have been Verhoeven's Robocop and Starship Troopers with their visions of corporate/military fascism. Scarily, whether we are actually there right now this very minute is a debatable topic.

    Great stuff as usual. Keep 'em flying!

  8. A fine, thought-provoking piece, John. I don't think I can add much to the fine thoughts you and your commenter have already covered. The older I get, the cynicism that creeps up with it becomes an all too easy out -- for me anyways. For example, this exchange from MEN IN BLACK always comes to mind:

    Edwards: Why the big secret? People are smart. They can handle it.
    Kay: A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it. Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you'll know tomorrow.

    But for all of that, I always balance that with Lincoln's quote:

    "The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

    Because I have children that I want to grow up better than their old man, and have a more balanced future, I tend to be vigilant for the former, but hope for the latter. Thanks, John.