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The Great Filter

Sorry, a bit more doom and gloom this time: David Attenborough: collapse of civilisation is on the horizon

I was visiting at a friend's house recently and our discussion turned to the impending doom threatening the world. While I hold out a tiny bit of hope that maybe somehow human society and/or science will find a way to save us, he was not so optimistic. He reads and writes a lot of speculative fiction and his view is that we are inevitably headed towards an era of land scarcity and resulting wars due to climate changes.

Can you imagine, some thousands of years down the line, some spacefaring alien race chances upon the remains of our sorry civilization and discover all this discussion of our civilization's impending collapse and they're trying to figure out why our civilization fell apart in spite of having sufficient foreknowledge of the upcoming disaster, and they're incredulous that we simply couldn't be bothered because it was too inconvenient!

Would humanity still be able to find a way out of this corner we've painted our way into? Recent signs are not encouraging. We know there is upcoming disaster and yet any adjustment on our part must come at great economic or political costs that we are unable to pay. Climate change is a far-away risk for most people who struggle with everyday problems. Consider the case of Macron's France, which was recently forced by protests to withdraw a fuel tax that was intended to reduce the country's climate impact. Trump uses this event to justify the US withdrawal from the Paris climate treaty. The US clings to its climate-destroying industries like coal in a bid to save jobs. Companies refuse to be regulated because it would be too expensive. And so it goes.

This inability to come together and bypass individual interests and work towards a common good may very well be what is called the great filter, and it is in front of us, leading to a high probability of self-destruction. Inequality, itself a result of unbridled individualism, makes it much harder for us to come together as well. Capitalism, in spite of its propensity for ruthless efficiency, is not very good at managing a communal property like our planet (or the internet, etc). By endearing ourself to capitalism during the 20th century, we may have chosen a path of doom for our civilization.

All this actually made me rethink authoritarianism. Our cultural embrace of freedoms make it difficult to force people to swallow bitter pills needed for our civilization to survive. What if the path to sustainable collective survival lies in the private sector made ruthlessly efficient by capitalism, yet tempered by an authoritarian state that manages the common good? What if China was right all along? They are certainly more committed to battling climate change at the moment, compared to the US.

I don't advocate any shift towards authoritarianism or fascism of course, but it might be time to consider surrendering some of our individual freedoms and ambitions for the greater good. Inequality needs to be addressed too, some level of socialism might be necessary, such that the burden may be shouldered more by the elites who have taken most of the benefits from the planet anyway.

Personally, I think I already have a very low carbon footprint, compared to the average middle class person. I try not to travel too much (even within the city), and I don't drive a car. But the weight of these decisions isn't on us ordinary citizens, especially the developing world. There is very little we can do individually. The onus is on the leadership especially of the more advanced nations, to take the bold steps necessary to reduce inequality and emissions, and on the elite, to participate in the redistribution of wealth and to make sacrifices for the greater good. For the rest of us, all we can do is raise our voices in protest.

I sound like I'm calling for some kind of revolution, but I'm merely thinking out loud. I'm worried for what is to come. For my generation, things will probably be fine. But if nothing is done, the next 2 or 3 generations might be looking at living vastly more difficult lives. I realize this post seems really pessimistic (same for the prior one), which seems a bit off-brand for me. Maybe if we're lucky, I'm totally wrong and within the next 5-10 years some kind of solution emerges, and I'll look back at this post and laugh at how silly I was to be worried, but given the nature of humans and society it's difficult to be optimistic.

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Last modified at: Jan. 17, 2021, 4:56 a.m. Source file