How is the world doing?

From an anthropological perspective (as opposed to, say, a geological one)…how would you say we’re doing as a species right now?

This, I suppose, depends on the criteria we’re using…

From a historical standpoint, we’re pretty killing it - life expectancy has never been so good, our rate of scientific and technological development is rising seemingly exponentially, and we are - on the whole - much more enlightened than ever before about how everything, including ourselves, works. Pats on the back all round.

But, things *could *be a lot better. Global warming, war, revenge porn, dying bees, etc… All sorts of things *suck *at the moment - if we compare ourselves to how things *could *be, we’re in a veritable dark age.

So which of the above is correct? Or neither? Or a mix of both?

I’m tempted to lean towards the former, but perhaps I’m a naive optimist…

Not sure there is enough here for a debate. It’s a glass half-full/half-empty/make mine a double, sort of conversation.

okay, just unfortunate the dominant species is kicking the hell out of it and each other - maybe that’s just the nature of the beast and it must inevitably all turn to shit.

Certainly seems no way around a hard wired need of hierarchy for that species, including political/imperial world order.

I have yet to be convinced that human like intelligence is an evolutionary advantage long term. I would personally be surprised if the human race lasts more than another 100K years. Given our separation from any of the usual feedback mechanisms that usually control growth, the human species’ relationship to the biosphere seems rather like a cancer’s relationship to a organism. In the short term the cancer has a distinct competitive advantage over non-malignant cells, but in the long term it dies when it kills off its host.

That said, I like humanity too much to be in favor of its extinction. I am just pessimistic.

Agreement with Buck Godot. We’re fouling our nest just awfully, and we’re far too warlike with each other, but we have a fair amount of real promise. I think our arts justify our existence (if only to ourselves.) Scientific knowledge is also extremely admirable.

Brains and hearts: we got it made. We just need more of this wisdom stuff.

We are actually doing better in the matter of world peace. Of course the bar was set by the horrid wars of the 20th century but we are indeed doing better:

If we do prepare for the changes coming we will do ok, I’m only weary only if politicians decide that we should not do much to prevent global warming and in that case do little to prepare for the results.

Compared to all other ape species, I’d say “killing it” is a huge understatement. Global warming, shcmobal warming-- say what you will about dire consequences, it’s not going to do bupkis to us as a species.

If humanity can make it through the next thousand year, or even just a few hundred it–or it’s successors–will probably exist indefinitely. The trick is making it that far, which is problematic because some of the same technologies needed to sustain humanity indefinitely also give rise to the self same threats that may extinguish the species.


It would be near impossible for us to completely destroy our species.

I’m not sure how debatable this is. By almost any measure imaginable, almost everyone is better off than they’ve ever been. Extreme poverty has decreased by 80% since 1970. On the other hand, we’re not doing as well as we could be–or maybe we are, and the future will prove that this really was the right course. But we don’t even need to do the best because we’re doing well enough. We only need to make it a few hundred more generations–a blink in evolutionary time, really–before humanity gets off-world and becomes permanent.

Using existing technology in the near term, yes. However, as technology–and particularly technolgy that can be weaponized in some way–becomes more capable, it also becomes a greater potential threat. For instance, no natural pathogen, however virulent or pervasive, will ever kill as much as a quarter of the human population before burning out or remaining population becoming or artificially developing resistance. But it is not at all implausible for an artificially developed and distributed pathogen to reduce the human population below a sustainable threshold. Similarly, while current contributors to climate change may impact food production and livelihood forcing reductions in population or abandonment of established area, it won’t be an extinction event or even a civilization ender, but it may be possible in the relatively near future to deliberately (or even unintentionally through unforeseen macroengineering projects) permanently alter the Earth climate and atmosphere to be unlivable. And certainly the deliberate targetting of Earth with a large (>1 km) meteorould pose an extinction level event that we are not currently able to divert, withstand, or potentially even predict.

Gumption and will to survive are all very well, but when you can’t grow food for years on end or breathe the atmosphere sustaining a viable population becomes an exercise in futility. Although I think it is highly likely we’ll survive long enough to master the technologies ensuring our indefinite survival as a species (or at least that of our successors) there is no guarantee, and the world doesn’t owe us any more chance than it did the moa, wooly mammoth, or Japanese river otter. Our ultimate survival is not a foregone conclusion just because we’ve managed to make it this far.


How are we separated from the usual feedback mechanisms that usually control growth? Humanity’s not immortal yet, and for that matter, the birth rate is going down.

As a sentient product of evolution I think it’s inevitable that we would have some instincts that become detrimental as we change the world around us. And that we would still have significant problems to solve.

But currently, we’re on track. Unless something out of our hands happens (e.g. gamma-ray burst, 20km asteroid), I don’t see anything that will prevent us getting off-world, not even war.

I hesitate to call this a good or bad scorecard though because I think any sentient species would follow a path much like this.

As a collective, we are doing better than we were yesterday.

The problem with that is that we’re in a crappy neighborhood. If we get offworld, where do we go? None of the places we can reach are habitable, and every other solar system is too far away (and there’s no guarantee that there’s any habitable places there if we could get there.)

Global warming, shcmobal warming-- say what you will about dire consequences, it’s not going to do bupkis to us as a species.
John Mace, November 21, 2014

Iceberg, schmiceberg – say what you will about dire consequences, it’s not going to do bupkis to this magnificent ship, the greatest creation in the history of mankind.
– might have been said by John Mace, on the night of April 14, 1912

It’s that kind of hubris that leads to disaster, the kind that underestimates risk – like what a burgeoning population is unintentionally doing to our environment, while ironically overestimating the ability of technology to manage the consequences.

And the problem exists both individually and collectively. Individually, we still have folks who pride themselves on not recycling, irresponsibly dumping dangerous wastes, and driving pollution-belching gas guzzlers and powerboats – because it “proves” that they’re too smart to be taken in by the hype of hippie environmentalist tree-huggers. Collectively, we’re surrounded by industries who recklessly pollute our lakes and rivers, and our air and oceans, because it’s profitable to do so, and the politicians that they own think so, too.

Environmental pollution and climate change isn’t going to cause our imminent extinction in any foreseeable future, but it definitely undercuts our standard of living and our comfort, security, and cost of living; it threatens our food supplies, and kills us through increased incidence of disease and the catastrophes of extreme weather. Ultimately, however, human impact on the environment ranks with nuclear war and global pandemics as an existential threat to our existence. But unlike nuclear war or pandemics, it’s not something that we theorize may happen, but something that demonstrably is happening.

But it’s gradual and seemingly slow, so there’s no panic and no urgency and an illusory sense of control and even smug denial – if we really needed to do something about it, the feeling seems to be, then tomorrow we always could. Until one particular tomorrow arrives some time in our future, and we find that we have lost control of what is, in the words of Kerry Emanuel, “the most complex and perhaps the most consequential problem ever confronted by mankind”.

What, specifically, is any of that going to do to us as a species? Note that I said there could be “dire consequences”, but those will affect individuals and certain populations. But the species as a whole? Not much.

I wish people wouldn’t conflate moving offworld to somehow magically finding an earth-like planet 30 lyrs away. There’s enough material in the asteroid belt to construct about 3000 earths worth of living space. Our sun can provide a virtually infinite amount of energy. We don’t need to find a planet in a whole other solar system.

What do we mean by too far? Too far for us to reach in the next few centuries? Probably.

But longer-term we can travel to much of the galaxy without FTL, using e.g. stasis methods, generation starships, or, at higher speeds time dilation will mean the journey could seem almost instantaneous to those on-board.

The main problems we are facing are a direct result of how successful we are. Climate change, pollution, resource depletion, etc. are all a result of drastic increases in wealth and standards of living for people all over the world. That is a step up from the past when our biggest problems were due to stuff out of our control (disease, weather induced famine) or destructive behavior like radical ideology (WW2, communism, etc).

Steven Pinker had a good argument for how violence and cruelty are at all time lows.