Motherboard asked 105 interdisciplinary thinkers about their fears and hopes about the future. I had the honor of being invited to participate.


The questions:

What worries you most about the future?
What gives you the most hope about the future?

From Motherboard’s edited summary:

By far the most frequently mentioned worry was climate change (29), followed by a spike in political extremism (21), with a subset of answers directly linking these problems. Artificial intelligence, especially its bias and unpredictability, represented another common concern (10). The proliferation of misinformation (8) and insufficient investment in science and STEM education (8) were often mentioned.
The majority of participants referenced human ingenuity and collective action as sources of hope and inspiration. Of that group, 26 specifically mentioned younger generations made them optimistic (no pressure, Gen Z). Seven said that the advancement of women’s rights gave them hope, and three mentioned the #MeToo movement.

See also two more detailed survey reports (1, 2), which include the full text of the responses.

All the fears and hopes highlighted by the Motherboard editors are important. However, I detect a certain amount of virtue signaling and conformity to current intellectual fashions. I expected that, and wanted to say something different.

So here’s my response:

Fear: The trend, evident in the “Western world,” toward a senile society of sedated, reasonable, boring, politically correct zombies.
Hope: Humanity has done wonderful things on Earth and can move on to do even more wonderful things among the stars, provided we keep a healthy reserve of boundless, irreverent, and unreasonable optimism.
The meek will inherit the Earth. The rest of us are going to the stars” (a quote often attributed to [Robert] Heinlein‘s Lazarus Long).

Lazarus Long is a fictional hero featured in several science fiction novels by Robert Heinlein.

I became aware of this great quote a few years ago while participating in an online discussion titled “Is Space Travel worth the effort?” The discussion was organized by the Club of Amsterdam in preparation for an event titled “The future of Space Travel.”

Of course space travel is worth the effort — to me, this is an axiom rather than a theorem. However, it’s always interesting to hear good arguments in support of space travel.

The best comment came from Susan Shwartz:

“The meek will inherit the earth. The rest of us are going to the stars.
It’s worth it. It’s infinitely worth it.”

I must say that, though the first line is often attributed to Lazarus Long, he doesn’t seem to have actually pronounced these words— if you find them in any Lazarus Long novel, or in other works by Heinlein, please let me know. But this is definitely the sort of thing that Lazarus Long would say.

Susan’s comment provoked some bits of virtue signaling like “Punchy as this soundbite is, it perfectly encapsulates the profound problems at the heart of the whole ‘space colonisation’ project: — the billions of people who want to live on this planet are disparaged as dull and unambitious; — Earth, and all its myriad co-evolutionary life forms, are dismissed as being of only limited interest; — the exorbitant costs, serious dangers and colossal impracticalities of space travel are utterly ignored.”

This is entirely missing the point, for nobody is saying that the people who want to live on this planet are dull and unambitious, or that the Earth and its biosphere are uninteresting.

I can imagine a future scenario without space colonization, with a (gradually) reduced population, less damage to the environment, more assistance to the weak, reduced wealth and education gaps, and a simple but decent life for everyone.

This scenario is good enough for a lot of persons who prefer a quiet life with no risks, and I wish them all the best, but I want more. This is not putting the meek down and calling them dull, or unambitious, but simply stating that I have different ambitions.

There will always be persons who prefer a more interesting and fun life with some risks, and find far horizons and unknown wonders more appealing than the quiet familiarity of home. These are the explorers who will go to the stars.

I said similar things in the Club of Amsterdam discussion, but here I have made an effort to tone down a bit, because I have no interest in participating in culture wars.

I am only pointing out that bold optimism is good, and space expansion is important.

Back to the Motherboard survey, I wish to highlight the response of Daniel Szafir, which resonates with mine.

Fear: Our increasing risk aversion will prevent or delay us from achieving our potential. It was only 66 years between Kitty Hawk and Apollo 11. It has now been 46 years since Apollo 17. We need to get back to thinking and dreaming big with a spirit of optimism, amazement, and wonder.
Hope: We have the recipe for success as a species: We are incredibly resilient and creative in the face of adversity, can build on the knowledge and developments of prior generations, and have a unique capacity for individual self-improvement over the course of a single lifetime. If you are reading this, you are amazingly lucky to be alive right now, because today is the best time to be alive in human history. Yesterday was the best time before that, and I can‘t wait to see what tomorrow brings.

That’s the right spirit, indeed!

First published in Space Decentral.

Image from Wikimedia Commons.