What will humanity do next, after two centuries of extraordinary growth?
Last week I asked this futures question, starting off by introducing the incredible boom humanity experience after around 1800 and continuing through the present day. I then offered one answer to the question, looking ahead for the next 200 years in terms of retreat, repair, and redressing harms. It’s the opposite of growth, but not for purely retrograde reasons. If you haven’t read the post, please do so. It’s what explains this one.
Today I’d like to answer that future orientation question in a very different way. What if, unlike the Demodernists (HT Ed Webb) we instead decide to continue the two centuries of rapid growth for another 200 years? Instead of less growth, more of it. We might double down on the industrial revolutions. Where might that take us?
This school of thought views the past 200 years as an era of continuous innovation and rapid development, and one to celebrate and refine. It takes the industrial and postindustrial eras as a civilizational launch pad and wants to rocket away.
Think of this future model in terms of the metrics people used to understand the two-century boom time. From circa 1800 to now human lifespan extended, say from roughly 40 to the 70s. If we continue that into the future, lives lasting longer than a century become normal, and two century lives are unsurprising. The past boom saw massive improvements in human health and well being, so we continue to run those arcs upwards, with more diseases controlled or eradicated and more satisfactions in our lives. Education expanded immensely during the industrial and postindustrial eras, so the next two centuries see us learning ever more. We go much further with human flourishing, coming up with new cultures and ways of living. Humanity creates a zeroth world at scale, then races ahead to make civilization even more awesome.
Science and technologies obviously took off in the past two centuries, so the pro-growth futures school expects more such advances, some through new scientific and technical revolutions. For example, space exploration races ahead as machines, then humans spread through the solar system (think of The Expanse, either the books or the show), then reach out to nearby stars. AI progresses, maybe to the point of sentience or even the fabled Singularity, or into some new form. Robotics become commonplace. We might shove big chunks of our industrial base off the Earth and try re-greening the world.
In the life sciences, humans modify themselves into new forms, from cyborg attachments to machines to genetic engineering and other modifications. We develop new plant and animal species, resurrecting some extinct ones. There are more animals and people total, and also more “animals” and “people” in newly engineered, cyborg, or otherwise new forms. Humanity’s footprint is far larger than it was in the benighted 2020s. Our whole human enterprise controls and generates more energy and we advance to Kardashev’s Type II level, becoming capable of organizing the output of the sun itself.
There are fictions about this which might inspire such a future, and also give us insights into its ambitions and challenges. Star Trek’s positive vision lies ahead, especially in the first two programs, with its interstellar spread, advanced science, and, at times, a very progressive social order without money or physical want. Further ahead than Trek is Iain Banks’ Culture series, which describes worlds where technology is grand and humane, where humanity is much better off. There’s a utopian trope here. There’s also a kind of cosmic grandeur. As Liu Cixin put it in Death’s End (死神永生: 2010),
And now we know that this is the journey that must be made by every civilization: awakening inside a cramped cradle, toddling out of it, taking flight, flying faster and farther, and, finally, merging with the fate of the universe as one. (597)
Nonfiction futures work has also anticipated such an epoch. Alvin and Heidi Toffler expected orbiting factories above a green Earth. Aaron Bastani imagined “Fully Automated Luxury Communism,” where automation yields a much more egalitarian and excellent life for all. (There is also a fully automated gay space communism variant.)
The longtermist movement fits in this direction, but in a, well, longer term, appropriately. They look ahead not just a mere pair of centuries but millennia and more, to a time when humanity sprawls across the galaxy as something like gods. They apply that vision to my frame of the next two centuries and want us to devote them to realizing that goal. Think of this as reaching not just Kardashev’s Type II, but Type III.
Transhumanism plays a part in this vision of the future, with its emphasis not just on modifying the human frame, but improving it in a progressive direction and creating new forms. Uploading consciousness into computation easily constitutes one strange of such an evolving, technologically advancing civilization.
There’s more to this idea, of course, as we’re talking about two centuries of human history, and one that’s larger than ours in terms of population, wealth, complexity, and sheer physical expanse, but I think at least the basics of the idea are now in view. That view now offers so many questions. How would an expanding human race deal with the limits to growth we seem to be overshooting now? How does such a project resist reproducing present and past injustices and inequities – for example, by colonizing other worlds and echoing the history of European colonization? Would an extropian effort to redefine humanity backfire in horrible ways, or elicit a drive to return to some sense of an original human form?
I don’t have a name for this view of the future. In fact, “view” might be too mild a term. “Ideology” or “movement” perhaps fit the bill better, at least if this takes off. I’d love to hear any reader suggestions. And, of course, any questions.
If there’s interest, I will follow up with more posts on these two opposed views of the next two centuries. There’s a lot more to say and think through.
(images via Stable Diffusion and Midjourney)