Three episodes of the new NonProphets Podcast are now available for download on iTunes and on Blubbry. Every week—give or take—Atief Heermance, Scott Eastman, and I talk about forecasting and look at questions from various public forecasting platforms. We’re calling ourselves “NonProphets” because good forecasting isn’t prophecy as much as it is careful, educated guessing. Also, we’re not making any money on this.
Review of Superforecasting by Philip E. Tetlock and Dan Gardner
The possibilities of history are far more various than the human intellect is designed to conceive.—Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (1)
If I throw a ball in the air, I can say with rough confidence where it’s likely to land. If I wanted, I could calculate the trajectory of the ball fairly precisely. We know from careful observation that objects under the influence of gravity obey relatively simple, fixed rules.
The course of human history isn’t so easy to work out. Our collective behavior may be as much the product of physical law as any natural phenomenon. But it doesn’t seem to obey any simple, fixed rules. Human society is not a simple mechanical system, but rather a complex network of interacting agents. Groups of people can behave very differently in very similar circumstances. Social behavior is—to use the philosopher Karl Popper’s famous distinction—more like cloud-like than clock-like. (2)
Here are two graphs I made with Google’s Ngram Viewer. The graphs show how frequently a number of future-related terms occur in the more than 100 billion words of Google Books’ English-language corpus from 1950-2008. The charts are moderately smoothed to highlight longer-term trends. Although these terms are not all completely comparable with one another, the relative frequency of broad popular phrases like these tells us a lot about what’s on our collective mind.
1. Frequency of promising technology terms in the English-language Google Books corpus from 1950-2008.
The US and Russia keep nearly 2000 strategic nuclear weapons deployed and ready to launch. Modern strategic nuclear weapons generally have much larger yields than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A single nuclear warhead has easily enough explosive power to destroy a city and kill millions. An exchange of 100 of these weapons—which would be devastating in itself—would kick enough soot into the atmosphere to disrupt the global climate and cause a worldwide famine. A more total conflict between the US and Russia could threaten the survival of the human race and of life on Earth more generally.
In 1967, William and Paul Paddock’s best-selling book Famine 1975! argued that stagnant agricultural productivity and growing populations would mean abandoning countries like Egypt and Haiti to starvation by the middle of the next decade. (1) In 1968, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb—another bestseller—warned that overpopulation would soon lead to starvation and social upheaval on an enormous scale. (2) In all caps on the cover, just under the title, were the words, “WHILE YOU ARE READING THESE WORDS FOUR PEOPLE WILL HAVE DIED OF STARVATION. MOST OF THEM CHILDREN.”
There are no passengers on spaceship Earth. We are all crew.—Marshall McLuhan (1965)
Ed Lu wants to save the world. In a talk Thursday at the University of Hawai‘i, the former astronaut recalled looking at the moon while he was aboard the International Space Station. Its craters were dramatic visual evidence of the number and size of the asteroid impacts the moon had sustained. Lu knew that the more massive Earth is hit by asteroids even more often than the moon, although the evidence of those collisions is obscured by water, weather, and vegetation.
Assuming no important wars and no important increase in population, the economic problem may be solved, or be at least within sight of solution, within a hundred years. This means that the economic problem is not—if we look into the future—the permanent problem of the human race.—John Maynard Keynes (1)
In 1930, John Maynard Keynes wrote that the solution to “the economic problem” of scarcity was within reach. Keynes pointed out that even as the Great Depression was beginning the US and Europe were far richer than they had been before the Industrial Revolution. If the world economy grew at just 2% a year, we would be nearly 8 times richer by 2030. That would be enough, Keynes thought, to finally free the human race from the “struggle for subsistence.”
Review of Scatter, Adapt, and Remember by Annalee Newitz
Life on this earth has often been disturbed by terrible events. Countless living beings have been the victims of these catastrophes. Some inhabitants of dry land saw themselves swallowed up by floods. Others that lived in the bosom of the waters dried up when the bottom of the seas lifted suddenly. Their very races came to an end forever and leave in the world for the naturalist only a few barely recognizable remains.—Georges Cuvier (1)
Richard Leakey called it “the sixth extinction.” (2) At least five times before a substantial portion of life on Earth has gone extinct over a relatively short period of time. The Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event that wiped out most of the dinosaurs—and more than 70% of all species—roughly 65 million years ago is only the most recent of these mass extinctions. The Permian-Triassic extinction 250 million years ago, in which some 90% of marine species died out, was even more severe. Based on the rate species are disappearing, scientists believe we may now be on the leading edge of a new mass extinction event of our own making. (3) We could even become one of its victims.
Annalee Newitz believes we can survive a sixth extinction. In her new book, Scatter, Adapt, and Remember: How Humans Will Survive a Mass Extinction, Newitz sees in this history of extinction not only the fragility of life, but also its resilience. After all, some creatures have survived each catastrophe. We ourselves may have rebounded from the brink of extinction once already in our short history. We are arguably the most adaptable species on the planet. We eat a wide variety of food and can live almost anywhere. Although we reproduce and evolve relatively slowly, our intelligence gives us the ability to adapt to changing circumstances in ways that other species cannot.
The human race’s prospects of survival were considerably better when we were defenceless against tigers than they are today, when we have become defenceless against ourselves.—Arnold Toynbee (1)
The human race probably faces a greater risk of extinction today than at any time in recorded history. The eminent cosmologist Martin Rees has put the human race’s chances of surviving this century at just 50%. (2) Nick Bostrom has found that academic risk experts generally give us an 80-90% chance of survival, which is better but hardly reassuring. (3) Before the development of modern technology, we faced a relatively low level of what Bostrom calls “existential risk.” But while our mastery of technology has increased our ability to protect ourselves against environmental dangers, it has also made us a much greater threat to our own survival. Now we have reached a critical phase in our development as a species: if we don’t learn to manage our growing technical power, we are in danger of destroying ourselves. (4)
We live in the Anthropocene. The age of humanity. It is the period of Earth’s history largely shaped by human activity. Over roughly the last 10,000 years we humans have changed the composition of both the planet’s atmosphere and its oceans, radically transformed its ecosystems—driving many species to extinction in the process—and have even begun to alter our own biology.
The transformation of the world is the result our collective activity but is not in its totality the product of some deliberate, careful plan. Our tremendous power to reshape the world gives us both an opportunity to make it a better place or to do it great harm. Although the benefits of human civilization are obvious, human civilization has also had a host of serious unintended consequences. It is not beyond our abilities to destroy either ourselves or the planet that is our home.
As the pace of change increases we have to consider as a species where we are heading. We can’t continue to use our power carelessly much longer. This blog will focus on the way we are transforming both the planet and ourselves. If there is anything that you think I should cover here, please don’t hesitate to pass it along. In particular, I would love to hear your suggestions for articles to read or books to review. Likewise, if you have any original photos you would like featured on the site, please let me know.