That humanity and the planet are in crisis is clear. Moreover, the severity of the crisis is now beginning to hit home. Recent reports suggest we are in the early stages of the sixth major mass extinction in Earth's history—this time caused by one of the planet's own species rather than an asteroid or comet impact—and if we do not change our ways radically and very fast, then we, along with many other species, will become extinct in a century or so. And it is our own fault.
At least that is the story we are told. Here I propose a new story of human evolution—not the kind of new story that many people are calling for in which personal and social transformation help us avoid immanent extinction and move on to a sustainable long-term future. In this radically different new story, there is no long-term stable future ahead of us.
We are spinning faster and faster into the center of an evolutionary spiral. However fast we find the pace of life today, one thing is sure, twenty years from now it is going to be much faster, and twenty years after that much faster still, and twenty years after that... almost unimaginable.
Some look at where this acceleration is taking us technologically; to the so-called singularity when computers surpass human intelligence. We would then move into a new era of development unlike anything we have seen so far. But whatever may transpire in a post-singularity world, one thing is certain: The acceleration in the rate of development will not stop. Quite the opposite; it will leap upwards even steeper.
Herein lies our blind spot on the future. Continued acceleration is inevitable, and is winding us up faster and faster in a whirlwind of change from which there is no way out. Yet any notion of a long-term future for humanity implies the acceleration has ceased. You cannot have it both ways.
In addition, accelerating change puts ever-increasing stress on the systems involved—human, social, economic, and planetary. Stress stems from failure to adapt. And failure to adapt leads ultimately to breakdown of these systems.
Many of the crises facing us have arisen from accelerating development. Climate change, for example, stems from the fact we are burning fossil fuels thousands of times faster than the planet can reabsorb the CO2 produced. And there are other equally dangerous crises waiting in the wings, each the failure to adapt to ever-increasing rates of change.
This new story is not, however, all one of doom and gloom. The impending end of our species in linear time does not preclude our fulfilling our destiny in exponential time. There could be as much development in the decades remaining as there has been in the whole of human history so far.
To explain how I have come to such conclusions, let us begin by exploring the nature of exponential change, and its counter-intuitive character.