Anchored in the Ground of Being
There’s no such thing as ego.
The Sound of Silence?
How can I be still? By flowing with the stream.
Anchored in the Ground of Being
There’s no such thing as ego.
Noise disturbs meditation?
There is only consciousness. There is no individual apart from consciousness who is conscious.
How is it that the most intelligent and creative species on this planet has also become the most dangerous?
On the one hand, we are truly wondrous beings, with extraordinary potential. We have studied the world around us, and been awed by what we have discovered. We are aware of our history, of how we came to be here. We can look ahead, imagine a better future, make choices, and reshape the world according to our needs. We have liberated our bodies from much physical toil, freed ourselves from the suffering of many diseases so that we can live longer, more active, lives, and relieved ourselves from many other burdens. We are capable of love and deep compassion, an appreciation of beauty, the creation of great art, music, and poetry. We find meaning in our lives, and have a sense of justice. Nothing like us has hitherto walked this Earth.
Yet, despite our intelligence, creativity and technological prowess, we are destroying our planetary support system at an alarming rate. The forests we once inhabited are dying, to be replaced by concrete, wasteland, and desert. Species are becoming extinct as fast as in any of the great planetary cataclysms of the past. The air is hazed with pollution. Topsoil is blowing in the wind. Rivers run sour into the sea. The oceans are increasingly acidic. And the belly of the Earth has been ripped open in the unending quest for raw materials and energy. In the worst case, the planet will be so changed by our actions that human beings themselves will not be able to survive. In a hundred years we may have become extinct—or be well on our way to extinction.
This is the tragedy that has befallen us. A species with such unprecedented capacities, and the potential to be something truly magnificent, may be about to blow it.
Many have tried to identify when we fell from grace. Some see it in the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century when human activities took precedence over nature. Others trace it back to the Industrial Revolution, which triggered a burgeoning consumption of natural resources with its consequent pollution. Some put the blame on oppression of indigenous cultures by colonialism. Or the legalization of usury and the charging of interest, leading to economies wedded to continual growth. Some see it in the advent of civilization and the movement away from the land to living in cities. Others in the demise of matriarchal societies and the patriarchal takeover of a culture. Or the loss of our indigenous myths and initiation rites. Others trace it back to the Agricultural Revolution, when we moved from a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, based on coexistence with nature, to one in which the world was ours to control and exploit. While some argue that the root of the problem goes back even further, to hunting itself. Is it a coincidence, they ask, that many of the large mammals disappeared from the planet around the same time as humans developed the spear?
All of these undoubtedly played a role in our present-day woes. But I do not believe there was anywhere we went wrong. There is no one to blame; no group that was at fault. The root of our present predicament goes much deeper than any particular human activity or era. Somewhat paradoxically, the very features that made us such wondrous beings also lie behind the tragic turn of affairs in which we now find ourselves.
The human story began some seven to ten millions years ago when hominins—the name given to the evolutionary lineage that eventually led to homo sapiens—and pan, the line that led to chimpanzees, diverged.
If today we were to meet our early ancestors, we would probably recognize some of ourselves in them—much as we see something of ourselves in today's great apes, the chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans. We only have to look at the films of Jane Goodall, who lived with wild chimpanzees in Tanzania, to see how similar they are to us.
All primates are tool-users to some degree. Chimpanzees use twigs stripped of their leaves to "fish" termites out of mounds. They will use rocks as hammers to smash nuts and chop food into smaller pieces, or throw rocks to warn off predators. They will make sponges from leaves to soak up water to drink. Gorillas will use sticks to test the depth of water, and branches to make a bridge across a swamp. Orangutans will make whistles out leaves. If our primate cousins are using a variety of tools, it is pretty certain that our own ancestors were doing so way back when they first diverged from chimpanzees.
Archaeologists often claim that our ancestors only began using tools three or so million years ago, but the tools that we find are those that have survived the passage of time—generally tools made of stone. Tools made from wood, grass, leaves or other natural materials would have decayed long ago, leaving no trace for us to find today. It may be that our forebears didn't learn to chip stones to make sharper edges until a couple of million years ago, but tool use in one form another has likely been there all along.
There are other qualities of the great apes that we easily recognize. They show empathy for other's feelings, and will cuddle and comfort each other in times of stress. They play with their young, and mourn those who die. They learn rapidly from others in their tribe, can solve problems, and have a rudimentary sense of number. They form complex social relationships, and possess what is technically called a "theory of mind," recognizing that others in their group may have their own perception and beliefs. And, along with dolphins and elephants, they pass the mirror-test for self-consciousness, being able to recognize the reflection they see in a mirror as their own.
So the question that begs asking, is why did the hominin lineage develop so differently from the chimp lineage?
It is said that chimpanzee DNA is 99% the same as human DNA, although recent studies suggest the figure may closer to 95% the same. But within that few percent difference, some genes went through a greatly accelerated development.
One of these rapidly evolving genes, called HAR1 (Human Accelerated Region 1), had hardly changed over hundreds of millions of years; chickens and chimpanzees have almost identical versions—just two variations. But in hominins it underwent 18 changes in just 5 million years—a mere blink in evolutionary time. This gene appears to play a critical role in the brain development, facilitating the growth of embryonic stem cells in the neocortex—the newest structure in the human brain, and the one responsible for cognition and other higher mental functions.
But bigger brains need more energy and better nutrition. There is still some debate over the diet of our early ancestors, but the general concensus is leaning towards them being omnivorous. We know that our first cousins, the chimpanzees and bonobos are omnivorous; they eat fruit, vegetation, insects and occasionally small animals. Humans have similar guts so it seems likely the first hominins would have eaten a similar diet. This is supported from studies of the enamel of fossilized teeth of Australopithecus, living 2-4 million years ago, who appears to have consumed a wide range of foods, including, leaves, fruits and meat. Eating meat was a more efficient source of energy than chewing roots or leaves. Moreover, the proteins and amino acids in meat play an valuable role in brain development and function.
This is not to suggest that all of our lineage ate meat. It was not necessary for individual survival. But in those groups that did eat meat, brain development would have been enhanced, with a corresponding increase in intelligence. Such groups would likely have been more successful, and survived better long-term. Nor does it imply that we today need to eat meat—most vegetarians are perfectly healthy—only that in our evolutionary past it likely played an important role in brain development.
Back then, meat was not always that easy to come by. Humans cannot run as fast as many other animals—try catching a rabbit, a fox, or a deer. So our early forebears were generally scavengers, having to wait until they came across an animal that had died, or perhaps the left-overs of a kill by a large cat or some other carnivore.
Archeological excavations show that 3.5 million years ago stones were being used to smash the bones of dead animals and get at the nutrients in the marrow. There are also many examples from the same period of bones with cut marks, suggesting that sharp stones had been used to scrape off the flesh.
It is probably no coincidence that around this time the hominin brain began to increase rapidly in size. By two million years ago it was fifty percent larger than when they split from chimps.
Another gene that underwent accelerated development affected bone growth in the hands and feet. The foot flattened and the toes shortened, changes that were helpful for walking on two legs. Perhaps even more significantly it led to the fully opposable thumb—a thumb that can touch each of the finger tips. The hand now had a much better grip and could perform more delicate operations, making it one of the most versatile manipulative organs to have ever emerged, significantly enhancing tool-making skills.
It also allowed these early ancestors to throw objects further and with greater precision. One day, one of them threw a rock that hit an animal, killing it—or at least demobilizing it. This may not at first seem such a major development, but it had a major evolutionary impact. No longer did they have to scavenge, or try to run down and catch their prey with their own hands. They could now fell animals at a distance.
We can imagine other members of the group copying the behavior, and over time learning from each other skills for more successful throwing. Later they discovered that they could throw spears even further, extending their outreach and power. They progressed from scavenger-gatherers to hunter-gatherers.
This increased the amount of meat in their diet, which meant better nourishment for their brains. They became smarter, could learn faster, create better tools, and find new uses for them. All of which served to speed up their development.
Being able to "act a distance" changed things forever, and in a fundamental way. Being able to influence the world beyond their immediate reach sowed the seeds of a sense of dominion over nature. It wasn't wrong. It would have happened sooner or later with any intelligent tool-using species. They were just trying to stay alive. Nevertheless, it was a significant break from the past. And if there ever was a time when our ancestors first broke from the natural order, this was it.
Two million years ago the genus homo had emerged from the hominin lineage. Several other species had emerged along the way, but only the homo genus survived long-term. A hunter-gatherer, walking on two legs, using tools proficiently.
A quarter of a million years ago the species homo sapiens emerged. And something quite remarkable and unprecedented had happened. It was learning to speak.
Many creatures use language of some form or other to communicate. Speech is different. It is a semantic language in which sounds convey specific meanings. The sound "tree" denotes not just an individual tree, but the whole class of trees, and when incorporated into a grammatical structure can convey complex and more nuanced meanings (e.g. the pear tree at the end of the garden isn't blooming this year.)
Although we think of speech as a uniquely human capacity, its seeds are to be found in our primate cousins. Orangutans are able to deliberately control the sounds they make allowing them to mimic some human sounds. Bonobos will use the same call in very different situations, showing that the actual sounds have flexible meanings depending on the context—much like the word "bow" can mean a knot or a weapon depending on the situation. And chimpanzees will learn from each other new sounds with new meanings.
Human speech has, of course, come a long way from there. And, as with other major developments in our lineage, its development depended on significant genetic changes. Speech requires the greater processing power of a larger brain, which had been gradually developing since the split from the chimpanzees. This was further augmented by the FOXP2 gene—often referred to as "the language gene"—another gene that underwent an accelerated development in our ancestors. It led to not one, but several changes crucial for speech: the development of brain areas that process language, the delicate motor control of the lower face and mouth necessary to make a variety of sounds, and the ability to remember many of these fine muscle movements.
A second prerequisite for speech is the ability to produce a large repertoire of sounds. In humans this ability comes from the larynx, or voice-box. The other great apes have a larynx, but they cannot articulate sounds the same way that we can. With humans another gene modification moved the larynx further down the throat, carrying the base of the tongue with it, giving the tongue much greater freedom of movement. This, along with changes in the shape of the mouth, allowed homo sapiens to articulate a wide range of sounds, with many subtle variations. Speech as we know it became possible. (These changes also opened up the airways to the possibility of snoring, and the risk of choking on food, but that was a small price to pay.)
All animals learn from experience; but with speech humans could share experiences with each other and so learn, not only from their own experiences, but also from the experiences of others. They could build up a collective body of knowledge about the world, far greater than any individual could ever gather. Shared knowledge led to even better tools, and to better ways of surviving.
Speech ignited what was to become an evolutionary explosion. Its seeds were there in larger brains and expanding tool use, but on their own these capacities weren't going anywhere very fast. It was being able to speak that allowed these potentials to flourish, accelerating humankind's rate of development.
Whenever there is positive feedback like this in a system, the rate of development steadily increases, leading to what is commonly called "exponential growth." This occurs whenever something's rate of growth is proportional to its current size.
A common example is population. The more people there are, the more children are born. The more children that are born, the more parents there will be in the future, and the more children that will then be born, and so on. If there are no constraints, the population keeps growing faster and faster.
Population growth does not follow a true mathematical exponential curve, which is defined as one in which the rate of growth is directly proportional to the current size. Other factors like health care, sanitation and resources also have an impact. In what follows I shall use the term in the more everyday sense of an "exponential-like growth"—one in which positive feedback causes a similar accelerating pattern.
Positive feedback has been present throughout the history of life, new evolutionary advances serving as platforms for future advances. And not surprisingly the rate of evolutionary development has been steadily accelerating.
Life on Earth began some 4.3 or more billion years ago. For the following 2.5 billion years, there were only single-celled organisms—mainly bacteria and algae. Then, two-thirds of the way through life's history, two major innovations speeded up the rate of development considerably.
One was sexual reproduction. Previously cells reproduced by splitting into two, each of the new "sisters" being clones of the original. With sexual reproduction, the genetic information from two cells was combined. Genetic differences now occurred in every generation, speeding evolution a thousandfold.
Multi-cellular organisms were another significant leap forward. Working together in a community, it became more efficient for individual cells to take on special functions. Some took on tasks such as digestion, some formed a protective skin, others helped the organism move about. Evolution was no longer limited to the creation of new species of cells—the muscle cells in a fish are not that different from the muscle cells in you or me. What has evolved is the way the cells are organized. This can change more easily and faster than the biological structure of the cells themselves. The result was another speeding up of development. The awe-inspiring diversity of multi-cellular species that we see on Earth today evolved in just the last quarter of Earth's history.
Life moved onto the land about three-hundred-and-fifty million— years ago.
Two hundred-and-thirty million years ago, dinosaurs appeared. And the first mammals emerged about a hundred-and-thirty million years ago. But they remained small nocturnal creatures, mainly living in trees and burrows, staying out of the dinosaur's way as much as possible. When the dinosaur reign ended some sixty three million years ago, mammalian evolution had the opportunity to take off.
Forty million years ago—in the last one percent of life's history—the first monkeys. And with them the hands.
Seven to ten million years ago, the hominin line split from the chimpanzees.
Two million years ago the genus homo appeared with its increased cranial capacity, using tools more proficiently, and walking on two legs.
And half-a-million years ago homo sapiens. That was in just the last one percent of the last one percent of life's history.
This new species was smarter than the average ape. And the smarter they were, the smarter they became, further increasing the pace of evolution.
Parallel to these various biological and cultural developments, consciousness was also seeing some major changes. Ones that were equally significant for what was to come.
Our primate ancestors, having similar sense organs to our own would have had a similar experience of the world as us. They would have seen and heard things much as we do, with similar tastes and smells, and bodily sensations.
But changes were afoot. The advent of speech not only meant that humans could speak to each other, they could also internalize speech and have an inner dialog with themselves—the essence of what we commonly call "thinking." Thinking allowed them to identify patterns in their experience, form concepts, and make generalizations. They could apply reason, draw conclusions, and begin to understand the world in which they found themselves. An entirely new dimension had been added to consciousness.
Being able to think about experience meant that they could imagine times other than the present moment.
Memory works largely by association. Seeing a tree may trigger past images of that tree, or experiences associated with it. This much probably happens with any sentient animal. But thinking opened an entirely new way of conjuring up memories. With the thought "the tree I climbed as a child" images of the past can be deliberately brought back to awareness. It became possible to think about past experiences, relive what had happened, and learn what brought pleasure and what brought pain.
Similarly it became possible to think about the future—to imagine what might happen, judge whether or not it might be beneficial for well-being and survival, consider alternatives and their consequences, make conscious choices, and plan how to act.
Time became a conscious thread in awareness, bringing another new dimension to experience, and a freedom of choice unavailable to other creatures.
An entirely new form of innovation had appeared on Earth. Indeed, if there is one defining characteristic of our species it is innovation. Just about everything that now distinguishes us from any other creature on the planet—our art and science, our civilization and culture, our weapons and our environmental degradation—is the result of human innovation.
Innovation itself was not new. It is the very nature of evolution to innovate, to explore new avenues as they arise. For the preceeding four million years, it had been biology that was evolving and the principle medium of innovation had been genetic. Now it was culture that was evolving, and the medium of innovation was the human mind—changing beliefs, values, skills, ideas and understanding. And these can evolve very much faster than genes.
These early humans naturally applied their innovative powers to the various and many challenges that arose in order to make life that much safer and more comfortable.
As ever, food was important. They learned to make sharp edges to stones, creating axes and knives. They shaped points to put on the tips of their spears. Bows allowed them to aim more accurately and further ahead.
They tamed fire, which not only helped keep them warm, but allowed them to cook food, releasing more nutrients and making them easier to digest.
Making clothes and building shelters allowed them to better survive inclement weather, and venture into other lands.
Weaving plant fibers into baskets, made it easier to transport food.
Herding animals lessened the time and energy spent hunting them. They began maintaining grazing lands and guarding the stock.
Noticing how seeds grew into plants, they began sowing their own seeds, harvesting the crop, and building stores to preserve the food though less abundant times.
The invention of the plough made tilling the land much easier. Harnessing animals to the plough made it even more efficient in terms of human energy, and increased the land area that could be cultivated.
As food become more abundant, increasing numbers people were freed from having to work the land. They could live together in larger communities, dividing the labor between people, allowing them to develop specialist skills and increase their efficiency. Civilization (literally, living in cities) had begun.
They began using fire to smelt metal, creating a whole new set of tool-making materials, pushing the rate of development even faster.
Five thousand years ago— in the last one percent of the last one percent of the last one percent of life's history—the wheel was invented, lightening the burden of transporting heavy loads, and setting the scene for a host of mechanical technology that was to come.
During the same period, the fine motor control of the fully opposable thumb, responsible for many of the advances in tool use, led to another world-changing breakthrough—writing. Limited to speech alone, ideas could not travel far without distortion or loss. Writing enabled the laying down of a more permanent record, handing down ideas and discoveries to future generations. Initially, they were painted on walls, carved on slabs of stone, or inscribed in clay tablets. But these were difficult to transport. The development of papyrus, parchment, and later paper, overcame this handicap, allowing the ever-growing body of knowledge, which had made so many of the technological advances possible, to be shared with others in distant lands.
They applied their creativity in other ways too. A hundred thousand years ago, humans were decorating their bodies with color, and stringing shells and bones into necklaces. Complex art was being painted on rock walls at least 40,000 years ago. Human, animal and other figurines were being carved in the same period. And the first musical instruments were created. They were also burying their dead, along with both precious and practical items that might be useful in an afterlife.
These, along with other qualities that mark humans out as different, are to be found in other creatures in less developed forms. Many animals have their own social forms, with group cohesion, clear rankings, accepted behaviors, and customs. Our primate cousins display an appreciation of fairness, penalizing those who cheat or break the unspoken rules. They, along with several and other animals, demonstrate compassion towards another's suffering. Art is not new either: witness the elaborate, exotic creations of male bower birds, wooing females with beauty; the mating dances of many creatures; the songs of birds and whales. Dogs, elephants, monkeys and pigeons can perform simple counting. Many creatures display foresight, anticipating future conditions. Chimpanzees, orang-outans, elephants, and dolphins all pass the mirror test, recognizing their own reflection as themselves. Some animals will take into account what another might be thinking—a crucial step in the appreciation of other minds. Elephants and dolphins mourn their dead. Innovation itself, the hallmark of our species, also appears in other animals—the crow, for example, that, unprompted, fashions a hook from a piece of wire to get at some food.. Play is not new either; whether pups frolicking in the grass or birds dancing on the wind. Nor is love, as any cat- or dog-owner knows.
All these qualities, and more, were already there in embryonic form. But the combination of intelligence, tool-use and speech, with the consequent development of knowledge, technology, and culture, led to their blossoming into the much fuller manifestations we know in human beings. All that we celebrate about ourselves—our culture, intelligence, foresight, creativity, art, music, poetry, choice, love, compassion, and self-awareness—have been nourished by our being able to think about them, apply our creativity to them, and share our appreciation of them with others. It is this much higher degree of development of these qualities that is unique to our species.
We are indeed wondrous beings, ones with extraordinary potential. We are capable of love and deep compassion, an appreciation of beauty, the creation of great art, music, and poetry. We are aware of our history, of how we came to be here. We can have a vision of a better future, make choices, and reshape the world according to our needs. We find meaning in our lives, a sense of justice, and an inner wisdom. We have studied the world around us, and been awed by what we have discovered. We are aware of our own consciousness, and, peering into our true nature, have found paths to an inner liberation that surpass our many material freedoms. Nothing like us had ever walked this Earth.
Homo sapiens became a technologically-empowered intelligence, creating more effective and efficient tools with which to modify and control its world, and using them to get more detailed knowledge and better understanding of the world. Which in turn led to improved technologies—and even better knowledge. Innovation bred further innovation, and adding fuel to the evolutionary explosion.
Six hundred years ago came the printing press with its profound impact on the distribution of knowledge. Books no longer had to be copied by hand, but could be mass produced and at a much lower cost.
On its heels came the Renaissance, with significant advances in painting, sculpture, music and philosophy, along with an expansion of trade across the world. The Earth was no longer flat; nor was it the center of the Universe.
This was followed in the seventeenth century by the European Enlightenment in which the power of reason gained dominance, leading to the birth of the scientific approach, and the quest for reliable truth about the world.
Simultaneously, the Industrial Revolution was getting underway, marrying the power of fire with the freedom of the wheel. We today may bemoan some of the repercussions of industrialization, but its founders were a group of visionaries who saw the potential of the steam engine to relieve the load on human muscles and for sanitation pipes made of clay to improve health. Nobody back then knew anything about atmospheric science, or that these new technologies, as they came to serve a population exploding way faster than anyone then imagined, combined with their also having to serve material desires that were inconceivable back then, would come to threaten the very survival of humanity.
Iron gave way to the much stronger steel, and thence to its use in just about every area of engineering. Later synthetic materials were created that pushed the envelope in other directions—stronger, more fluid, more durable, more flexible, lighter —impacting all aspects of life. These new materials spawned more new technologies, expanding the power to modify the world, and deepening knowledge and understanding. Which led to more technological advances, more power, and knowledge. Positive feedback at work again.
Information technologies were developing too. The telegraph made it possible to send messages instantly across the land; the telephone enabled one to speak with someone far away; radio allowed one person to talk to many others; television brought the ability to see others and events across the world.
As technology advanced so did the power of computation. From mechanical switches, to vacuum tubes and electronic valves, to transistors, to the now ubiquitous michrochip; each step pushing speed and storage ahead at an exponential rate. The now famous Moore's Law showed that over the last half-century computing capacity and speed have been doubling every eighteen months or so. And the trend is set to continue.
The Internet revolutionized how information and knowledge could be shared. The WorldWide Web took this interconnectivity to everyone. Twenty years ago few foresaw that we'd be shopping online, streaming movies, engaging social media, or any of the other host of online activities that today we take for granted.
Other technological advances presented new opportunities for knowledge and understanding. It became possible to look into the basic structure of life itself, heralding a revolution in medicine. Comparing our own DNA with other species opened the door to a much better understanding of our own evolutionary journey.
Other advances opened the possibility of peering into the brain itself—still the most complex information-processing system in the known Universe—and begin to understand our own minds, and the nature of consciousness itself.
All this in the last one percent of the last one percent of the last one percent of the last one percent of Earth's history.
Various side-effects of this ever-accelerating development were not, however, so beneficial.
As some of the physical dangers were reduced, food supply increased and life made that much safer, people began to live longer. More of their children survived, and slowly at first the population began to grow. It is estimated that with the shift to a hunter-gather lifestyle the population grew from a few hundred thousand to two or three million. As better tools were developed, their numbers kept growing. By the dawn of agriculture they had reached somewhere between five and ten million. Increased availability of more and better food led the numbers to grow even faster. Five thousand years ago the human population was around a hundred million. Two thousand years later, as civilizations flourished in Europe, Mesopotamia, China and India, it had doubled to nearly two hundred million.
Other developments left in their wake their own challenges, many of which only became apparent way in the future, and the "solutions" that were then applied often created even more serious problems.
Farming the land exploited a biological fertility that had taken eons to accumulate. The more intensive agriculture became, the more fertilizer needed to be added, until it reached the stage were some soils were so depleted very little could be grown.
Using wood for fire and construction seemed innocuous, but steady deforestation reduced once verdant areas to desert, and radically changed the ecology in others.
The movement into towns and cities helped solved problems of supply and the division labor. But new laws and administration were required to keep order in the cities. And dealing with those who transgressed the laws created other problems.
The more developed nations solved some of their supply problems by gathering resources from across the world, but this led to further social and political problems.
Energy constraints were solved by burning fossil fuels. The unforeseen problems that this "solution" created are now plain for all to see. God forbid people try to address the challenge of climate change by tinkering with the Earth's atmosphere.
In hindsight, we may be able to see what caused the challenges now facing us; but that is not cause for blame. The people of the time were doing the best they could with the knowledge, technology and resources available. The intention was always the same; to, lessen the dangers, reduce suffering, make life safer, create better health, live longer, healthier and more comfortable lives. And there can be no blame for that. It is a perfectly natural quest.
This ever-accelerating rate of change is unstoppable. It is an inevitable consequence of the positive feedback inherent in the evolutionary process. Human beings, or rather human minds, may be the medium of this evolution, but they are not the root cause. Innovation would have built upon innovation whatever route had been taken. This is just the way things are for an intelligent, tool-using species that has learned to speak.
It was the positive feedback between these three developments that led to the evolutionary explosion in the human lineage. Cetaceans—that is dolphins and whales—are undoubtedly creative and intelligent, and communicate a lot amongst themselves; but they lack hands, their vestigial finger bones being safely wrapped up inside a layer of blubber. They never became significant tool-users. On the other hand, primates have hands—it is one of their distinguishing qualities—and use them to make tools. But only humans learned to speak. It is when you put the three—intelligence, speech and hands—together, that things start to explode.
An explosion is a self-catalyzing chain reaction. When gunpowder burns, the energy released by just one speck is more than sufficient to ignite the powder around, whose burning releases even more energy, and within a fraction of a second it blows up. The evolutionary explosion of humankind was primed by larger brains and versatile hands, ignited by speech, and spread at an ever-increasing pace across history. It is exploding in all directions—scientific, technological, social, environmental—deep into human culture and far across the planet.
And, as with any explosion, once started it is unstoppable.
So now the inevitable question demands to be asked: Where is this leading?
Five hundred years ago, there was little concept of progress. Time was measured cyclically—the cycles of days and nights, the moon, the seasons, the years, a lifetime. One generation lived and worked much as the previous generation. There may have been occasional innovations— better food preservation, sturdier buildings, a new hunting technique—but generally the cycles repeated year after year, with little change.
With the advent of the Renaissance, the European Enlightenment, and the Industrial Revolution, change came faster. People could remember the days of their childhood, before the printing press, the steam engine, or electricity. Progress was now an intrinsic part of life. We looked back to how things were, and forward to how things would be. Cyclical time had given way to linear time.
Today, technological breakthroughs spread through society in years rather than centuries. Calculations that would have taken decades are now made in minutes. Communication that used to take months happens in seconds. Development in every area is happening ever more rapidly. We look back now, not just to how things have changed, but also to how much faster things are changing. We've entered the era of exponential time.
Our minds, however, find it very difficult to think in exponential terms; we evolved in a world where the pace of change, if any, was very much slower. As a result, we often don't see the full implications of exponential change and where it is leading.
You may have heard the story of the king who was asked for one grain of rice on the first square of a chess board, two grains on the second, four on the third, doubling each time till the 64th square would have... how many grains? A mindboggling 18,446,744,073,709,551,615, about 45 trillion tons, a heap as high as Mount Everest—far more than most people intuitively expect.
Money invested at compound interest is another good example. A dollar invested at 10% per year (something most investors would aspire to) would be worth $1.1 after one year; $1.21 after two years; $2.59 after ten years; $117 after fifty years; $13,781 after a hundred years; and approximately $2.469,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 after a thousand years—which is about ten trillion times the weight of the Earth in gold. (This is why any economic system based on the charging of interest is destined to eventual collapse.)
In a similar way, we fail to see where exponential rates of change will take us. When we contemplate the future 25 years from now we usually extrapolate the current rate of progress into the future. If so much change has happened in the last 25 years, then we imagine a similar amount in the next 25 years. In reality, it will probably take only 10 years or so to witness a similar amount of change. On paper we can perhaps take the acceleration into account. But not in our imagination. Linear time still rules our minds.
What do we mean when we say that the rate of development has sped up? Time has not sped up. The Earth spins around the sun at the same speed. Clocks still tick at the same rate.
What has accelerated is the rate at which change has occurred—the rate at which new species have come into being, the rate at which those species have evolved new characteristics, and the rate at which our species has made its own innovations. It is, to borrow a term from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, the rate of emergence of novelty into the world—the word "novelty" used here in its literal sense of newness. It is this that is accelerating.
We see it today in the rate at which new scientific discoveries are made, new technologies are created, new products developed, new social conventions and new skills take hold, and existing ideas, technologies and products are upgraded or improved upon. It is a reflection of the overall rate of innovation, meaning literally "to bring in the new."
Innovation spawns innovation. New understandings, new ways of doing things and new tools foster better knowledge, more inventions and new possibilities. With the result that the rate of ingression of novelty into the world grows exponentially.
Picturing a change in quantity is easier than a change in speed, so instead of drawing a curve of the rate of change, it can be helpful to picture the amount of novelty that has appeared, as in the illustration below. As time progresses, more and more innovations are occurring. The funnel is getting wider, filling faster.
If there is any certainty about the future, it is that the pace of development, and with it the pace of life, will keep increasing. However fast things may seem today, the future is set to be much faster still.
Developments already underway suggest that in the coming years we'll see quantum computers, revolutionizing calculation and communication; the detection of gravity waves and other astronomical developments, bringing a better understanding of the origins of the universe; an integration of gravity and quantum physics that leads to the long-anticipated theory of everything; nanotechnology having a major impact in industry, chemistry and medicine; breakthroughs in DNA technologies opening new approaches to health care, and entirely new organisms; the mapping of the human brain becoming as significant as the mapping of the human gene two decades ago, with equally profound consequences for understanding how we think and enhancing brain function; artificial intelligences will become ubiquitous; robots, both physical and digital, will be increasingly prevalent; not to mention self-driving cars, immersive reality and 3-D printed organs. There will also be unforeseen developments in the application of the Internet—remember that twenty years ago few of us foresaw the ways we would be using it today, and the rate of appearance of novelty now is that much faster than it was twenty years ago. Some of the forthcoming innovations may even seem like magic to us today, just as the ability to encode the complete works of Mozart on a speck of matter, and reproduce it in concert hall quality, would have seemed magic to him.
Some futurists believe that ever-accelerating development will take us into what they call a "singularity." This is the term that mathematicians give to a point where equations break down and become meaningless. The North Pole, for example, is a simple geographic singularity: How do you go north from there? Or east or west? And which way is south?
The idea that there might be a singularity in human development was first put forward by the mathematician Vernor Vinge, and subsequently by myself in The White Hole in Time / Waking Up In Time. More recently it has been popularized by Ray Kurzweil, who argues that if computing power keeps doubling every eighteen months, as it has done for the last fifty years, then sometime in the late 2020s (that's only ten years from now) there will be artificial intelligence that surpasses the human brain in performance and abilities. These ultra-intelligent systems would then be able to create even more intelligent systems, and do so far faster than a human could.
Kurzweil calls this point in time "the singularity." It is not a true mathematical singularity, in which mathematical equations break down or longer apply; it's an "historical singularity"—one in which the patterns of past history no longer apply. An entirely new medium of innovation will have emerged on planet Earth.
As to where it leads, all bets are off. Nevertheless, there is one thing we can say about a post-singularity world. The rate of development will not only continue to accelerate. the emergence of ultra-intelligent systems will lead to a further explosion in the rate of development.
We can't put precise figures to it, but if, say, there were to be as much change in the next twenty years as the previous fifty, then after the singularity as much change again might be likely in the following ten. And then as much change again in perhaps five years. Within a short time, the curve becomes impossibly steep—and the ever-expanding funnel of novelty unimaginably wide and full.
Such unprecedented, and continually increasing, rates of innovation force us to reconsider our picture of humanity's long-term future in a fundamental way. They effectively demand a major shift in our paradigm of the future.
A paradigm is a way of seeing the world—a set of assumptions about the nature of reality, which becomes the lens through which data is interpreted and predictions made . The geocentric model of the Universe was a paradigm that lasted for thousands of years, but was replaced by Copernicus's heliocentric (Sun-centered) model in the fifteen hundreds. Newtonian Physics was a paradigm that gave way to the Theory of Relativity and Quantum Physics in the early twentieth century.
Our views of humankind's future are likewise a paradigm. In this case, the underlying assumption is that humankind could be around for a long time. I say "could" because a major shift in climate, an asteroid impact, nuclear holocaust, or some other catastrophe might bring an untimely end to our species. But, in the absence of some such calamity, it is assumed that our species could continue in one way or other for potentially thousands, possibly millions, of years in the future. We might call this the "future as normal" paradigm..
It seemed obvious to the early astronomers that the Sun and stars moved around the Earth, similarly the possibility of a long-term future seems obvious to us today. It certainly has been true in the past. Five thousand years ago at the dawn of civilization, people wouldn't have doubted that humankind had a long future ahead of it. And here we are, five thousand years in their future, not perhaps in a society that they might have imagined, but nevertheless still here. Why shouldn't this pattern continue? It seems obvious that it could.
A culture's assumptions about the future depend on its view of time. If time is seen as cyclical, it would be natural to assume that people in the future would be following similar lives; hunting, farming, socializing much as their ancestors had done, for many generations to come.
When time is seem as linear, and progress of one form or another is the norm, the future becomes one in which continuing change leads to very different worlds. This is the lens through which most of us today view the future. Some foresee a trans-human AI reality, others a world struggling to survive the ravages of climate change, some an ecologically sustainable society, others foresee our becoming part of an interstellar community. Yet whatever scenario, utopian or dystopian, the implicit assumption is that, barring some extinction event, the human species could continue—on this planet or another—for a long time to come.
Today, however, we live in exponential time. The rate of development in science and technology looks set to continue exploding. By the middle of this century, it will be far greater than today's dizzying pace. By the next century it would be unimaginable. The curve would be off the charts. Like the growing mountain of grains of rice on the king's chessboard, it would be way beyond our comprehension—and way beyond any feasible reality.
Yet when we come to imagine our species hundreds or thousands of years in the future, we still think in linear time. We make the implicit assumption that rates of change will be relatively static, and much slower than even those of the present day. Take the Star Trek scenario, for instance, set a couple of centuries from now. Technology on the starship USS Enterprise, and back at Federation headquarters on Earth, remains basically the same over a hundred years. New versions of the Enterprise are built, with new capabilities, but the underlying technology is the same.
But how could that be? Would innovation, the driving force behind the acceleration, have ceased? There is every reason to suppose that science and technology would still be developing fast. Indeed, given the exponential nature of accelerating change, the pace would have become unimaginably rapid long before the Enterprise was launched—and even more rapid in the years thereafter.
The same is true with just about every other long-term vision of humanity's future. They are not set within a context of accelerating change. In most cases, any development there might be is linear and relatively slow.
When new data comes to light that cannot be easily explained within the existing paradigm, the initial response is either to ignore it, or, if it won't go away, to try an corporate it within the existing model. Early astronomers, for example, tried to explain the wandering movement of the planets by suggesting they moved along epicycles (circles rolling around circles) in the sky. Later, in the late eighteenth century, when anomalies arose with the speed of light, the then obvious assumption that space and time were fixed remained unquestioned.
The same is happening with current views of the future. Ever-increasing rates of change pose a major challenge to the "future as normal" view. This assumes that rates of change have stopped their exponential growth, and have settled down to more sedate levels characteristic of earlier times. On the other hand, if the acceleration continues it will lead to unimaginable rates of change.
We have such a strong attachment—both emotional and intellectual—to the assumption of a long-term future, that most people either ignore the problem, continuing to think along the lines of a future as normal, or else they look for ways to somehow include the reality of accelerating change within the current view.
A frequent response is that no exponential process can continue forever; sooner or later it will come to an end This is true. As any particular growth approaches its limits, negative feedback comes into play. The rate of growth slows and the curve flattens out.
A simple example is bacteria growing in a dish. When the numbers are small, there are no effective limits to growth, and the cells multiply exponentially. Then, when they begin to fill the dish, there is less room for growth. The impending physical limits create negative feedback, which begins to hinder growth. Eventually, when the dish is full, the growth stops.
It may well be that there are limits to the overall rate of change. There may, for example, be limits as to how fast the various human, social, and planetary systems could adapt. Or perhaps some of the less-beneficial side effects of the acceleration will put brakes on rates of growth, leading it to steady out at a maximum sustainable rate. We might draw an analogy with a ship, whose maximum speed is limited by the turbulence it creates. Increasing the propulsion makes no difference: the increasing drag of the turbulence stops it from going any faster.
But to be clear, approaching such a limit would not mean that the speed of development would slow down. It would be the acceleration in the speed of development that had stopped, not the speed itself—a point that many people fail to grasp. Change would continue happening very fast—at the maximum possible rate. Imagine a car accelerating; eventually it reaches its maximum speed and the acceleration stops; but not the car, which is still traveling at top speed. Similarly, even if the pace of change were to level off at some maximum rate, we would still be living in a world where change came many times faster than today.
Others try to avoid the inherent compatibility of the two views by showing how particular types of growth could eventually slow down. Population, energy consumption, or urban expansion may each reach their respective limits. Future technological advances may lead to more efficient, more elegant and more sustainable ways to satisfy our needs, reducing our consumption of material resources. It may be that we mitigate the effects of climate change, reduce pollution and shift to renewables as our primary energy source. Others suggest that a shift in consciousness could lead to a new ethics focused on the good of the whole rather than the individual, leading to a more equitable and sustainable world.
However, even if we were to meet these challenges, would that bring an end to the acceleration? Would the speeding up of scientific and technical advances then stop? No, innovation would not come to an end. We might choose to apply our creative capacities in more sustainable ways, but innovation would still breed further innovation. The acceleration would not stop; it would merely move on into different arenas. Beyond the technological singularity, when artificial intelligence becomes a dominant source of innovation, humankind would find itself on a new, and even steeper, curve, one that may be as far beyond our imagination today as the Internet would have been to Galileo. We would still be spinning faster and faster into the center of an evolutionary whirlpool.
There is no blame for the overall acceleration we are now experiencing. We didn't go wrong. We'd have ended up in similar situation of spiraling rates of growth even if we'd taken a different path.
What we are experiencing today is merely the current manifestation of a trend that has been going on long before humans were around. It is not something that we created. Human thinking and behavior are merely the dominant medium of innovation at this point in evolution. We may be responsible for particular turns it has taken, but the speeding up of development in one form or another is intrinsic to evolution itself—the direct result of positive feedback whereby new advances facilitate future advances.
The seeds of this evolutionary explosion were sown millions of years ago when the hominin line split from the pan (chimpanzee) line and began growing larger brains, creating better tools, improving their diet, learning to speak and think, and accumulate a collective body of knowledge, which they applied to make the world a safer and more comfortable place, and who went on to tame fire, and develop agriculture, each step coming faster than the one before—civilization in the last five thousand years, the Industrial Revolution in the last few hundred years, and the Information Revolution in the last few decades. There's no reason to suppose this evolutionary pattern, that has been building since the dawn of life, will now slow down. Explosions don't suddenly stop and revert to a slow burn.
Because the continued speeding up is set to continue in the foreseeable future it poses a major challenge to the "future as normal" paradigm. Yet our deep attachment to the view that humanity could have a long-term future ahead makes us blind to full implications of living in exponential time.
This is our bind spot on the future. How does the natural exponential development turn into slow linear development? The two views of the future are inherently incompatible. You cannot have it both ways.
Alternatively, in terms of the funnel of increasing novelty:
The speeding up will almost certainly continue into the foreseeable future. Thus, rather than holding on to the assumption of a "future as normal" scenario based on the implicit assumption of linear time, we must now explore the alternative paradigm and see how the future looks on the premise of exponential time. Not to do so would be hiding our head in the sands of time.
The conclusions may at first seem dismal, apparently confirming our worst fears. But there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Continued acceleration means that so much more is possible within the coming years. With us, evolution is reaching a climax, and we shall discover a revolutionary and potentially transforming new perspective on the ultimate role of intelligent, self-conscious tool-using species in cosmic evolution.
First we must venture into some other aspects of the acceleration. It clearly cannot go on forever, nor considering the dizzying rates it has already reached, go on for very much longer. It will run out of time.
It will eventually stop, but not because of any human attempts to reduce it . The undoing of this evolutionary spiral will come from an end of its own making—from the disturbance it leaves in its wake.
When we consider the future from the perspective of exponential time rather than linear time we are forced to the initially uncomfortable conclusion that technological civilizations are intrinsically short-lived—not because of any fault in technology itself, or wrong-thinking on the part of the species, but from the acceleration in development that inevitably accompanies them and the impact of that on the species and the planet.
Futurists who look ahead to a technological singularity mostly focus their attention on the wondrous new advances on the horizon: self-repairing machines, human-cybernetic interfaces, brain enhancement, quantum computing, nano-tech medicine, reversed aging, 3D-printed organs, etc. Entranced by the awe-inspiring promises of ever-more rapid technological development, they by-and-large fail to consider the downside of this acceleration, namely the stress it is putting on all the systems involved.
Stress may generally be defined as a failure to adapt to change. In human terms, the more we have to attend to, plan for, worry about, and take care of—i.e. the more to which we have to adapt—the more likely we are to suffer stress, with its various undesirable consequences in terms of physical, mental, and emotional health, and repercussions on family, friends, and colleagues.
Today the increasing pace of life and the demands of new technologies are becoming a growing source of stress. Many are finding themselves having to work longer hours, even weekends. There are new technologies to learn, more systems to upgrade, more information to keep abreast of, more time consumed by social media. The amount of quality time we can have with ourselves, family and friends, relaxing and recovering from the pressures of work is getting less, and for some disappearing completely. As adaption to increasing change becomes more challenging, exhaustion and burnout become increasingly common.
But it is not only people who are experiencing the stress of ever-faster change. Our social, economic, political and environment systems are all being impacted as they fail to adapt to increasing change.
When we look at the various crises that have befallen humankind, it is easy to lay the blame on over-population, over-consumption, excessive waste, self-centered attitudes, financial greed, poor government, unsustainable policies, or a variety of other "causes." However, the crisis humankind is now facing is, at its root, a crisis of accelerating development.
Clearly the human population explosion is the result of exponential-like growth. Thankfully, it is now beginning to tail off. Nevertheless the implications for food, water, housing, geo-politics, and other issues are major and growing.
Oil reserves are running out because we are now consuming them a million times faster than they were created. Similarly with many other resources whose supply is becoming critical—platinum, copper, zinc, nickel, and phosphorus, all of which are crucial for contemporary technology—will have run out, or be very limited, within a few decades. Yet our demand for them continues to grow, exacerbated by the rapidly growing needs of developing countries.
On the other side of the equation, rapid growth in industrialization has led to an accelerating growth in the release of pollutants into the air, soil and sea. Some are now being released thousands, or in some cases millions, of times faster than the planet can break them down and absorb them.
Climate change stems from our accelerating consumption of fossil fuels and the accompanying increased emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Previously most of it was absorbed by plants and the oceans, but we are now producing the gas hundreds of times faster than these systems can handle. We might, if we really put our hearts and minds to it avert the most damaging repercussions of climate change; but climate change is just one potential catastrophe. There are many others waiting in the wings.
I've already mentioned the inherent instability of any economic system based on compound interest. Another direct consequence of such systems is the need for continual growth in net wealth in order that the interest on all the capital invested be repaid. A three-percent annual growth may be deemed healthy for a nation, but the impact on the planet of such growth, compounded over a hundred years, is devastating.
Accelerating cultural development has promoted geo-political instability. Renaissance Europe spearheaded scientific, technological, and social development. It then colonized other lands whose development was a thousand or more years behind. The dangerous consequences of this are now apparent in regions of the world where people are still living with customs and values of pre-industrial Europe, yet have access to modern weaponry, internet, and ease of travel. We are seeing not so much a clash of cultures, but a clash of eras—a clash originating in a mismatch in rates of progress.
A system can only tolerate so much stress before it breaks down. If a wheel is made to spin faster and faster, it will eventually break apart under the stress. In a similar way, as rates of change grow ever faster, the systems involved will reach a point where they too begin to crack. Whether it be our own biological system, social, economic, and political systems, or the planetary ecosystem, the stress of ever-increasing change will eventually lead to breakdown. Crises will pile upon each other faster and faster, heading us into the perfect global storm.
There may be many aspects of humanity that are unsustainable, but they are not the root cause of its current predicament. What is intrinsically unsustainable is the overall acceleration in development.
In the past the impacts of the acceleration were minimal, and in most cases absorbed by the various systems. But the rate of development has now reached a pitch where they can no longer cope, and the inevitable consequences of ever-increasing rates of development are now becoming increasingly apparent.
We might liken our situation to the whirlpool of water as it runs out through the plughole in a sink—something most of us have watched from time to time. Far from the center, the water is moving very slowly, almost imperceptibly, perhaps taking a minute to complete a revolution. Halfway to the center, it is moving four times as fast, taking 15 seconds per revolution. Halve that distance and it is moving four times as fast again, a revolution every four seconds. Halve that, and its whirling around once per second. The closer to the center the faster it whirls, until it is sucked down the center of the spiral.
Humankind is whirling faster and faster on its own spiral of change. And just as the ever-more rapid movement of the water comes to an end when it reaches the center of the whirlpool, the hyper-acceleration in the pace of our development will come to its own end. But it will not end because we change our ways, or get innovation under control. It will come to an end as we spiral into the center of our temporal whirlpool—a time we inevitably started heading toward as soon as the evolutionary engine of innovation was put in our own minds and hands.
The evolutionary explosion of a technological civilization does not last forever. As it spins faster and faster, it ultimately comes to an end of its own making. But this is not to ignore the many breakthroughs that may still be made along the way.
As the rate of change continues to accelerate, the time between significant advances is compressed into shorter and shorter intervals. If we look through the lens of linear time then it may seem to need centuries, or millennia, for our species to achieve all that we imagine possible. From the perspective of exponential time, we could well see technological progress way beyond what we now can barely imagine, and equivalent advances in scientific understanding, all packed into a very short period of time.
In a linear view of time, humanity's unsustainable attitudes and behavior would appear to be direct threats to the continued advancement of the species. If there is to be a long-term future ahead of us in which we can continue to grow and achieve all that we imagine possible, then we must change our thinking and mend our ways. Otherwise things will fall apart and that hopeful vision of a productive future will have expired. On the linear view it is a race between breakdown and breakthrough. As a result many focus on how to reform the species so that we can "save the world"—or, more honestly, save ourselves.
From the point of view of exponential time, which is the perspective we must now take seriously, we have to hold the two simultaneously. Breakthrough and breakdown are two sides of the same coin. They are ramping up together, and coming to a head together. No longer is it a question of "either-or," but an acceptance of "both-and."
This is why a species with such unprecedented capacities, and the potential to be something truly magnificent, may also appear to be so dangerous, destroying our planetary support system at an alarming rate. The two go hand-in-hand.
The physicist Enrico Fermi pondered the apparent contradiction between a high probability of extraterrestrial civilizations existing elsewhere in our galaxy, and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations. Why haven't they already colonized Earth? Or why don't we detect their radio transmissions?
Many answers have been proposed, ranging from the possibility that they are already here, to the possibility that the distances are so vast why would they bother. But the true answer may be that they don't exist. Or to be more precise, they exist only for a relatively brief time.
Again we make the mistake of imagining advanced extraterrestrial civilizations in terms of linear time, existing for thousands, perhaps millions, of years in a relatively static state. But that probably never happens.
Whatever their physical form, any intelligent tool-using species is likely to develop technologies that enhance their safety and survival. It is a fundamental goal of all life. It would naturally develop the knowledge and technologies that allowed it to do this more effectively and efficiently. The more they learned, the better their tools, and the smarter they became, the faster they would develop. As innovation built upon innovation their rate of progress would keep accelerating. Within a short time (evolutionarily speaking) they would meet the consequences of their own hyper-acceleration, spiraling into the center of their own evolutionary whirlpool.
Marvelous as they may be in their moment of glory, it may be that intelligent technologically-empowered species exist for only a flash in cosmic time.
On the other hand, there may well be advanced intelligences that have not taken the technological path. Here on Earth, whales and dolphins show signs of intelligence approaching that of humans. However, having no hands, they have not developed tools and technology, so have not been subject to hyper-accelerating development.
Perhaps the evolution of intelligence on other planets has taken a similar, non-technological, course. More advanced intelligence may be living in a planet's oceans (whether they be oceans of water, methane, or some other liquid). There a creature's body is free from the constraints of gravity, and can grow much larger than on land, opening the possibility for much larger brains. It may be there, in the extra-terrestrial oceans that intelligence and awareness far surpassing our own have evolved.
On some of the trillions of planets across the Universe life will have appeared, and on some of those evolved into a rich diversity of species. From time to time one of those species takes the step into tools and speech. A bud of self-awareness suddenly appears.
On our planet it was preceded by billions of years of slow cellular evolution. Then by hundreds of millions of years of vertebrate evolution; then by millions of years of mammalian evolution; and then, almost out of nowhere, our tool-using ancestors with larger brains appeared. With the advent of speech, the bud grew rapidly. Within a short time, cosmically speaking, it started to bloom, bursting into an exotic, multifaceted cultural inflorescence. Billions of self-aware petals, seeking to become all they can be; to know all there is to know.
When a planet bursts into bud, knowledge takes off on its own accelerating curve. We have learnt as much about the physical world in the last fifty years as we did in the previous five thousand. And we may learn as much again in the decades ahead. Physics is approaching a "theory of everything"—a set of mathematical equations that underlie all the forces of nature. We are not there yet, but many believe the breakthrough could happen any time. In cosmology we are beginning to understand how the Universe came into being, and where it might be headed. Again, we are not there yet—there remain many unanswered questions, and almost as many competing theories—but discoveries in this field are coming fast. Similarly with life itself, progress in molecular biology is proceeding at such a rate that we may come to a full understanding of life in coming years.
However, knowledge of the physical universe is but half of what there is to know. We are also conscious creatures, and as significant as all our scientific, technological, and cultural developments may be, of no less significance is our having become self-aware. We are not only aware of our experience, we are aware that we are aware. And no knowledge of the cosmos could ever be said to be complete if it did not include a full knowledge of awareness itself, the sine qua non of all knowing. Today the interest in consciousness itself is rapidly growing, both scientifically and on a personal level. Could it be that the next phase of this evolutionary explosion is one of consciousness. Coming to know the knower, the self that dwells at the heart of all experience. Who knows where that might lead.
Our species may be gone in a century or so, but that does not mean it is all for nothing. Quite the opposite. We may have little future in terms of linear time, but in exponential time so much more is possible. In the coming decades there may be as much development as has happened in the whole of human history. Or perhaps even more. Within the short linear time remaining for our species we may yet come to a complete knowing of the world, both around us and within us. This does not mean knowing everything it is possible to know, but everything this particular intelligence could know in this biological form, from this point in the universe.
Another bud of consciousness will have bloomed.
How, then, does the future look if we shift from a paradigm that assumes relatively slow stable growth to one based on the premise that the rate of development will continue speeding up? The most significant conclusion—and the one that is hardest for most people to accept—is that we have to let go of the notion of a long-term future.
First, scenarios set way in the future implicitly assume rates of development much slower than those of today. There may well be progress, but it is on a more linear model of time. As soon as exponential time enters the picture, the interval between significant breakthroughs and developments gets shorter and shorter. The rate of development explodes, taking us into completely uncharted territory. You can't have it both ways. And everything is pointing to us having to take the exponential perspective seriously.
Second, the increasing strain such rates of growth put on the various human, social and ecological systems and the consequences for any long-term sustainability point to it coming to a head this century. Or rather, I should say "increasingly coming to a head," since symptoms of this stress are already appearing in today's world.
This is not happening because our species is somehow flawed. Something like this is inevitable for any technologically-empowered intelligence. They are intrinsically short-lived..
For most people the conclusion is unsettling—to say the least. It's the last thing we want to hear. We knew that human beings would not last forever, but most of us have imagined the eventual end to be way in the future.
As with any paradigm shift, there's a strong attachment to the old model.. It has served us well for a aeons. It is the lens through which we see the world, and taken for granted—and a source of hope. We don't like to consider that our end may be just a few generations away. We prefer to think that because we are special, this marvelous self-aware, creative being—which we are— then we ought to be around for the long-term. But if we are to navigate our way through the coming times, it is imperative that we let go of our cherished model, however unsettling the alternative may seem.
There have been five major species extinctions in the past, and several minor ones. The most recent occurred some 66 million years ago, when an asteroid, several miles wide, hit the planet, devastating the global environment, and resulting in the extinction of three-quarters of Earth's species—including the dinosaurs. But some small mammals survived, and later flourished, leading to us, a creature able to sit here and contemplate the event, and its own survival challenges today.
We may well be witnessing the early stages of a sixth major species extinction, one triggered this time not by the impact of a comet or asteroid, but by the impact of humankind's hyper-accelerated development.
Climate is undoubtedly a major factor. There is a growing concern that it may have reached a tipping point. Even if we were to stop all fossil-fuel burning today, global temperatures would continue to rise for decades, probably triggering a runaway greenhouse effect as the much more potent greenhouse gas methane is released from the tundra and deep ocean. The warmer the planet gets, the more methane is released, and the more the planet warms—the familiar positive feedback loop that underlies exponential growth.
The effects of climate change on the world's ecosystems will be profound. Species are today becoming extinct faster than at any time since the end of the dinosaurs, and is likely to get worse. Climate change will also have a major impact on human civilization. As drought and heat turn large areas of arable land into desert, there will be widespread crop failures and famine like we have never seen before. In some regions, fresh water will become increasingly scarce, not only from drought but also from the rising sea entering the water table. Increasingly severe storms and their aftermath will take a growing toll on human life. Prolonged extreme heat waves in regions with little water or air-conditioning would be devastating. Impoverished conditions will also increase the risks of failed states, providing fertile ground for conflict and terrorism. Mass-migrations will occur as millions are forced to abandon large areas of land and escape to places where they can survive—bringing major challenges for the regions to which people are fleeing.
Other crises, such as economic collapse, food shortages and unprecedented natural disasters, could lead to widespread social breakdown and the rise of police states. Global conflicts will increase as food, water and other resources become increasingly scarce. Nuclear war remains a distinct possibility. Epidemics of drug-resistant bacteria, uncontrollable wild fires, biological and chemical terrorism, collapse of the Internet through hacking or cyber-war, increasing systemic chaos—all are possible. Doubtless some will happen.
And, more than likely, completely unforeseen events will take their toll.
Extinctions don't happen overnight. Even with a colliding asteroid, it may instantly destroy life in the area it hits, but the ensuing species die-off occurs over many years. They become extinct as their habitat becomes increasingly inhospitable, their numbers begin to decline, until eventually there are only a few left; then none. Similarly with humankind today. We are not all going to be suddenly wiped out. Many may well have full lives ahead. But some of us will die earlier than expected, from unanticipated causes. But there's nothing new in that. The uncertainty in when and how may have increased, but not our ultimate personal fate.
As our world becomes less and less hospitable, our numbers will start going into decline. In T.S. Elliot's words, it will end "not with a bang but a whimper."
It is also possible that it may not be so severe. Some people might survive, perhaps eking out an existence in the newly-green polar regions, or possibly in some contemporary arks—self-sufficient, sustainable, high-tech habitats created by the wealthy to ensure their survival in the final days. If they are lucky, they might even be able to survive long-term. Humanity would not have become extinct after all.
But we would still be an innovative species. We would still be seeking to improve our lot—which in such a future might not be a very happy lot. As before, we would find ways to survive better and more comfortably. And the positive feedback of innovation breeding innovation would still be operating. Slowly but surely, the spiral of acceleration would begin to wind itself up again, and slowly but surely we'd eventually approach a similar point in time.
Even if some indigenous people survived, the ultimate fate would be the same. It is true that indigenous peoples today generally live in harmony with their environment. But remember that we in the developed world are the descendants of indigenous peoples. Today's twenty-first century culture is simply what happens to an indigenous culture as technology takes hold. The Yamamani of the Brazilian rainforest are just ten thousand years behind us.
Our attachment to the continuation of our species is quite natural. It is who we are, and quite appropriate that we should love who we are and want us to continue. But how do we include within that the growing realization that our collective end may be coming much sooner than expected?
There are obvious parallels here with our own death. We know it is coming, but unless we have some terminal illness or suffer a potentially mortal injury, we tend to push it away to some time in the future—not tomorrow. On the other hand, accepting our own mortality is part of being a mature human being. Indeed, confronting death directly can produce profound shifts of consciousness. People may reconsider what is really important, value love more than wealth, have a spiritual awakening, seek to make amends for past misdeeds, find a renewed purpose in life, and live more for the present moment.
The same may apply to humanity. Previously, we were not confronted with the likelihood of homo sapiens might be coming to an end a lot sooner than we anticipated. Accepting the mortality of our species could be a collective coming of age. It may be just what is needed to guide us through the coming times.
As the reality of the unraveling hits home, there will be widespread despair, depression and distress. There will be pain, remorse and grief over what has become of us, this wondrous, creative, intelligent species, and of this beautiful planet with its awe-inspiring beauty and diversity of life. And there will be much fear and anguish about how our own lives will unfold as we head into the eye of the coming storm.
How will we each deal with the pain and grief? Will we go into denial, refusing to accept what is happening? Lose ourselves in panic and terror? Or find the acceptance that allows us to move into the unknown with courage and an open heart?
With the sudden death of a loved one, there are recognizable stages to grief. The first is denial. We cannot believe he or she has passed, and is no longer with us. It can't be true. Then comes anger. Whether directed towards God, a physician, an illness, a circumstance, or some other agency, How dare this happen? It is not what I wanted. Third may come bargaining. We want our loved one restored. If only I had just done this or that. Maybe even now I can make some deal to bring the person back. This is often followed by depression. We may withdraw from life, consumed by sadness, wondering if there is any point in going on alone? Finally comes acceptance. It is accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone. We may not like this new reality, but we adjust and learn to live with it.
Humanity will undoubtedly enter its own collective grieving as the writing on the wall becomes more apparent.
Clearly we are already in denial, whether it be climate denial, denial of the poverty in which one third of us live, denial of the fragility of civilization.
Those who've woken up from denial may move into anger; anger at the corporations, the politicians, the wealthy, the church, the military, the terrorists, or anyone else we blame for the crisis we are in.
There are already signs of the bargaining phase. If we just changed our ways perhaps we could make things OK again, rescue ourselves from the tragedies that lie ahead. Perhaps it is not too late to clean up our act and save the world.
Then will surely come depression. What have we done? This is terrible. The future looks so bleak, There will be deep sadness at what has befallen us.
Finally—hopefully—there will come acceptance. We let go of our attachment to how things should be, our hope that things will turn out well in the end, and accept this is now the way things are. We don't deny the painful emotions that may arise, but accept them as part of living through these times.
Accept that this is how to is to be a technologically-empowered intelligence spinning ever-faster into the eye of its evolutionary hurricane.
There's an off-quoted, purportedly Chinese, curse: "May you live in interesting times." It's a curse because interesting times are full of change and challenge. Uninteresting times don't demand anything of us, even boring perhaps. What seems certain is that the times we are heading into are going to get more and more interesting.
In years to come we may look back to days when we actually drove our cars, when personal assistants were human beings, when cancer was incurable, to times before quantum computing and intelligent robots. We'll also be looking back to times before flooded cities, before deadly heat-waves became common, before the great famine, and the great migration, before crashing economies.
The question then naturally arises: How should we spend these final times? How do we as members of an intelligent, self-aware species, choose to spend our lives, knowing that our species will not be around much longer?
Do we party madly, consuming to the last drop of oil? Or bury our heads in depression and hopelessness?
For me, acceptance of the situation has brought with it some surprising shifts in attitude. I am not so angry at the people whose views and actions I disagree with. I am no longer so upset by the latest political shenanigans, economic swings, or social unrest. This is simply how it is to be living through the final generations of an intelligent, technological species. There is no blame to be apportioned. Instead I can be more understanding, more forgiving.
Nor does it mean I no longer care for the world around me. I still want to do what I can to preserve the planet, but now I want to do so for the planet's own sake. Perhaps the best we can do with our remaining years is to make sure we leave the Earth in as good a state as possible for the species that remain and those that may follow.
Is there anything else we can do to prepare ourselves as the winds of change whip up into a storm of change, and then hurricane of change?
For me, trees provide a good lesson. If a tree is to withstand a storm it must be flexible, able to bend with the winds. A rigid tree will soon blow down. In addition, it must have strong roots, be stably anchored in the ground.
The same is true for us. If we are to survive the coming storm of change—along with some unanticipated exceptional gusts—we need first to be flexible. We need to be able to let go of outdated thinking, habitual reactions, and assumptions as to how to respond. We need to find the inner freedom to see things with fresh eyes and draw more fully on our creativity.
Second, we likewise will need greater inner stability. We need to be stably anchored in the ground of our own being, so that when the unexpected suddenly arrives, we can remain relatively cool, calm and collected, not thrown into fear and panic. If we lose our inner equanimity and react emotionally to every new change we will become increasingly stressed and more prone to burnout. It will be more important than ever to find time to unwind from the ever-increasing busy-ness of our lives, time to put things in perspective, and respond with a clear head.
And there is third factor that helps trees withstand a storm: being in a forest of trees. They soften the wind for each other. Similarly, we will need the support and companionship of others. The future is uncharted territory, and we will all feel vulnerable at times, needing to express our feelings, or asking for emotional support. The stronger our community, the easier the changes will be to bear than if we were alone.
We may not be able to predict what will transpire, but as people begin to recognize that there is no escaping the damaging ramifications of accelerating growth, there will be rising distress, despair, and suffering. A growing number of therapists are already noticing that, in addition to the various personal issues their clients have, there is a growing angst about the state of the world and where we are headed.
Caring for others, and the alleviation of suffering has been a common theme of most the great spiritual teachings, ethical philosophies and cultural customs. In the coming times they will be more valuable than ever. There will be needs for material support, providing basics such as food, water, shelter, medicine. The stress of adapting to unexpected circumstances. Emotional pain as people are forced to let go cherished lifestyles, adjust to new economic realities, and see the suffering of others. Mental anguish over what might happen next. Increasing insecurity and uncertainty. Where we are headed. What sort of world will our children and grandchildren inherit?
Now, more than ever, there will be the need for compassion, coming from love and gratitude, to be forgiving. Forgiving, not just of others but of the situation we are in, and of the species itself. Seeing it with kinder, non-blaming, eyes. To move beyond grieving and find the freedom to navigate the coming times with wisdom.
Our species appeared but recently—in the last one-hundredth of one percent of Earth's history. With our rapidly enlarging brain capacity and the advent of speech came the ability to think, reason and make choices, and to use our tools and technologies in service of our survival and a better life. Innovation bred innovation, and evolution exploded.
And here we are, wondrous beings, with unique gifts and abilities. We are capable of love and deep compassion, an appreciation of beauty, the creation of great art, music, and poetry. We are aware of our history, of how we came to be here. We have studied the world around us, and been awed by what we have discovered. We can imagine the future and choose how we respond. We find meaning in our lives, a sense of justice, and an inner wisdom.
There is much to celebrate about us. The question is: Can we celebrate all that we are, while accepting that our species is here but for a brief flash of cosmic time?
A friend reminds me of the so-called century plant that flowers once in 20 or so years. When it does finally bloom, we marvel at the giant stalk, holding high a magnificent array of flower-laden branches. The spectacle is made all the more awesome by the knowing that it flowers but once; then dies, its purpose complete. Can we celebrate ourselves in a similar light? Another blossoming in the cosmos. An exquisitely beautiful flowering of consciousness. A miracle of creation.
Can we let go of the cherished belief that we are here to stay, rejoice in our existence, and live our final days with grace?
Despite knowing the journey, and where it leads,
I embrace it and welcome every moment.
~ Louise Banks in "Arrival"
This is an evolving piece, which I will be updating from time to time. If you would like to be informed of new versions as they appear, send me an email.
Any comments and feedback on work in progress is welcome.
Earth and Environment
| Science and Consciousness
| Spiritual Awakening
| Waking Up In Time
| From Science to God
| Mindfulness Made Easy