The Evolutionary Explosion

PDF version (better for printing)

(This essay has been rewritten and shortened to a new essay, What If There Were No Future?.)

The Exponential Explosion

Peter Russell

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've 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 to fit our needs. We have liberated our bodies from much physical toil, freed ourselves from the suffering of many diseases so we can live longer, more active lives, and relieved ourselves from many other burdens. We are capable of love, deep compassion, an appreciation of beauty, and the creation of great art, music, and poetry. We find meaning in our lives and have a sense of justice. Nothing like us has ever 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 may be about to blow it.

Where Did We Go Wrong?

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 the 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 movement away from the land to living in cities. Others in the patriarchal takeover of our 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.

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 current predicament goes much deeper than any particular human activity or era.

The Seeds of Humankind

The human story began around seven millions years ago when hominins (the name given to the evolutionary line that eventually led to homo sapiens) and pan (the line that led to chimpanzees) diverged.

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 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 of 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 diverged from the other great apes. Long before they were making stone tools, they'd have been making tools from wood, grass, leaves or other natural materials; but these would have decayed long ago, leaving no trace for us to find today.

Small Genes, Big Impact

So the question that begs asking is: Why did the hominin line develop so differently from the chimp line?

There were three major developments. One was a rapid growth in brain size, and with it increasing intelligence. One gene that plays a critical role in the development of the neocortex—the newest structure in the human brain, responsible for cognition and thinking—had changed little over hundreds of millions of years. But in hominins it underwent eighteen changes in just a couple of million years—a mere blink in evolutionary time. Rapid changes in other genes led to the development of the pre-frontal cortex, responsible for planning, decision-making, and social bonding.

A second series of rapid genetic shifts modified our ancestors' bodies. The foot flattened and the toes shortened, changes that made it easier to walk upright. A fully opposable thumb improved the hand's grip and its ability to perform delicate operations, leading to a significant enhancement in the making and use of tools.

Accelerated development in another gene led to greater mobility of facial muscles. Together with changes in the tongue and throat, this allowed the articulation of the complex sounds crucial for the third major development: speech.

All animals learn from experience; but with speech our ancestors could share experiences with each other and so learn, not only from their own experiences, but also from the experiences of others. They could tell each other what they had seen, heard or discovered, and build up a collective body of knowledge about the world far greater than any individual could ever gather.

The advent of speech not only meant that humans could speak to each other, they could 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 begin to understand the world in which they found themselves, apply reason, draw conclusions, and plan how to act.

Combine these three trends together and you have an intelligent creature able to amass a growing understanding of the world, to think, reason and make choices, and through its hands and tools, mold the clay of Mother Earth into a diversity of new forms. An entirely new form of innovation had appeared.

An Innovative Species

These early humans naturally applied their innovative powers to better satisfying their needs, and making life that much safer and more comfortable.

They learned to make sharp edges to stones, creating axes and knives. They shaped points to put on the tips of their spears. Later, bows allowed them to aim more accurately and shoot further ahead.

They tamed fire, which they used not only to keep warm, but also to cook meat, making it easier to digest, and providing added nourishment to the growing brain.

Making clothes and building shelters helped them better survive inclement weather, and venture into other lands.

Herding animals lessened the time and energy spent hunting them. They maintained grazing lands and guarded their stock.

Noticing how seeds grew into plants, they began sowing their own seeds, harvesting the crop, and building stores to preserve the food through less abundant times. In addition, cereals provided a further source of energy for the brain.

The invention of the plough made tilling the land easier. Harnessing animals to the plough made it even more efficient in terms, and increased the land area that could be cultivated.

As food became more abundant, increasing numbers of people were freed from having to work the land. They could live in larger communities, divide their labor amongst themselves, and develop specialized skills.

They began using fire to smelt metal, leading to entirely new kinds of tools, and further speeding up the rate of development.

Five thousand years ago—in the last one percent of one percent of one percent of life's history—came the wheel, lightening the burden of transporting heavy loads, and setting the scene for a host of mechanical technologies.

During the same period, the fine motor control of the fully opposable thumb led to another significant breakthrough: writing.

Limited to speech alone, ideas could not travel far without distortion or loss. Writing enabled the creation of a more permanent record, handing down ideas and discoveries to future generations. Initially, they were carved in stone, or inscribed on 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. The first information technologies had emerged.

Technologically Empowered Intelligence

Homo sapiens had became a technologically empowered intelligence, creating more effective and efficient tools with which to modify and control the 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, adding fuel to what had become an evolutionary explosion.

Six hundred years ago came the printing press with its profound impact on the distribution of knowledge.

On its heels came the Renaissance, with significant advances in painting, sculpture, music and philosophy, along with an expansion of trade across the world.

This was followed in the seventeenth century by the European Enlightenment. The power of reason gained dominance, leading to the birth of the scientific approach and the quest for reliable truth. The Earth was no longer flat; nor was it the center of the Universe.

A century later, the Industrial Revolution was born, 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. 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 and material desires that back then were inconceivable, would come to threaten the very survival of humanity.

Iron gave way to the much stronger steel. Later, synthetic materials were created that pushed the envelope in other directions—stronger, lighter, more durable, more flexible materials—impacting all aspects of life. These new materials enabled more new technologies, further enhancing the power to modify the world and deepening knowledge and understanding. Which in turn led to more technological advances, more power, and more knowledge.

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 electronic valves, to transistors, to the now ubiquitous microchip; each step pushed 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 doubled every eighteen months or so. And the trend is set to continue.

The Internet revolutionized how information and knowledge could be shared. And the WorldWide Web took this interconnectivity to everyone. Twenty years ago few foresaw that we'd be shopping online, streaming movies, engaging in social media, or any of the other host of online activities that today we take for granted.

All this in the last one percent of one percent of one percent of one percent of Earth's history!

Reframing the Future

If there is any certainty about the future, it is that the pace of development will continue gaining speed. 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 information processing and communication; an integration of gravity and quantum physics leading 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 possibly entirely new forms of life); the mapping of the human brain becoming as significant as the mapping of the human genome two decades ago, with equally profound consequences for understanding how we think and the enhancement of brain function; artificial intelligence will become ubiquitous; robots, both physical and digital, increasingly prevalent; not to mention self-driving cars, immersive reality and 3-D printed organs.

Approaching a Singularity

Some futurists believe that the ever-increasing pace of development will take us into what they call a “singularity.” This is the term that mathematicians give to a point where equations break down or no longer apply. 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? Our usual concepts of direction no longer apply.

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 Waking Up In Time. More recently it has been popularized by Ray Kurzweil, who argues that if computing power keeps doubling every eighteen months, 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 design and create even more intelligent systems, and do so far faster than people could, leading to an exponential explosion of intelligence.

Kurzweil calls this point in time "the singularity." It is not a true mathematical singularity, in which equations break down or no longer apply; it's an historical singularity—"technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history" beyond which all bets are off.

Nevertheless, there is one thing we can say about a post-singularity world. The pace of change will continue to speed up. 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 come 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 rate of change unimaginably rapid.

Exponential Time

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 skill—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 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.

Exponential Growth

Exponential growth occurs when the current growth of a system reinforces future growth, a process known as positive feedback (the output from the system is fed back as additional input, amplifying the output further).

Take population, for example. 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 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 exponential curve in the mathematical sense, where the rate of growth is a constant percentage of 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.”

The exponential-like growth of human culture, science and technology stems from positive feedback of innovation breeding further innovation. New understandings and new tools lead to even better knowledge and more advanced technologies. The more efficient and effective the new innovations, the faster the rate of progress.

We see it today in the rate at which new scientific discoveries are made, new technologies are created, new products are developed, new social conventions and skills take hold, and existing ideas, technologies and products are improved upon. They are all building on each other, and all coming faster and faster.

The Fallacy of Linear Thinking

Our minds, however, find it difficult to think in exponential terms; humans evolved in a world where the pace of change, if any, was 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 chessboard, 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. That's approximately 45 trillion tons of rice, or a heap as high as Mount Everest—far more than most people intuitively expect.

In a similar way, we fail to see where exponential rates of change will take us. When we contemplate the future 50 years from now we usually extrapolate the current rate of progress into the future. If this much change has happened in the last 50 years, then we imagine a similar amount in the next 50 years. In reality, it may take only 20 years or so to witness a similar amount of progress.


When we imagine our species hundreds or thousands of years in the future, we unconsciously assume that progress will be happening at a fairly steady rate—and in most cases much slower than today. 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 hasn't changed much.

But how could that be? Would the rate of innovation have slowed way down? There is every reason to suppose that science and technology would still be progressing rapidly. Indeed, given exponential rates of 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. By the middle of this century, the rate of progress will be far faster than today's dizzying pace. By the end of the century it would be many times faster still. In the century beyond, 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.

Our Blind Spot on the Future

Our inability to appreciate the full implications of exponential time has led to a major blind spot on the future. On the one hand, there is every reason to believe rates of progress will continue speeding up, taking us ever-more rapidly into futures that are as far beyond the world we know today as this world is beyond the stone age.

On other hand, when imagine the world hundreds of years from now, or even thousands or millions of years from now, we still think in terms of linear time with its relatively slow rate of progress. We ignore the implications of exponential growth and unconsciously assume that a trend that has been going on since the dawn of time won't continue. That somehow exponential development turns into a slow linear development?


No Avoiding Acceleration

It is true that no exponential growth can continue forever; eventually it will reach limits that slow it down. And it may well be that population, energy consumption, urban expansion, or some other facets of this acceleration, reach their respective limits. But the pattern we are considering here is not exponential growth in one particular area. It is the overarching pattern of ever-increasing rates of change. It is this that is set to continue, not any particular form of it.

Perhaps future technologies will allow more efficient, more elegant and more sustainable ways to satisfy our needs. Maybe advanced artificial intelligence will able to solve many of our problems, mitigating the effects of climate change, inventing ways to clean up pollution, and creating economic systems that distribute wealth and resources more equitably. Or, as some hope, there may be a widespread shift in human consciousness bringing different values and priorities.

But even if such shifts were to come about, 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 rate of change would not stop gaining speed; it would merely move on into other areas. Humankind will 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.

There may be some upper limit to the rate of change—limits as to how fast the various human, social, and planetary systems could adapt. But such limits would not mean that the rate of innovation slowed down; only that it would no longer be gaining even more speed. We would still be living in a world where change came many times faster than today. Hardly a sustainable, or even desirable, world. And certainly not the more sedate long-term future we dreamt of.

In short, there is no avoiding this accelerating trend. We’d have ended up in similar situation of spiraling rates of growth whatever our path. We may be responsible for some of the forms it has taken, but not for the acceleration itself. Exponential rates of development are intrinsic to evolution itself—the inevitable consequence of the positive feedback loop of innovation building on innovation. There’s no reason to suppose it will now slow down. Explosions don’t suddenly stop and revert to a slow burn.

It therefore behooves us to explore how the future looks on the premise of exponential time. Not to do so would be hiding our heads in the sand.

Where Are We Headed?

When we look at where humankind may be headed, it is easy to focus on the many exciting new advances on the horizon: quantum computing, artificial intelligence, nano-tech medicine, reversed aging, 3D-printed organs, self-repairing machines, human-cybernetic interfaces, brain enhancement. All these, and more, will likely come about in some form or other. In addition, there will be developments that we today cannot imagine.

Given the unprecedented opportunities in such burgeoning development, it is easy to see the future in rosy terms. However, along with the many opportunities and benefits these advances may bestow come some valid worries. Elon Musk, the late Stephen Hawking, and others have expressed serious concerns about automated weapons and "killer robots" running awry, falling into the hands of extremists, or being used by dictators to subdue populations. Others have raised alarms about genetically modified viruses escaping from laboratories, or being deliberately released by terrorists, or psychopaths. Or ravenous, self-replicating, nano-robots finding their way into the wild, outstripping natural competitors and turning life to dust in a matter of days—the so-called "gray-goo" scenario. These technologies are all hurtling forward, propelled by market forces, without due consideration of their potential perils, leading some to call for a deliberate relinquishment of further research in some of these fields.

In addition, to dangers such as these, there is another, more general, downside to ever-increasing rates of change that is often overlooked—namely the stress the acceleration places on all the systems involved.

The Stress of Acceleration

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 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 is a growing source of stress. There are new technologies to learn, more information to keep abreast of, more time consumed by social media. Many find themselves having to work longer hours, even weekends. 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 adapting to increasing change becomes more challenging, exhaustion and burnout become increasingly common.

However, it is not just 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.

As we have seen, the human population explosion has had an exponential-like growth. Thankfully, it is now beginning to tail off. Nevertheless the consequences for food, water, housing, geo-politics, and other issues are still dangerous, and growing.

Oil reserves are running out because we are consuming them a million times faster than they were laid down. Similarly many other resources, such as platinum, copper, zinc, nickel, and phosphorus, all of which are crucial for contemporary technology, will have run out, or become limited, within a few decades. Yet our demand for them continues to grow, exacerbated by the rapidly growing needs of emerging economies.

On the other side of the equation, rapid growth in industrialization has led to an accelerating profusion of pollutants in 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.

Climate change stems from the accelerating consumption of fossil fuels and the accompanying increased emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Previously, plants and oceans reabsorbed the gas, but we are now producing it hundreds of times faster than these systems can handle. Unchecked climate change will have major repercussions: more extreme weather, unprecedented heat waves and drought, widespread crop failures and famine, flooded coastal regions, and mass migrations, to name but a few.

These various accelerating trends will not be happening in isolation. They're an interwoven set of crises, events in one area exacerbating the impact of others. Unprecedented natural disasters could promote economic collapse, leading to social breakdown, and increase in authoritarianism. As food, water and other resources become increasingly scarce, global conflicts are likely to increase. 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.

A system can tolerate only so much stress before it breaks down. Spin a wheel faster and faster, and the increasing stress will eventually break it apart. 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 lead to increasing breakdown.

Crises will pile upon each other faster and faster, heading us into the perfect global storm.

A Most Uncomfortable Conclusion

We thus arrive at what is initially a most uncomfortable conclusion. When we consider the future from the perspective of exponential rather than linear time it appears that technological civilizations are intrinsically short-lived.

They are short-lived, not because of any fault in technology itself, or wrong-thinking on the part of the people, but from the acceleration itself. Innovation will keep breeding innovation, furthering not only exponential growth, but also exponentially increasing strain on the biological, social and planetary infrastructures. Eventually they can no longer hold, and the system breaks down.

Thus the acceleration does indeed finally come to an end—but to an end of its own making. It ends not because we change our ways, or get innovation under control. It comes to an end as we spiral into the center of our temporal whirlpool—a time we started heading toward as soon as the evolutionary engine of innovation was put in our own hands and minds.

Across the Universe

The same would apply to any technologically-empowered civilization. When we think about advanced extraterrestrial civilization, we usually make the mistake of thinking in terms of linear time. We imagine them existing for thousands, perhaps millions, of years in a relatively static state, making advances from time to time, but not at the rapid rate we know today. 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. They would naturally develop the knowledge and technologies that allowed them to do this more effectively and efficiently. The more they learned, the better their tools, the smarter they became, the faster they would develop. As innovation built upon innovation their rate of progress would keep gaining speed. 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, intelligent technologically-empowered species may exist for only a flash in cosmic time. And the chances of one existing at the same time as ours, and close enough by to communicate in the brief time available, are exceedingly slim

Doom and Light

The future in exponential time is not, however, all doom and gloom. The conclusion that the evolutionary explosion of humankind is destined to end—and in the not too the distant future—may, at first sight, seem to imply an end to the many scientific and technological advances on the horizon.

If we look through the lens of linear time, it might appear to need centuries, or millennia, for our species to achieve all we imagine possible. From this perspective, the continued advancement of our species demands we change our thinking and mend our ways. Otherwise things will fall apart and that vision of a hopeful future will have expired. On the linear view it is a race between breakdown and breakthrough.

From the point of view of exponential time, which is the perspective we must now take seriously, the interval between significant advances will continue to be compressed into shorter and shorter intervals. As a result we could well see technological progress way beyond that which we can now imagine, plus equivalent advances in scientific understanding, all packed into a short period of time. Who knows what we might then discover or achieve?

Breakthrough and breakdown are now 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.” We will have technology beyond our dreams in a world that's falling apart at the seams.

In years to come we may look back to days when we 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.

We started this exploration with the question of how is it that the most intelligent and creative species on this planet has also become the most dangerous? The answer, it is now becoming clear, is that the two go hand-in-hand.

Accepting Our Impermanence

Not surprisingly, most people have great difficulty accepting that technologically-empowered intelligence is intrinsically short-lived. It’s the last thing we want to hear. We knew human beings would not last forever, but most of us have imagined the eventual end to be way in the future. We think this intelligent, creative, self-aware being ought to be around for the long-term. So it can be quite upsetting to realize our collective end may arrive much sooner than expected.

Obvious parallels exist with our own death. We know it is coming, but unless we are diagnosed with some terminal illness or suffer a potentially mortal injury, we tend to push it away to some time in the future—not tomorrow or next week. On the other hand, accepting our own mortality is part of being a mature human being. Indeed, confronting death directly can produce profound shifts. People may reconsider what is important, value love more than wealth, seek to make amends for past misdeeds, find a renewed purpose in life, and live more for the present moment.

Here we are facing the end, not just of our personal lives, but also of our species. In some ways this is much harder to accept. When we look at all that we have created, all the good there is in us, all that we hold dear, and all we might yet become, it seems almost impossible to imagine this not continuing for a long time ahead.

To make matters worse, what little future there may be does not look as rosy as we might have hoped. The increasing strain of exponential growth on various human, social and ecological systems point to things coming to a head this century. Or rather, I should say “increasingly coming to a head,” since the consequences of this stress are already apparent in today’s world. Hardly welcome news for younger generations today who, even now, view the future with growing despondency. Or for parents, as they picture their children and grandchildren growing up in very different worlds than the ones they had hoped they'd have.

Collective Grieving

As the reality of the unraveling hits home, there will be widespread despair, depression and distress. What have we done? This is terrible, the future looks so bleak. There may come deep sadness at what has seemingly become of us, this wondrous, creative, intelligent species, and of this 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 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? Get angry at the corporations, the politicians, the wealthy, the Church, the military, the terrorists, or anyone else we blame for what is happening?

Or, recognizing there is no ultimate blame for having arrived at this place, will we be able to move beyond grieving and face an unknown future with courage and an open heart?

Will we be able to let go of our attachment to how things should be, our hope that things will turn out well in the end and accept that this is how it is to be a technologically empowered intelligence spinning ever-faster into the eye of its evolutionary hurricane?

The Most Unpredictable of Times

How then will things unfold? Perhaps the only certainty is uncertainty. The future will not only be unpredictable, it will become increasingly so. As developments are compressed into shorter and shorter intervals, the prediction horizon will move closer and closer, making it more challenging to make any long-term prediction.

Rather than trying to predict what might happen, and what particular eventualities we should prepare for, we should be focusing on preparing for a future in which the only certainty is uncertainty. For this we will need to become more resilient.

Resilience is defined as the ability to recover from setbacks. In this case, the ability to recover from unanticipated challenges and problems as the winds of change whip up into a storm of change, and then a hurricane of change.

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 and be stably anchored in the ground.

The same is true for us. If we are to survive the coming storms—along with some unanticipated exceptional gusts—we need to be flexible. We've never been in this situation before, and have no past experience to go on. We'll need to let go of outdated thinking, habitual reactions, and assumptions as to how to respond, and find the inner freedom to see things with fresh eyes and draw more fully on our creativity.

Second, like the trees, we 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. In this respect, 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.

A third factor that helps trees withstand a storm is 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 more resilient we will be, and the easier it will be to navigate the changes.

Caring for others will become more valuable than ever, helping alleviate stress and suffering, adapting to unexpected circumstances, letting go of cherished lifestyles, and adjusting to new social and economic realities. We will need to open our hearts and be more forgiving, not only of others but also of the situation we are in, and of the species itself. Seeing ourselves with kinder, non-blaming, eyes.

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.

A Blossoming of Consciousness

Astronomers have found that most stars similar to our sun have planets of some kind. There are about 10 billion stars like the sun in our galaxy and about ten trillion galaxies in the visible universe (which may be just a small fraction of the total universe, or universes). So that's around ten quintillion stars with planets. Of these it is estimated that one in six have planets that are potentially habitable, having temperatures in the range necessary for liquid water. And about a quarter of these are likely to be rocky planets similar to Earth in composition.

How many of these are likely to support life is currently hard to estimate. Even if life gets started on only one in a thousand—and that's a conservative estimate—there's still potentially quadrillions of life-bearing planets.

On how many of these would life progress from simple cells to more complex cells and thence to multi-cellular life? Biologists now believe there's a significant evolutionary hurdle there in terms of a cell's ability to process energy, but even putting the chances of that at another one in a thousand would still suggest there are many billions of planets in the known universe with multi-cellular life.

On some of these, a rich diversity of species emerges, and as they grow more complex, would develop senses, nervous systems, and then brains.

From time to time one of those species takes the step into tools and speech. A bud of creative intelligence suddenly appears.

Within a short time, cosmically speaking, it starts 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.

As innovation continues to breed innovation, knowledge takes off on its own accelerating curve. We have learned 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 coming ten. 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, many unanswered questions remain, 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 soon come to a full understanding of life.

However, knowledge of the physical universe is but half of what there is to know. 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. Who knows where that might lead?

In the coming decades we may gain as much knowledge as we have over the whole of human history. Or perhaps even more. Within a short period of linear time we may come to a complete knowledge 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 blossomed.

Exiting with grace

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 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?

I am reminded of the so-called century plant that flowers once in twenty 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 knowledge 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.


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.