1. How Did We Get Here?
2. Accelerating Innovation
3. A Blind Spot on the Future
4. Where Are We Headed?
5. Facing Reality
6. A Blossoming of Consciousness
Why has the most innovative of species become the most dangerous? The answer, suggests Peter Russell, lies in humanity’s ever-accelerating pace of development. He shows how innovation breeds further innovation, fueling a positive feedback loop that leads to exponential rates of growth. But our minds struggle to comprehend the full implications of exponential growth, leaving us with a blind spot for the future.
However fast the pace of change may seem today, it will be much faster in the years to come, bringing ever more rapid scientific and technological advances. But with this rapid progress comes an unexpected consequence - the faster the pace of change, the greater the stress on our personal, social, and planetary systems. And the greater the stress the more likely is systemic breakdown. Russell concludes that we are heading into a future with technology beyond our dreams, but in a world that’s breaking at the seams..
This doesn’t mean humankind has taken a wrong turn. Spiraling rates of development, with all their consequences, positive and negative, are the inevitable destiny of any intelligent, technologically-empowered species..
How do we adapt to an ever-increasing pace of life? How can we prepare for a future that is becoming more and more unpredictable? What does it mean for humanity, and our place in the cosmos?
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All my life I’ve been fascinated by exponential growth. I first came across it in my math classes at high school and was immediately struck by its implications. The curve of exponential growth not only gets steeper and steeper, it does so forever, leading to mindboggling results. A dollar invested at 10 per cent compound interest per year, would be worth $2.50 after 10 years, $117 after 50 years, and $13,781 after a hundred years. A startling amount. Startling because the human mind finds it difficult to think in terms of exponential change; we are much more accustomed to steady linear change.
I was also keenly interested in the long-term future. Looking at human civilization, I saw that a number of factors were subject to exponential growth—technological development, resource consumption, national economies. If they continued to grow exponentially—and there was every reason to assume they would—we would eventually arrive at situations way beyond what is possible. My teenage mind argued that since “impossible” situations don’t occur, humanity would, sooner or later, experience some major disruptions, and probably within my own lifetime. And now, 60 years later, here we are, facing the catastrophic consequences of unbridled exponential growth.
Recent reports suggest we are in the early stages of the sixth major mass extinction in Earth’s history—this time caused by one of the planet’s own species, rather than by an asteroid impact—and if we don’t change our ways radically, and fast, then we, along with many other species, will become extinct in a century or so. And it is our own fault.
At least, that is the story we usually hear. Here, I propose a new story of human evolution—not the kind of new story that many people are calling for in which personal and social transformation help us avoid major cataclysms and move on to more sustainable ways of living, ensuring our survival. In this radically different new story, there is no long-term future ahead of us.
We are coming to the natural conclusion of our species’ journey, spinning faster and faster into the center of an evolutionary spiral. And, as I will explain, there is no blame for this. It is the inevitable destiny of any intelligent technologically-empowered species.
On the other hand, continued exponential growth means that equivalent amounts of progress will be packed into shorter and shorter intervals. Thus this alternative story does not preclude our achieving as much development in the decades ahead as there has been in the whole of human history so far.
Exponential growth occurs whenever something’s rate of growth is proportional to its current size—a pattern known technically as “positive feedback.”
You are probably familiar with audio feedback. This occurs when a microphone connected to an amplifier picks up the sound coming from the speaker, feeds it back to the amplifier, creating an even louder sound in the speaker, which the microphone picks up and feeds back into the amplifier again. As the process repeats, the sound rapidly rises to an ear piercing shrill.
The human population explosion is a good example of positive feedback leading to exponential growth. If birth rates are above replacement level, then 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, this self-reinforcing loop causes the population to grow faster and faster.
Population growth does not follow an exponential curve in the strict mathematical sense, where the rate of growth is a fixed proportion of the current size. Other factors, such as health care and sanitation, also have an impact. Nevertheless, the general principle of positive feedback leading to accelerating growth is still operating.
The continuous acceleration in the rate of our humanity’s development stems from the feedback loop of innovation breeding further innovation. New knowledge may lead to new approaches to handling the world. New technologies can foster further scientific advances, which can lead to more inventions, and other possibilities. Progress feeds back on itself, increasing the pace at every turn.
Hundreds of years ago, our ancestors had 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 might have been occasional innovations—better food preserving, sturdier buildings, new ways of hunting—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 had become an intrinsic part of life. We looked back to how things were, and forward to how things could be. Cyclical time had given way to linear time.
Today, progress is happening increasingly rapidly. 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. 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 hard 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 fail to see the full implications of exponential change and where it is leading.
You may have heard the story of the king who wanted to reward the inventor of the chess board with anything he wanted. The inventor asked for one grain of rice on the first square of the chessboard. Two grains on the second, four on the third, eight on the fourth, doubling each time till the 64th square would have… how many grains? A mindboggling 18,446,744,073,709,551,615, or about 45 trillion tons of rice. That’s 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 humanity. On paper we can perhaps take the acceleration into account; but not in our intuitive ideas of the future. Here, as we shall see, linear time still rules our minds. .
Some futurists believe the ever increasing pace of development will take us into what they call a “singularity”—the term mathematicians give to a point where existing patterns and 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? Our usual concepts of direction no longer apply.
The center of black hole is another example of a singularity: Space and time cease to have any meaning, and the equations of physics become filled with infinities.
The idea that our own development could be approaching a type of singularity was first put forward both by the mathematician Vernor Vinge, in 1992, and around the same time by myself in The White Hole in Time (later published as Waking Up in Time). More recently the idea has been popularized by Ray Kurzweil, who argues that if computing power keeps doubling every eighteen months or so, as it has done for the last fifty years, then sometime in the next ten years artificial intelligence will surpass 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 any human could.
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 what he calls an “historical singularity"—one in which the past patterns of history no longer apply.
As to where that leads, all bets are off. Nonetheless, we can say one thing about a post singularity world: the pace of change will continue to speed up. Indeed, the emergence of ultra intelligent systems will accelerate the rate of development even further. We can’t put precise figures to it, but if as much change happens in the next ten years as occurred in the previous twenty (say), then, after the singularity, as much change again might come in the following five. And then as much change yet again in a year or two. Within a short time, the curve becomes unbelievably steep, and the rate of change impossibly rapid. .
Our future in exponential time is not all doom and gloom. The conclusion that humanity’s evolutionary explosion is destined to end—and in the not-too-distant future—may, at first sight, seem to imply an end to the many scientific and technological advances on the horizon, and an end to all that we hoped we’d become.
Seen through the lens of linear time, this would indeed seem to be the case. At today’s rate of progress, we might well think it would take centuries, or perhaps millennia, for our species to achieve all we imagine possible. From this perspective, the continued advancement of our species demands we mend our ways, live more sustainably, and take better care of the world. Otherwise, if the global ecosystem collapses, that vision of a long term future will expire and we will never achieve our full potential. Through the lens of linear time, it’s a race between breakthrough and breakdown.
However, from the perspective of exponential time—which is the lens through which we must now consider the future—things look very different. With accelerating development, the time between significant advances will be compressed into shorter and shorter intervals. Progress, similar to that of the last fifty years, may in the future take only twenty years, and a similar amount again may take only ten years or so. We will see technological advances way beyond those which we now imagine, plus equivalent advances in scientific understanding, all packed into ever shorter periods. Who knows what we might then discover or create? Almost anything is possible.
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.” In the coming decades, we will see technology beyond our dreams, in a world that’s breaking at the seams.
We started this exploration with the question of how is it that the such an intelligent and innovative species has become the most dangerous? The answer, it is now becoming clear, is the two go hand-in-hand.
The acceleration in our evolution that came from our enhanced intelligence and creativity, inevitably leaves in its wake an increasing turbulence that now threatens to bring the system down. This doesn’t mean we somehow went wrong; this is how it is to be a technologically-empowered intelligence spinning ever-faster into the eye of its evolutionary hurricane. .
What will happen as we spiral faster and faster into the center of our evolutionary whirlpool? The overall trend may be fairly clear, but how events will actually unfold is far from certain. Moreover, as changes are compressed into shorter and shorter intervals, the future will become ever more difficult to predict.
Rather than trying to determine what will or will not happen, we would be better preparing for a future that is becoming increasingly uncertain? With events that we can predict, as, for example, an impending hurricane, we have some idea of what will happen and how to prepare. But how do we prepare for the unpredictable?
One thing that will help is greater resilience—usually defined as the ability to withstand or recover from setbacks. In this case, the ability to withstand or recover from the disruptions and challenges of unanticipated changes.
Trees in a storm provide a good analogy. If a tree is to withstand the storm it must be flexible, able to bend with the winds; a rigid tree will soon blow down. And 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 exceptional gusts—we will need to be more flexible. We’ll need to let go of our attachments to how things should be; let go of habitual reactions and assumptions as to how to respond; let go of expectations and our desire for certainty. We’ll need to see things with fresh eyes, rather than those of the past, so that we can respond creatively to the challenges ahead.
And, like the trees, we will need greater stability. We’ll need to be stably anchored in ourselves, so that, when the unexpected suddenly arrives, we can remain relatively cool, calm, and collected; not be repeatedly 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. Nor will we be able to think so clearly as how best to respond.
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 to soften the impact of the unexpected. We will all feel vulnerable at times, needing to express our concerns and anxieties, and ask for emotional support. There will be the stress of adapting to new circumstances; emotional pain as we are forced to let go of cherished lifestyles, and adjust to new realities; along with sadness and grief at some of the more distressing developments. And there will be times when we need to give material support, providing basics such as food, water, shelter, and medicine to each other.
More than ever, we will need compassion and forgiveness. Forgiveness, not just of others, but of humanity itself. True forgiveness comes from understanding. If I put myself in another’s shoes, I often can understand how they might have seen things and why they acted as they did. When I do, my judgements and grievances lose their grip and my anger begins to subside. Similarly with the state of our species. If we can understand how we got here—as I have tried to do in this book—then we can be more forgiving of ourselves. And, hopefully, accept this is how it is to run up against the inevitable consequences of our ever-accelerating development. .
There are about 100 billion stars in an average galaxy, and an estimated ten trillion galaxies in the visible universe (which may be just a small fraction of the total universe, or universes). So that’s around a sextillion stars. A thousand times more stars than the quintillion grains of sand in all Earth’s beaches and deserts!
Of these stars it is thought that one in twenty could have planets that are potentially habitable. How many of these support life is harder to estimate. Even if life gets started on only one in a thousand—and that is a very conservative estimate—that’s still hundreds of quadrillions of planets with life. How many would progress from simple cells to more complex cells and thence to multi-cellular life? Biologists think it could well have taken a lucky break for life on Earth to cross that threshold. But even putting the chances of that at another one-in-a-thousand, there could still be a 100 trillion planets with multi-cellular life.
On some of these, a rich diversity of species would emerge, and as they grew more complex would develop senses and nervous systems of some kind. From time to time, one of those species takes the step into tools and speech. A bud of creative intelligence appears.
On our planet it was preceded by billions of years of cellular evolution. Then by hundreds of millions of years of vertebrate evolution. And then, in just a few million years, 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 flowering. Billions of self aware petals, seeking to become all they could be; to know all there is to know.
Within the time remaining we may still come to a full 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 blossomed. .
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Some Praise for Forgiving Humanity
This is one powerful book! I think Forgiving Humanity will change my life.
~ Joanna Macy, Deep Ecologist, Author of many books including World as Love, World as Self
What I most value is how Peter creates the context for forgiving ourselves as a species as we face the reality of our highly probable extinction. This is how we humans always manifest—innovating continually until the consequences of our innovations bring us to a halt. Knowing this, we can shift from blame and anger to the peace of acceptance. And commit now to be together in compassionate and conscious ways.
~ Margaret Wheatley, author of many books from Leadership and the New Science to Who Do We Choose to Be
Absolutely Brilliant. Clear, comprehensive, very well-written and quite sobering, of course. I especially like the way he ended the book -- offering readers a variety of life-affirming principles to contemplate -- i.e. resilience, letting go of attachments, going beyond assumptions/certainty, inner stability, equilibrium, becoming more creative and compassionate, the need for community, forgiveness and finding our new story in the cosmos.
Mitchell Ditkoff, Poet and Author, The Unspoken Word
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