Reasons To Be Optimistic About The Future
This Episode is sponsored by Ground News The future can sometimes seem a bleak place or one so strange that even when awesome it's not a place we’re sure we really want to live, but there’s a lot of reasons to think it’s a destination worth traveling to. So, this episode will air on Thanksgiving and is being written on my birthday in late September and for me that day is one given mostly to quiet reflection on the year that’s gone by, its highlights, and what I am thankful for, and what I want the upcoming year to be about, and that’s not a bad way to spend a birthday or Thanksgiving. But it struck me that since we always have a Thursday episode on every Thanksgiving and I always write them early, sometime around my birthday, that it’s not coincidental that they tend to be more philosophical episodes. Today we’ll be looking at technologies that will help us solve problems like energy and clean water and living space and nature preservation and restoration and a ton of others impacting the human condition, and I hope to demonstrate there’s lots to be thankful for already and that what we can glimpse on the horizon leaves lots of reasons to be optimistic. For my part I tend to think the future is hard to see precisely because it is so bright. On the one
hand, we should be grateful to live in an era of such prosperity and technological might, standing on the shoulders of many billions who have lived harder lives in our past to help us get to this point. On the other hand, I truly believe that the breathtaking history of sapient life in the universe has not even properly started yet. That we’ve barely scratched a first stroke of the first letter of the first word in the first line in the trillion years long book, that is our story and our Universe’s story. That the Universe is just emerging from a young, fiery, chaotic beginning, into a vastly longer and better era that will likely view us with a mixture of sympathy and fondness, as we often have for those who went through critical and tough moments of history. That is not the future we are looking at today though, some deep and nebulous time in the distant future. Rather, I thought today we would look closer to home and I would present some of the
reasons why I’m always so optimistic about times coming, both in terms of technological prospects, which we’ll get to in a bit, and just humanity in general, which is a good starting point. After all technology is only a tool in humanity’s hands, and a hammer in the hand of one man builds homes and in another demolishes them, or even bashes in skulls. I see humanity welding technology for all those ends but tend to be more optimistic about which we are prone to. Optimism tends to be a good wager to make anyway. Folks often ask me why I’m so upbeat about the future and in my predictions and discussions of it, and I suppose it helps that I know that if I’m wrong and civilization does collapse, I’m not likely to be called out on the mistake. Everyone will be too busy roaming around the radioactive wasteland, possibly as dust and ash themselves, or possibly fighting off packs of mutant cannibals, and in any event I’d still be upbeat about their future too. So long as even a tiny remnant of us remains, the seed for restoring us bigger and better than ever remains inside that remnant.
So, that's the first reason to be optimistic about the future. Humans are very hard to kill. Nature is not kind. Nature is not generous. Nature is predators and parasites and plagues interrupted by forest fires, droughts, deluges, asteroids, volcanoes, earthquakes, climatic shifts, and the occasional ruinous neighboring supernova. Dystopian sci fi predicting a dark future paints us a picture of a world where every inch of the ground you walk on is made of garbage and corpses, and ignores this is already true, what did you think that dirt under your feet was made of? Humanity sits on a throne atop a mountain-high pyramid of skulls and catastrophes that would wipe a mountain away and would still leave us behind. So, no matter what crisis we discuss today or what
edge we have, keep that foremost in your mind: there are far more humans alive nowadays than at any time before, and simultaneously, it would take fewer of us to survive and rebuild than in the past. Add to that, we’re harder to kill than we used to be, and the data shows that. Every calamity that used to kill tens of thousands, now gets hundreds at most. And the fact that it is technology making us more survivable in that regard doesn’t negate it anymore than pointing to some critter’s tusks or thick skin as the reason for their survival. But it’s not just technology either, it is knowledge in general, as well as our powerful bonds and networks. We are much more capable planners and problem solvers than we used to be, with vastly more resources and people to draw on too, and it shows in conjunction with that technology when we do face natural disasters or even man-made problems. Those are not trivial accomplishments,
they have been achieved by great effort and great past sorrow, and by the cleverness and courage of many people, from the planners and innovators to the first responders and just the people in general, who have to suffer through calamities and personal hardships while simultaneously being called on to sacrifice to help others in them. We often see the worst of people at hard times, but also often their noblest and best too. I don’t say this merely as jingo or pep talk, though it makes for a good one, but rather as proof that we can recover from almost anything and we have a track record of being good at it. I will also take the somewhat unpopular view that at just
about 8 billion people alive, we are now stronger than ever, on the very simple grounds that there are more of us than there used to be. We came into the 20th century with a terrible fear that ever more people would result in mass starvation and inhuman responses to that, we left that century four times as numerous but in better shape in so many ways, and most particularly in our food and health and lifespan, all up, when every prediction of that era was that rising population would lower all of those. I don’t say that wild unchecked growth is automatically a good thing, but rather that one person is one more mind and pair of hands to tackle problems with. I also feel that problems themselves are often good things. On a day of Thanksgiving, it is often good to ask if some of the problems we’ve faced, or at least components of them, individually or as a civilization, are things we should be thankful for, while some of who and what we are today is in spite of adversity, some of it is also a result of adversity. And while it’s a bit cliche to say it, how we choose to view a situation, half-full or half-empty, problem or opportunity, really does often matter a lot. I’ve often found that simply
choosing to view challenges in life that way, rather than letting them embitter me, made all the difference, and just because something is cliché doesn’t make it wrong, quite to the contrary, all the feel good advice and aphorisms and such that we hear over and over again get repeated for a reason. Often because it's true and it works. So our ability to hit crises with overpowering momentum and determination and our ability to recover from setbacks are two fundamental things to keep in mind as we go through today. Now let’s consider some of those technological solutions. It really does also matter what our end goals are that we want to be optimistic about, because not all of us want the same future. The good news is that a lot of the further-future options we look at on the show, like colonizing space and building megastructure space habitats, as well as options here at home, will let us expand humanity’s realm until its big enough to encompass many different versions of paradise and find out which work. And options like virtual reality let us even permit those that don’t work. Moral judgements aside, not everyone can be the king of the world, but VR and simulated realities can let people try that out, and maybe improve their genuine interpersonal and leadership skills while they’re at it, rather than just flee civilization into a fantasy realm as we often fear people will. Virtual reality is definitely one of those
half-full or half-empty situations, because tons of folks lazing around in VR engaging in various fantasy wish fulfillment is worrisome but we shouldn’t ignore upsides like training or treating people's medical conditions. There’s nothing like immersion and hands-on training, and yet we’re often limited on these by practical reality. Soldiers shooting guns for training is expensive, but shooting a rocket launcher or sneaking up on a tank to plant a shaped charge? Ruinously expensive and dangerous. Same for practicing medicine, even first aid. No CPR
doll is going to leave the same impression and cement that training the way a realistic person in a realistic setting and scenario will. Want to train your kid to use tools, well you need to have them all and to have things to work on that will be expended in the use and then you have to clean up and put things away. I’m often shocked by how few kids these days know what to do with a lot of basic tools and craftmanship, whether its carpentry, or fixing a car, or sewing clothes, or cooking dinner, and a lot of that is simply that the materials, equipment, and teaching time is prohibitive while the students are actually at risk. Even very good VR probably won’t match the real deal, but it's going to get you a very good, cheap, and safe exposure to the basics. I made a big deal about how our adaptability and cleverness and toughness gave us cause to be optimistic about the future, along with our ability to spring back up even if our species were decimated, but faster and better training available anywhere by VR, much as how every house is now a library thanks to the internet, represents another powerful tool that should inspire some confidence about the future. VR is likely to have limits where extreme sensations like pain are concerned, so I suppose a kid might not learn the full respect for a bandsaw that comes with accidentally chopping off a finger, and most of us have a few instructive and embarrassing scars from DIY efforts, but I think learning to use a tool in VR safely is still putting you a big leg up on someone who first handled a real one live.
We’re also better at sewing missing digits back on too, and when thinking of reasons to be optimistic about the future, all those prior improvements to medicine and the ones on the horizon are easy checkmarks. Replantation of missing limbs is still a very new thing, just inside living memory, and people live a lot longer too. Twice as many folks live to 90 as when I was a kid, and we’re expecting it to be 10% by 2050, ignoring any hypothetical drastic improvements in medicine. Same the quality of life for seniors is way better than it used to be. The reality is, the word ‘aging’ is a bit of an inaccurate blanket term describing many unrelated or partially related processes, see our episode the Science of Aging for more details, so we can’t really say folks age slower, but a lot of the hard use that made people look and feel older is slowed and reduced, and partially repairable or manageable. And while an awful lot of miracle treatments for
slowing aging or curing cancer or burning fat or building muscle are bunk, or mostly bunk, we are making extraordinary and real gains in those areas and while we have a real issue with obesity in many prosperous nations these days, my feeling is that will be one of those crises that gets solved, much as how we had rampant tooth decay issues in the past and so on. It's hard to discuss certain things without stepping on toes but since I mentioned obesity, we should probably discuss physical appearance too. We tend to have some cognitive dissonance on what’s okay to change about ourselves versus what is vain, and a lot of that is probably because of how dangerous and irreversible a lot of body modification has been as it got introduced as an option. There’s minimal risk these days to most cosmetic surgery but we still tend to discourage that on the grounds that it is permanent and risky and merely for vanity’s sake, unless the person is horribly disfigured, in which case we’re usually fine with it, and all that talk about inner beauty and being content with our body and not judging books by their covers goes out the window.
For my part, I think if someone doesn’t like their nose or cheekbones or overall shape below their neck, I don’t see how wanting to change that is inherently bad, anymore than wanting to put on makeup or different styles of clothes, or for that matter getting into better shape or changing our bad habits, two things we encourage each other not to be content with. It’s the cost, danger, and irreversibility that really matter, and those are all things technology has been addressing and will probably further improve on. That being the case I would rather expect body modification to get more common as time goes on and probably see at least one phase where the cultural mantra is something along the lines of “Have the body that fits you now” as opposed to have the perfect body, it's a state which instead changes as you and your life change. Add to that other technological options, like virtual reality, augmented reality, and even options like limited shapeshifting using some of the options we discussed in our episodes on Alien Impostors or Smart Matter.
We’ve never really had a way to address people being upset that they felt too short or too tall, too wide, just didn’t like their ears or facial features, asymmetries, the coloring of their hair, skin, or eyes, shape of their hands, etc. We basically tell people to learn to be content with it, which is better than being obsessed or bitter about it, but still strikes me as little different than telling someone to be content with their class and station as assigned at birth or by standardized testing. I happen to do the job that my parents wanted me to do and which testing said I was suited for, but I had many options and never felt restricted, let alone confined, and I generally feel like that’s where we want to aiming humanity in most respects. Lots of options to choose from, some encouraged or frowned on, but only with reasonable justification. Our history has been one filled with lots of castes and classes, and one of the driving forces for that is limited land for people to own and farm. We’ve made massive strides at getting
better at bringing higher crop yields from land while also decreasing other ecological impacts, and research continues to improve that. Mobility, be it upward or lateral, literal or social, is at least partially abundant nowadays because of that abundance of food and arable land and the ability of folks to buy and sell and rent land and associated properties, not to mention move. It's cool to think of a house or farm being in a family for a dozen generations but the flipside of that is that it can be very hard for anyone to get into farming or real estate when everything is already owned by families with all the associated equipment already bought and lifetimes of training in running that business. This is hardly limited to farming and real estate but so much of the rest of the modern economy is so constantly in flux from technological disruption that there’s always new niches for folks to break in. Though the flipside of that is that there’s always people being displaced who had their skills rendered redundant and aren’t personally able to make a good transition to something else, for myriad reasons. One of the ways you can handle both problems is by simply adding to the available resources as you grow, and that’s exactly what colonization of space allows, along with high-tech options to add land; like arcologies on the ground and space habitats in the sky. And bigger is not the same;
only more of it, a larger system has more diversity of options, a country of ten million people doesn’t just have 10 times as many doctors as one with a million, it has more specialists, it has more brands of cereal, more types of vacations and recreation, more sports leagues not just more teams of the same sport. More types of nations and sub-divisions too, see our episode on Future Government types for more discussion of all the different combinations and variations folks might try. Using the midwestern model, which is generally town and cities and villages inside counties, themselves inside states, themselves inside a nation, we might see a future in which there’s a US State on the Moon, say the State of Armstrong, or we might see one in which a small ring habitat of a couple thousand is the Village of Kalpana and part of a loosely-tethered conglomeration of a few dozens other ring habs and O’Neill Cylinder’s in the County of Glenn, itself part of the State of Ohio. But the cool thing about space habitats, as I often say, is that they are mobile, so if Kalpana can’t stand the Glenn County government any more, they can vote to have a tug come by and move them to the neighboring County of Shepard or even the mobile US territory of Aldrin Cyclers between Mars and Earth, or leave the country entirely and join the Mamoru prefecture of Japan on the Shadow-side of the Moon.
Mobility in a literal sense has a lot to do with freedom, and while it’s very nice to be able to put down roots and establish yourself inside a stable and enduring community, the option to leave, even if never taken, for both the individual and that entire community, seems to me a good one and another bright option for our future. That’s off in space and some centuries ahead of course, but building to such a future can make current hardships more endurable. So too, growing options for remote work give people much more mobility in their life. For all of our successes we have plenty of hardships though, and some of those problems are derived from our success. We have a shortage of
water on a planet mostly covered kilometers deep in it, and a lot of that is polluted with islands of trash on it. So we develop ways to better desalinate water, driven by solar or nuclear energy, and to preserve or minimize that water usage and without deprivation. We don’t tell people not to irrigate with water, we find methods to use less to do more, we develop tricks to decrease erosion and our soil and nutrients running down rivers to spill into the sea. Those same tricks can keep garbage, not just soil, from flowing out into the sea; as we don’t want islands of trash, and we’ll develop robot drone boats to go out and reclaim those useful resources so they fuel our civilization once more rather than polluting it. We’ll get better and faster recycling with smart identification allowing robots to rapidly and accurately separate and process various types of waste in the best manner for them. In truth we probably won’t have garbage cans much longer as along with your robot vacuums and mops you will probably start having that augmented reality layer that lets you quickly and casually designate some object as garbage or a mess and a drone will pop by to collect it and dispose of it properly.
There’s another one of those less-noticed but awesome improvements to life. It’s ragweed season here in Ohio as I write this, and allergies are a miserable thing. I’ve been getting allergy shots for some months now and in fact will be pausing in my writing to go to my weekly appointment in a moment, and they and antihistamines definitely have made life better for me personally. So does
the air filter I run in my office here in my home, so did quitting smoking two years ago when I turned 40, and the robot that vacuums the carpet in here against all those allergens and my very furry cat Flax definitely help too. That’s not just a quality of life thing, allergens and mold are definitely factors in making people sick and less resistant to other ailments, and we shouldn’t ignore the psychological benefits of a neat and tidy home. So every robot that makes cleaning a little easier, improves your health in body and mind, and gives you a bit more free time for other matters of your choosing. One tiny example among so many others, that makes life a
bit healthier and happier, including the invention of the vacuum cleaner before they were robots. Robot lawn mowers will definitely be more of a thing this decade and we’ll see more automation and smart controls in homes and gardens, this might get into some very sophisticated lawn and garden maintenance being constantly updated against current weather and local climate too. The value of automation in agriculture is almost incalculable as well. However, robots will have a powerful role in nature preservation too. Consider the drone that counts every single member of a species in a forest and can visually ID them without needing a dot or tracker, consider when an upgraded version of google maps comes out that casually lets you pull up how many of each type of tree or shrub or mammal or bird are in a given parcel of land. Consider when such a drone might have pheromone emitters or sprayers to allow us to poke or prod animals toward each other or to certain behaviors. Consider a world in which vehicle detection and
avoidance are so good you never see a dead animal along the road, because roadkill is a thing of the past, but you wouldn’t anyway because those same robots patrol the roads for damage and maintenance needs and garbage. Imagine a world in which the death of a human or animal on the road was a shocking rarity, not a terrible norm. All of this I think is very plausible and in most cases sooner than later, and I think the one that worries folks the most is how do we get enough energy and cheaply enough and without wrecking our environment in the process. Many think it is too late, and if you do, then my advice is to go all in for a moon base as soon as possible, because industry on the Moon churning out orbital or L1 solar shades can mediate that problem a lot, no matter how far gone it is. That’s also a good path to power too. For my part, I’m a big believer in a multi-method approach to energy because even if some are cheaper or more expensive than others, if you have a modest amount of it out there, it not only can get serious technological improvement through real-world usage, but it helps remove the sorts of instabilities and jugulars we get from single-source energy. I’m a big fan of nuclear and solar as mainstays though, and because when I was born, solar was still nearly a hundred bucks a watt, down a lot from just a couple decades before, and since that time, the price per watt has dropped by 10% or more every single year. We are just about at the point where solar will be
the cheapest power source on average, that is very debatable, and we still have issues of storage and weather and nighttime, which is why I love it with nuclear power, but that time is definitely approaching when it won’t be debatable anymore and more sunlight energy hits this planet every second than we use all day, so there’s plenty of room for expansion. Battery technology has similarly improved, if more modestly, and other storage options show continual improvement and promise. The end is in sight, I really believe that, and I believed it 20 years ago and reality has outperformed my hopes there too. Aggressive efforts at constantly improving the safety,
cost, efficiency, and sustainability of all our possible power sources, even hydrocarbons, is probably the one area we fall short in, not because we don’t make those efforts, but because we often have rival interests attack other approaches to energy. Our approach is better, and their approach is therefore awful. To be fair, that is something we see in many other industries and policy areas too, where it’s a competition for attention and resources rather than an actual contradictory approach. I suspect as you’re hearing this, if it's when it comes out or sooner after, me saying energy will soon be cheaper than ever is going to be met with some tooth-grinding or rolled eyes. Energy is expensive in 2022 and indicators are it will be a rough winter in that regard, but I suspect that will only fuel the push for more and cheaper and better energy.
That’s the last area I will hit today to close out on, it's very easy to get pessimistic about things when it seems like we’re heading in the wrong way or forming up for circular firing squads, but the evidence seems to indicate we really are better nowadays about working together and reacting to possible problems. We see them sooner and sometimes that means we never really act with urgency, and I won’t say that doesn’t happen a lot but at the same time I would make the case for having a bit more trust in your fellow humans. They’re not apathetic, most of us have issues we’re very passionate about and wonder why others aren’t, but it's not the same 10% of us who care about everything. We are all spread out working to other problems and while that can make it feel like folks aren’t focusing on what matters, and of course some really are not, just remember that a lot of them are and just don’t agree on what is most important or how to deal with it, and that we can walk and chew bubblegum at the same time. The world is anything but perfect, same for humanity and for you and I individually, but we’ve a long history of success and improvement, and much to be thankful for, and in contemplating that we can see a shadow of that future to come, and that shadow looks pretty impressive as that future casting it is a very bright one indeed.
A common concern about reaching a better future is that while nowadays we have access to virtually unlimited information, when it comes to our news, folks often feel like they’re getting saturated with news that’s full of bias from one group or another and lacks accuracy or neutrality. And it isn’t just the bias, it's the constant feed of clickbait, hype, and sensationalized material that all seems built around getting views and appealing to one group or another’s echo chamber. That’s where Ground News comes in, it's the world’s first news comparison platform that shows you how breaking news is being covered across the political spectrum, and gives you a visual breakdown of the new sources covering a story and where they fall on the political spectrum. It also shows you blindspots, like which new stories are being underreported by one side or the other. And you can watch how international stories are being covered across the globe using the interactive map. Cofounded by Harleen Kaur, who got her start
working for NASA on the New Horizons Spacecraft, Ground News is a Platform that makes it easy to swipe between headlines to discover which details are emphasized, exaggerated, or left out entirely, and you can even see your own news bias preferences. Ground News is not better news, it’s a better way to read the news, and you can go to Ground.News/IsaacArthur to try Ground News for free, or subscribe to get access to all the features you see here and support our show and a small team of independent media outsiders working to make the news more transparent. And as an extra bonus, Ground News has a Black Friday sale where you can get 40% off a Vantage subscription, again that’s Ground.News/IsaacArthur. So we have our Livestream coming up this weekend, Sunday, November 27 at 4pm Eastern time, and that will probably be the last one for the year since the next one in December would fall on Christmas Day, which might be rather tricky to pull off this year, and it might get rescheduled or just skipped till January. As I’ve mentioned in passing, Sarah and I are in the processing of adopting 3 little kids and they will have moved in the day before this episode airs, which might make this weekend’s live stream tricky too, and I’ll probably make the call on December’s Livestream after we do November’s. Speaking of Livestreams though, some folks asked
about the new piece of art behind me in the Studio as it looked a lot like the NASA JPL Visions Posters or paintings that many of us, myself included, have hanging up around our home or office. And it isn’t coincidental, they were commissioned with that in mind and from the same artist, the phenomenal Don Clark from Invisible Creature, who worked with the team over at The World Fair Co, who are on a mission to inspire hope for the future by reviving and reimagining the World's Fair. Personally I love that idea, and loved the posters, and was given that poster hanging up there by my friend Cameron Weise, from Build The Future Podcast, who was giving a talk on it I was attending. If you want to find out more about that or grab one of the posters, go to worldfair.co/gallery. So that wraps us up on November episodes but we sure still have December coming up before we close out the year, and we’ll start the month off with asking what if SETI’s attempts at detecting alien signals succeeds and what we should do if it does. Then we’ll look at the opposite case, what if we never encounter aliens because we are the first civilization in this region of the Universe, period. Then it's onto Scifi
Sunday for a look at the concept of Planetary Civil wars and fighting between worlds. If you want alerts when those and other episodes come out, don’t forget to subscribe to the channel and hit the notifications bell. And if you enjoyed today’s episode, and would like to help support future episodes, please visit our website, Isaac Arthur.net, for ways to donate, or become a show patron over at Patreon. Those and other options, like our awesome social media forums for discussing futuristic concepts, can be found in the links in the description. Until next time, thanks for watching, and have a great week!