The cosmic bud

Reposted from PeterRussell.Com

1. The Stress of Acceleration

When we consider the future from the perspective of exponential time rather than linear time we are forced to the initially uncomfortable conclusion that technological civilizations are intrinsically short-lived—not because of any fault in technology itself, or wrong-thinking on the part of the species, but from the acceleration in development that inevitably accompanies them and the impact of that on the species and the planet.

Futurists who look ahead to a technological singularity mostly focus their attention on the wondrous new advances on the horizon: self-repairing machines, human-cybernetic interfaces, brain enhancement, quantum computing, nano-tech medicine, reversed aging, 3D-printed organs, etc. Entranced by the awe-inspiring promises of ever-more rapid technological development, they by-and-large fail to consider the downside of this acceleration, namely the stress it is putting on all the systems involved.

Stress may generally be defined as a failure to adapt to change. In human terms, the more we have to attend to, plan for, worry about, and take care of—i.e. the more to which we have to adapt—the more likely we are to suffer stress, with its various undesirable consequences in terms of physical, mental, and emotional health, and repercussions on family, friends, and colleagues.

Today the increasing pace of life and the demands of new technologies are becoming a growing source of stress. Many are finding themselves having to work longer hours, even weekends. There are new technologies to learn, more systems to upgrade, more information to keep abreast of, more time consumed by social media. The amount of quality time we can have with ourselves, family and friends, relaxing and recovering from the pressures of work is getting less, and for some disappearing completely. As adaption to increasing change becomes more challenging, exhaustion and burnout become increasingly common.

But it is not only people who are experiencing the stress of ever-faster change. Our social, economic, political and environment systems are all being impacted as they fail to adapt to increasing change.

A Crisis of Acceleration

When we look at the various crises that have befallen humankind, it is easy to lay the blame on over-population, over-consumption, excessive waste, self-centered attitudes, financial greed, poor government, unsustainable policies, or a variety of other “causes.” However, the crisis humankind is now facing is, at its root, a crisis of accelerating development.

Clearly the human population explosion is the result of exponential-like growth. Thankfully, it is now beginning to tail off. Nevertheless the implications for food, water, housing, geo-politics, and other issues are major and growing.

Oil reserves are running out because we are now consuming them a million times faster than they were created. Similarly with many other resources whose supply is becoming critical—platinum, copper, zinc, nickel, and phosphorus, all of which are crucial for contemporary technology—will have run out, or be very limited, within a few decades. Yet our demand for them continues to grow, exacerbated by the rapidly growing needs of developing countries.

On the other side of the equation, rapid growth in industrialization has led to an accelerating growth in the release of pollutants into the air, soil and sea. Some are now being released thousands, or in some cases millions, of times faster than the planet can break them down and absorb them.

Climate change stems from our accelerating consumption of fossil fuels and the accompanying increased emission of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Previously most of it was absorbed by plants and the oceans, but we are now producing the gas hundreds of times faster than these systems can handle. We might, if we really put our hearts and minds to it avert the most damaging repercussions of climate change; but climate change is just one potential catastrophe. There are many others waiting in the wings.

I’ve already mentioned the inherent instability of any economic system based on compound interest. Another direct consequence of such systems is the need for continual growth in net wealth in order that the interest on all the capital invested be repaid. A three-percent annual growth may be deemed healthy for a nation, but the impact on the planet of such growth, compounded over a hundred years, is devastating.

Accelerating cultural development has promoted geo-political instability. Renaissance Europe spearheaded scientific, technological, and social development. It then colonized other lands whose development was a thousand or more years behind. The dangerous consequences of this are now apparent in regions of the world where people are still living with customs and values of pre-industrial Europe, yet have access to modern weaponry, internet, and ease of travel. We are seeing not so much a clash of cultures, but a clash of eras—a clash originating in a mismatch in rates of progress.

A system can only tolerate so much stress before it breaks down. If a wheel is made to spin faster and faster, it will eventually break apart under the stress. In a similar way, as rates of change grow ever faster, the systems involved will reach a point where they too begin to crack. Whether it be our own biological system, social, economic, and political systems, or the planetary ecosystem, the stress of ever-increasing change will eventually lead to breakdown. Crises will pile upon each other faster and faster, heading us into the perfect global storm.

Intrinsically Unsustainable

There may be many aspects of humanity that are unsustainable, but they are not the root cause of its current predicament. What is intrinsically unsustainable is the overall acceleration in development.

In the past the impacts of the acceleration were minimal, and in most cases absorbed by the various systems. But the rate of development has now reached a pitch where they can no longer cope, and the inevitable consequences of ever-increasing rates of development are now becoming increasingly apparent.

We might liken our situation to the whirlpool of water as it runs out through the plughole in a sink—something most of us have watched from time to time. Far from the center, the water is moving very slowly, almost imperceptibly, perhaps taking a minute to complete a revolution. Halfway to the center, it is moving four times as fast, taking 15 seconds per revolution. Halve that distance and it is moving four times as fast again, a revolution every four seconds. Halve that, and its whirling around once per second. The closer to the center the faster it whirls, until it is sucked down the center of the spiral.

Humankind is whirling faster and faster on its own spiral of change. And just as the ever-more rapid movement of the water comes to an end when it reaches the center of the whirlpool, the hyper-acceleration in the pace of our development will come to its own end. But it will not end because we change our ways, or get innovation under control. It will come to an end as we spiral into the center of our temporal whirlpool—a time we inevitably started heading toward as soon as the evolutionary engine of innovation was put in our own minds and hands.

Both Sides Now

The evolutionary explosion of a technological civilization does not last forever. As it spins faster and faster, it ultimately comes to an end of its own making. But this is not to ignore the many breakthroughs that may still be made along the way.

As the rate of change continues to accelerate, the time between significant advances is compressed into shorter and shorter intervals. If we look through the lens of linear time then it may seem to need centuries, or millennia, for our species to achieve all that we imagine possible. From the perspective of exponential time, we could well see technological progress way beyond what we now can barely imagine, and equivalent advances in scientific understanding, all packed into a very short period of time.

In a linear view of time, humanity’s unsustainable attitudes and behavior would appear to be direct threats to the continued advancement of the species. If there is to be a long-term future ahead of us in which we can continue to grow and achieve all that we imagine possible, then we must change our thinking and mend our ways. Otherwise things will fall apart and that hopeful vision of a productive future will have expired. On the linear view it is a race between breakdown and breakthrough. As a result many focus on how to reform the species so that we can “save the world”—or, more honestly, save ourselves.

From the point of view of exponential time, which is the perspective we must now take seriously, we have to hold the two simultaneously. Breakthrough and breakdown are two sides of the same coin. They are ramping up together, and coming to a head together. No longer is it a question of “either-or,” but an acceptance of “both-and.”

This is why a species with such unprecedented capacities, and the potential to be something truly magnificent, may also appear to be so dangerous, destroying our planetary support system at an alarming rate. The two go hand-in-hand.

2. Across the Universe

The physicist Enrico Fermi pondered the apparent contradiction between a high probability of extraterrestrial civilizations existing elsewhere in our galaxy, and the lack of evidence for, or contact with, such civilizations. Why haven’t they already colonized Earth? Or why don’t we detect their radio transmissions?

Many answers have been proposed, ranging from the possibility that they are already here, to the possibility that the distances are so vast why would they bother. But the true answer may be that they don’t exist. Or to be more precise, they exist only for a relatively brief time.

Again we make the mistake of imagining advanced extraterrestrial civilizations in terms of linear time, existing for thousands, perhaps millions, of years in a relatively static state. But that probably never happens.

Whatever their physical form, any intelligent tool-using species is likely to develop technologies that enhance their safety and survival. It is a fundamental goal of all life. It would naturally develop the knowledge and technologies that allowed it to do this more effectively and efficiently. The more they learned, the better their tools, and the smarter they became, the faster they would develop. As innovation built upon innovation their rate of progress would keep accelerating. Within a short time (evolutionarily speaking) they would meet the consequences of their own hyper-acceleration, spiraling into the center of their own evolutionary whirlpool.

Marvelous as they may be in their moment of glory, it may be that intelligent technologically-empowered species exist for only a flash in cosmic time.

On the other hand, there may well be advanced intelligences that have not taken the technological path. Here on Earth, whales and dolphins show signs of intelligence approaching that of humans. However, having no hands, they have not developed tools and technology, so have not been subject to hyper-accelerating development.

Perhaps the evolution of intelligence on other planets has taken a similar, non-technological, course. More advanced intelligence may be living in a planet’s oceans (whether they be oceans of water, methane, or some other liquid). There a creature’s body is free from the constraints of gravity, and can grow much larger than on land, opening the possibility for much larger brains. It may be there, in the extra-terrestrial oceans that intelligence and awareness far surpassing our own have evolved.

A Cosmic Bud

On some of the trillions of planets across the Universe life will have appeared, and on some of those evolved into a rich diversity of species. From time to time one of those species takes the step into tools and speech. A bud of self-awareness suddenly appears.

On our planet it was preceded by billions of years of slow cellular evolution. Then by hundreds of millions of years of vertebrate evolution; then by millions of years of mammalian evolution; and then, almost out of nowhere, our tool-using ancestors with larger brains appeared. With the advent of speech, the bud grew rapidly. Within a short time, cosmically speaking, it started to bloom, bursting into an exotic, multifaceted cultural inflorescence. Billions of self-aware petals, seeking to become all they can be; to know all there is to know.

When a planet bursts into bud, knowledge takes off on its own accelerating curve. We have learnt as much about the physical world in the last fifty years as we did in the previous five thousand. And we may learn as much again in the decades ahead. Physics is approaching a “theory of everything”—a set of mathematical equations that underlie all the forces of nature. We are not there yet, but many believe the breakthrough could happen any time. In cosmology we are beginning to understand how the Universe came into being, and where it might be headed. Again, we are not there yet—there remain many unanswered questions, and almost as many competing theories—but discoveries in this field are coming fast. Similarly with life itself, progress in molecular biology is proceeding at such a rate that we may come to a full understanding of life in coming years.

However, knowledge of the physical universe is but half of what there is to know. We are also conscious creatures, and as significant as all our scientific, technological, and cultural developments may be, of no less significance is our having become self-aware. We are not only aware of our experience, we are aware that we are aware. And no knowledge of the cosmos could ever be said to be complete if it did not include a full knowledge of awareness itself, the sine qua non of all knowing. Today the interest in consciousness itself is rapidly growing, both scientifically and on a personal level. Could it be that the next phase of this evolutionary explosion is one of consciousness. Coming to know the knower, the self that dwells at the heart of all experience. Who knows where that might lead.

Our species may be gone in a century or so, but that does not mean it is all for nothing. Quite the opposite. We may have little future in terms of linear time, but in exponential time so much more is possible. In the coming decades there may be as much development as has happened in the whole of human history. Or perhaps even more. Within the short linear time remaining for our species we may yet come to a complete knowing of the world, both around us and within us. This does not mean knowing everything it is possible to know, but everything this particular intelligence could know in this biological form, from this point in the universe.

Another bud of consciousness will have bloomed.

3. Accepting Our Fate

How, then, does the future look if we shift from a paradigm that assumes relatively slow stable growth to one based on the premise that the rate of development will continue speeding up? The most significant conclusion—and the one that is hardest for most people to accept—is that we have to let go of the notion of a long-term future.

First, scenarios set way in the future implicitly assume rates of development much slower than those of today. There may well be progress, but it is on a more linear model of time. As soon as exponential time enters the picture, the interval between significant breakthroughs and developments gets shorter and shorter. The rate of development explodes, taking us into completely uncharted territory. You can’t have it both ways. And everything is pointing to us having to take the exponential perspective seriously.

Second, the increasing strain such rates of growth put on the various human, social and ecological systems and the consequences for any long-term sustainability point to it coming to a head this century. Or rather, I should say “increasingly coming to a head,” since symptoms of this stress are already appearing in today’s world.

This is not happening because our species is somehow flawed. Something like this is inevitable for any technologically-empowered intelligence. They are intrinsically short-lived..

For most people the conclusion is unsettling—to say the least. It’s the last thing we want to hear. We knew that human beings would not last forever, but most of us have imagined the eventual end to be way in the future.

As with any paradigm shift, there’s a strong attachment to the old model.. It has served us well for a aeons. It is the lens through which we see the world, and taken for granted—and a source of hope. We don’t like to consider that our end may be just a few generations away. We prefer to think that because we are special, this marvelous self-aware, creative being—which we are— then we ought to be around for the long-term. But if we are to navigate our way through the coming times, it is imperative that we let go of our cherished model, however unsettling the alternative may seem.

A Sixth Extinction

There have been five major species extinctions in the past, and several minor ones. The most recent occurred some 66 million years ago, when an asteroid, several miles wide, hit the planet, devastating the global environment, and resulting in the extinction of three-quarters of Earth’s species—including the dinosaurs. But some small mammals survived, and later flourished, leading to us, a creature able to sit here and contemplate the event, and its own survival challenges today.

We may well be witnessing the early stages of a sixth major species extinction, one triggered this time not by the impact of a comet or asteroid, but by the impact of humankind’s hyper-accelerated development.

Climate is undoubtedly a major factor. There is a growing concern that it may have reached a tipping point. Even if we were to stop all fossil-fuel burning today, global temperatures would continue to rise for decades, probably triggering a runaway greenhouse effect as the much more potent greenhouse gas methane is released from the tundra and deep ocean. The warmer the planet gets, the more methane is released, and the more the planet warms—the familiar positive feedback loop that underlies exponential growth.

The effects of climate change on the world’s ecosystems will be profound. Species are today becoming extinct faster than at any time since the end of the dinosaurs, and is likely to get worse. Climate change will also have a major impact on human civilization. As drought and heat turn large areas of arable land into desert, there will be widespread crop failures and famine like we have never seen before. In some regions, fresh water will become increasingly scarce, not only from drought but also from the rising sea entering the water table. Increasingly severe storms and their aftermath will take a growing toll on human life. Prolonged extreme heat waves in regions with little water or air-conditioning would be devastating. Impoverished conditions will also increase the risks of failed states, providing fertile ground for conflict and terrorism. Mass-migrations will occur as millions are forced to abandon large areas of land and escape to places where they can survive—bringing major challenges for the regions to which people are fleeing.

Other crises, such as economic collapse, food shortages and unprecedented natural disasters, could lead to widespread social breakdown and the rise of police states. Global conflicts will increase as food, water and other resources become increasingly scarce. Nuclear war remains a distinct possibility. Epidemics of drug-resistant bacteria, uncontrollable wild fires, biological and chemical terrorism, collapse of the Internet through hacking or cyber-war, increasing systemic chaos—all are possible. Doubtless some will happen.

And, more than likely, completely unforeseen events will take their toll.

Approaching the End

Extinctions don’t happen overnight. Even with a colliding asteroid, it may instantly destroy life in the area it hits, but the ensuing species die-off occurs over many years. They become extinct as their habitat becomes increasingly inhospitable, their numbers begin to decline, until eventually there are only a few left; then none. Similarly with humankind today. We are not all going to be suddenly wiped out. Many may well have full lives ahead. But some of us will die earlier than expected, from unanticipated causes. But there’s nothing new in that. The uncertainty in when and how may have increased, but not our ultimate personal fate.

As our world becomes less and less hospitable, our numbers will start going into decline. In T.S. Elliot’s words, it will end “not with a bang but a whimper.”

It is also possible that it may not be so severe. Some people might survive, perhaps eking out an existence in the newly-green polar regions, or possibly in some contemporary arks—self-sufficient, sustainable, high-tech habitats created by the wealthy to ensure their survival in the final days. If they are lucky, they might even be able to survive long-term. Humanity would not have become extinct after all.

But we would still be an innovative species. We would still be seeking to improve our lot—which in such a future might not be a very happy lot. As before, we would find ways to survive better and more comfortably. And the positive feedback of innovation breeding innovation would still be operating. Slowly but surely, the spiral of acceleration would begin to wind itself up again, and slowly but surely we’d eventually approach a similar point in time.

Even if some indigenous people survived, the ultimate fate would be the same. It is true that indigenous peoples today generally live in harmony with their environment. But remember that we in the developed world are the descendants of indigenous peoples. Today’s twenty-first century culture is simply what happens to an indigenous culture as technology takes hold. The Yamamani of the Brazilian rainforest are just ten thousand years behind us.

Collective Grieving

Our attachment to the continuation of our species is quite natural. It is who we are, and quite appropriate that we should love who we are and want us to continue. But how do we include within that the growing realization that our collective end may be coming much sooner than expected?

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

The same may apply to humanity. Previously, we were not confronted with the likelihood of homo sapiens might be coming to an end a lot sooner than we anticipated. Accepting the mortality of our species could be a collective coming of age. It may be just what is needed to guide us through the coming times.

As the reality of the unraveling hits home, there will be widespread despair, depression and distress. There will be pain, remorse and grief over what has become of us, this wondrous, creative, intelligent species, and of this beautiful planet with its awe-inspiring beauty and diversity of life. And there will be much fear and anguish about how our own lives will unfold as we head into the eye of the coming storm.

How will we each deal with the pain and grief? Will we go into denial, refusing to accept what is happening? Lose ourselves in panic and terror? Or find the acceptance that allows us to move into the unknown with courage and an open heart?

With the sudden death of a loved one, there are recognizable stages to grief. The first is denial. We cannot believe he or she has passed, and is no longer with us. It can’t be true. Then comes anger. Whether directed towards God, a physician, an illness, a circumstance, or some other agency, How dare this happen? It is not what I wanted. Third may come bargaining. We want our loved one restored. If only I had just done this or that. Maybe even now I can make some deal to bring the person back. This is often followed by depression. We may withdraw from life, consumed by sadness, wondering if there is any point in going on alone? Finally comes acceptance. It is accepting the reality that our loved one is physically gone. We may not like this new reality, but we adjust and learn to live with it.

Humanity will undoubtedly enter its own collective grieving as the writing on the wall becomes more apparent.

Clearly we are already in denial, whether it be climate denial, denial of the poverty in which one third of us live, denial of the fragility of civilization.

Those who’ve woken up from denial may move into anger; anger at the corporations, the politicians, the wealthy, the church, the military, the terrorists, or anyone else we blame for the crisis we are in.

There are already signs of the bargaining phase. If we just changed our ways perhaps we could make things OK again, rescue ourselves from the tragedies that lie ahead. Perhaps it is not too late to clean up our act and save the world.

Then will surely come depression. What have we done? This is terrible. The future looks so bleak, There will be deep sadness at what has befallen us.

Finally—hopefully—there will come acceptance. We let go of our attachment to how things should be, our hope that things will turn out well in the end, and accept this is now the way things are. We don’t deny the painful emotions that may arise, but accept them as part of living through these times.

Accept that this is how to is to be a technologically-empowered intelligence spinning ever-faster into the eye of its evolutionary hurricane.

4. What to do?

There’s an off-quoted, purportedly Chinese, curse: “May you live in interesting times.” It’s a curse because interesting times are full of change and challenge. Uninteresting times don’t demand anything of us, even boring perhaps. What seems certain is that the times we are heading into are going to get more and more interesting.

In years to come we may look back to days when we actually drove our cars, when personal assistants were human beings, when cancer was incurable, to times before quantum computing and intelligent robots. We’ll also be looking back to times before flooded cities, before deadly heat-waves became common, before the great famine, and the great migration, before crashing economies.

The question then naturally arises: How should we spend these final times? How do we as members of an intelligent, self-aware species, choose to spend our lives, knowing that our species will not be around much longer?

Do we party madly, consuming to the last drop of oil? Or bury our heads in depression and hopelessness?

For me, acceptance of the situation has brought with it some surprising shifts in attitude. I am not so angry at the people whose views and actions I disagree with. I am no longer so upset by the latest political shenanigans, economic swings, or social unrest. This is simply how it is to be living through the final generations of an intelligent, technological species. There is no blame to be apportioned. Instead I can be more understanding, more forgiving.

Nor does it mean I no longer care for the world around me. I still want to do what I can to preserve the planet, but now I want to do so for the planet’s own sake. Perhaps the best we can do with our remaining years is to make sure we leave the Earth in as good a state as possible for the species that remain and those that may follow.

Is there anything else we can do to prepare ourselves as the winds of change whip up into a storm of change, and then hurricane of change?

For me, trees provide a good lesson. If a tree is to withstand a storm it must be flexible, able to bend with the winds. A rigid tree will soon blow down. In addition, it must have strong roots, be stably anchored in the ground.

The same is true for us. If we are to survive the coming storm of change—along with some unanticipated exceptional gusts—we need first to be flexible. We need to be able to let go of outdated thinking, habitual reactions, and assumptions as to how to respond. We need to find the inner freedom to see things with fresh eyes and draw more fully on our creativity.

Second, we likewise will need greater inner stability. We need to be stably anchored in the ground of our own being, so that when the unexpected suddenly arrives, we can remain relatively cool, calm and collected, not thrown into fear and panic. If we lose our inner equanimity and react emotionally to every new change we will become increasingly stressed and more prone to burnout. It will be more important than ever to find time to unwind from the ever-increasing busy-ness of our lives, time to put things in perspective, and respond with a clear head.

And there is third factor that helps trees withstand a storm: being in a forest of trees. They soften the wind for each other. Similarly, we will need the support and companionship of others. The future is uncharted territory, and we will all feel vulnerable at times, needing to express our feelings, or asking for emotional support. The stronger our community, the easier the changes will be to bear than if we were alone.

We may not be able to predict what will transpire, but as people begin to recognize that there is no escaping the damaging ramifications of accelerating growth, there will be rising distress, despair, and suffering. A growing number of therapists are already noticing that, in addition to the various personal issues their clients have, there is a growing angst about the state of the world and where we are headed.

Caring for others, and the alleviation of suffering has been a common theme of most the great spiritual teachings, ethical philosophies and cultural customs. In the coming times they will be more valuable than ever. There will be needs for material support, providing basics such as food, water, shelter, medicine. The stress of adapting to unexpected circumstances. Emotional pain as people are forced to let go cherished lifestyles, adjust to new economic realities, and see the suffering of others. Mental anguish over what might happen next. Increasing insecurity and uncertainty. Where we are headed. What sort of world will our children and grandchildren inherit?

Now, more than ever, there will be the need for compassion, coming from love and gratitude, to be forgiving. Forgiving, not just of others but of the situation we are in, and of the species itself. Seeing it with kinder, non-blaming, eyes. To move beyond grieving and find the freedom to navigate the coming times with wisdom.

Exiting with grace

Our species appeared but recently—in the last one-hundredth of one percent of Earth’s history. With our rapidly enlarging brain capacity and the advent of speech came the ability to think, reason and make choices, and to use our tools and technologies in service of our survival and a better life. Innovation bred innovation, and evolution exploded.

And here we are, wondrous beings, with unique gifts and abilities. We are capable of love and deep compassion, an appreciation of beauty, the creation of great art, music, and poetry. We are aware of our history, of how we came to be here. We have studied the world around us, and been awed by what we have discovered. We can imagine the future and choose how we respond. We find meaning in our lives, a sense of justice, and an inner wisdom.

There is much to celebrate about us. The question is: Can we celebrate all that we are, while accepting that our species is here but for a brief flash of cosmic time?

A friend reminds me of the so-called century plant that flowers once in 20 or so years. When it does finally bloom, we marvel at the giant stalk, holding high a magnificent array of flower-laden branches. The spectacle is made all the more awesome by the knowing that it flowers but once; then dies, its purpose complete. Can we celebrate ourselves in a similar light? Another blossoming in the cosmos. An exquisitely beautiful flowering of consciousness. A miracle of creation.

Can we let go of the cherished belief that we are here to stay, rejoice in our existence, and live our final days with grace?


Despite knowing the journey, and where it leads,
I embrace it and welcome every moment.

~ Louise Banks in “Arrival”