This Kurzgesagt video is interesting. It discusses the possibility of civilization collapsing and how it might affect the long term fate of humanity. It’s about 11 minutes.
One of the things the video gets into is how we should think about our present day decisions, decisions that might have long term effects on humanity. In this view, we are in the early stages of humanity, with vast possibilities before us. Humanity, in one form or another, might exist for millions or even billions of years, but only if we play our cards right.
This outlook is often called longtermism. The video cites William MacAskill and his new book, which he recently discussed in an interview with Sean Carroll on Carroll’s Mindscape podcast.
The view gets criticism, most recently in a Salon piece by Émile P. Torres, arguing that longtermism is toxic. As is often the case with these Salon articles, I don’t think many of the criticisms are remotely fair. Anytime you see short quotes with no discussion of context, you’re probably reading a hit job. And the author seems to have at least as many ideological hang-ups as any longtermer. Still, I think Torres’ overall point that we should scrutinize longtermism is right.
Now, I don’t see any problem, all else being equal, in thinking about what might be best for the long term fate of humanity when making decisions today. But all else is rarely equal. Often longtermism seems to imply that we should privilege considerations of future generations over the wellbeing of the current one.
This assumes that we have reasonably accurate insights on what that future might be, or what effect our actions might have on it. But if there’s one thing history seems to show, our ability to predict the future is very limited. In fact, beyond a few decades, it’s really an illusion. Consider how much insight someone from 1522 might have had about our world today, not to mention someone from 1022. Even reading science fiction from a few decades ago can be sobering.
That means longtermers are often arguing that we should privilege the concerns of hypothetical entities over the ones of people who are alive today. That’s where they lose me. It’s one thing to be concerned about the life children today might lead. It’s another to be worried about people who might be alive 10,000 or a million years from now. Certainly I hope they will be, but I’m not interested in making anyone today suffer for it.
My own take, given all the unknowns and uncertainties, is that the best thing we can do for those remote descendants is survive and flourish as much as possible. If each generation does that, I suspect the future will take care of itself. Of course, there are no guarantees. I have no faith the universe or some deity will step in and prevent us from destroying ourselves if we make the wrong choices. But there’s also no guarantee depriving people today will ensure against it. As is often the case in life, we have to just make the best bets we can.
So I think longtermers have a point, but when considering their suggestions, we should remember just how limited anyone’s insights into the future really are.
What do you think? Am I being too dismissive about long term projections? Or missing something else?