by Bradley Knockel
Many of the links below are from the Kurzgesagt YouTube channel. Can you trust them? I struggle with finding what I consider to be objective sources, and I hope to at least get close to the facts.
Interestingly, the human brain is rarely persuaded by facts. This is a very serious limitation that we must all think about in order to overcome it! I dream of a world where the solutions to problems are actually implemented. In this world, we would all understand the solutions and therefore appreciate and enjoy the efforts and rewards, and a healthy fact-based debate fueled by curiosity will continue.
Timelapse of the far future (the end of the video gets very speculative)
Great Filter (I must point out that there could be multiple Great Filters)
Technological singularity is when/if computers become better at designing better computers than we are, which might occur (keep in mind that nature favors logistic growth over permanent exponential growth)
This is a very incomplete list. There are many more concerns that the next sections may address.
Humans are in a predicament regarding technological progress and sustainability. Human progress is inevitable because (1) our species has always attempted to achieve "the impossible" even if long-term great risk exists and (2) the population rise caused by progress causes an irreversible situation in that many people would die if we would revert back to the way life was. Population and infrastructure have exponentially grown (as has mining, plastics, and chemicals in our atmosphere) suffocating the ecosystems on our planet. The question is, can we find new sustainable methods of obtaining materials, food, and energy and find new sustainable methods for disposing of waste before the planet runs out of resources, clean air, and healthy ecosystems? If the planet undergoes something like a global ecological collapse, will human population drop occur via starvation or via wars? Here are some Wikipedia articles about world energy consumption and overpopulation.
When COVID-19 hit, there immediately became a stigma on reopening business because people were afraid of their families dying. However, I felt we could save more lives by keeping businesses open to prevent poverty (poverty causes poor health, crime, and suicides) and by allowing a strong economy to continue to solve problems in the world instead of going into recession for many years. I generally am not worried about something just because the small-minded and weak human brain feels offended or scared. I value thinking globally on longer time scales because we now live in a global world even though our brains are not meant for these times. Regarding overpopulation, we must think in the long-term and not always get what we want in the present. By the way, regarding COVID-19, I blame the idiots in charge who didn't have enough ventilators and masks ready, and I then blame the idiots who couldn't figure out out to wear a mask safely and who weren't following the restrictions (masks are what allow businesses to stay open!).
When I look around the world, I see beauty in nature and in humanity, but I also am highly annoyed with human adults. To quote The Matrix: "Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You're a plague, and we are the cure." This might be an insult to cancer! But seriously, we need to do better.
Let's set the stage with some history. Agriculture allowed human population to increase greatly. Interestingly, looking at bones of people before and after the rise of agriculture, people were healthier before. Then, the industrial revolution and cities allowed huge population rise, and disease, filth, and misery became the norm. Population growth was a selfish and necessary thing. Your family and country needed high numbers to fight off others to control resources. How is this very different from cancer cells or virus replicating?
Recently, technology has finally allowed the quality of life to increase perhaps back to the levels of nomadic times. Certainly we are living longer than those times. Human suffering still exists, but it is quickly reducing. For the next several decades, limited resources aren't really an issue on the global scale (until we use them up), so I predict that this quality of life will continue for a while. Giraffes, elephants, and tigers will see their habitat disappear, but humans will have quality of life for many more decades. But do we want to live in a world where we don't even have room for giraffes?
I look around at the problems the world is facing, and they can all be improved (sometimes fixed!) by slowly reducing population. Taking COVID-19 as an example, pandemics are much worse in high population density, and overpopulation causes poverty motivating people to eat bats, pangolins, etc., which was likely the cause of SARS-CoV-1 and SARS-CoV-2 (and poverty causes faster spread of disease). But here is where things might get tricky: which family or country should lead in reducing population? Luckily, educated families and countries already are leading the way! So let's educate the world! To lower population, it is especially important to educate women. Why can't knowledge save us? Why can't we overcome the ancient programming of our brains to make the modern world a permanently good one?
What should our population goal be? From what I can find, 9 billion is the certain max, so, at 8 billion, we really should at least stop growing the population. But why reach the certain max? Why not instead aim for health and happiness? 4 billion is likely safe in long term. 2 billion allows for everyone to be comfortable. I see no need to go below 2 billion. More people means more progress towards things like curing disease, but why do we need fast progress if everyone is already happy and there are not too many of them that can get sick? In fact, overall fewer people will die with a small happy population because there will be more progress per capita. My main concern is that I want humans to leave Earth before the Sun cooks it and to leave the Solar System before the Sun dies, so 2 billion is a good minimum number.
We are not playing God by planning and shaping our world. If this is playing God, then humans have been doing it since agriculture and since our first LEGOs as children, and we have been behaving as a very cruel, arrogant, and short-sighted god.
As for how to reduce population, this is where it gets tricky. We would have to slowly reduce population because less kids means fewer people to run the world when we are all old and need to be cared for. We can either (1) make two-children laws with harsh consequences or (2) solve many of the world's problems allowing for all people (especially females) to be educated enough to make good decisions. I have hope that technological progress will solve most technological problems allowing for a global standard of living that allows for everyone to become educated and maintain no more than the current population. But we must invest in sustainable technologies before we run out of time!
Even though I choose to have hope, I am worried about how scientific progress has been getting diminishing returns in recent decades. Humans are investing more and more money to get the same or less total results. Experiments and technology are getting so complicated that troubleshooting issues is becoming slower and slower. While improvements of current technology will of course continue, newer technologies might take centuries to develop. Fusion power would be great, and there could be some quick breakthroughs that we must keep looking for, but I feel it would be wise to not plan on breakthroughs. As a scientist, I would like to say that science will allow the current population to continue for centuries, but how could I know this?
The way I see it, the whole point of the wild freedoms in the US (for example, we can openly carry guns in public, and the cost of these gun laws are very high murder rates), is to generate a culture of freely trying the impossible. I sure hope that there are still "impossible" discoveries and inventions that can be accomplished.
Our own ignorance is the greatest threat to ourselves and the world. I think everyone must agree that to harm society without personally benefitting is irrational. There are many people in the US who refused to wear masks during the COVID-19 crisis after the CDC recommended that cloth masks be worn. Refusing to wear a mask is literally killing immunocompromised people and harming the economy. I am a huge fan of protecting the economy, so let's follow the simple safety rules to control the spread of the disease so that the economy can be sustainably reopened (anything to reduce R0 helps!). Why are people harming their country so deeply just so they aren't inconvenienced to wear a mask? Ignorance. Ignorance is certainly a great threat.
There are countless examples of ignorance causing harm...
• I once got tendonitis quite badly in my ankles and, after extensive Internet research, thought that rest was very important. It wasn't until my Mom dragged (carried?) my adult self to the doctor that I learned that strengthening my ankles in a healthy way was what I badly needed to cure my tendonitis after I allowed them to become very weak from prolonged rest. I was ignorant.
• When Arizona governor Doug Ducey blocked mayors from requiring people to wear masks during the COVID-19 crisis (causing hospitals to become full), some of the people who went into public buildings without masks blamed the governor for their choice. They were ignorant of their responsibility to wear a mask and of their responsibility to not blame others for their actions. Would these people stab people if stabbing was legal? Would they go along with the Nazi Party if they were living in Germany before and during World War II? I sort of understand a freedom-obsessed person saying that the government shouldn't require people to not spread disease, but I will never understand an individual choosing to spread disease, and I despise the attitude of not taking responsibility for one's actions.
By the way, I don't really understand keeping the government out of forcing people to wear masks because (1) businesses that try to kick people out for not wearing masks are met with violence and (2) seatbelt laws exist, and unlike wearing masks, wearing a seatbelt doesn't prevent you from killing other people.
• A brief glance at the Middle East reveals how extremism poisons civilized society. The US also has extremism as the two political parties move farther apart as the social media "filter bubble" increases our ignorance. Once the majority of citizens become sufficiently ignorant, a representative democracy cannot exist.
• Instead of coming from a position of strength, self love, and a spirit of giving, many people have kids because they are broken. Parents may want somebody to love them, somebody to make up for their mistakes, or just want kids because it's expected.
How do we fix ignorance? Shame or mockery does not work. It makes people fight harder. One thing that works is leading by example or sharing why you personally do what you do without attacking other choices. For those wonderful people who are still open to learning, education is the solution.
While I believe that controlling overpopulation helps all other global problems, there is something that fixes overpopulation and other things such as our personal lives: education. By education, I certainly mean school, but I also very much mean emotional and experiential learning that occurs outside of school (like journaling!).
As a science person, I see great value to science education, including political science, economics, and psychology. If people could learn how to think about the larger systems they live in, they would all have worn masks during the COVID-19 crisis, vaccinate their children against the measles, not get their news from social media, etc. That is, people will make better decisions with information once they can process their emotions enough to act rationally.
As a human being, I see great value to English class. Here, you can learn to write, reflect, and journal. I believe that most (all?) of human actions and beliefs are rooted in feelings and emotion. It is vital that we all process (work through) our feelings and emotions. Everyone doing this would solve many of the worlds problems as irrationality and internal barriers would be greatly reduced. I work through my emotions by journaling approximately every other day, and I highly recommend it. Before that, I was blind to things, and I didn't know I was. After I started journaling, some great things happened: I broke up with my girlfriend of 7 years, I started reconnecting with people I had written off, and I made it through grad school. Please share your feelings, at whatever stage they're at, with someone and/or, if you're like me, journal. Your feelings will be different depending on your priorities and life experiences, and that's great! All feelings are valid! Not all actions are good, but processing all emotions is how we can get better actions. Hopefully, a good English class will also teach us how to question informative texts for their logic and reliability!
I don't mean to shame anyone who doesn't like school. I never cared for English class with its class discussions and us reading fiction stories that I had no say in. I still made sure I learned how to write well, though open-ended writing took me a while to figure out. I'll certainly make sure that reading is a large part of my kids' lives starting at a young age. I also learned a lot of types of fiction that I don't like, which is also a valuable experience. My wife never cared to take any more science classes than required because she doesn't much care about the physical details of how things work, but she learned enough about it to certainly believe science, and many of the elementary students she teaches look forward to science because of how fun she makes it! Feel free to have your favorite subjects and ways of learning, but learn. It may be hard to see in the short-term, but learning is of great importance to you and the world.
As for people not wearing masks, having completed more school does not greatly increase a person's odds of wearing a mask. Instead, people don't wear a mask for often silly reasons like not wanting to appear weak or, as a response to stress, wanting to return to a comfortable way of life. I conclude that emotional education is what the US is in desperate need of. We must be able to process our emotions else we are enslaved by them causing irrationality and ignorance.
Global problems are a relatively new challenge for humans to solve. Global problems need international solutions. Luckily, the scientific community is good at collaborating internationally. Scientists just need the funding! Sometimes, private industry can find enough money. Regardless, individuals and communities will play a key role in inspiring politicians and entrepreneurs to make the necessary changes. Personally, even if some countries or the majority of voters do the wrong thing, I want to be able to one day tell my grandkids that I was smart about trying to prevent the global crises.
Helping other countries improve their infrastructure (such as their economies and schools) helps everyone. Once the infrastructure exists, countries can become democracies, which are more peaceful and usually do not threaten each other with nukes.
We need to make burning our remaining fossil fuels clean, and we need to use and develop new renewable energy sources. We will need to invest in a Smart Grid. 100% renewable energy could be possible! Fuel will still be needed for the military and other applications that require high energy-density, but I have a vision of cities having fleets of self-driving electric buses and "Uber" cars that are cheaper per mile than owning your own vehicle (companies like Zipcar and U-Haul should still exist!). Perhaps spending money on building a new infrastructure to cleanly burn our remaining fossil fuels is not worth it, but exciting technologies like the Allam cycle for cleanly and efficiently burning natural gas exist! I have a hunch that humans will keep finding more ways to economically get fossil fuels, so we should be prepared to offer clean ways of using it.
Developing and implementing technology such as skylights, GMOs, LED bulbs, Hyperloops, geothermal heat pumps (or, for desert climates, evaporative coolers also work), hybrid engines, etc. will allow us to use our resources more wisely.
I would strongly argue for free-of-charge family planning resources (such as education, condoms, and vasectomies) to all human beings. Whether or not a child is wanted is highly correlated to how productive that person will be and inversely correlated to how much of a drain on society the person will be. 40% of children in the world are unintended! Prevention of unwanted children via family planning is the cheapest way for a society to help many of its problems such as poverty, overrun prisons, overpopulation, and, if done early enough, abortions.
We have a trash problem! And our world and bodies are becoming more plastic. Should we copy the laws of San Francisco? Here are some recent developments for answering this question. I wonder if what France is doing is a good idea. Eventually, unless we can find a way of safely destroying plastic, I think plastic production will have to become very rare.
We must prevent or destroy space trash to prevent a chain reaction of destruction! Wikipedia has a great article about this.
We need to start attempting to travel beyond our Solar System by colonizing the Moon and Mars! I believe that becoming a sustainable planet should be our top priority at the moment, but many people are passionate about space, and passion and curiosity almost always lead to important technological discoveries with unforeseen uses, so let's do it now! Though, thinking long term is a great skill to develop!
In general, science needs funding. If we can create quantum computers, scientific progress may speed up tremendously! If we can replace humans with robots/computers for many jobs and reorganize the economy to allow the majority of people to barely work, humans may suddenly become much better people without the daily grind holding them back, allowing them to volunteer to solve problems. Or will they lose motivation and become uneducated?
We should explore LFTR and, more importantly, fusion-power technology! Here is an overview of fusion power. Nuclear power has great promise, but also great challenges. Renewable energy often does much damage to Earth via mining minerals, and nuclear power can help this problem! We cannot wait for a breakthrough in nuclear power to start switching from fossil fuels, but we also cannot postpone the long process of exploring this technology.
Is there anything individuals can do? Yes, we can make smart decisions by being well informed. But knowledge can do harm before it does good. From my experience, knowledge often comes in three steps: (1) an oversimplified or wrong story mistakenly given to young children, (2) the moral superiority and extremism of a young adult who starts to learn that reality is different from what they were once told, and (3) the balanced mind of an educated, experienced, and wise adult. The second step is where knowledge can do harm, and the final step is never fully reached, so keep in mind that making mistakes is part of the endless learning process! Please do your own thorough research before making any huge changes, but I recommend that we all do little life experiments when we can!
True changes must occur for the entire system, but our personal choices can motivate the larger system to change and can make us wealthier, happier, and more involved. Where do each of us start? Perhaps find the things that you would most want changed in the world, then think about what you enjoy doing, and go from there.
Reduce. Studies have shown that money and promotions make us happier to a point. But, above a certain income, money makes us less happy. Other things in life matter more such as family, short commutes to work, hobbies, and being appreciative of and creative with what you have. Bigger is not always better. Applying this wisdom allows us to reduce our use of global resources.
To reduce our use of resources and save money, we often have to first spend more money initially. Hybrid cars are more expensive and require more resources to build but will reduce your gasoline expenses. LED bulbs, digital documents, solar panels on your roof, now-better-designed low-flow toilets and shower heads, dish washers, and well-insulated homes are more expensive, but you can save money in the long term. Think of every purchase as a vote showing the world that there is a demand for these great products.
I personally do not worry about taking an extra long shower or leaving a couple lights on when they could have been turned off. Most of the water is used by farms and power plants, and most of the electricity is used by commerce and industry. If you want to save water and electricity, don't listen as much to ads and any culture of consumerism and only buy the things that actually bring you joy. This prevents all the resources from being used upstream in production and distribution! However, since heating and cooling costs are expensive, I try not to keep outside doors open, and I turn the heating and cooling way down when I go on vacation. Also, showering every day takes time and is too often for most people's skin to be healthy!
Personally, I do not enjoy gyms and silly workout clothes. I would much rather go for a hike, run, or do some of my favorite bodyweight exercises. One way I have reduced in the past is bicycling to work and class (taking the bus would also reduce resources and save money). I got a good often-fun workout from this until my cheap bicycle broke (I donated it to a charity that would fix it up for someone who needed it). This is just an example of something that makes sense to me, and I felt cool (I never wore the silly clothes), and I never had to worry about buying a parking permit! We should all just do things that make sense for us!
Modern transportation is not great for the environment. If driving, especially a long distance, carpool if you can! If going long distances, try to take the train instead of a plane! Here are the numbers.
As for plastic drinking straws, why do some people regularly use straws? People usually only use straws for sweet things like soda, but why are they regularly drinking these very unhealthy things? So, if a company decides to not hand out plastic straws (by, let's say, giving metal straws instead), can we not freak out? Sure, we waste much more plastic than these, but what's wrong with fixing something? No large problem can be fixed all at once, and we must start somewhere. For example, most coffee places will let you bring your own container, or, if at home, why not reuse your straw? I try to let only large issues affect my life in large ways, so, if straws play a large role in your life, I guess you may freak out?
Reuse. It makes sense to buy real plates and silverware because part of enjoying a meal is about the experience of eating, so buy some dishes that you'll like rather than using immense amounts of disposable items that are expensive over time. Similarly, why do people in countries with clean water buy bottled water instead of just refilling a reusable bottle or glass? If you think tap water tastes bad, filter it like a sane person! As for shopping, plastic shopping bags probably need to be replaced with reusable bags, but not cotton bags! As for daily lunches, reusable containers (or just reusing plastic bags) is a great idea!
I'm not an engineer, but I've noticed that engineers tend to be great at finding simple solutions to various problems using on old hose, jar, or trinket (from an assorted pile of tiny trinkets). I haven't mastered this skill, but I, similar to a typical engineer, enjoy it when I can find new uses for old stuff. Often, if you think about it, you can find what you want for free if you are clever enough to ask the right person who might be throwing it away (and who would be glad to have you take it off their hands).
Lastly, donate old stuff rather than throwing it away. For only a short trip to the local secondhand shop once or twice a year, you can help people out and maybe find something cheap and interesting—or a lot of cool things—for yourself.
Recycle. This one also is not very difficult and prevents e-waste from contaminating the environment and prevents things like the Great Pacific garbage patch. Just Google where to get rid of e-waste, and please Google your city's rules for recycling because so many people do the stupidest things when recycling often causing entire batches to be thrown in the garbage. Yes, it is becoming difficult for cities to find people willing to take their recycling because recycling centers are unpleasant, but aluminum, plastic, paper, and steel are the most important things to recycle.
Composting always seemed fun to me, but I don't have a house yet, and my city doesn't do it. Most paper and plants can be turned into great soil for you and your neighbors!
Many people say that two kids—if you have the genetic, emotional, and physical resources—is the perfect amount because you can reuse items, you can reuse your knowledge, they can entertain each other, and there is less pressure for the one kid to be perfect. Some argue that three kids is great because you will greatly appreciate it once the kids start going to school and become easier to raise, but you better have great genetic, emotional, and physical resources to provide. Two or sometimes three kids is what is needed to maintain a stable population! If you live in an area that is particularly suffering from overpopulation, this should be taken into account in your decision to have kids! And it should be a decision, so use birth control as needed!
Being a vegetarian is easy. I know this because I was a vegan for two years when I was young (for moral reasons). Beans, cheese, eggs, and milk are delicious, cheap, and easy to prepare. But I would never recommend that anyone become a strict vegetarian (unless medically ordered). There are parts of the world where deer are pests, and wisely-regulated hunting is a great solution. These deer lived happy lives and will be put to good use in death. An absurd part of being a strict vegetarian is not eating meat that would otherwise be thrown away (people in the US waste a lot of food). An animal died to produce that meat, so why let all those resources go to waste to just produce methane in a landfill while you eat other food that required resources to produce and money to buy? Eating a little meat is not unhealthy as it can be part of a balanced diet. In fact, actually eating unhealthy once in a while is not unhealthy! I was a poor student for too long to not greatly enjoy putting good free food to good use! If the meat is already cooked, I suppose you could drive around looking for a homeless person to take the food, but, to be logically consistent and to further support vegetarian foods, you should then drive around looking for a homeless person to take vegetarian unwanted leftovers as well, and you need to think about gas prices and all the plastic silverware the homeless person might need.
We should be smart with the food we buy and throw away. Why not plant a fruit tree in your yard? And, before we throw "expired" food away, let's spend a minute on Google to see if it is safe to eat (it probably is). As for the local-food movement, farmers' markets can be nice if you want to socialize with your community, help the local economy, and eat fresh food, and it might even help the larger world if the local small farmers practice regenerative farming techniques.
To help cure disease, see my page on volunteer computing
At the end of the day, we can help the world by being people: (1) pursuing education—formal or otherwise—that interests us with whatever resources we have (especially in STEM fields), (2) working to make a democracy that is strong by becoming well-informed independents who vote based on logic rather than labels such as conservative or Democrat, and (3) help our community by doing whatever we enjoy with whatever resources we have. A well-educated, happy population with a well-functioning government will carry the human race a long way.