How long will civilization last? The most pessimistic observers would say that human civilization will not last until the end of the century. The most optimistic observers predict that human civilization will transform into an even more advanced civilization and eventually spread across the cosmos and embark on a great adventure of post-biological evolution.
Which of these predictions is more accurate? That likely depends on the choices that humans make. A more important to question ask might be why we care how long it lasts.
Why we should care?
This is an important question. Not everyone thinks that the long-term survival of civilization is important. Many religious groups, particularly some evangelical Christians, would say that the world is going to burn up soon and that we will escape the physical world and live a new spiritual existence. According to many of these groups, there is no continuity between the current physical world and the next so that trying to improve this world socially or technologically is less important than ensuring that souls are saved from eternal damnation.
It is easy to blame this religious mentality for a lack of progress in addressing issues such as climate change because of this, but conservative Christians are not the only group that is uninterested in long term human survival. Some environmentalists would say that not only is it unimportant how long humanity lasts but that it would be better if human civilization did not last much longer all. A few environmentalists see humans as a threat to the survival of life on Earth that should be removed like any other threat to the welfare and balance of ecosystems.
Caring about the importance of the future survival of human civilization requires both a belief that humanity is worth preserving and that future actions to ensure the survival of humanity will make a difference.
The cosmic significance of human civilization
It is true that humans are far from perfect. We have been responsible for much of our own suffering, as well as environmental degradation and exploitation which has destabilized the climate and may be leading to a sixth mass extinction.
On the other hand, humans seem to be the only ones who are really worrying about this. Other animals do not appear to care about the harm that they cause to other animals or to their environment. They just do what animals do. It is true that higher animals are able to express compassion, altruism, and have a limited moral sense, but these qualities are especially strong in humans. We are probably the only species that is even capable of valuing the biosphere for its own sake and not just for what we can get from it.
This high capacity for morality is one of reasons that humans are unique and worth preserving. The world is full of injustice and suffering that has been caused by humans, but humans seem to be the only ones that care. We are likely the only species that has considered going extinct for the sake of the biosphere. Other species that are wreaking environmental havoc, such as Argentine ants, don’t appear to share this willingness to go extinct to “save the planet.” We, therefore, are probably the only species that can actively address environmental injustice and we can’t continue to do that if we are extinct.
Humans could also do much to benefit nature through science and technology. As far as we know, Earth is the only planet that has life and if life is limited to a single planet, life is fragile. An asteroid impact, for example, could end life on Earth, the only place where we know for certain that life even arose.
In the history of life, humans are the only species, as far as we know, that could anticipate and prevent such a catastrophe. If humans, or a species of human-like intelligence, had lived 65 million years ago, the extinction of the dinosaurs might have been prevented. Humans are admittedly the most likely species to wipe out life on Earth, but we are also the most likely species to save life on Earth from being wiped out because of our intelligence.
In this way, the survival of humanity is not only important to humans, it is important for all life on Earth. Technologically advanced civilizations that are able to prevent biosphere-ending catastrophes, such as asteroid impacts, may be the best chance life has for surviving for more than a few billion years on a handful of planets, or even a single planet, in an otherwise lifeless cosmos.
This idea of humans being responsible for the welfare of planet is not a new idea. Many religious traditions, including Christianity, believe that humans were meant to be stewards and caretakers of creation. However, within the Christian tradition, humans were meant to be more then just gardeners and caretakers. The most historically and culturally consistent interpretation of the Bible is not that we will escape from Earth and go to Heaven, but that God will work through those who obey him to transform the current created order and to end injustice, suffering, and death for all humanity and all creation. The physical cosmos is not going to be replaced. It is going to be transformed.
If humans are going to play a positive role in making life better not just for humans but for all living things, humanity needs to learn how to not wipe itself out or destabilize the natural environment on which it and other life-forms depend. Humanity needs to build civilization with long-term sustainability in mind. This means that we need a civilization that can last indefinitely, over geologic and cosmological timescales. What this might look like will be subject of future posts.