Today's Crimes Tomorrow

In every age, there have been moral visionaries – great thinkers such as Robert Ingersoll or Tom Paine, who had the courage to stand against the majority and oppose widely accepted moral wrongs. Their courageous and steadfast opposition to then-prevalent practices such as monarchy, slavery, racism and sexism earned them great hatred and enmity during their lifetimes, and put them decades ahead of most of their contemporaries.

Today, we have made progress enough to recognize many of the evils of the past for what they are. Although these wrongs are not yet eliminated, we have made great strides toward eradicating them both in law and in public opinion, and their public advocacy is no longer acceptable as it once was. However, we have hardly made so much moral progress that we can safely say future generations will have nothing to condemn us for. What widely defended beliefs and practices of our society, I wonder, will our successors look back on with the same disgust with which we look back on slavery, divine-right rule and racial segregation laws?

No one can know in advance how the future will turn out. Nevertheless, assuming human civilization continues to follow the same course of gradual moral progress which it has been following for several centuries now, I think there will be an awakening to the immorality of other beliefs and practices that are currently widespread. And I can propose a few specific examples that I believe will rightfully earn this designation:

The wealth gap. The vast disparity in wealth and resources that currently exists between the industrialized and developing countries, not to mention between the rich and the poor within many individual countries, exceeds all justification. While anyone is suffering in poverty, lacking access to the basic necessities of life, there can be no excuse for anyone living in idle luxury. In the future, I believe, the drive toward philanthropy and service will become a societal universal, and the immorality of hoarding wealth while others are in need will be widely recognized.

The drug war. The draconian punishments which are currently levied against responsible adults in many countries, for freely choosing to take into their bodies chemical substances which make them happy, exceed all possibility of rational justification. This senseless and misnamed “war on drugs” has ruined thousands of lives with absurdly disproportionate sentences for non-violent, non-harmful offenders, has promoted the flourishing of violent criminal gangs that inevitably arise to sell products for which there is legitimate demand but no legitimate market, has encouraged police departments to adopt shockingly tyrannical and heavy-handed tactics that are frequently and tragically used against totally innocent people, has plunged countries around the world into chaos and civil war, and ironically, has produced no decrease whatsoever in the actual availability of illegal drugs.

The hypocrisy and irrationality of this program are made manifest by the fact that two of the most indisputably dangerous and harmful drugs in existence – alcohol and tobacco – are fully permitted and legal, whereas drugs that are far less harmful, and in many cases even have legitimate medical benefits to ease the suffering of the sick, are treated with a degree of harshness we would normally expect only for smuggled weapons of mass destruction. There is and can be no justification for this. A rational society would allow responsible, consenting adults to take into their bodies whatever euphoriants they desire, and would treat addiction as the medical problem it is and not a matter of criminal justice.

Opposition to gay marriage, as well as anti-gay discrimination more generally. This one is a no-brainer, considering the pervasive similarity both in tone and content between the rhetoric of the religious conservatives who oppose gay marriage today and the rhetoric of the religious conservatives who opposed interracial marriage yesterday. Our society has no business telling two rational, consenting adults that their love for each other is not legitimate, and accordingly there can be no justification for denying gay couples the same civil benefits we currently extend to heterosexual couples. Even the hatemongers of the religious right implicitly recognize this: though they have no shortage of hysterical proclamations about how it would be the end of civilization, they have yet to explain in any coherent way exactly how legalizing gay marriage would bring about such grave harm.

Bigotry in every generation wears a mask of respectability. After all, it is very often the admired and respected men, the ones in positions of power and influence, who carry down the prejudices of the past and act as their most fervent defenders. But once the social tide turns, its ugly heart is always recognized for what it is. The tireless efforts of gay people in the cause of equality are, in a sense, the strongest argument for society’s recognizing their love as true and sincere, because only true love would refuse to back down in the face of such evil prejudice and ignorance.

Environmental destruction. I have no doubt that future generations will be appalled by the recklessness with which we wiped out species and ecosystems, polluted the water and air, and stripped the planet to provide for our own selfish wants with no thought for the future. Most of all, I have no doubt that they will be appalled by the selfish, lazy complacency and outright denial with which society in general responded to the prospect of global warming – one of the first truly global environmental crises, and one of the most serious.

There are already thriving movements promoting sustainability and conservation in our time, but we need to do more. We have been living as if we were separate from the natural world, as if our activities had no impact upon it, and it is this attitude which most needs to change. I am certain that in the future, the very ideas of consumption and waste – as if it were natural or normal to acquire as many possessions as we possibly can, use up as many resources as we can, and then pollute the world by throwing them away – will be dirty words; and rather than being a garbage generator, our society will be more like a mature ecosystem, where sustainability is paramount, everything is recycled and nothing is wasted.

Religion. Although I do not expect religion to disappear any time in the foreseeable future, I do think it will lose influence as the ranks of nonbelievers grow, and I think it will become increasingly unacceptable to justify one’s actions solely by claiming that they are the will of God. Already, in our time, there is a noticeable divide between the fundamentalists who run their lives (and others’) based on religious beliefs, and the secular human beings who conduct their lives by reason. I think this gap will widen, but rather than being a nearly equal battle as it now is, I think the forces of reason will begin to gain the upper hand. In the future, I am confident that the hateful and willfully ignorant fundamentalists will increasingly be viewed with the disdain they so richly deserve, and our descendants will be horrified that they ever exerted as much influence as they currently do. More, I think that being an atheist will not be nearly as unusual as it now is.

Are there any other likely candidates for future condemnation?

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://rightside.fissure.org Shishberg

    Capital punishment is another one that comes to mind – although many countries see this as immoral already.

    Another one is massive military spending. I don’t think the need for nations to defend themselves will ever disappear; but carelessly throwing billions of dollars a year into completely gratuitous military technology, far more so than social welfare or education, is disgraceful.

  • http://vishnuvyas.wordpress.com Vishnu Vyas

    Regarding the wealth gap, massive amounts of philanthropy doesn’t do any good. The rock concerts, the foreign aid, etc.. etc.. everything that has ever been sent to help the poor in various african and asian countries do no good except to line up the pockets of the bueracracy and corrupt dictatorships.

    As deplorable as it may be, its a fact that philanthropy doesn’t work. A better way would be to spend on making people self-sufficient. Things like micro-credit, economic empowerment (which doesn’t mean dropping food packets), removing barriers to trade go a long way in eradicating poverty than pumping welfare and aid.

    google “amul” to see how much true economic empowerment can do to remove poverty. on the other hand, look at nigeria to see how neither natural wealth nor massive amounts of aid, loan waivers, etc.. don’t do anything to stop poverty.

    just my 2 cents..

  • http://vishnuvyas.wordpress.com Vishnu Vyas

    BTW, atheism/secular humanism/agnosticism has the 3rd biggest following in the world. Thats something to be happy about..

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religion
    (check out the pie-graph).

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    These are two very good suggestions, Shishberg. Military spending is an excellent one, which ties in to my comments about the wealth gap. Not just on an individual but on a societal level also, the people who have the most ability to help those in need tend to spend that money on frivolous and even harmful causes. I recall reading that the U.S. spends more on its military than the next five biggest spenders in the world do combined. There is no way to defend such a disproportionately huge expenditure.

    I’m not opposed to the death penalty in principle, but I am opposed to it in practice. If a person was known beyond all rational doubt to be guilty of a horrendous crime, and if they were so unrepentant that there was no chance of a prison term reforming them however long it might last, then I wouldn’t object to putting them to death – not as a method of vengeance, but for the same reason we euthanize rabid animals, to protect the rest of society against them.

    Of course, in reality we can’t ever know for certain if those two conditions are met. Human beings are too fallible for me to trust that a person’s guilt has ever been established beyond doubt, except in truly extraordinary cases. There are a frightening number of cases where a person was convicted of some capital crime and then later exonerated while sitting on death row. And there are too many troubling disparities in the way the death penalty is applied, such as its selective use against racial minorities and the poor, enough to convince me that it should be abolished.

    To Vishnu Vyas:

    Regarding the wealth gap, massive amounts of philanthropy doesn’t do any good. The rock concerts, the foreign aid, etc.. etc.. everything that has ever been sent to help the poor in various african and asian countries do no good except to line up the pockets of the bueracracy and corrupt dictatorships.

    I disagree. Institutional corruption is a serious problem, not least because it causes a downward spiral of greater suffering and even worse corruption. But that doesn’t mean that philanthropic efforts are useless, as long as they allocate money properly and responsibly; many of them have done tremendous good already, although much more remains to be done. I think the key is to start with small-scale efforts, working with individuals and local communities to set concrete targets for development, rather than dumping money on an inefficient or corrupt government and expecting results. Economic empowerment and free trade are also susceptible to corrupt governments, and without oversight will only worsen that corruption.

  • John

    Regarding religion, I truly hope that one day theists will be in the minority. Even if it takes 100 years, I hope that our children will one day look at all religious beliefs the way we now look tribal religions. You ever notice how Christians laugh at the beliefs of Native religions? How can they do that with a straight face? I seriously hope that future generations will one day look at religious culture the same way atheists do, scratching their heads. I really don’t understand why religion is still a predominant factor in the 21st Century. *Scratches head*

  • Infophile

    One more I think you should add is the concept of individualized nations. Hopefully we’ll eventually be able to have a strong world government, which will abolish the “Us and Them” mentality and replace it with the simple “Us.” Without nations, we’ll take a huge step towards getting rid of war. We’ll no longer have discrimination against foreigners (which I believe, after gays and atheists, are the people it’s most acceptable to discriminate against in America today). This will also be a big step towards helping out what are now impoverished nations.

    Another one I have is a litte iffy: Overpopulation. People in many parts of the world have more children than they can support, eventually leading countries to have more people than they can support. Part of this is the stigma against birth-control devices, which stems from both religious and general prudish reasons.

    Hmm, that’s another one. There’s the strange problem in our society where violence is perfectly acceptable in many ways, but sex isn’t. It really ought to be the other way around. There’s no reason we should shy away from sex, but plenty of reasons to shy away from violence.

    And my last one is all of those charlatans out there peddling miscellaneous pseudosciences, astrology, homeopathy, etc. Basically all the stuff skeptics are trying to fight against. The fact that society didn’t do something to fix that is something future societies are sure to condemn, much as we now condemn alchemy and leeching.

  • http://atheistethicist.blogspot.com Alonzo Fyfe

    There are two related items that I hope to find on such a list; deception and intellectual recklessness.

    “Lying” is considered wrong, but we need to expand the concept of lying to anybody who intentionally misrepresents the truth. This would apply to things like, “Senator X voted against body armor for the troops.” (When, in fact, of ‘body armor for the troops’ had been the only item on the bill, Senator X would have voted for it.) – or the habit of saying that those who disagree with the President are siding with the terrorists. These types of claims significantly harm our chance of much-needed debate on social issues. It applies to Exxon-Mobile’s decision to contribute money to campaigns by global-warming skeptics to cloud and confuse the debate on the effects of fossil fuels (and the same types of actions taken by the Tobacco companies earlier). People who fund campaigns of deception to clould policies that put at risk millions of lives and trillions of dollars in property are to be viewed with as much contempt as those who intentionall round up and kill millions of people or blow up an equal amount of property.

    Intellectual recklessness refers to people who adopt beliefs too quickly based on partial evidence. Bush’s claims for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq – or those who believed Bush’s claims (assuming that Bush lied) – are examples of intellectual recklessness. This applies people who believe the campaigns of deception above – who do not question. Just as a morally responsible driver is one who drives in ways that are consistent with making sure he drives in a way that minimizes the risk of doing harm to others, a morally responsible thinker is one who makes sure that he thinks in a way that minimizes the risk that he will support policies that are harmful to others.

  • http://rightside.fissure.org Shishberg

    I’m not opposed to the death penalty in principle, but I am opposed to it in practice. If a person was known beyond all rational doubt to be guilty of a horrendous crime, and if they were so unrepentant that there was no chance of a prison term reforming them however long it might last, then I wouldn’t object to putting them to death – not as a method of vengeance, but for the same reason we euthanize rabid animals, to protect the rest of society against them.

    Of course, in reality we can’t ever know for certain if those two conditions are met. Human beings are too fallible for me to trust that a person’s guilt has ever been established beyond doubt, except in truly extraordinary cases. There are a frightening number of cases where a person was convicted of some capital crime and then later exonerated while sitting on death row. And there are too many troubling disparities in the way the death penalty is applied, such as its selective use against racial minorities and the poor, enough to convince me that it should be abolished.

    Absolutely. I suppose if behavioural science improves to the point where we can accurately predict someone’s actions – or if someone invents some kind of time machine – then there might be some time in the future when the death penalty is acceptable. But that’s not now.

    I guess there are a whole class of issues where the immorality isn’t in the act itself, but in the collateral damage caused when it’s misapplied. So we have to weigh the advantage that we get from it being used correctly, against what we lose from it being used incorrectly, along with how likely it is that it’ll be misused if we allow it at all.

    Holding terror suspects indefinitely without charge, and using torture in interrogation, fall in the same category. It might, in the best case, mean getting information about an attack that we wouldn’t have otherwise. But it also opens up the possibility of innocent people being imprisoned with no way to challenge it, or people being tortured to give up information that they don’t have. Whether this outweighs the benefits is a complex question, but my gut feeling is that it does.

    Euthanasia and abortion are other examples, but I suspect in those cases the balance would come down in their favour.

  • Archi Medez

    “Religion. Although I do not expect religion to disappear any time in the foreseeable future, I do think it will lose influence as the ranks of nonbelievers grow, and I think it will become increasingly unacceptable to justify one’s actions solely by claiming that they are the will of God.”

    –Ebonmuse

    Is it the case that the proportion of non-believers in the population is growing, i.e., there is some steady upward trend over time? I think in the West that is true, but the complicating factor is that non-believers tend to have less children on average. In addition, people with higher IQ and more education tend to have less children. Christians, and especially Muslims, today tend to have family sizes above average. I would venture that those who are more religious (more fundamentalist) tend to have more children than the more moderate or liberal religious. If this is true, this will produce a tendency toward increasing religiosity.

    At the same time, increasing availability of education, access to skeptical and atheistic information on the internet (and disseminated through social interaction to those who don’t use much internet) will tend to increase the number of non-believers.

    So we have these two tendencies: Increasing numbers of religious people due to higher fertility rates, and increasing numbers of non-believers due to educational influences. Which will tend to win out?

    I guess it depends on what kind of societies we will have. Obviously, freedom of expression and in particular the freedom to question and criticize religion will be of major importance. I see this freedom being eroded; we are being let down by our leaders at the highest levels, and the media is generally not helping that cause either. We will need to increasingly try to make criticising religion as routine as criticising political parties. Schooling will also be important–will we continue to allow religiously-based schools?

  • http://www.dougpaulsen.com Doug

    Though it probably falls under religion, anti-intellectualism.

  • Christopher

    In response to the main article:

    1. Wealth gaps exist in all societies and will always exist. As long as humanity’s biological/psychological programming is to gather resources for himself and his own, there will always be those who are more successful at it than others.
    the successful will be the rich, the losers will be the poor, and those that get by will usually be a middle class (note: not all “rich”, “poor”, and “middle” are equal: there are degrees within degress).

    Also, I see no reason why some one with resources should redistribute them to those that do not. If it’s not in his interest to ensure the well-being of those without, he has no reason to look after them. As long as he maintains the interests of himself and his own, he isn’t required to care about the fate of the others (after all, why should he?). If those without resources are incapable of acquiring them, they will suffer for their own impotence.

    2. On one hand, I have nothing against gays/lesbians/bi-sexuals/transexuals/etc… as people. While I do believe that they might be physiologically defective (as far as the reproductive system is concerned), I don’t see any reason why society should discriminate against them.

    On the other hand, I am against gay marraige. But that’s because I’m agaist the whole concept of marraige: it is an institution that was formed under bronze-age societies for the purpose of ensuring the geneological purity of offspring resulting from sexual relations. But marraiges aren’t really about children anymore (at least not in our society), but rather for creation of permanent male/female relations (read: monogomy for it’s own sake).

    I see this attitude towards sex as restraining to the individual without any real purpose:I remain faithful to my partner because we are married, we married so that we remain faithful as partners… it’s a reducto ad absurdum. Therefore, the practice is obsolete and needs to be eliminated rather than encouraged.

    3. While I do believe some environmental controls (factory emision standards, alternative fuels, etc…) are neccisary in the near future, I think that they are just temporary solutions to a long-term problem: mankind’s restriction to planet earth. As long as we are trapped on this little galactic mudball, we will be subject to whatever the planet’s climate puts us through.

    The long-term solution: get off this rock! We must pump more funds into our grossly underfunded space program so that they may develope newer, better starships (our current fleet of shuttles is over 30 years old), artificial biospheres, and (if we are lucky) space colonies. This way, our survival will no longer be linked to the fate of this planet (also, a few space colonies might shut the mouths of those nuts claiming that “Christ will come back to earth to judge all men”, since not all men will be on earth).

    The earth made a nice incubation chamber for our species, but it’s about time we left our cradle behind….

  • Padishah

    Ebon, whilst I adgree with most of your conclusions, your focus on the environment struck me as odd. As the world becomes increasingly densely populated and we become more used to life in an artificial environment, it seems likely people will value ‘nature’ less as time goes on, rather than more.

    As for the wealth gap, I really doubt that will ever be eliminated, though hopefully it might decrese somewhat.

    Christopher: “I see no reason why some one with resources should redistribute them to those that do not. If it’s not in his interest [and so on in the usual vein]“

    Because people empathise with others. To varying degrees, but they do. I like to model behaviour as a balancing act between pleasure lost/gained through empathy and pleasure gained/lost due to personal advancement.

  • Christopher

    Response to Padishah:

    I can empathize with those without as well, but I see no reason to try to raise them out of their destitution. What would I gain from giving these people hand-outs? How would these hand-outs help them anyway (it will just make them dependent on continued hand-outs)? Philanthropy seems to be a continuous self-defeating purpose, thus I avoid this quagmire.

    Furthurmore, I don’t see how anyone can gain pleasure through empathy: it makes for a useful tool (the more you understand people, the more persuasive you can be), but to be pleased by it? How does anyone gain pleasure from simply knowing how others may feel? Although I do understand why one would gain pleasure through advancement of self.

  • Alex Weaver

    As long as he maintains the interests of himself and his own, he isn’t required to care about the fate of the others (after all, why should he?).

    Is there any chance you can put off asking a variant of this question again until you’ve addressed the answers people have already given? The most frustrating thing about your arguments is their circularity; you habitually seem to argue as if the opinion that a person’s self-interest (in the narrow sense) is not merely the most important, but the only, legitimate good, were self-evident and not a matter of serious dispute, and all your attempts to address counterarguments implicitly assume it to be true and agreed to, at least at a rudimentary level, by the other party.

    However, even at the level of your philosophy, it is very much in the interests of the wealthy and powerful to ensure that the lives of the general populace are at least tolerable and sustainable. Just ask Marie Antoinette.

  • Padishah

    Furthurmore, I don’t see how anyone can gain pleasure through empathy: it makes for a useful tool (the more you understand people, the more persuasive you can be), but to be pleased by it?

    I think you have misunderstood the meaning of empathy. It does not denote mere intellectual understanding of someones emotional motivations and feelings, the term would be redundant. It is sharing their emotions, at least to some limited degree or respect. As in, the fact that they are unhappy makes you unhappy, not out of any objective gain or loss to you but because you have an emotional connection to them.

    You may respond, why should this be, why should we feel this? To which the answer is that there is no ‘should’, that is a moral term. You might as well ask why and whether we ‘should’ seek out pleasure and avoid pain. It simply is, just as the earth orbits the sun.

  • Christopher

    Response to Alex Weaver:

    You think my arguments are frustrating? You don’t like the fact that I have some assumptions you don’t like? I could say the same about most of the people on this message board. But I digress…

    But you do make a good point: for those in rulership, it’s a good idea to placate the masses with tolerable living conditions. In such cases it would be in the best interests of the ruler to allow some of his resources to flow to the common public. However, I did make a blanket provision for such policies in an earlier post (the “If it’s not in his best interest…” clause of the second paragraph to be precise). As long as the public is kept quite, they can reign as they please.

  • Alex Weaver

    To put it simply, I find your arguments and general perspective frustrating, in large part because their structure and phrasing often imply that one of your assumptions (the one that bothers me most, by a long shot) is that everyone around you shares the rest of them, whether they’ll admit it or not.

    Unfortunately, one of the problems even then is that, due to the fallibility of humans, rulers often don’t fully grasp the rammifications of a given course of action, and as such have a very limited ability to judge whether it will be in their best interest. A group of people can readily be convinced to make decisions that are in the best interest of the group, and, provided the people in question do not merely blindly follow this leader or that creed, and can be convinced to truly cooperate, the group will be better equipped to evaluate each course of action, by simply having more “eyes” looking for flaws, by bringing a variety of intellectual strengths to the table, and by helping overcome the pitfalls of personal prejudices and assumptions that tend to make single decision makers prone to incorrectly evaluating the results of their own decisions. (This is one important reason why democracy is generally better than even a benevolent dictatorship). However, if one only looks to improve one’s own lot without consideration of one’s fellows, one tends to lose this benefit, since it is extremely (if not prohibitively) difficult to get a group of people to pool their intellectual (or other) resources to advance the interests of one person, long-term, without destroying or undermining their capacity for critical thinking and hence the effectiveness of their input.

  • Jack

    Adam, thank you so much for bringing up this subject. The most important point to be taken from your original posting is one that it makes implicitly: that we need to make our decisions on moral issues from the perspective of the future. The farther into the future we can place our minds, the better. All of the explicit wrongs you list are important, but, in my “view from 1000 years hence”, one stands out far above the others in importance.

    That, of course, is our destruction of the natural environment. A thousand years from now, no one will give a rat’s fuzzy behind about our “war on terror”. Osama bin Laden will be just an obscure footnote in some obscure history book, if even that. But the people of the thirty-first century will remember our time as that infamous period in which humans caused the greatest mass-extinction in the history of the planet. We will be reviled not just because we did this, but especially because at least some of us (the biologists, notably) knew we were doing it while it was happening, but their pleadings were largely ignored by those who had the power to do something to stop it. The people of the thirty-first century will watch our beautiful nature documentaries and weep.

    The greatest single problem is not pollution, rainforest destruction, global warming, or any other environmental damage. It is human overpopulation. Get that under control, and there will at least be some hope that the others could be dealt with. This line of thought leads to some unconventional but necessary perspectives on philanthropy. Is the Gates foundation really doing a helpful thing by immunizing children in Africa, without first supporting birth control to an equal or greater degree there?

  • Padishah

    Jack: The world as a whole is not ‘overpopulated’. The problem is that certain countries are experiencing an excessive rate of population growth, and the infrastructure is not being developed fast enough to keep up (or sometimes not at all, vis: Africa).

    I also sincerely doubt Osama will ever be just an ‘obscure footnote’ given the global impact his movement had had and is likely to have for a least another few decades. Do you think figures such as William the Conquerer or Charlemagne obscure?

  • Christopher

    Response to Alex Weaver:

    The only assumption I hold is that all people have their own best interests at the core of their respective value systems; but perception of one’s best interests isn’t always reality. The key to understanding this line of though is realizing that all value systems are made by humans to support the interests of some one (or something, as the case may be) in hopes of that some one supporting their interests, but this isn’t always the case.

    Most people start out building a value system with their own best interests in mind, but society interupts this process by introducing their own values into the individual. The individual tends to see society’s values as being beneficial to himself and thus adopts them (relagating his self-interest to a secondary value). Upon the framework of values that he (and society) built, he constructs a system of moral thoughts and behaviors.

    End result: he becomes just another one of the herd (a Nietzschean concept). Programmed to see society’s values as his interests, he accepts his moral system as being the “right” one and lives out his life unaware of what has transpired.

    I, on the other hand, recognize that my own best interests are the driving force in my life. With this recognition, I can see that society’s values are temporal; instraments meant to serve the ones who hold the reigns of power. Thus, I am able to reject society’s artificial values and construct a value system of my own.

    I required a value system that was strong enough to hold my life together, yet flexible enough to adapt to the many changes that life brings. So I made self-interest the core value, while all other values are kept fluidic (none being established over another) so that I can reprioritize my life instantly. Needless to say, no morals are built over the loose framework of this value system.

    In short, self-interest is the core of all moral systems, but most moral systems downplay this value so that the ones in power can easily control the herd. I simply place self-interest back in its original place: at the center of my attention

  • Jack

    Response to Padishah:

    Do I think figures such as William the Conquerer or Charlemagne obscure? Considering how often they come up in general conversation, actually yes, I do. Granted, they get more than just an obscure footnote. Maybe I’m wrong about Osama’s importance in the grand scheme of things (time will tell), but I beg to differ on your assessment of the population problem. Homo sapiens is the first species in the history of the planet that has managed, through its extraordinary intelligence (not to be confused with wisdom), to in some way infringe upon, or completely expropriate, the natural habitats of almost every other species on the planet. If by infrastructure you mean the cities, farms, houses, schools, shopping centers, paved roads, parking lots, factories, etc., that make our lives so comfy in the USA, then I don’t see how those things in any way solve the problem. They are the problem. If present trends continue, the entire dry surface area of earth will be cities, suburbs, farms (maybe including some monoculture tree farms for lumber) and essentially no wilderness, with the possible exception of a few National Parks, visits to which will have to be rationed by lottery. We will have ourselves in abundance, our domesticated plants and animals, but precious little else to remind us of the biodiversity we have today. At some point our population growth will stop, whether we want it to or not. If we let the carrying capacity of the planet be the limit, then future generations will be condemned to a truly hellish existence. If we somehow come to our senses and choose to stop our population growth before all the wilderness is gone, then the nightmare world I describe might be avoided. As you may have guessed, I am not very optimistic about it.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    To Padishah:

    As the world becomes increasingly densely populated and we become more used to life in an artificial environment, it seems likely people will value ‘nature’ less as time goes on, rather than more.

    I disagree. I think that as our population grows, and the natural resources we depend on to sustain us grow increasingly scarce, more people will come to realize the value of unspoiled nature. Ecosystems perform a huge number of services to human civilization; it has been estimated that it would cost trillions of dollars to try to provide these services by ourselves. When natural resources are abundant, it’s easy to believe that we sustain ourselves purely by our own efforts, but as competition for them grows more intense, that illusion will prove more difficult to sustain. In any case, why would increasing isolation not lead people to value contact with nature more, as an increasingly rare and precious commodity?

    To Jack:

    That, of course, is our destruction of the natural environment. A thousand years from now, no one will give a rat’s fuzzy behind about our “war on terror”. Osama bin Laden will be just an obscure footnote in some obscure history book, if even that. But the people of the thirty-first century will remember our time as that infamous period in which humans caused the greatest mass-extinction in the history of the planet.

    Have you read much by E.O. Wilson? He makes very similar points in books like Biophilia and The Future of Life. It’s true, the biodiversity we destroy can never be restored; although in a few tens of millions of years new species will probably have evolved to replace them, the losses that we cause are irreversible. I don’t know if I would rank overpopulation per se as the single greatest problem, as opposed to unsustainable use of natural resources; we could have a small and stable population and still be destroying the planet’s ability to support life if we lived unwisely. But the general point is hard to disagree with – terrorism is a major threat of our time, of course, but it is not a threat to present and future humanity itself in the way that environmental destruction is.

  • Jack

    To Ebonmuse:

    Have you read much by E.O. Wilson? He makes very similar points in books like Biophilia and The Future of Life. It’s true, the biodiversity we destroy can never be restored; although in a few tens of millions of years new species will probably have evolved to replace them, the losses that we cause are irreversible.

    Only some short essays, not the books you cite. I really need to read those. Your comment about the earth recovering in a few tens of millions of years has occurred to me. The earth has seen mass extinctions before, of course, although nothing of the speed, and probably not the magnitude, of the one in progress now. Still, evolution is irrepressible, life goes on, and the earth will in all likelihood recover in the far distant future. It’s one of the few comforting thoughts I can have on the subject.

    Another comes from the late Bruce Murray, professor of geology at Caltech and former president of the Planetary Society. At a planetfest in Pasadena, about 25 years ago, there was a panel discussion that included this subject. Someone had raised the idea of our species colonizing Mars, etc. Murray said two things: (1) that he felt the earth is “where the action is” and always will be. He did not see much hope in the idea of colonizing Mars. (2) Like me, he was pessimistic about our destruction of the environment, but he had one optimistic twist to it. He said he thought we would wreck the biosphere so catastrophically that future generations would be shocked into taking environmental stewardship seriously. He said we would resolve that “never again will we let the earth go to hell”.

    Small comfort, perhaps, but it’s something.

  • Christopher

    Response to Jack:

    Earth is only one planet out of billions: colonizing new planets would be the most efficient way of preserving our species because our fates will no longer be tied exclusively to the earth. Whatever happens to the other species isn’t really all that relevant because they will likely remain on earth until it is inevitably destroyed (going into non-existence along with it).

    Also, the loss of biodiversity may not be an issue within a century or so. With cloning technology and an ever-expanding knowledge of genetic make-up, we may be able to artificially reproduce current lifeforms or, maybe, invent new ones from scratch. Once we learn to duplicate the process that first spawned life from inert matter, we can remake all life to serve our own will and purposes (in your face god!).

    This man, on the other hand, sees us as earthbound creatures that should maintain our environmental status quo. He may be smart, but he lacks vision and ambition. He hasn’t yet come to grips with the fact that we, as a species, are no longer just spectators to evolution; but rather we are dominant factor of evolution on this planet. It’s time we started acting like it.

  • Jack

    Response to Christopher:

    Bruce Murray had vision and ambition in abundance, but he also had a skeptical mind and a deep understanding of the workings of nature.

    Yes, there are billions of planets in our galaxy alone. Beyond our galaxy the number may well be infinite. But the few in our solar system are the only ones the laws of physics give us any hope of visiting in person. Of these, Mars is the only one with the slightest chance of ever supporting humans in a sustainable way, but that chance is vanishingly small. People now pay half a million dollars to live in a tiny little 1000-square-foot house in southern California, mainly because the weather there is so pleasant. How much demand for real estate do you think there would be in a place that makes Antarctica look like a tropical paradise, where winters are so cold that a significant fraction of the tenuous CO2 atmosphere freezes out onto the ground as dry ice frost? Perhaps you think Mars could be “terraformed”, but that it is doubtful. Its atmosphere is mostly gone because it has no magnetic field to protect it from the solar wind. Any artificial atmosphere we create would suffer the same fate. I could go on and on, but you probably get the idea.

    Even if we could produce any animal, plant or microbe on demand from a biotech lab (a feat far less likely than colonization of Mars), that wouldn’t solve the problem of habitat loss.

    You obviously have a strong interest in science, and I hope you will pursue it. But the farther you go, the more you will appreciate the limitations of the technical fix.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism/ Ebonmuse

    Earth is only one planet out of billions: colonizing new planets would be the most efficient way of preserving our species because our fates will no longer be tied exclusively to the earth.

    This may be a good idea in a thousand years or so, assuming we’re still around by then, but for human technology at its present level, colonizing new planets is just not an option. Space travel is incredibly difficult, incredibly expensive, and incredibly dangerous. The International Space Station, which can support all of two people in low-earth orbit, is estimated to cost $100 billion over its lifetime. (To put this in perspective, it is so expensive to launch a payload into orbit that if there was pure gold floating around up there, free for the taking, it would not pay to go get it.) And that’s only 200 miles up. By contrast, Mars, the nearest planet where human beings could possibly live, is over thirty million miles away. Any expedition that could put a sufficient number of humans there to establish a sustainable colony would very likely be ruinously expensive to the entire global economy.

    And then we can talk about the danger. The ISS has the advantage of still being under quite a bit of the atmosphere, which protects its crew from some cosmic radiation. Even so, being up there is the radiation equivalent of getting about 50 chest X-rays per week. Living in space for two months results in a radiation dose comparable to the maximum allowed dose for a nuclear power plant worker for an entire year. Getting to Mars using any known technology would take much longer than two months, possibly a year or more, and again, that would be without the shelter of the atmosphere. By some estimates, on such a trip every cell in your body would be traversed at least once by a high-energy cosmic ray. Forget about cancer or infertility (which is itself a serious problem for a space colony) – we’re talking acute effects here. An astronaut might be dead of radiation poisoning before they ever reached Mars. The amount of shielding that would be needed to prevent this would make an already astronomically expensive mission (so to speak) even more so. And I haven’t even addressed how anyone would live on Mars, a sterile desert planet with no oxygen, no liquid water, frequent planet-wide dust storms, average surface temperatures of 70 degrees below zero, and no ozone layer, resulting in solar ultraviolet flux high enough to kill almost any known form of life. Extremophile microbes might dwell beneath Mars’ surface, but no part of Mars is suitable for human life for any length of time.

    Like it or not, the Earth is going to be our home for the foreseeable future. I think we’d better learn to live together peacefully down here before we start turning our eyes to the heavens.

  • Christopher

    Response to Jack:

    I know that, at present, we don’t have this kind of power. But what about a century from now? After all, just 100 years earlier nearly everyone believed such things as “underwater boats” and “moon rockets” to be simple flights-of-fancy. Today’s sci-fi has a tendency of becoming tommarow’s reality.

    I find this man’s line of thinking to be very limited: he sees man as being a mere mortal for the rest of his existence. I, on the other hand, see humanity as the one known lifeform that can become gods (not just in a Leveighan sense, but in terms of being Alpha-Omega forces by ourselves). They way I see it, his line of thinking may be fine for the short-term; but we have to break out of this world before we can attain the level of existence I want to live to experience.

  • Jack

    To Christopher:

    Pardon my ignorance, but what do you mean by “become a god in a Leveighan sense”? Who is Leveigh? And what do you mean by “being Alpha-Omega forces by ourselves”? What is an Alpha-Omega force?

    You’re right that yesterday’s sci-fi can become tomorrow’s reality, but only those elements of sci-fi that do not violate fundamental laws of physics have a chance at this. For example, huge starships that ferry hundreds of people across the galaxy at faster-than-light speeds are a staple of much our popular sci-fi today. Sadly, that will never be reality.

  • Christopher

    Response to Jack:

    Let me clear up what I meant by “becoming gods.” The idea that man can become god was first popularized by a man named Anton Leveigh: founder of the Church of Satan. Unlike all other forms of religion, they don’t worship any gods (personal, impersonal, or otherwise) but instead each individual becomes his own god.

    I first became aware thier ideology very late in my christian life through a friend of mine (who revealed his Satanic beliefs to me) and I was intrigued. I seriously considered joining, but, in the end I found some of Leveighs ideas of the super-normal to be incompatable with observable phenomenae. Although I don’t want to join, I still have respect for this religion for being honest about what it is they worship: themselves. On occation, I borrow some philosophical terms from them.

    Also, the “Alpha-Omega-force” is a koinage of mine: it expresses the concept of an entity that can do what it wills, whenever it chooses to do so (my own adage to Nietzsche’s superman). The way I see it, man is gaining knowledge on the universe he lives in at an exponential rate; therefore gaining power at an exponential rate (knowledge = power). Once we amass enough knowledge of our universe, we will be able to manipulate reality to suit our needs and desires.

    Creating new lifeforms, controling all levels of the atmoshpere, creating/destroying worlds at the push of a button: this is but a sample of what man as an “Alpha-Omega-force” is capable of. In short, his power would be godlike. This is the kind of future I want us to have.

    You mention that there are fundamental laws of physics that can impede progress. But in the last century many “fundamental” laws of physics have been shown to be false. The example you use is that we can’t travel faster than light, but we know how to make light even faster than it is now! Furthermore, there are a number of physicists that find tachiyon particles (matter that exeeds light speed) to be a possibility.

    But, then again, only time will tell if this is possible (of course, I firmly believe that it is).

  • Jack

    To Christopher:

    Also, the “Alpha-Omega-force” is a koinage of mine: it expresses the concept of an entity that can do what it wills, whenever it chooses to do so (my own adage to Nietzsche’s superman). The way I see it, man is gaining knowledge on the universe he lives in at an exponential rate; therefore gaining power at an exponential rate (knowledge = power). Once we amass enough knowledge of our universe, we will be able to manipulate reality to suit our needs and desires.

    Creating new lifeforms, controling all levels of the atmoshpere, creating/destroying worlds at the push of a button: this is but a sample of what man as an “Alpha-Omega-force” is capable of. In short, his power would be godlike. This is the kind of future I want us to have.

    When chatting on a blog like this, it’s impossible to know much about the other folks in the conversation. But your ideas suggest to me that you are young, probably under 20. Feel free to correct me if you wish. There’s nothing wrong with being young, of course. How I wish I were still under 20! But I’m not. I am not a great or famous scientist, but I am, nonetheless, a real card-carrying scientist. I don’t really have the time to convey in this short reply what I would most like to say to you about your desire for god-like power. Probably the best I can do is refer you to chapter 11 of Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man (1973, Little, Brown & Co., ISBN 0-316-10933-9). You should be able to get it at a public library.

    In the meantime, I’ll just make a few specific comments. Yes our knowledge is growing exponentially, but exponential growth of anything does not continue to be exponential forever. The number of bacteria growing in a Petri dish increases exponentially, but not forever. If it did,every cubic millimeter of our entire solar system, if not the entire galaxy, would be filled with bacteria by now. Exponential growth usually changes, fairly quickly, to sigmoidal growth, as physical limits are encountered. For the bacteria, the limits are the amount of nutrients available in the dish.

    Our technical fixes to problems almost always lead to unintended and unforeseen consequences, some good, some bad. Here is just one of many examples I could give: When the automobile was introduced early in the 20th century, it was praised as a boon to public health, because it eliminated the manure that horses had been dumping on city streets. Few if any people imagined that gasoline-powered cars would be responsible for such things as crude oil spills ruining pristine beaches, smog that makes people sick and corrodes works of art, contamination of groundwater by gasoline leaking from rusted gas station tanks. Few would have predicted that car wrecks would end up killing more Americans than all of our wars combined. The number of American traffic fatalities during a single year of the Vietnam war was almost as great as the total number of Americans killed in all 10 years of that war. The number of Americans killed by car wrecks this month, and every month, exceeds the number killed by Osama and his buddies on Sept 11, 2001. And then there’s the problem of global warming, caused in no small part by the exhaust of our cars.

    So by now you may be thinking “what’s the point?” The point is that we live in an extraordinarily thin and fragile habitable zone at the surface of a tiny planet. We depend for our existence on that zone remaining within a relatively narrow temperature range, above or below which our extinction is likely. We depend on the availability of fresh, unpolluted water and arable land. Our continued existence depends on the entire ecosystem within which we evolved. If we ignore or deny these limitations, we do so at our peril.

  • Christopher

    Actually, I’m 27. But I’m not surprised that you came to the conclusion that I was under 20: the worldview I have was initially developed in my college years. And I will check out “The Ascent of Man” when I get the chance. In the spirit of mutual understanding, I recommend you read “Thus Spake Zarathustra” by Fredrich Nietzsche (much of my worldview is based on his liturature, and this is my favorite).

    Also, I know that exponential increases in nature don’t last forever. There is only so much a micoorganism can do to advance its growth, thus it can’t expand indefinitely. But we have an advantage they don’t: ingenuity. We may hit a proverbial “dead end” in our species growth in one place, but an intelligent being can reallocate resources to other ends; allowing it to evolve in a new direction.

    I know new technologies come with drawbacks (the “no free lunches” principal), but that is the price of power: one must be strong enough to weild it, or it will destroy the weilder. I tend see nature selecting out the weak or inattentive (ex: most people killed/maimed in the car crashes you mention were under the influence of drugs or alcohol; people dumb enough to drive impared are slowly filtered out by this natural selection proccess).

    What you say about our planet may be true today, but the future is uncertain. But one thing is certain: as long as we are tied to this rock we are at its mercy. Over the short-run, it is wise to ensure that the planet remains sufficient to maintain life. But in the long-run, we must escape this planet to run free through the cosmos. Only then will our survival be guaranteed beyond earth’s eventual demise.

  • Jack

    To Christopher:

    Over the short-run, it is wise to ensure that the planet remains sufficient to maintain life. But in the long-run, we must escape this planet to run free through the cosmos. Only then will our survival be guaranteed beyond earth’s eventual demise.

    In some sense we agree on this point. But the “short-run” you refer to is about 5 billion years (the time remaining before the sun depletes its helium and becomes a red giant). That’s pretty long for a short-run.

    Your world view reminds me a little of some of the speculations of the famous physicist Freeman Dyson. He tried to imagine what an extremely advanced intelligent civilization would do that might be detectable at astronomical distances. This line of thinking led him to what is now called the “Dyson sphere”. The idea is that this advanced civilization’s growth (in population and in technological advancement) would demand so much energy that they would completely enclose their star in a huge artificial sphere that collected all of its visible light, converting it into something that powered their power-hungry gadgets. All that would escape would be the infrared radiation from the waste heat. Dyson described what such a thing should look like to an infrared telescope, in the hope that we might some day discover one.

    My world view, as you would probably guess, is quite different, and leads to different speculations on what a highly advanced civilization will be like. In my view, if a technological civilization is to survive for millions of years (let alone billions), it must and will achieve a stable equilibrium with its natural ecosystem. Wilderness will not be seen as something to be “developed”, paved over and exploited, but a source, not only of the necessities of physical life (things like fresh water and food), but also of beauty, wonder, and a virtually unending supply of mysteries to explore through the scientific method. If that civilization has anything remotely resembling religion, it won’t be fear of and slavish devotion to a mythical creator, but will instead be a feeling of awe and reverence for the process of evolution and the natural biosphere that really was their creator. They will find some way of keeping their population relatively small (much smaller than the human population on Earth is now). They will limit their technology such that all of its waste will be completely and harmlessly recycled. This is the only way they can hope still to be in existence when their star reaches its demise. When that time approaches, they may or may not find a way to preserve themselves by moving off their planet. But if they do, they won’t be traveling faster than light, and they won’t just take themselves. They will take as much of their natural ecosystem as they can manage to carry, since they will know it is their only hope of survival, and a big part of what will make their lives worth living, on whatever other planet they land on.

    I’ve enjoyed our chat, and I’ll take a look at Nietzsche when I get a chance.

  • Christopher

    Response to Jack:

    I’m familiar with the concept of the Dyson sphere and would be in full support of any project that could create one. I don’t see this happening for millenia, but it’s a prospect worth considering…

    I see humanity escaping (rather than co-existing) with his ecosystem: circumventing natural processes for resources (like plant growth for food) by devising artificial ones that produce similair results (such as alteration of inert matter into edible substance). I see it expanding rapidly through this solar system, building artificial habitats, and unlocking the secrets to intersteller travel. Like you, I see a godless race, but of a different lifestyle: one that conquers new territory in his own namesake, for his own purposes. But I also see a race that has detatched itself from what we now call the natural world (something like the people in Huxley’s “Brave New World”); a fortunate (or unfortunate) developement of mankind to love what technology produces more than what nature does.

    I think you and I are two sides of the same coin here: we both want humanity to evolve and improve itself, but with radically differing ideas as to what constitutes an evolved humanity. I, the technophile, see man as achieving dominence in the universe while you, the environmentalist, see man as becoming more connected to the natural world: I look forward to the clash between our two schools of thought in the future…

    But for now, I will find “The Ascent of Man” and try to gain a better understanding of your viewpoint. I found this discussion enjoyable as well… until next time.

  • Jack

    Correction:

    the time remaining before the sun depletes its helium and becomes a red giant

    I meant “hydrogen” there, not helium.

    … and to Christopher:

    Thanks again, until next time!

  • Amanda

    I emmensely enjoyed reading this. I truly hope, but do not believe that everything you have touched on will change. I really do hope that people will take more intrest in the environment and stop letting our planet go to hell. People are so selfish. I also truly hope that people stop trying to push their religion on everyone. I am not atheist I am Wiccan but I really dont think people should be able to even try to tell you what to believe. But Oh Well people are people and it is going to take a while for most of them to change. I mean no one can be right all the time wether we beleive something is right or wrong usually makes no difference to the next person. And that is how it goes.