“Let me tell you something, my friend, Red says to Andy in The Shawshank Redemption, “hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane.” And that may be true. Or it may be the only thing that gives the human species a reason to prevent our own extinction.
It seems almost paradoxical.
The most powerful incentive to prevent our extinction of our species is the hope that we might be worth saving. That is the take home lesson of some thought experiments reported this week on VOX by Kelsey Piper.
Here is where she comes out.
If people don’t believe there’s a meaningful and good future on the other side of the challenges ahead of us, then it looks like they have a hard time rating our extinction as a uniquely bad thing.
We are, to use Piper’s phrasing, “shockingly blasė” about the end of our world.
Despite many people rating extinction “somewhat likely” in the next 15 years, few people rate the causes of extinction as among their top policy priorities for the next president or Congress. People say extinction is kinda bad and under some circumstances they even say it’s likely, but they don’t take it that seriously.
It seems clear to me that the work to be done to keep the globe from turning into an inhospitable environment for humans is going be really hard work. It is going to require that we change a lot about the way we in the developed world life. It is going to cost a lot of money, It might very well require more authoritarian governments, the kind we accept as a matter of course in wartime. “Shockingly blasė” is not going to get that done.
Here is what would help. It would help if people could concretely envision a good human future. If we had a good clear picture—a picture with details in it—about a good 2100 A.D., we might be willing to do the work and accept the sacrifices that will be necessary.
In the research Piper reports, much of it by University of Oxford scholars
Stefan Schubert, Lucius Caviola, and Nadira Faber, people who participate in thought experiments don’t regard the end of the human species with anything like alarm. Here is the way the research was set up.
Here’s one of the questions they asked of thousands of people in the US and UK:
Compare three futures for humanity:
(1) There is no catastrophe.
(2) There is a catastrophe that immediately kills 80% of the world’s population
(3) There is a catastrophe that immediately kills 100% of the world’s population.
Rank them from best to worst.
It turned out that #3 wasn’t much different from #2. When the asked the same set of question about zebras, they got a surprising and different result. People felt there was a big difference between #2 and #3. A world with no more zebras ever again seemed like a uniquely awful thing.
To get a response about humans that was as favorable as the one about zebras, the researchers had to change the question to a catastrophe that renders most humans sterile compared to a catastrophe that rendered all humans sterile. That version got people to rank the future of humankind as high as they ranked the future of zebra-hood.
But to get people to agree in substantial numbers that it would a an awful thing if humans ceased to exist, they had to promise something really big. Here is the way Piper describes it.
Finally, to get the overwhelming majority of respondents to agree that extinction was uniquely bad, you had to be even more direct and tell them to imagine that human civilization will go on to a long, happy, prosperous future — unless a catastrophe wipes us out.Suddenly, almost everyone agreed that human extinction was uniquely bad.
It seems to me that if it takes the prospect of “a long, happy, prosperous future” to get us to value the continued existence of our species, then we ought to get at it. Soon.
If environmentalists had approached me 25 years ago and asked whether I thought people could be scared into responsible environmental action or enticed into it, I would have chosen “scared.” If we are contemplating big changes, I would rather rely on sticks than carrots. But this research suggests that it takes some carrots just to keep the question before us at all.
Distant catastrophes can be so easily denied. All you have to do is not bring the consequences forward in a meaningful way. But these studies show that it is the difference between the good and bad scenarios that enables us even to want to choose the good scenario. Something needs to say to us, “Look what you would be giving up if you gave up on the human species!”
Currently, as Piper points out, not many people are saying that. And when I try one or another phrasings in my head, they don’t sound persuasive. Furthermore, they don’t sound like me. It would be very hard for me to say those things to the people I hang around with.
But I think somebody needs to start trying.