This was a thought experiment that was written in July 2019 for Aspire Me - a 'transhumanist' website looking at humanity's possible future paths and how technology might influence them. Gareth (co-founder at Solve Earth) wrote the article from an exaggerated viewpoint of extreme technological development in order to illustrate that the current path humanity is on is unsustainable - and in particular that being wealthy in that future will not protect you from the harsh reality of life.
Gareth wrote about 'green capitalism' as being a temporary solution to our environmental problems that would enable us to buy time to figure out the much more complex problem of how to build a new economic system - one that would be regenerative and enable the human race to grow alongside nature. This was before he met Graham Boyd - one of the main creators of the regenerative blueprint that Solve Earth now uses to create the foundations of that future regenerative global economy, today. The brilliant insight we had thanks to a chance meeting with Graham Boyd was: Why wait to build a global regenerative economy at some point in the future when we know it is needed now? Let's do this! So we did 🙂
Imagine you are living in the 22nd century and that you are exceedingly wealthy. So wealthy in fact, that you are now immortal. You have purchased the ultimate health and insurance package and you cannot die except if you have a serious accident. What an awesome opportunity! You are free from the shackles of finite choices and limited time. You can travel and enjoy the sights and sounds of an amazing future world of epic cities, landscapes and cultures for all of eternity. You will never age. You can party at every festival in the world, sample every dish created, learn any skill, have multiple long (or short) term relationships and do whatever you want when you want. Except there is a small problem... You can’t travel. Well, you can but there isn’t much to see. You see, there is an area of desert that straddles the middle of the Earth from London to Barcelona to Cape Town. Most of the world is now a dry, dead, uninhabitable dust bowl. Just as all your hard work got you VIP access to paradise, the dust bowl came along and seriously spoiled your perma-party. How did this happen?
The climate crisis that caused the dust bowl was a slow burning problem at first. Super storms and water shortages caused millions of refugees to flee to cooler countries. The wealthy like you had already moved further north. This was also around the time that you sold the company you built for a fortune and became one of the first customers for an immortality total body make-over. Then the climate catastrophe struck in the mid to late 21st century. Without warning, global temperature tipping points were hit in rapid succession and the planet heated up in sudden spurts. Ecosystems instantly collapsed as millions of plants, animals and marine life were wiped out in the unbearable heat. This was swiftly followed by disruption to food supply chains and mass dehydration and starvation. Billions died and the global economy collapsed. A few million people survived and the vast majority are now living in a post-apocalyptic world as scavengers in the rubble on the fringe of extreme poverty.
You are one of a handful of super elites who live in mansion enclaves sealed from the outside world in a bubble. You have food tech and your immortality machines and each other. There is enough energy and material for this small number of people to live in the bubble for some time. But the world and most natural resources have been poisoned or destroyed. There isn’t enough for the population to expand. Most human knowledge was also lost in the collapse. Locked in servers the world over, and in the minds of the legions of dead scientists, philosophers, business leaders, writers, creatives, politicians and artists. Even if the knowledge could be accessed there are not enough people to use it effectively. You are a bored, unhappy and ironically fragile immortal living in a bubble in a dying world that has no future. You live in fear of your bubble breaking down and making you mortal again.
This scenario may sound completely crazy and far-fetched to you. Can we really become immortal? Can climate change really cause such destruction? The answer is unequivocally yes and yes. Technology is the common thread.
Hospitals around the world are struggling just to provide a basic healthcare service, so the idea of immortality may sound ridiculous given our current circumstances. But consider how fast medical technology has developed in the past 40 years. MRI and CT scans enable us to look deep inside a living body non-invasively. We can place stents to reopen blocked blood vessels in the heart with just a small incision in the wrist. New cancer cures that use genetically engineered immune drugs to target cancer cells and leave healthy cells intact are becoming available. This is just the beginning.
Technology is advancing faster than ever before. The first 15 years of the 21st century has already produced more innovation than the entire 20th century. Waves of technological advances are coalescing together to create technology that once belonged solely to science fiction. Artificial intelligence and cars are combining to create autonomous vehicles. In the medical sector - sensors, digital health software and big data intelligence are combining to shift healthcare from a reactive system that treats disease to a proactive system that prevents disease. Projecting this system into the future and it isn’t hard to imagine a day when every aspect of your health is monitored daily and treatment for potentially dangerous illnesses is administered before you are even aware of a problem.
Genetically altered foetuses at the point of conception free of all disease carrying gene mutations will set longevity to a standard 110 years to achieve the first stage of life extension. Let’s add genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and 3D printing into the mix and now you have the ability to print replacement organs, augmented cybernetic implants, and swarms of nanobots that patrol your bloodstream to provide an artificially created backup immune system with super powers. Continuous scanning and sensing technology combined with hyper-fast quantum processors and abundant data storage will make it possible to track every one of the cells in your body and enable the nanobots to carry out additional repair work to slow or halt the ageing process. According to renowned physicists such as David Deutsch and Michio Kaku, all that is needed is more energy and more knowledge and any problem – including immortality – can be solved. The application of knowledge always requires energy and materials. Therefore, all that is needed to solve any problem is more energy and more materials. Immortality is coming closer to our ape-like grasp. The only question is when.
In our quest to create immortality we now have a glimpse as to why technological advancement is also producing the climate crisis. The global economy has increased in size exponentially since the industrial revolution from $100 billion in 1700 (1990 US dollars) to $80 trillion in 2018. Technology has enabled us to generate more wealth in a shorter space of time to enable this phenomenal pace of change. By solving problems using technology to generate wealth, we have also increased our use of energy and materials. On the energy side, the entire industrial revolution was made possible by burning fossil fuels. Most of the economy today is still reliant fossil fuels. Unfortunately, burning fossils releases greenhouse gases and the world heats up.
On the materials side, our quest for more has led us to destroy large areas of the natural world. We are cutting down trees to rear animals to feed us, digging holes in the ground to mine minerals and polluting the land and oceans with our wastes. The wild untouched natural world is shrinking faster than ever before, and plants, animals and marine life are going extinct at an accelerating pace. In our quest to build new technology and new wealth we are destroying the same natural systems we depend on to survive. The global economy is eating the natural world. Technology powered by fossil fuels will lead us to immortality in a dust bowl. Technology can make us into gods. Unhappy gods doomed to eternal oblivion, or worse – to be rendered mere mortals once again by the total destruction of their environment and the very world that created them.
Many people blame capitalism and greed as the source of the problem and point to a socialist approach as the solution. Their logic is if we stop buying and consuming, then we can stop environmental destruction. This is only a half-solution, and it is doomed to fail for two simple reasons:
If we are all hard-wired to desire progression, and rewards are required for technological advancement to solve problems, it seems we are stuck with relentless economic growth that destroys the environment and ourselves in the process!
Fortunately, this is not the case. We can build a better story using what we already know, and the technologies we have already developed, without shutting down our human desire for growth. We are ingenious beings and we can solve any problem if we put our minds to it. This is how.
There are two main problems we must solve:
With a combination of 100% clean, renewable energy and circular material systems we will drastically slow down our destructive pace and buy some time to solve the tougher problems. Human activity will always cause some damage, so this is not yet a permanent solution. But with this extra time the global economy can continue to grow provided it is based on green capitalism.
It is possible for the global economy to double in size by the middle of the 21st century according to Jorgen Randers in the excellent book 2052. In order for this to happen without causing massive environmental damage, the majority of this growth must come from the green economy. According to the Harvard Business Review, the sustainable economy may be the biggest wealth creation opportunity in all of human history. The world needs an army of eco-entrepreneurs to realise this value creation. Environmental entrepreneurs building new products and services based on clean energy and circular materials will be at the forefront of innovation and wealth creation in the new world. Consumers can influence business by buying low carbon goods and services. Green capitalism and smarter consumption will buy us extra time.
The seeming paradox of making money and doing good at the same time requires sustainability entrepreneurs to adopt a new mindset and elevate their consciousness. It turns out that making money out of protecting the environment is often intricately bound with protecting people and respecting their rights. Sustainability requires us to elevate our economic, environmental and social performance to a higher level. This higher level of consciousness is a key ingredient for governments, companies and individuals to build a sustainable society. We must get rid of the notion that inequality and pollution are inevitable by-products of wealth creation. We can continue our technological development and wealth development to pull every human being out of extreme poverty and we can reduce inequality and pollution at the same time.
What about the problem of population growth? Well, by increasing average wealth using green capitalism, the global population will also naturally plateau as people with advanced lifestyles typically want fewer children. This is the trend observed in the developed world, and now being seen in the developing world. A stable human population powered by green technology and clean circular material systems will have a much lesser impact on the environment than a growing population powered by dirty fossil fuels and linear material systems that pump poisons into the environment. We can build wealth, achieve a near steady-state, and live in harmony with the natural world to deliver us safely into the 22nd century.
On a finite planet there is a logical limit to economic growth. It cannot continue forever. Therefore, as we learn how to slow down our damage on the world with green capitalism and green technology, we must also learn how to evolve and transform capitalism and create a new global system that causes zero damage and restores the environment. We don’t yet know what this will look like. This new system is likely to be based on a combination of both wealth and human wellbeing with a much bigger focus on the latter. This may sound like it goes against our hard-wiring to desire progress as we discussed earlier. But our desire for progress does not have to be in the form of ownership of material possessions. We are already moving to a sharing economy for cars, clothes, consumer goods, and housing. The latest research on wellbeing reveals that epic shared experiences with others creates more lasting happiness than buying a new car or a big house. The main philosophy of the good life could change to focus more on the things that truly make us happy - experiences, connections, relationships, kindness, and fun rather than blatant material consumption. Wealth can be built on non-material assets. Social status in the new world could be based on your economic ability to create epic shared experiences, or to utilise the most advanced forms of shared transport. We can curb our ugliest most destructive consumption habits, without stopping the activities that make us happy. Autonomous air taxis powered by sunlight are already in the testing phases. In the near future it will be possible to fly across Los Angeles or Delhi in less than 10 minutes with zero carbon emissions to get to your party on time.
The choice is ours to make: to continue on the same selfish winner-takes-all path to false lonely immortality trapped in a dust-bowl, or to evolve our consciousness to a higher level for the benefit of all of us. It is clear that the only way to protect the earth is if we take care of everyone. This is how we become immortal happy gods in a clean, green playground. Only then will we be truly ready and unshackled to embark on our next epic challenge to explore the universe, with a thriving and healthy mother earth as our base. Which path would you choose for your grandchildren?