6 November 2012
A curious case of selective stagnation:
A whole new way to think about Weltschmerz
Among those who think about human space exploration, the relatively modest (i.e., less than ambitious) human space program since the end of the Apollo program that took human beings to the moon is a problem that requires an explanation. There have always been futurist speculations that have taken particular trends out of context and extrapolated them in isolation. Such narrowly focused futurism almost always gets things wrong. But when we think of all that might have been accomplished in terms of space exploration in the past forty years, and how far we might have gone in terms of existential risk mitigation as a result of a robust space program, one inevitably asks why more has not been done.
Putting the space program in the context of existential risk shifts our understanding a bit, since the space program is usually understood as science or exploration or adventure, but I am coming more to the view that it must be understood in terms of mitigating existential risk, that is to say, establishing self-sustaining, self-sufficient settlements off the surface of the Earth so that life and civilization can go on whatever the vulnerabilities of our home world. From this perspective, from the perspective of existential risk, the space program, and in fact all of human civilization, has been stagnant. We have had the power to leave the Earth and to create a second home for ourselves elsewhere, and we have failed to do so.
The idea of existential risk is due to Nick Bostrum, whom I have mentioned several times recently. His papers Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards and Existential Risk Reduction as Global Priority lay out the basic architecture of the concept, introducing several qualitative risk categories and their classification in terms of existential risk. Bostrum distinguishes four classes of existential risk: human extinction, permanent stagnation, flawed realization, and subsequent ruination.
How are we to construe the relative stagnation of the space program over the past forty years, which could provide a degree of existential risk mitigation, but which has not been widely viewed in this light. Space science has had many spectacular successes in recent decades, which have substantially increased our knowledge of the universe in which we live, but all of this is for naught if our exclusively-terrestrially dwelling species is wiped out by a natural catastrophe beyond the power of our technology to stop or to tame. There is a sense, then, no matter how valuable our scientific knowledge from unmanned missions, that the past forty years have been a wasted opportunity to secure against existential risk. We had the knowledge to go into space, the ability, the economic foundation — all the elements were present, but the will to secure the survival of our own species has been lacking. How do we explain this?
We cannot say that civilization has been exactly stagnant over the past forty years. How can human civilization be said to be stagnant when we have been experiencing exponential technological growth? We have experienced an explosion in the development of telecommunications and computing that was unpredicted and unprecedented. This has profoundly changed our personal lives and the structure of the overall economy and society. It has also increased the rate of technological change, since computerized engineering and design makes it possible to build other technologies in a much more sophisticated fashion than previously was the case. When we think of technological triumphs like the SR-71, the Apollo project, and the Concorde, we must remember that most of this was accomplished by engineers with slide rules writing calculations in pencil on paper. And yet today we have no sophisticated supersonic aerospace industry and nothing on the scale of the Apollo program, though we could presumably do both better now than we did before.
With all this technological progress, there remains a feeling of unfulfilled potential in the past half century. No one can say — as it was in fact said before the space program — that it is simply impossible to travel in space, or for human beings to live in space, or to travel to the moon. We’ve all seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even this modest human future in space, with a rotating space station and a base on the moon, didn’t happen. Did people lose interest? Did they turn inward, preferring personal comfort to what Theodore Roosevelt called “the strenuous life”? Was the human spirit broken by the Cold War and the haunting threat of nuclear annihilation?
In German there is a word that we lack in English: Weltschmerz, sometimes translated as “world-weariness.” Americans have never had much use for either the term or the idea, and it sounds a bit too much like post-War French existentialism with its systematic exposition of guilt, despair, alienation, and absurdity. Nevertheless, it is difficult to look at the past half century without thinking of it in terms not unlike Weltschmerz.
Stagnation can take the form of a civilization being shot through with ellipses. We could called this condition selective stagnation. Because there are so many possible explanations for the selective stagnation of the past forty years, and because it is unlikely that any one single social, economic, political, or ideological explanation could explain our selective stagnation, the only way we can embrace the complex social phenomenon of selective stagnation is to cover it with a term specifically intended to indicate many historical causes coming together into a trend that constitutes a whole greater than any of its individual parts. Once upon a time this was called “decadence,” as in Thomas Coulture’s famous painting “Romans of the Decadence.” We could also call it Weltschmerz (although it this case it should be Raumshmerz rather than Weltschmerz), or we could call it terrestrial malaise or even planetary torpor.
Since the advent of civilization, there have been several periods of extended stagnation, which historians formerly called “dark ages” but which term is avoided today because of its disparaging connotations. I have previously written about the Greek Dark Ages, and I still occasionally refer to the early middle ages in Western Europe as the “dark ages” because there are senses in which the term remains apt. When we compare the selective stagnation of the past half century to these comprehensive periods during which Western civilization stumbled, and it was a real question whether or not it would recover its footing, our selective stagnation is so minor it scarcely bears mentioning.
But there is a crucial difference: the Greek Dark Age and the Dark Age following the collapse of Roman power in the western empire took place long before the scientific revolution. Since the scientific revolution we have continuously learned more about our place in the universe, and since the industrial revolution we have had the power to modify our place within nature with increasing scope and efficacy. Now we understand better than at any time in the past the existential risks we are facing, and for the past fifty years we have had the power to do something about that existential risk: to establish a human presence in extraterrestrial space that would not be vulnerable to disasters specific to the Earth. This is not absolute risk mitigation — the idea of absolute risk mitigation is illusory — but it is incrementally much better, perhaps even or order of magnitude of distancing ourselves from manifest vulnerability. .
It may be the case that when civilization reaches a certain stage of development at which a minimum level of creature comforts are available for the bulk of the world’s population, that this relative prosperity undermines the springs to action. Because we have only our own terrestrial civilization by which to judge, we don’t have a sufficiently big picture conception of civilization that would allow us to generalize at this level of the idea of civilization.
Singulatarians and transhumanists will tell you that we are poised on the verge of transformative change that will make all previous transitions in human history pale by comparison, and which will launch human beings — or, rather, the post-human, post-biological beings who will be the successors of specifically human being — on a course of development that will make these considerations either irrelevant, or so trivial that it will be a small matter to execute the required solution. But even as these wonders are coming about, we remain vulnerable. We might be on the very verge of the technological singularity when we are wiped out by a stray asteroid. This scenario would constitute what Nick Bostrum called “ephemeral realization.”
For these reasons, as well as many other that the reader will immediately see, I think that the idea of selective stagnation bears further study in its own right.
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