Karolina Gustavsson - Authorosqledaren@ths.kth.se
Karolina Gustavsson - Illustratorosqledaren@ths.kth.se
As the ancient saying goes ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’ There are a multitude of reasons to be hopeful about our future, humanity has so much yet to achieve and create. We need to be cautious since the road ahead may be bumpy! However we live in a crucial time where we can choose to put a seatbelt on civilization for a safer ride, but will we rise to the occasion? Longtermism may give us some answers.
What is longtermism really? When I dream of the far future I imagine exploring distant worlds and learning about what is currently considered science fiction. The budding philosophy and movement known as longtermism, aims to help us put that seatbelt on and realise those dreams of the far future. I decided to interview Jonathan Salter and Erik Engelhardt, who both have a lot of expertise in effective altruism and are especially knowledgeable in the area of longtermism.
Longtermism is a philosophy where value is placed on future potential and future human lives. It touches upon all areas that could have a positive impact on the future. The term was coined quite recently, in 2017, by the philosophers Toby Ord and William McAskill. The reason for it being such a recent idea is that humanity only recently gained the capability to destroy civilization. For instance nuclear weapons, changing the climate, bioweapons and so on. While the concept may be quite new, a lot of people already care about creating a great future for their kids and grandkids. This is taking it one step further.
Why would you say longtermism is important?
J: The central moral claim is that, in much the same way we shouldn't discriminate based on superficial factors such as gender, ethnicity, creed, nationality, or indeed location on Earth — we shouldn't treat future people as if they have less worth just because they don't exist right now. Personally, I was pretty nihilistic before I found out about longtermism, but now we have the chance to feel cosmically significant since we live in a time where our actions potentially have huge consequences on the future.
To get some perspective we can look at the history of life. The historian Rutger Bregman thinks of it as a calendar year in his book ‘Humankind — A Hopeful History’. If life started on the 1st of January, Dinosaurs would go extinct on the 25th of December and humans would appear on December 31st at 23:00. Perhaps surprisingly, agriculture would begin at 23.58 — this means modern civilisation has only existed in the last two minutes of this year of life. Human ancestors began walking on two legs 5-7 million years ago which hopefully is only the beginning. In Toby Ord's book ‘The Precipice,’ he considers the humble horseshoe crab, which has been here for a whopping 450 million years. What if we manage to exist for as long or longer?
Do we owe future generations anything?
J: It depends on if you are buying into duties, as far as duties go I believe we have an obligation to do good for others, including future generations.
The implications of looking at life in this way are vast. We should have an enormous amount of existential hope for the future. Humanity could create such grand things with time, solve great mysteries and explore the universe. A hundred years ago it would have been difficult to imagine the internet or spaceflight, but what else could we create with more time? David Deutsch, in his book ‘The B
eginning of Infinity’, illuminates that a tradition of criticism combined with scientific principles can create limitless knowledge. Even though we often focus on negative news, we cannot forget all the positive ways the world is developing. There are so many reasons to be excited about the future, not even the sky's the limit!
What can individuals do?
E: The most actionable advice is to work for or give money to organisations who work with existential risks. Think about how you can have a long term impact in your future career, and figure out what steps you need to take today to move towards that goal. If you want to incorporate longtermism into your thesis for instance, you can have a look at the website ‘Effective Thesis’. You can also learn more at effective altruism (EA) events! The EA KTH group has regular events.
How do we make sure we have an immense future? One way of doing that is by safeguarding humanity against existential risk. If we accept that the future is worth so much we have to make sure nothing unfortunate happens to human civilization. If this is a car ride, we have to put the seatbelt on to maximise our chances of safe travel through future human history. It is a question of thinking long term in several aspects, among them policy work and designing technology.
What are the critiques of longtermism?
E: It’s not that easy to have an effect on large chaotic systems, nor is it apparent what interventions will have an impact in a thousand years. It’s also difficult to know what your individual impact will be in the far future.
The website ‘Our world in data’ has a beautiful article on this subject, ’The Future is Vast: Longtermism’s perspective on humanity’s past, present, and future.’ One of the most striking quotes from the article illustrates that it’s not a difficult idea to embrace. ‘In some ways many of us are already longtermists. The responsibility we have for future generations is why so many work to reduce the risks from climate change and environmental destruction.’ We only need to broaden our scope of risks to safeguard the future from civilisational collapse. By working on existential risks, meaning risks large enough to cause a terrible scenario for civilisation, positive ripple effects will become apparent. For instance, working on decreasing the risk of a pandemic that could wipe out civilisation would also reduce the risk for smaller pandemics. These are not distant risks, but actually pressing issues of our time.
What do you think is the potential of humanity?
J: Unimaginable! Nick Boström, one of the main originators of longtermism, draws a fitting analogy. It goes something like this: Imagine a bunch of ancestral apes talking about developing into humans.
There are a lot of things they wouldn’t have valued that humans value, which they wouldn’t even have been able to consider. For instance they might have wanted an unlimited supply of bananas but wouldn’t have been able to fathom the idea of smartphones. In other words, we could explore the universe in its infinite beauty and variability in ways that are unimaginable right now.
E: Enormous! Even if we don't leave the Earth and just live as we are currently doing until the Sun eventually dies, that's billions of years and billions of human lives. And if we are more optimistic and think that we can expand to other planets and also make human or non-human life better, that number goes up exponentially. We have not existed very long as a civilization. If we don't mess things up, most of our potential lies in the future.
To conclude, I strongly believe that there is a future worth protecting. There are many things, large and small, that could help contribute to this. Think about all the generations yet to come, people who will laugh and cry just like us. What kind of world would you like them to have?