Seeing the future fearfully -Abu Tahir Mustakim
The fossil record indicates that the average mammal species lasts a million years. By this measure, we have about 700,000 years ahead of us. During this time, even if humanity remained earthbound at just one-tenth of the current world population, a staggering ten trillion people would be born in the future. But Islamic eschatologists differ about the future of the world which is not going to last that several lakh years.
The eschatologists offer the vision of apocalypse citing the Holy Quran. They opine that most of the signs of approaching doomsday or Qiamah have more or less surfaced. They also cite a range of hadiths including the following one which connects the missing links or dots between Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him) and Adam (PBUH). About his family tree or genealogical identity, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said, Muhammad ibn Abdullah ibn Abdul Muttalib (Shaybah) ibn Hashim (Amr) ibn Abd Manaf (Mughirah) ibn Qusai (Zayd) ibn Kilab ibn Murra ibn Ka’b ibn Lo’i ibn Ghalib ibn Quraysh/Fahr ibn Malik ibn An Nadr ibn Kinana ibn Khuzaimah ibn Mudrikah ibn Elias ibn Mudar ibn Nizar ibn Ma’ad ibn Adnan ibn ‘Adda ibn Udaz ibn Humaisi’ ibn Salaman ibn Aws ibn Buz ibn Qamwal ibn Obai ibn Awwam ibn Nashid ibn Haza ibn Bildas ibn Yadlaf ibn Tabikh ibn Jahim ibn Nahish ibn Makhi ibn Aid ibn Abqar ibn Ubaid ibn Ad Da’a ibn Hamdan ibn Sanbir ibn Yathrabi ibn Yahzin ibn Yalhan ibn Ar’awl ibn Aid ibn Deshan ibn Aisar ibn Afnad ibn Aiham ibn Muksar ibn Nahith ibn Zarih ibn Sam’uee ibn Mazzi ibn ‘Adwa ibn Aram ibn Haidir ibn Ismail ibn Ibrahim ibn Tarih/Azar ibn Nahur ibn Sarugh ibn Ar’au ibn Faligh ibn Abir ibn Shalikh ibn Arfakhshad ibn Sam ibn Nuh/Sakar ibn Lamik ibn Matulshalkh ibn Idris/Akhnaukh ibn Yarid ibn Muhallalal ibn Qinan ibn Annush ibn Shees ibn Adam.
So, we are standing at the beginning of history, according to some scholars, while Islamic eschatologists think we are approaching the apocalypse. It is closer; not a distant future. Muslims believe Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) is the 82nd generation of Prophet Adam (PBUH) who was born around 30,000 years ago. Anyway, let the debate be left to anthropologists and eschatologists. But one thing is sure that the world is in impending danger at present with the Palestine-Israel conflict, Syrian War and Ukraine-Russia War.
But from climate change to nuclear war, engineered pandemics, uncontrolled Artificial Intelligence (AI), and other destructive technologies not yet foreseen, a worrying number of risks conspire to threaten the end of humanity. Just over 30 years ago, as the Cold War came to an end, some thinkers saw the future unfurling in a far more placid way. The threat of apocalypse in the Cold War imagination had begun to recede. The end of communism a few decades after the defeat of fascism during World War II seemed to have settled the major ideological debates. Capitalism and democracy would spread inexorably.
The prospect of a timeless future has given way to visions of no future at all. Ideology remains a fault line in geopolitics, market globalization is fragmenting, and great-power conflict has become increasingly likely. But the threats to the future are bigger still, with the possibility of the eradication of the human species. In the face of that potential oblivion, the range of political and policy debates is likely to be wider in the years ahead than it has been in decades.
The great ideological disputes are far from settled. In truth, we are likely to encounter bigger questions and be forced to consider more radical proposals that reflect the challenges posed by the transformations and perils ahead. Our horizons must expand, not shrink.
Chief among those challenges is how humanity manages the dangers of its genius. Advances in weaponry, biology, and computing could spell the end of the species, either through the deliberate misuse or a large-scale accident. Societies face risks whose sheer scale could paralyze any concerted action.
But governments can and must take meaningful steps today to ensure the survival of the species without forgoing the benefits of technological progress. Indeed, the world needs innovation to overcome several cataclysmic dangers it already faces—humanity needs to be able to generate and store clean energy, detect novel diseases when they can still be contained, and maintain peace between the great powers without relying on a delicate balance of nuclear-enabled mutually assured destruction.
Far from a safe resting place, the technological and institutional status quo is a precarious predicament from which societies need to escape. To lay the groundwork for this escape, governments must become aware of the risks they face and develop a robust institutional apparatus for managing them.
This includes embedding concern for worst-case scenarios into relevant areas of policymaking and embracing an idea known as “differential technological development”—reining in work that would produce potentially dangerous outcomes, such as biological research that can be weaponized, while funding and otherwise accelerating those technologies that would help reduce risk, such as wastewater monitoring for pathogen detection.
But at this critical juncture in the human story, it will take daring and imagination to meet the various challenges ahead. Contrary to what political theorists foresaw, the political horizon has not narrowed to a sliver. Enormous economic, social, and political transformations remain possible—and necessary. If we act wisely, the coming century will be defined by the recognition of what we owe the future, and our grandchildren will look back at us with gratitude and pride. If we mess up, they might never see the light of day.
Thinking in the long term reveals how much societies can still achieve. As little as 500 years ago, it would have been inconceivable that one-day incomes would double every few generations, that most people would live to see their grandchildren grow up, and that the world’s leading countries would be secular societies whose leaders are chosen in free elections. Countries that now seem so permanent to their citizens may not last more than a few centuries. None of the world’s various modes of social organization appeared in history fully formed. A short-term focus on days, months, or years obscures the potential for fundamental long-term change.
Far from being an idle exercise in juggling unfathomable numbers, appreciating the potential scale of humanity’s future is vital to understanding what is at stake. Actions today could affect whether and how trillions of our descendants might live—whether they will face poverty or abundance, war or peace, slavery or freedom—placing inordinate responsibility on the shoulders of the present.
Despite this rising level of risk, it is far from assured that humanity will be able to take the necessary steps to protect itself. There are several obstacles to adequate risk mitigation.
The most fundamental issue is painfully familiar from the struggles of climate diplomacy in recent years. When burning fossil fuels, individual countries reap most of the benefits, but other countries and future generations will bear most of the costs. Similarly, engaging in risky biological research holds the promise of patentable drugs that could boost a country’s economy and prestige—but a pathogen accidentally released in that country would not respect borders. In the language of economists, imposing a risk on the future is a negative externality, and providing risk-reduction measures, such as establishing an early warning system for novel diseases, is a global public good.
Unfortunately, the resurgence of great-power competition casts doubt on the likelihood of these feats of global cooperation. Worse, geopolitical tensions could compel states to accept an increased level of risk to the world—and to themselves—if they perceive it as a gamble worth taking to further their security interests.
In the worst case, the great powers could, in their struggle for global hegemony, resort to outright war. For people who grew up in the West after World War II, this notion might seem far-fetched. Staving off the risk of World War III while also achieving unprecedented innovations in international governance is a tall order. But like it or not, that is the challenge we face.
One response to this daunting challenge is retreat. If it is so difficult to safely govern emerging technologies, some argue, then why don’t we simply refrain from inventing them in the first place? Members of the “degrowth” movement take precisely this stance, decrying economic growth and technological progress as the main culprits behind alienation, environmental destruction, and all kinds of other harms. In 2019, 11,000 scientists from more than 150 countries signed an open letter demanding that the population of the world “be stabilized—and, ideally, gradually reduced” and that countries turn their priorities away “from GDP growth.”
Despite its intuitive appeal, this response is unrealistic and dangerous. It is unrealistic because it simply fails to engage with the interdependence of states in the international system. Even if the world’s countries came together temporarily to halt innovation, sooner or later someone would resume the pursuit of advanced technology.
The status quo, in other words, is already heavily mined with potential catastrophes. And in the absence of defensive measures, threats from nature might eventually lead to human extinction as they have for many other species: to survive to their full potential, human beings need to learn how to perform such feats as deflecting asteroids and quickly fighting off new pandemic.
The challenge is to continue reaping the fruits of technological advancement while protecting humanity against its downsides. Some experts refer to this as “differential technological development,” the idea being that if people can’t prevent destructive technology or accidents from happening in the first place, they can, with foresight and careful planning, at least attempt to develop beneficial and protective technologies first.
If the world’s best and brightest step up and governments or the private sector provide funding, we can achieve even more impressive successes. More governments, institutions, and firms need to take such ideas seriously. With humanity’s future in mind, we must fight to ensure both that we have a future and that it is a future worth having. n