5000 Years Later

This is a book review.

Neil Stephenson, Seveneves, May 2015. I heard about this from a recent blog post by Bill Gates.

One interesting aspect is the fact that this book takes a very long term perspective. The first sentence of the last part is: “5000 years later”. And one of Gates’ observations reads: “The other thing that struck me is the way the book pushes you to think big and long-term.”

Those 5000 years come from the basic plot of having the moon blow up and develop a steady rain of asteroids hitting earth, making life on its surface impossible for 5000 years. People go up into space and down into holes in the ground or into the oceans to survive, eventually coming back.

Let’s apply that 5000 years perspective to energy and global warming.

It is obvious that fossil fuel reserves won’t last for 5000 years at present rates of consumption.

Having a warming record of 2 degrees per century (as is the goal right now) would mean 100 degrees in 50 centuries. Good luck with surviving on the planet after that happens.

Building space colonies somewhere might be not completely impossible. But as the book shows, it would be a risky and uncomfortable business.

The book starts with the moon blowing up for reasons not well understood.

The global warming problem starts with humanity heating up the planet for reasons not well understood. How could humanity be at the same time clever enough to develop civilization in the first place and dumb enough to burn all the fossil fuel? I have developed a theory for that involving alien actors, but it may be not really true.

Another theme of the novel is human genetics. At one point there are very few survivors of the space expedition. But they have access to technology allowing them to influence the genetic code of later generations.

Without much discussion they just go ahead and do that, with different survivors choosing different ways to develop. That in turn leads to different races with very distinct features still intact when humanity bounces back to 3 billion people living in large space colonies.

I happen to think that, all things equal, it would be a good idea to have future human generations which are improvements on present generations. Future generations will need all the genetic improvements they can get to deal with the global warming mess we are leaving them. That’s the basic premise of eugenics, an idea that has greatly lost in support compared to a century earlier.

So I thought it remarkable that this novel just starts from the premise that something of the sort would be done and explores the interesting and difficult question what exactly would be an improvement. And then speculates in much detail about the resulting society.

I have no idea if these speculations are realistic, or if they are like the idea of blowing up the moon. And I think it is a very difficult question to say what exactly would be improvements on the existing human genetic code. It certainly can’t be answered in ten minutes, as it is in the novel.

But, again, I do agree with the basic idea that having improved future generations would be preferable to having them decline.

 

 

 

Published by kflenz

Professor at Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo. Author of Lenz Blog (since 2003, lenzblog.com).

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