There was once a period of time on this planet that was perfect for growth and prosperity for the human race. For over ten thousand years, the earth’s temperature hovered around a relatively narrow band. The climate was relatively stable. This stability allowed people to reasonably predict when it was good to grow food, and how much needed to be stored until the next growing season. This allowed humans to settle and invest in agriculture. This led to civilization. Seemingly infinite resources promoted an ideology of endless growth. Endless growth resulted in a massive population explosion and the creation of a global village. It is what has allowed the human race to set up shop on nearly every corner of planet earth. As the cradle of humanity, earth was as close to Eden as reality and human nature allowed.
And what an Eden it was! It was a place that promised infinite expansion, where even the stars seemed to be reasonably within grasp. It was a place where dreams were made, where we could all fantasize of one day finding ourselves living in shining houses on the hill, powered by cheap energy and cheap A.I., where we would one day be carted everywhere by robot cars and robot attendants, both virtual and real. A place where Star Trek was just around the corner, and so on.
That earth no longer exists. We have used it up. Our infinite resources were not infinite after all. We have hit the proverbial brick wall. Over a billion people currently rely on glacial water that will be melted and gone by the end of this century. Over a billion people rely on ocean stocks that are on the verge of collapse. Over a billion people will be forced to relocate to escape rising oceans and expanding desert during the course of this century. They will not be happily greeted by the billions more who already live where they will want to migrate to. Walls can be built, but the wave of human refugees will eventually swamp them. The arbitrary borders between countries that have been drawn over the centuries will be discovered to be, indeed, arbitrary, and indefensible.
Nor can we go back. The door to Eden has closed and locked behind us. The period of stability it afforded us is over. During the course of the industrial era, we have pushed the earth’s temperature outside of the box it has stayed within for millennia. The climate is irrevocably changing, and will continue to change for millennia more, perhaps faster than we can adapt. The old rules of infinite expansion that allowed humanity to grow to its current level have irrevocably changed. We now inhabit a planet of declining ice and fresh water, of declining food and food production, of declining habitable land, of declining biodiversity, of declining cheap energy, of declining capital and resources. The old formulas, based on never ending growth, no longer work in this world, nor do the economies devised around them. We can try to imagine new ones, and perhaps we will, but formulas devised to manage contraction do not promote boundless dreams. They promote practicality and a worldview that there will always be less tomorrow. There is no room for dreams of robot cars and cheap A.I. in that world. It is not the world of Star Trek. It is the world of Soylent Green. It is the world of crushingly hard work, tiredness, and survival.
Of course we will continue on in denial. We will create treaties promising to roll back the clock. We will collectively commit ourselves to somehow getting back to Eden. We will not let go of our dreams easily. We have no choice. People committed to a better tomorrow will not easily replace that with commitment to a better afterlife instead. A civilization predicated on endless growth cannot be turned on a dime. Trillions of dollars of infrastructure designed for one purpose cannot instantaneously be repurposed for another, nor can it be rapidly replaced. It is the result of centuries of accumulated purpose, and even with a singular, concentrated effort will take decades to change, during which we will travel ever further from Eden. But we shouldn’t abandon the effort! Just because we have forever left Eden behind does not mean we have to commit ourselves to traveling to Hell. We can still make a serviceable life somewhere in between. But let’s be realistic: Eden is forever gone. Get over it. Anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is deeply in denial.