10 Billion Years from Now

A hypothetical peek at the future of Earth and its intelligent species.


| Fall 2015



People

There are still relict human populations in Antarctica, and another million years will pass before cascading climatic and ecological changes finally push the last of them over the brink into extinction.

Photo by Fotolia/Shock

Contemporary industrial society loves to preen itself on its rationality, but it’s remarkable how brittle the hold of reason really is these days. It’s not hard to point to examples of that brittleness; the one I want to explore here is the way that rationality gives way to overt myth as soon as people in the industrial world start talking about the future—not their own, short-term future, but the future of humanity as a whole.

Historians and scientists have learned quite a bit down the years about how civilizations rise and fall, how species evolve and go extinct, and what we can expect from the rest of this planet’s long trajectory through time. Typically, though, contemporary visions of the future leave that knowledge untouched. Instead, we get endless rehashes of two stereotyped narratives—the story of perpetual progress leading humanity straight to some simulacrum of godhood, on the one hand, and on the other, the story of overnight apocalypse leading humanity to planetary dieoff, with or without a plucky band of survivors to pose while the final credits roll past.

These notions of progress and apocalypse are industrial society’s traditional folk mythologies, rather than meaningful ways of understanding the future. Once they’re jettisoned, and known details of ecology, evolution, and astrophysics are brought in to fill out the story in their place, the next 10 billion years looks very different from either of those overfamiliar scenarios. Here’s one version or, if you will, one vision.

10 years from now:

Business as usual continues; the human population peaks at 8.5 billion, fossil fuels and other nonrenewable resources deplete steadily, and the annual cost of weather-related disasters continues to rise. Politicians and the media insist loudly that better times are just around the corner, as times get steadily worse. Among those who recognize that something’s wrong, one popular viewpoint holds that fusion power, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration will shortly solve all our problems, and therefore we don’t have to change the way we live.  Another, equally popular, insists that total human extinction is scarcely a decade away, and therefore we don’t have to change the way we live. Most people accept one or the other, while the last chance for meaningful systemic change slips silently away.


Receive Our Weekly Newsletters


100 years from now:

It has been a difficult century. After more than a dozen major wars, three global pandemics, repeated famines, and steep worldwide declines in public health and civil order, human population is down to 3 billion and falling. Sea level is up 4 meters and rising fast as the Greenland and West Antarctic ice caps disintegrate; fossil fuel production ground to a halt decades earlier as the last economically producible reserves were exhausted, and most of the proposed alternatives turned out to be unaffordable in the absence of the sort of cheap, abundant, highly concentrated energy only fossil fuels can provide. Cornucopians still insist that fusion power, artificial intelligence, and interstellar migration will save us any day now, and their opponents still insist that human extinction is imminent, but most people are too busy trying to stay alive to listen to either group.

1,000 years from now:

The Earth is without ice caps and glaciers for the first time in 20 million years, and sea level has gone up more than 100 meters worldwide; much of the world has a tropical climate, as it did 50 million years earlier. Human population is 100 million, up from half that figure at the bottom of the bitter dark age now passing into memory. Only a few scholars have any idea what the words “fusion power,” “artificial intelligence,” and “interstellar migration” once meant, and though there are still people insisting that the end of the world will arrive soon, their arguments rely more overtly on theology than before. New civilizations are rising in various corners of the world, combining legacy technologies with their own unique cultural forms. The one thing they all have in common is that the industrial society of our era is their idea of evil incarnate.