Since I was 15 years old, I have been convinced that, basically, humanity is hopelessly oriented to the short term, even if its own long term success or even survival was in the balance. In those days, as I worked through high school and college, majoring in Physics, I was delivered to a point where I needed to choose a graduate school path. I consulted. My choices were Artificial Intelligence or SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
Major players advised me away from SETI, and while AI, in 1974, was a long sought capability, at least the skills attending the software and algorithms and engineering and computer science could earn me a living. For SETI, I would be a marginal astronomer or astrophysicist or, worse, exobiologist with engineering creds, and these would not make a living.
In the end I chose MIT and AI, but SETI has never been far from my mind.
And in the intervening years, with threat of nuclear war receding, and despite threat of impact of climate change increasing, posing a threat which could be much worse, I hoped humanity might get its act together.
I was deeply disappointed. It hasn’t. The slipshod international response to the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic of 2019-2022 demonstrates how badly off we collectively are.
So, I revert to my opinion of 1967: Humans are hopelessly short sighted. While we might blunder our way into some kind of equilibrium with climate disruption and eventually find some mix of curtailment, direct air capture, and suffering with which we can survive, it is far less an impressive performance by a group of hominids who think they are king of the hill in technology and science than those claims would suggest.
The hope in 1967, and increasingly now, is that a First Contact experience might shock us collectively into realizing where our place is, and the perspective we need to adopt. I do not mean an indirect inference of an extraterrestrial civilization as in Carl Sagan‘s Contact book and movie, but, instead, direct, in person contact, even if the extraterrestrials do not stick around for a long time.
The goals I have for such an encounter are similar to those of the Long Now Foundation. It’s not surprising that some of the principals of the Long Now also hold strong positions and are active at trying to deal with climate disruption due to human emissions of fossil fuels.