The one thing that all human civilizations have in common is that they end. For 10,000 years or so it has been the common factor.
You could argue that civilizations tend not to last very long once they reach a certain level of technology. Once they get to the point where they would be able to send probes across the galaxy or communicate at the speed of light, they don’t last long at that stage. You’ve made a lot of technological advances, and with something like nuclear weapons or climate change, you’re starting to be able to affect a planet as a whole. And once you get there, bad things start to happen.
With nuclear weapons, we could literally wipe ourselves out. And with the climate anywhere near worst-case scenarios, civilization will collapse if we continue the way we’re going. Large parts of the Earth will be uninhabitable. There are people around now who are going to experience a very different Earth. Whose they are still alive, which they probably won’t be in the nuclear case.
The entropy of the universe means that it becomes more and more disordered over long periods of time. But for civilization on Earth, this is not so much entropy as it is simply collapse.
It is not a slow process. Entropy does its thing – it wins in the end. But the time scales relevant to these processes, the physical time scales, are very long. And what we are talking about here is very short.
For nuclear, at this moment, if somebody—Biden or Putin—just decides they’ve had enough, one person, a person decide, that’s it. They can press a button. The way everything is structured, there is no way to counter it and it’s done. In 30 minutes we will all be done. A person. What kind of civilization sets it up so that one person can wipe out everyone and take down the entire planet? Everything, everything alive, everything. It’s a bit different than just entropy and historical progression.
I’m not trying to be depressing. It’s a beautiful day here in Chicago. It’s just very easy to get discouraged. And then you go and work on black holes and it’s exhilarating in a very strange way. They’re beautiful. Like the fact that we as a species can sit here and contemplate the age of the universe.
There seems to be a kind of creeping nihilism because there is so much that is beyond our control as individuals. I’ve tried spinning my own version as one constructive nihilism. I am very down about our planetary happenings. But in thinking about the larger universe, I think there is a certain beauty in realizing our insignificance. I think the trouble there is the temptation to give up – you get complacent.
I know exactly what you are talking about because I certainly do the same. It is so easy to get discouraged. I have the comfort that it just doesn’t matter. It’s almost like I don’t have to take it so personally. The universe will be fine.
But the planet really needs people to be engaged – that’s clear. And it’s not going to happen from enlightened politicians unless everyone starts pushing for it. We need enlightened politicians, we need enlightened business leaders. But we also need an enlightened citizenry that simply says: Enough is enough. We can see what is happening to the planet now. That’s what the scientists said would happen—and they tell us it’s only going to get worse. This is not okay.