I don't know where you sit on the going to Mars thing. Maybe you think it's starting to look like having some kind of back-up of the human race might be handy. Or maybe you side more with Thomas Pinker, whose book 'The Better Angels of our Nature' argues that we're living in the most agreeable moment in our species' history.
And it's quite a short history, relatively. The life of your average mammalian species is about a million years. We’ve been kicking around in our current iteration for about 300,000 years, with agriculture taking off around ten thousand years ago. We’ve packed a lot into that time. From the point of view of geological time, in effect, we have gone ‘Nice wheel.’ ‘Oh yeah? Well check out my iPhone.’
So even if we were average, which we’re not, we could be looking at a good seven hundred thousand years or so, if we don’t blow everything up in our faces. We could be looking at much longer, at least till our sun turns into a red giant and expands outward, destroying the earth in about 7.5 billion years. But we could always be an interplanetary species by then. So that’s a plus in the going to Mars box.
I would confidently guess it’s between zero and a whole lot. Let’s go with the whole lot.
William MacAskill's book 'What we Owe the Future' makes the argument that we should be aware of that ‘whole lot’ and that the future is immense and that the people who live in the future matter. He also argues that we might be living in one of the most important times in human history.
He’s an associate Professor of Philosophy at Oxford University, a Scottish philospher, one of the originators of the effective altruism movement and also the co-founder and president of 80,000 Hours. (That’s an organisation that conducts research on which careers have the largest positive social impact.)
So why should we care about the lives of these future people? He argues that the distance in time doesn’t matter in altruistic terms and that you can bestow harms and benefits on people today, in a hundred years or in a thousand years. And that the actions you take now can impact the lives of the 99% of the human race who are yet to be born, for better or worse.
Why are we living in the most important time, then? Because you're one of the first humans ever to have lived. And your actions today could have effects for many generations to come.
We're also, like, careering headlong into a technological future where even the people creating it don't really know how it all works. We are making significant inroads in the development of Artificial Intelligence, which will lead to all sorts of changes in multiple areas of our life (as long as any other sentient intelligence we create looks favourably on us. )
We have also, in the blink of an eye, created weapons of awesome power. There are over fifteen thousand atomic missiles kicking about on the planet. Converted into TNT, that’s roughly three billion tonnes. Imagine the entire island of Manhattan, including the buildings, as TNT, and that’s what that roughly looks like. The explosive power of three atomic weapons would be enough to destroy every city with a population of over a hundred thousand people on earth.
So back to the positive stuff! MacAskill argues that we as individals can do something to ensure that the future goes well. 80,000 hours is the length of the average career and he’s created a website with resources to help you look at careers which could potentially have a lot of positive impact.
I’d really recommend the site and you can also apply for a one-on-one call with their team, to discuss your own focus, make connections and look at potential jobs which could be both fulfilling and help tackle some important problems, if we want to at least make it to a million years old as a species.
Here are the key ideas on the website.
So, where do you think you can make the most impact in your career?