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Top 9 Things I Believe Humanity Should Urgently Be Investing In

In a complicated world as ours it's often very difficult to filter out what's important and what's for show. I've thought about it and came up with a list of what I believe are the absolute most important issues and challenges that we should tackle as a species. I really do mean as a "species", because they are problems that must be met by everyone and will also affect everyone as well. Some of these issues do not only affect humans either; they also affect the other species that share this planet with us. Many of these issues are interrelated, so by helping with one of them another may also benefit.

I also believe that most of these issues are such that they warrant immediate action. By waiting to act on many of these issues, not only will they continue to get worse, but will also be much more difficult to repair later. So, I do not hesitate to say, that our governments should redirect much of their GNP to the support of programs that address these issues. What do you think? Do you agree with me and would you add any others that you believe are just as important? I'll only address these issues in brief ways. Whole books have been devoted to each subject matter.

So, here is the list I believe we should work on now, in a tentatively descending order:

1. Detect and Divert Potential Earth Impactors

It can happen at any moment and no one would know until it was too late: a large meteorite or comet hits the earth. If they are large enough they could easily wipe out all of civilization and probably all of humanity. Much of life on earth could be destroyed. Many of the large-scale extinctions in the history of life on earth have been attributed to collisions with these so-called "earth impactors", including the Cretaceous-Tertiary event that knocked out the dinosaurs. It is the consensus of most astronomers and geologists that it is not a matter of when a civilization-destroying earth impactor hits, but when. It is inevitable. So we must act now to avoid the eventuality.

The problem right now is that astronomers have very little funding and resources that are being devoted to searching for potential large earth impactors. Two other problems are associated with this issue: first, if they are found it could be too late to do anything about it and second, there has been very little research into what should be done if we did have enough time.

NASA's Near-Earth Object Program is the closest thing humanity has for its search. It needs to be scaled up, more sensitive telescopes need to be built (even space telescopes) that devote 100% of their time to observations and tracking of these objects, and a large program needs to be in place that researches what should be the best way to approach an incoming object. Some ideas that have been made to deal with this problem are: if given enough notice, launch a missile to detonate next to the object to divert its trajectory away from earth; attach a rocket to the object that would "push" the object into a different path; or blow the object up altogether. The first 2 scenarios require many years head's up to implement, since it would take a tremendous amount of energy to push or nudge an object in space that could be as large as a mountain or more. That small nudge's affect would add up gradually over time and time would be of the essence. The third option would be a very dangerous proposition, since blowing a large object up would break it into thousands of smaller projectiles heading towards earth!

2. Martian Colonization and other Off-World Self-Sufficiencies

Many people ask: "why in the world should we devote so much money towards space exploration and sending people to the Moon and Mars when we have so many people dying of hunger on earth?" None of the answers I can give will do any justice against something as serious as children who routinely die every day from lack of food, water and shelter around the world, with, I believe, the exception of one justification. Not to mention the many serious diseases that they catch, many of which are so easily treatable with extremely modest funds. My exception in no way says that we should take away money from those who are dying of these things, but instead says that we can do both. That one exception is that the human species and all life on earth are in a dire balancing act between life and death. We are all faced with extrememly horrendous threats all around us that threaten the very survival of many species, including ourselves. These are the threats of: earth impactors, as previously mentioned; global warming; nuclear, biological, and chemical war; life-threatening pandemics and the loss of resources.

Without another home to go to or another society to expand from what do we do if, and when, one of these threats was to engulf us? When investing money, wisdom always says to diversify. The same thing can be said of our species...but on a much larger scale. With another place we can call home, we far outstrip the chances that we go the way of the 97% of all other species that have ever lived on this planet.

What can be done about this? NASA is already on its way building another manned Moon program called Project Constellation. Its aim is to again land people on the Moon by 2020 and eventually have manned missions to Mars and near-earth asteroids. However, the plans for the manned Moon missions are far from the colonization efforts that I propose should be done; they are merely extended stay missions. Another disheartening fact is that the Obama Administration seems to be moving away from seriously considering manned Mars missions for now and will probably push their timelines into the indefinite future.

An international effort needs to be made that agrees to a serious and concerted colonization effort of Mars.

3. Large Scale Artificial Intelligence Research

I propose that a worldwide large-scale artificial intelligence program be made that also includes research into artificial consciousness and robotic self-replication. These are extremely cutting-edge technologies and we should push their boundaries to the breaking point. I am firmly convinced that the next step in human development will be a transfer to a machine-like intelligence. It is our next step in natural evolution, so to speak. I find absolutely nothing wrong with this idea as long as we create this "life" with high ideals and ethical concerns in mind. It may sound like science-fiction right now, but again I am so convinced that we are at the brink of some very fascinating AI and consciousness developments. It does not at all seem to be a fantasy that our consciousnesses will be able to be downloaded and enhanced in computer or a robotic-type interface. In fact, research on this very issue is ongoing and yielding some very interesting finds.

Robotic enhancements of human body parts are also becoming routine today. Cybernetics was, until recently, thought of as science-fiction as well and should be another field of vigorous research.

The ability of robotic intelligence to develop copies of itself, self-replication, is being looked at now as a possible technological research area.

The basis of another emerging field, artificial consciousness, is still not very well developed. Natural consciousness, itself, is still not completely understood. Recently, neurobiology has been making great strides in this understanding. I strongly feel, as do most neuroscientists, that consciousness needs no other "ingredient" to form other than brain matter itself. There is absolutely no need to separate "mind" from "body"; they are one and the same. Having said that, it is theoretically possible to create artificial consciousness. Funding should be dramatically raised to support research programs that help illuminate the neurobiological correlates of consciousness and its implementation in computer systems.

With all of these technologies combined - artificial intelligence, artificial consciousness, cybernetics and self-replication - we will create a new form of life that will replace our naturally faulty and extremely fragile bodies. (The name that has been given for this new type of machine/computer life is called posthuman) It will probably be a first goal to merge ourselves with this new life, either through uploading our neural processing into computers or making cloned copies of them and imprinting them into the machines. The next step will be the actual self-sufficiency and expansion of this new life with its own artificial consciousness. Posthumans will be able to enjoy life much more as they will have enhanced and additional senses and a vastly greater ability to process their surroundings and thoughts. They will eat up knowledge.

This posthuman future will see us have the ability to live in space, live under water, live in high radiation, live in the most extreme environments known; there will be no need to consume limited resources, but we'll have the ability to directly use the unlimited resources of the sun; no animals will need to be killed for our pleasure; we could sleep indefinitely; we will live indefinitely, time will no longer be an enemy; we could be enhanced indefinitely.

4. Reverse Human-Induced Global Warming and Increase Investment in Alternative Energy Research

Wikipedia has said of the scientific consensus of human induced global warming:

The finding that the climate has warmed in recent decades and that this warming is probably attributable to human influence has been endorsed by every national science academy that has issued a statement on climate change, including the science academies of all of the major industrialized countries. With the release of the revised statement by the American Association of Petroleum Geologists in 2007, no remaining scientific society is known to reject the basic findings of human influence on recent climate change.1

So, pushing aside the "controversy" of global warming's supporters versus deniers, it is a fact that global warming is occurring. The future affects on the planet and on human and animal communities will be immense. Here are some of the effects it will have:

  • glacial retreat
  • arctic shrinkage
  • global sea level rise
  • coastal flooding
  • stronger and more frequent hurricanes
  • greater rainfall and storms in some areas and higher temperatures and larger droughts in others
  • reductions in the ozone layer
  • changes in agricultural yields
  • changes to climate-dependent diseases, such as malaria and dengue fever
  • ocean oxygen depletion
  • ocean acidification
  • large-scale ocean life extinction, since they are adapted to very narrow pH, oxygen and temperature levels

The human induced cause of global warming is due to our increased atmospheric contribution of greenhouse gases. There are several of these gases, but most importantly carbon dioxide is the main culprit, because of its enormous released quantities. Other greenhouse gases that we are responsible for releasing are methane and ozone. Carbon dioxide is released from our automobiles, manufacturing plants, coal and natural gas electric power plants, the burning of plastics, garbage, forests and other carbon-rich materials and by other means. Ozone is released by our automobiles in their exhaust. Methane, which is a very potent greenhouse gas, is released in vast quantities by the world's ever-growing population of animal livestock in their waste gases. Water vapor, which is naturally occurring, accounts for 36-70% of the earth's greenhouse effect, carbon dioxide accounts for 9-26%, methane accounts for 4-9% and ozone accounts for 3-7% of the total greenhouse effect.

What can be done about slowing or reversing global warming? There are many things that have been proposed that can be done to help stop the global warming juggernaut:

  • Start massively capping greenhouse gas emissions
  • Produce a market for carbon trading
  • Retrofit all carbon-releasing power plant facilities with carbon sequestration traps
  • Large-scale research funding into alternative fuel capabilities, such as solar, wind and tidal power
  • Ocean fertilization techniques to allow phytoplankton blooms (plants are "carbon sinks", which means they absorb and use carbon dioxide)
  • Large-scale reforestation
  • Conversion to a much more plant-based diet, to: eliminate the massive methane release from the animals, eliminate the destruction of massive tonnage of crops for their food and eliminate massive deforestation for livestock land.
  • Conversion to widespread energy efficient technologies, such as alternative fuel automobiles and industrial plants
  • Use of carbon capture and storage technologies
  • Recycle solid wastes to prevent them from being created again and to avoid landfill increase. (Surface exposure of landfills release large quantities of greenhouse gases)

5. Go Vegetarian and Teach that Animals have Inherent Value and can Suffer

There are so many benefits to a vegetarian lifestyle that, if done on a massive scale, show a lot of promise for defeating many current ethical and environmental problems.

By promoting a vegetarian lifestyle the individual benefits from eating much more nutritious foods, which contributes to healthier and longer lives. It also helps in making you feel good in knowing that you've helped in the struggle to overcome the suffering of innocent animal lives. They suffer not only in being caged shoulder to shoulder to each other for their entire lives, but they frequently develop incapacitating diseases, eat foods that they were not naturally adapted to eat, and frequently do not die right away after being slaughtered. Beaks are cut through their pain nerve endings to prevent poultry from pecking each other, animals are declawed, and many are castrated, branded and defeathered. A long list of inhumane, painful and miserable things happens to billions of animals every year, including their deaths, at the hands of us... just so that we may enjoy the taste of them. In some of the greatest unethical sleight of hand, we contribute to the suffering of untold numbers of animals every year.

We should teach our children and those around us that animals have inherent value in their own rights in the same way that we place values on human lives. I don't mean values in the sense for our benefit, but values in the sense of inherent worth. An infant has absolutely no value in the sense of benefiting people that do not know her. However, those who do not know her would agree that her life should be hers and not taken for their benefit. The reason is that they place an inherent value on her life. The problem with our relations with other animal, with the exception of some domesticated pets, is that we do not place any inherent value on the lives of other animals. We only place beneficial values on them. We must get out of this mindset and teach and empathize that animals are real, that they feel pain and can suffer just as we do, and that they have inherent value and really have a desire to live out their lives without them being taken from them by force.

Believe it or not, vegetarianism also helps in fighting global warming! One reason is that by eating more plants you help increase the demand for plant crops, which are "carbon sinks", that is to say they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and subsequently release vital oxygen. Another reason vegetarianism helps against global warming is that by not eating meat we release livestock land for reforestation or for agriculture. Trees are vast carbon sinks. Not raising livestock also means that we no longer need to feed them crops that could otherwise be used for us and the poor. Most of the soybean and corn crops of the world do not feed us but go into feeding livestock. And most of it is wasted, too. In cattle, 13 pounds of grain is needed to feed them to get back 1 pound of beef. Pigs need 6 pounds of grain for 1 pound of pork. Also, much of the weight of the animal is made up of products that cannot or is not eaten: bones, some organs, and other tissues. In addition, much of the grain eaten goes into producing heat and is wasted.

The numbers of animals that are being used for food is sharply increasing, especially in those countries where affluence is rising and the ability to afford meat becomes a reality. So, an alarming situation is at hand. For example, in China alone in the past two decades from 2006 the number of beef cattle produced went from 5 million to 50 million, laying hens went from 655 million to 2.3 billion, ducks from 300 million to 2 billion, and chickens from 1.5 billion to 7.7 billion!2

Eating meat becomes a much bigger problem when seen in these ways. So, go vegetarian (or vegan) and start living a much healthier and ethical life!

6. Move Away from Religion and Cultivate a better Respect for Science

I have devoted a large section of my website to this subject. Please check it out here.

7. Promote and Spread Humanist and Transhumanist Ideals and Goals

The previous issue, moving away from religion and having a greater respect for science, I believe is paramount to removing many of the stresses and conflicts that affect different human cultures and prevents them from living in a more harmonious relationship with one another, but there is a problem with it. By removing religion from many cultures's lives there is an ethical void that is created that should be filled. That void, I believe, should be filled by humanist and transhumanist ethical principles and lifestyles.

Humanist principles have been stated in several "Humanist Manifestos", the most recent of which is the 2003 American Humanist Association's Humanist Manifesto III. The Manifesto serves as a guiding light for our daily lives and is a far better, clearer, and more ethical guide than any perceived coherency in a holy text can bring. Read through it (it's only a page long!) and judge for yourself its inherent merits and compare them to what's found in the vagaries of holy doctrine.

In addition to Humanism, I believe we need a guide for the future as well. While it may not necessarily be required for many, a future guide helps in drawing a path for what society and humans in general are on their way to achieving and how we should do it in a proper way. That guide is Transhumanism. Their Declaration can be found here. If you would like to know more about Transhumanism, you can go here for a FAQ.

8. Move away from Libertarian and Capitalist Economies and Value a Fairer Distribution of Wealth and Resources

A greater treatment of my ideas and opinions on our current economic system and one that should replace it can be found here. Succinctly, I find one redeeming feature of Capitalism that would be difficult to reproduce in a competing economic system without coercion and that is self-sustaining innovation. Briefly, here are some reasons I believe capitalist systems are wrong and should be replaced:

  • Extreme ideas of individuality and us vs. them mentality
  • Profit as a driving motivation, including and especially during, warfare
  • Direction of goods and services to targets that have no need for them
  • An ever-increasing gap between the majority with few resources and the minority with much more than needed
  • Extreme waste (regardless of proclamations of market efficiency) and therefore ever-increasing destruction of Earth’s resources to the point of non-sustainability
  • No built-in motivations for human improvement for workers, and, in fact, a rollback of conditions until only basic human needs are met or a large supply of human resources without the need for basic human needs
  • No need nor respect for other living things that cohabitate on the planet, but instead a motivation to profit from them
  • A need to expose and report lies to prop up the item or service being sold. This is also known as "marketing"!
  • No resistance built-in for ever-increasing violence in society, but instead a motivation to profit on it.
  • A motivation to consolidate or absorb competitive influences (irregardless of proclamations to the contrary) - also known as "monopolize"
  • High levels of unemployment and no motivation to improve degradated and low-income communities
  • The economic instability and recession that has occurred worldwide, and particularly in the US, in 2008 is yet another clear example of free market failure run amuck and should alert us to the fundamental failure of releasing free markets to the world without regulations

The undeniable fact that some underclass communities and people have benefitted from these economies are not inevitable outcomes of them, but rather incidental and not planned.

What to replace current capitalism with is a very difficult subject to tackle and I'm not sure I even have a good answer for it. I would like to say a form of socialist economy, but not only have they been difficult to implement in reality, but there is just no good vision on what a real socialist economy would look like in a democratic republic. So, on this matter I will have to withhold judgment on the replacement system for the time being...until I see something that looks realistic, workable, and ethical.

9. Vastly Increase the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI)

I strongly believe that very heavy funding for the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence should be promoted. The discovery of extraterrestrial life would, itself, be one of the greatest finds of all time. However, the discovery of extraterrestrial intelligence would probably be the greatest scientific find in human history. If found, it could have an effect on every aspect of our lives: philosophically, religiously, historically, scientifically, and even economically. Just the mere fact of finding the existence of an extant extraterrestrial intelligence (ETI) would show that it is possible for a technologically advanced society such as ours to outlive its adolescent and massively dangerous weapon technology that threatens to wipe out society. By detecting ETI statistically we would happen upon a civilization awesomely more advanced than ours by thousands, if not millions or even billions of years ahead of ours. The reason for this is that the chances of finding a civilization at the same level as ours would be close to nil. Think of it this way: first, imagine creating 1000 different extraterrestrial civilizations ranging in technology that spanned from, say stone age technology to technology that was millions or billions of years ahead of ours. Then imagine sprinkling these civilizations at random across our galaxy. Next, remove those civilizations that have not yet reached a technology that was far enough ahead for us to detect across the galaxy. Lastly, pick one civilization at random and determine how far advanced they are relative to our technology. The chances are very great that you will choose one that is very far advanced. We would be detecting some aspect of their technology, whether it is radio transmissions, light communications, or some other bizarre or exotic technology that they could have been using for millennia whose transmissions have traveled through many light years of space to reach our sensors. Additionally, my views about the progress and trends of high technology in society (see section #3 above), any society, lead me to believe that we will not be seeing the products of some sort of organically-based technologies or beings, but of a machine or artificially intelligent variety.

So, just the act of detecting an ETI gives us two very important pieces of information for our society: first, our own civilization has the real potential to outgrow its destructive societal adolescence and second, that the civilization just discovered is far more advanced then we.

The SETI programs that have been developed and that have historically searched only go as far as trying to detect the actual presence of an ETI. They do not look for intentionally directed signals that they hope to decrypt. That would be the next step, if it can even be done, after the detection of an ETI had occurred. However, that next step - the decryption of an intentional message - would probably yield information far beyond anything we could ever imagine. The novel and movie CONTACT, by Carl Sagan attempts to recreate this scenario as does, in some respects, the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

So, in conclusion, I believe it is to our vast benefit as a species to search. A flood of funding should go into a worldwide concerted effort to detect possible extraterrestrial intelligences.

Notes and References

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Global_warming_controversy
2. Singer, Peter. The Life You Can Save, 2009, pgs.121-122.