Bill McKibben On How Climate Crises And New Technologies Will Change What It Means To Be Human
Is the human race approaching its demise? The question itself may sound hyperbolic — or like a throwback to the rapture and apocalypse. Yet there is reason to believe that such fears are no longer so overblown. The threat of climate change is forcing millions around the world to realistically confront a future in which their lives, at a minimum, look radically worse than they are today. At the same time, emerging technologies of genetic engineering and artificial intelligence are giving a small, technocratic elite the power to radically alter homo sapiens to the point where the species no longer resembles itself. Whether through ecological collapse or technological change, human beings are fast approaching a dangerous precipice.
The threats that we face today are not exaggerated. They are real, visible, and potentially imminent. They are also the subject of a recent book by Bill McKibben, entitled “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?” McKibben is an environmentalist and author, as well as the founder of 350.org, a campaign group working to reduce carbon emissions. His book provides a sober, empirical analysis of the reasons why the human race may be reaching its final stages.
McKibben spoke to The Intercept about the book. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you explain what you mean by the “human game”?
I was looking for a phrase to describe the totality of everything that we do as human beings. You could also term it as human civilization, or the human project. But “game” seems like a more appropriate term. Not because it’s trivial, but because, like any other game, it doesn’t really have a goal outside of itself. The only goal is to continue to play, and hopefully play well. Playing the human game well might be described as living with dignity and ensuring that others can live with dignity as well.
There are very serious threats now facing the human game. Basic questions of human survival and identity are being realistically called into question. It’s become clear that climate change is dramatically shrinking the size of the board on which the game is played. At the same time, some emerging technologies threaten the idea that human beings as a species will even be around to play in the future.
Could you briefly run down the implications of climate change for the future of human civilization, as we presently understand it?
Climate change is by far the biggest thing that humans have ever managed to do on this planet. It has altered the chemistry of the atmosphere in fundamental ways, raised the temperature of the planet over 1 degree Celsius, melted half the summer ice in the Arctic, and made the oceans 30 percent more acidic. We are seeing uncontrollable forest fires around the world, along with record levels of drought and flooding. In some places, average daily temperatures are already becoming too hot for human beings to even work during the daylight.
People are making plans to leave major cities and low-lying coastal areas, where their ancestors have lived for thousands of years. Even in rich countries like the United States, critical infrastructure is being strained. We saw this recently with the shutdown of electrical power in much of California due to wildfire risk. This is what we’ve done at merely 1 degree Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels. It is already becoming difficult to live in large parts of the planet. On our current trajectory, we are headed for 3 or 4 degrees of warming. At that level, we simply won’t have a civilization like we do now.
Since the major culprit in climate change remains the fossil fuel industry, what practical steps can be taken to get their activities under control? And given that they also share a planet with everyone else, what exactly is their plan for a future of climate dystopia?
We have already made efforts at divestment and halting the construction of pipelines, but the next crucial area is finance: focusing on the banks and asset managers that give them the money to do what they do. It has become very clear that the only goal of the fossil fuel industry is to protect their business model at all costs, even at the cost of the planet. Major oil companies like Exxon knew about the connection between carbon emissions and climate change in the 1980s. They knew and believed in what was coming. Instead of rationally adjusting their behavior to avoid it, they invested millions in lobbying and disinformation to ensure that the world wouldn’t do anything to make them change or stop their activities.
To the extent that any fossil fuel company thinks about the long run at all — and it’s not clear that any still do — they know that their days are numbered. Renewable energy costs are plummeting, and what the industry is fighting for now is to just keep themselves going for a few more decades. Their goal is to ensure that we’re still burning a lot of oil and gas in 10 or 20 years, rather than trying to get off the stuff as fast as possible.
The other major threat that you identify is posed by technologies like genetic engineering. Can you explain the threat that they pose to human identity and purpose?
Just as we had long taken for granted the stability of the planet, we have likewise taken for granted the stability of the human species. There are technologies now emerging that call into question very fundamental assumptions about what it means to be a human being. Take, for example, genetic engineering technologies like CRISPR. These are already now coming into effect, as we saw recently in China, where a pair of twins were reportedly born after having their genes modified in embryo. I don’t see any problem with using gene editing to help existing people with existing diseases. That is very different, however, from genetically engineering embryos with specialized modifications.
Let’s say for example that an expectant couple decides to engineer their new child to have a certain hormonal balance aimed at improving their mood. That child may reach adolescence one day and find themselves feeling very happy without any particular explanation why. Are they falling in love? Or is it just their genetic engineering specs kicking in? Human beings could soon be designed with a whole range of new specs that modifies their thoughts, feelings, and abilities. I think that such a prospect — not far-fetched at all today — will be a devastating attack on the most vital things about being human. It will call into question basic ideas of who we are and how we think about ourselves.
There is also the implication of accelerating technological change in genetic engineering technology. After modifying their first child, those same parents may come back five years later to the clinic to make changes to their second child. In the meantime, the technology has marched on, and you can now get a whole new series of upgrades and tweaks. What does that mean for the first child? It makes them the iPhone 6: obsolete. That’s a very new idea for human beings. One of the standard features of technology is obsolescence. A situation where you are rapidly making people themselves obsolete seems wrongheaded to me.
As things stand, these technologies will take the economic inequality presently in existence and encode it in our genes. This is so obviously going to happen if we continue down this path that no one bothers to argue otherwise. Lee Silver, a professor at Princeton University who is one of the leading proponents of genetic modification, has already said that in the future we will have two unequal classes of human beings: “GenRich” and “naturals.” He and many others have already begun taking such a future as granted.
Do you think that artificial intelligence poses a similar threat to human beings?
Many of the first generation of people who studied AI came away deeply afraid of its potential implications. There is a fear that smart robots and programming codes may get out of hand and end up posing a threat to human beings. Those fears may or may not be real. At the end of the day, they worry me less than the more fundamental assault on human meaning and purpose posed by these technologies. They can easily eliminate most of the choices and activities that have given us our basic sense of identity as human beings.
What should be the priority of social movements seeking to defend “the human game” at the moment? And do we have cause for optimism?
Climate change is such an immediate and overpowering issue that it should be the focus of our attention right now, because it could make everything else moot. I’ve gotten to watch the rise of the climate movement over many years and it gives me cause for some optimism. We’ve recently seen massive climate strikes around the world. The Democratic Party in the United States is becoming energized on this issue. These are good signs. Whether they come in time or not, we don’t know. But the advent of human genetic engineering is not getting the attention it deserves at the present. The profound implications of CRISPR and other rapidly evolving technologies are things that we should give much more attention. From a strategic perspective, it would be good to get a resistance going sooner than later. As we have seen with fossil fuels, once there is a huge, powerful industry behind something, it becomes much more difficult to control.
It seems like at core there is an ideological issue underlying all of these threats that are presently facing human beings.
It’s instructive that a lot of the fantasies underlying the most extreme manifestations of genetic engineering and AI come from people in Silicon Valley who share a libertarian mindset. They are essentially hip versions of the Koch brothers. They share an ethos with the fossil fuel industry that says no one should ever question decisions made by the powerful and that no one should ever get in the way of business and technological innovation.
Meanwhile, the public is being told — and has been told for a long time — that they’re nothing but individuals and nothing but consumers. That goes against everything we know about human nature. Human beings are happy when they’re part of working communities, not when they’re out on their own as individuals trying to take over the universe. That’s what all these battles are in some sense about: building human solidarity against a hyper-individualist elite. We need to find out once again how to make decisions as a society, rather than have a small group of super-wealthy people privately making them for us.