The only thing that all human civilizations have in common is that they end. For about 10,000 years this has been the common factor.
You can argue that civilizations tend not to last very long once they reach a certain level of technology. When they get to the point where they can send probes across the galaxy or communicate at the speed of light, they won’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 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 somewhere near the worst-case scenarios, if we carry on as we have been, civilization will collapse. Large parts of the earth will be uninhabitable. There are people now who will experience a very different earth. if They’re still alive, which probably won’t be the case in the nuclear case.
The entropy of the universe causes it to become increasingly disordered over long periods of time. But for civilization on Earth, this is less entropy and more collapse.
It’s not a slow process. Entropy does its thing – it wins in the end. But the time scales that are relevant to these processes, the physical time scales, are very long. And what we are talking about here is very brief.
For nuclear power, if someone – Biden or Putin – decides in that moment that they’ve had enough, a person, a person decides that’s it. You can push a button. The way everything is set up, you can’t undo it, and that’s it. We’ll be done in 30 minutes. A person. What kind of civilization is this setting up for one person to wipe out and destroy the entire planet? Everything, all living beings, everything. This is a little different from entropy and historical progress.
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 uplifting in a very weird way. They are beautiful. As is the fact that we as a species can sit here and contemplate the age of the universe.
There seems to be a kind of insidious nihilism because there is so much that is beyond our individual control. I tried to shoot my own version as constructive Nihilism. I am very depressed about our planetary events. But when I think about the larger universe, I think there’s a beauty in recognizing our insignificance. I think the problem with that is the temptation to give up – you get complacent.
I know exactly what you’re talking about because I’m definitely doing the same thing. It’s so easy to get discouraged. I have this consolation that it just doesn’t matter. It’s almost like I don’t have to take it so personally. The universe will be okay.
But the planet really needs people who care – that’s clear. And it won’t be done by 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 now see what is happening to the planet. It’s what the scientists said – and they tell us it’s only going to get worse. It’s not OK.