thoughts & essays | jeremy lee
The Greatest Decision We Never Made
I. Pale Blue Dot(s)
On February 14, 1990, NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft had traveled an estimated 3.7 billion miles from our Sun. It was, and remains, the most distant man-made object to ever leave Earth. Before departing, Voyager 1 was equipped with several cameras meant to capture unparalleled perspectives of our solar system as it barreled through space. Moments before these cameras were permanently shut down to conserve power, the team at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) in charge of operations tasked the interstellar probe with collecting its last little bits of solar pixels. Nestled in a scattered band of sunlight, the cameras captured Earth from a distance so unimaginable that a casual look at the photo, without context, would prove difficult to recognize the speck as our home. Thus, the aptly named self-portrait, “Pale Blue Dot,” was born.
The perspective this image provides to humanity illuminates the greatest decision we never made: as a species, should we pursue a future that (1) accepts the inevitable death of our planet and make the most of the time that remains or (2) engineer our way to multi-planetary existence? The purpose of this essay is to explore some features of each option with the intent of persuading the reader to consider how one shared consequence of both, i.e. boredom, would impact their life, and society at-large. Some may find the magnitude of a first principle perspective such as this grandiose and prohibitively unfathomable; in such case, I respectfully disagree and ask for at least a minimum effort in considering, maybe even accepting, the truth of Earth’s destiny despite the fact you will likely never have to encounter the effects in your own lifetime.
II. Exploring Purpose
A. Earth Centric Society (ECS)
Let’s begin with some assumptions about a hypothetical ECS. First, there will have been a collective global decision to accept the inevitable death or destruction of Earth (volcanic catastrophe, asteroid impact, gamma-ray burst, expanding sun). And second, the purpose of the decision is to maximize human fulfillment with the time that remains. Finally, to achieve maximum fulfillment, people should be liberated from the demands of life they do not wish to perform. To qualify the last premise, I am referring more specifically to the idea of eliminating the need to work for wages; possibly even the concept of currency at all.
To achieve such a state, technology will have developed to a level of automation in society where the contributions of some (possibly most) individuals is unnecessary to maintain a suitable standard of living for everyone (minus violent sociopaths, hungry demagogues, and wanting charlatans whose idiosyncratic suitable standard of living inherently causes harm to others). Abundant and exponential growth in sustainable automation for agriculture, energy production, and logistics will eliminate the human-driven acceleration of Earth’s destruction, free up peoples’ calendars, and remove the traditional barriers to leisure activities. Granted, the hypothetical has, to be generous, some gaps. But the point of the exercise here is to highlight one consequence of such a society: boredom. Boredom finds its place, here, as the logical conclusion of a population whose labor and wages are unnecessary – a scenario that will invariably produce copious free time.
B. Multi-Planetary Centric Society (MPCS)
The hypothetical MPCS will also begin with the same collective global decision to accept the ultimate fate of the planet. Though the time it will take to colonize other planets is impossibly unknown, so the sooner the better on that one. But here, the purpose of a MPCS is perpetuity - the continued existence of the human species. To be sure, the MPCS does not preclude maximizing human fulfillment as a goal, but at its core, its purpose is history and legacy – the ability to never be forgotten.
Because of the time it could take to colonize other worlds and the relatively rapid pace of Earth’s deterioration from human activity, the same sustainable technologies in agriculture and energy production will work to benefit the MPCS, too. It wouldn’t do much good to focus efforts on engineering the ability to colonize another world if our own Earth is destroyed before we figure out how to leave it. Again, the hypothetical is rife with gaps, but focus on the shared consequence of each society – boredom. Sustainable technologies will produce an increase in leisure for both societies, sure, but the interesting leisure activity for the MPCS is travel. The MPCS will, it’s assumed, need interstellar pioneers to settle and populate new worlds. Inter - Stellar. The word itself drips with the empty saturation that is the void of space. Traversing unimaginable distances – like those summers, as a child, and the road trip that loops through the National Parks of the western United States. So, whether it be an ECS, where individual contributions are wholly unnecessary to maximize human fulfillment, or a MPCS' interstellar pioneer sailing the stars in pursuit of perpetuity, boredom is undoubtable, inevitable.
An individual’s ability to cope with boredom is a difficult skill to master; but take no doubt, it is a skill. “[A]s machinery is perfected, more and more time will have to be killed by more and more people . . . [and] [d]oing nothing is a most difficult profession [that] requires elaborate vocational training.”* The amount of leisure presented by these hypothetical, but foreseeable, ECS' and MPCS' is a piece of the puzzle that might not seem obvious to think about. The current pandemic, however, is a phenomenal case to study the effects and mechanisms society has endured while in lock-down. Think about your experiences over the last eight months of the pandemic; has your leisure time increased? What have you done to cope with boredom? You may not yet realize the value of those thoughts to a world that one day ponders the answer to the greatest decision we never made. Do them a favor – write it down.
*Aldous Huxley, Education, LISTNER, Dec. 21, 1932 at 889