- Why talk about 10,000 years from now?
By Holden Karnofsky 4 min read

Why talk about 10,000 years from now?

It seems a common reaction to This Can't Go On is something like: "OK, so ... you're saying the current level of economic growth can't go on for another 10,000 years. So?? Call me in a few thousand years I guess?"

In general, this blog will often talk about "long" time frames (decades, centuries, millennia) as if they're "short" (compared to the billions of years our universe has existed, millions of years our species has existed, and billions of years that could be in our civilization's future). I sort of try to imagine myself as a billions-of-years-old observer, looking at charts like this and thinking things like "The current economic growth level just got started!" even though it got started several lifetimes ago.

Why think this way?

One reason is that it's just a way of thinking about the world that feels (to me) refreshing/different.

But here are a couple more important reasons.

Effective altruism

My main obsession is with effective altruism, or doing as much good as possible. I generally try to pay more attention to things when they "matter more," and I think things "matter more" when they affect larger numbers of persons.1

I think there will be a LOT more persons2 over the coming billions of years than over the coming generation or few. So I think the long-run future, in some sense, "matters more" than whatever happens over the next generation or few. Maybe it doesn't matter more for me and my loved ones, but it matters more from an "all persons matter equally" perspective.3

An obvious retort is "But there's nothing we can do that will affect ALL of the people who live over the coming billions of years. We should focus on what we can actually change - that's the next generation or few."

But I'm not convinced of that.

I think we could be in the most important century of all time, and I think things we do today could end up mattering for billions of years (an obvious example is reducing risk of existential catastrophes).

And more broadly, if I couldn't think of specific ways our actions might matter for billions of years, I'd still be very interested in looking for them. I'd still find it useful to try to step back and ask: "Is what I'm reading about in the news important in the grand scheme of things? Could these events matter for whether we end up with explosion, stagnation or collapse? For what kind of digital civilization we create for the long run? And if not ... what could?"

Appreciating the weirdness of the time we live in

I think we live in a very weird period of time. It looks really weird on various charts (like this one, this one, and this one). The vast bulk of scientific and technological advancement, and growth in the economy, has happened in a tiny sliver of time that we are sitting in. And billions of years from now, it will probably still be the case that this tiny sliver of time looks like an outlier in terms of growth and change.

Again, it doesn't feel like a tiny sliver, it feels like lifetimes. It's hundreds of years. But that's out of millions (for our species) or billions (for life on Earth).

Sometimes, when I walk down the street, I just look around and think: "This is all SO WEIRD. Whooshing by me are a bunch of people calmly operating steel cars at 40 mph, and over there I see a bunch of people calmly operating a massive crane building a skyscraper, and up in the sky is a plane flying by ... and out of billions of years of life on Earth, it's only us - the humans of the last hundred-or-so years - who have ever been able to do any of this kind of stuff. Practically everything I look at is some crazy futurist technology we just came up with and haven't really had time to adapt to, and we won't have adapted before the next crazy thing comes along.

"And everyone is being very humdrum about their cars and skyscrapers and planes, but this is not normal, this is not 'how it usually is,' this is not part of a plan or a well-established pattern, this is crazy and weird and short-lived, and it's anyone's guess where it's going next."

I think many of us are instinctively, intuitively dismissive of wild claims about the future. I think we naturally imagine that there's more stability, solidness and hidden wisdom in "how things have been for generations" than there is.

By trying to imagine the perspective of someone who's been alive for the whole story - billions of years, not tens - maybe we can be more open to strange future possibilities. And then, maybe we can be better at noticing the ones that actually might happen, and that our actions today might affect.

So that's why I often try on the lens of saying things like "X has been going on for 200 years and could maybe last another few thousand - bah, that's the blink of an eye!"

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  1. I generally use the term "persons" instead of "people" to indicate that I am trying to refer to every person, animal or thing (AI?) that we should care about the welfare of. 

  2. Even more than you'd intuitively guess, as outlined here

  3. I wrote a bit about this perspective several years ago, here