As I take man’s last step from the surface, back home for some time to come — but we believe not too long into the future — I’d like to just say what I believe history will record: that America’s challenge of today has forged man’s destiny of tomorrow. And, as we leave the Moon at Taurus–Littrow, we leave as we came and, God willing, as we shall return, with peace and hope for all mankind. - Eugene Cernan, 14 December, 1972

The past 50 years of the great stagnation have been marked by a marked decline in humanity’s ambitions. I am referring to, among other things, humanity’s unfortunate retreat from space exploration. Today, marks 50 years since a human being left Low Earth Orbit. Of course, there has long been the argument that we need to focus on making things right here on earth, and keep our heads, and astronauts, firmly planted on the ground.

And here on earth, there has been progress. Most notably, we have seen amazing advances in more broadly shared prosperity. At an interpersonal level, violence and discrimination against minorities and women is an ongoing problem, but one that is thankfully (if too-slowly) being addressed. Child abuse is now rare and widely condemned, instead of a fact of life for most children. And obviously, life expectancies have been greatly increased. Humanity has eliminated smallpox, and is poised to do the same for polio. Global poverty has declined precipitously, and while poverty is far from eliminated, the worst-off fraction of the population in most of the world today has access to foods, entertainment, and material comforts undreamt of by kings centuries ago.

Of course, there is the concern that with prosperity and newer technology comes capacity for violence, and through World War Two it seemed humanity was on a trajectory to destroy itself. But instead of destruction, we have seen a continuation and expansion of the post-WWII long peace. While this is at present threatened, the Western world has taken steps to curtail future territorial incentives to violence, reaffirming post-WWII norms against territorial conquest. Our international structures have been wildly successful.

Even newer threats like climate change and engineered pandemics are being addressed - slowly, but with every expectation of success. These new and more global problems could not have been managed by a world at war with itself, but by-and-large, we have found ways to cooperate and coordinate globally. We should be aware of the growing threat of retrenchment or reversal of the trends and expected continued successes, but we should also celebrate progress.

At the same time, there is a sharp limit in how much progress can be achieved by seeking only to stop bad things, whether violence and war, or climate change. Ambition and continued progress require more than just avoiding unacceptable outcomes. The progress in material comforts is primarily the product of innovation, trade, and policy, not redistribution of existing goods. The progress against war is primarily the product of global cooperation, economic statecraft, and robust global institutions, not an imposed peace by the victors of the last war. And the progress against diseases is primarily the product of scientific understanding, medical research, and ambitious global programs, not closing borders or isolating patients.

Unfortunately, ambition has recently been placed in contrast with continuing progress towards equality. This is disappointing. Humanity has been successful so far when it both pushes for ambitious goals and continues to pursue widespread prosperity and safety. Either on its own seems much less viable. Lives that are nasty, brutish, and short are the default, and much lack of equity and violence was due to humanity remaining in, or uneven emergence from that state. At the same time, progress imposes new harms, and active government intervention is needed to redistribute the gains to the otherwise-losers. But that possibility is a feature of modern life - governments are stable enough to have persistent and well-run economic policy.

The great stagnation's seemingly widely-shared pessimism undermines progress in every sense. I certainly can’t claim causation, but there is a notable confluence of dystopian sci-fi and escapist fantasy replacing futurist visions, a decline in innovation, and decreasing optimism among the public. People are despairing not only about the long term future and ignoring progress on things like climate, but even about things that have already improved, and seem likely to continue to do so, like air pollution, poverty, or health. That’s not to say there are no threats, but the pessimism, such as not having children because of misplaced concerns about climate, goes far beyond rational concern about future prospects, well into the realm of depression and anxiety disorder.

It took incredible progress to bring humanity to our current far-from-perfect but incredible position, and continued striving for ambitious goals doesn’t undermine that. More poetically, space travel does not require abandoning earth. In fact, quite the opposite; ambition is critical for allowing flourishing. The vast majority of human suffering has been the result of a lack of plentiful resources, either directly, or from humans fighting over those resources. We are winning that fight. So to me, the most worrying thing about the future is not retrenchment and a loss of progress, but a lack of ambition to do more.

We have a promising future. Without being particularly optimistic, it seems likely humanity will eliminate more diseases, build and provide clean and effectively unlimited energy, enhance agricultural productivity and reduce impacts on humans and animals, explore and protect the oceans and other natural habitats, all over the coming century. And these are all worthwhile opportunities - but we can do far more.

It seems that the United States has decided to return to deep space, including missions to send humans back to the moon - redoing a feat accomplished half a century ago. Two years ago, China launched the third space station, following the precedent of the USSR’s Mir and the International Space Station. But if we want to be ambitious, we need to do more than what’s already ben done. Much more daring plans for the coming decades, and centuries, seem critical. We can and should work on widely shared prosperity, basic income, and continued planning to explore the universe. We should begin by dreaming bigger for ourselves and our children and continue launching ambitious projects on earth, and beyond.

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Beautiful writing (which I really appreciate, and think we should be more explicit about promoting). I see that AI risk isn't mentioned here and am curious how that factors into your general sense of the promising future. 

Dear David,

Your post has inspired this one on my side:

https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/QianitTHjKBSH2sXC/space-colonization-and-the-closed-material-economy

If innovation really has stalled (which I’m skeptical of in the first place) it’s not because the space race is (mostly) over. There are deeply important issues on Earth for us to solve, and millions of people are innovating towards solutions to them every day. Sure, designing a tele-health or mobile banking system for people living in extreme poverty isn’t as sexy as landing on the moon, but it’s surely innovation. These types of projects may not dominate the news cycle but they represent the beginning of an alignment of research and development with the flourishing of all humans (and animals). Space exploration does not.

You say that we should aim higher than our current massive endeavors (eliminating diseases, expanding clean energy, protecting animal rights and natural habitats). But decades of work has proven that these endeavors are extremely difficult. Every marginal dollar and hour spent on these projects counts. And space exploration distracts from urgent need for innovation in these areas.

The claim wasn't that the space race caused a stall in innovation - it was that humanity stopped pursuing ambitious new goals. And that doesn't mean there isn't any innovation, but surely you see a difference between implementing telehealth in a new region and going to the moon? And ambitious projects don't seem to get started nearly as often anymore. Smallpox eradication was mostly done by the time we retreated from space, and Polio elimination was started soon after.

The only more recent example I can think of is the human genome project, and while impressive, it was much smaller - it cost only a couple of percent as much as the Apollo program.

But your last comment completely misses the point I made. Humanity has trillions of dollars to spend, and it goes big on video games, consumer electronics, and fast food. You're claiming that humanity isn't capable of doing more than a couple things at once, but the world around us seems to make it clear you're wrong. I'm not saying to spend less on any of the things you're pointing to as priorities - and I said as much in the post. 

Hi David, thanks for the reply. I think I just totally disagree that humanity stopped pursuing ambitious goals. Just yesterday, we generated energy with nuclear fusion. We've reduced the price of solar cells by over 100x in a few decades. Hundreds of millions of people in China/India/Africa, etc. have been lifted out of extreme poverty. There are thousands of scientists pursuing cures for cancer and dementia. I could go on...

Humanity has trillions of dollars to spend, and it goes big on video games, consumer electronics, and fast food.

But our government doesn't have trillions of dollars and we have a ton of really important stuff to spend it on. I just think that improving education, closing the racial wealth gap, offering food stamps - heck, even building infrastructure here on earth are far more important. We can do multiple things at once, but we can't do everything. Every additional spend means something else has to be cut. Space exploration is near the bottom of my list of things I think our govt should spend on.

Just yesterday, we generated energy with nuclear fusion.

 

We've gotten under $10b in funding for fusion. We spend closer to $300b in adjusted dollars to land on the moon.

We've reduced the price of solar cells by over 100x in a few decades.

Despite sparse funding, markets work. I definitely agree - but again, this isn't an ambitious vision, it's very late incrementalism, for something we should have pushed hard on pursuing when Jimmy Carter put solar panels on the White House roof.

There are thousands of scientists pursuing cures for cancer and dementia. 

NIH funding as a share of GDP in 2019 is still 12 percent below 2003 levels. That's not ambition, it's plodding along slowly when we have tons of scientists and researchers being turned away from academia for lack of funding.

But our government doesn't have trillions of dollars and we have a ton of really important stuff to spend it on.

The US government spends multiple trillions of dollars each year. Much of that is on nondiscretionary spending, but we could afford to spend more on ambitious projects. We did in the past. 

Every additional spend means something else has to be cut.

That's not how government spending works - it does not need to be zero-sum, as our actual spending shows. But even if it was, we have cut taxes repeatedly, instead of doing more.

And if you're hoping that it spurred more growth, private industry is pushing short term revenue increases, in most domains lowering investment in R&D.

We simply aren't as ambitious as we were in the past. But we should be.