Existential Crisis by Alisa Ruddell for Salt and Iron Seasoned Writing

How Our Intellectual Appetites Make Us Vulnerable to Existential Risks: part one

It’s the End of the World as We Know It 

As a child growing up in the evangelical church of the ‘80s and ‘90s, I heard plenty about the “end times.” There was the Left Behind series, of course (which I didn’t actually read), and Pat Robertson’s The End of the Age (which I did). I remember watching A Thief in the Night with my public school Bible club. My favorite book at sixteen was the post-apocalyptic A Canticle for Leibowitz, which simultaneously terrified and fascinated me. 

My ambivalent interest in The End was kindled by a seventh grade Social Studies viewing of The Day After, which imagined the aftermath of a nuclear attack and its effects on a small American town. That movie was based on a chilling, government-commissioned short story by Nan Randall named “Charlottesville.” 

I live in Charlottesville. 

I was drawn to mushroom-cloud movies and books, and intrigued by evangelical visions of the tribulation, the rapture, and the mark of the Beast. My young mind, though, didn’t really believe that humanity could be wiped out: that was merely the stuff of fiction and obscure prophecy. I’d gotten the impression that The End of the World was something God did to punish people (which I could never quite square with His promises to love and save us). It never occurred to me that human extinction was something that we could actually do to ourselves through our own stupidity, short-sightedness, selfishness, and sin. Perhaps the world’s end was less of an outraged cosmic spanking and more of a natural consequence, that “sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death” (James 1:15). 

Exponential Tech Breeds Existential Risks 

What kind of future are we gestating, and what will we give birth to? According to Daniel Schmactenberger, founder of The Consilience Project, human beings themselves have created the means of human annihilation in the modern age. These form an interconnected web of environmental, social, political, and technological issues fueled by the flaws of our human nature. Our wisdom, self-control, and charity are not keeping pace as our modern exponential technologies keep doubling their capacities and halving their cost. This means that we are running through a forest of risks increasingly fast while becoming increasingly blind, and the odds of safe passage are not in our favor. This isn’t your ancestors’ apocalypse. 

The shortsightedness and selfishness that values the part over the whole, right now over the future, and us over them, have always been a part of humankind’s fallenness, but our technology has been removing the natural limitations to which our brains, biology, and relationships were long adapted. Our capacity to inflict damage on other humans and on the world used to be circumscribed. A sword can only kill so many people; an ax can only chop so many trees; a fishing pole can only catch so many fish; calumnies, lies, and propaganda can only circulate so fast by word of mouth. Technology enables us to do more harm in a few years—in a few minutes—than our ancestors could have ever dreamed. We are not morally worse than they were, but we lack those limits that make stewarding The Common Good a doable endeavor

Our technology has become scalable, freeing our appetites to run far beyond what had been the norm for humanity’s first 300,000 years. As Tristan Harris, “the conscience of Silicon Valley,” puts it, we have paleolithic bodies, brains, and emotions; we are living off the remnants of medieval institutions; and we are now at the mercy of exponential technologies that are changing at rates we cannot fathom, much less adjust to adequately. 

The existential risks we have created for ourselves include blowing past planetary boundaries which define the “safe space” for human development. Increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, deforestation, pollution, pesticides, and countless other factors, increase our risk of triggering abrupt environmental changes that are dangerous to humans. Because our monetary system requires exponential growth just to keep up with interest (the myth that “growing the economic pie” is an infinite game), we’ve created pathological incentives for businesses. Many industries extract resources from the world much faster than they can be replenished, and turn resources into waste much faster than the earth can process. It’s an appetite-fueled, collective feedback loop of ever-increasing depletion and pollution. 

Our technologies not only outstrip sustainable biological norms, they also degrade our social and political life. To Tristan Harris, social media is a radicalizing cult-factory that confirms our biases, tailors our newsfeeds, and dangles click-bait bogeymen before our eyes. Foreign states make generous use of these polarizing patterns to turn us against each other. Harris warns that these algorithms can hijack our limbic systems, turning us into foot soldiers in someone else’s culture war. Social media makes money through the extraction of our attention, depleting our mental and relational resources meant for real life. It pollutes our minds with empty spectacles, echo chambers, and hyper-normal stimuli that make the real world seem boring. The business model that debases the earth is the same one that is debasing our minds. 

Existential threats not only come from profit-driven companies and state actors (like North Korean nukes and Russian troll farms) but also from innumerable individuals and small groups of non-state actors. This makes the good old days of the Cold War—with nuclear weapons as the only threat and just two states balanced by mutually assured destruction—look rather straightforward. At least then we knew who and what could do us in. Add weaponized drones, AI, CRISPR, viral gain-of-function research, stochastic terrorism, and our interconnected global supply chains into this polarized, climate crisis mix, and it’s clear that our technological abilities can take what would have been a local collapse in another era, and make it a worldwide catastrophe.

Toddlers with Loaded Guns 

We have acquired the power of gods, Schmactenberger says, but not the wisdom, love, and prudence of gods. In the rueful words of an engineer at Twitter who helped to create the retweet button, “We might have just handed a four-year-old a loaded weapon.” Having truly outdone ourselves with our innovations, we are now at risk of doing ourselves in. 

I have no expertise in these complex matters. Yet if Schmactenberger and Harris are correct that our core problem can’t be solved from the top down by a “priestly” class of scientific experts, but is actually a matter of moral transformation and communal embodied wisdom, then this is a conversation that both you and I can participate in. 

Douglas Harding wrote, “Knowing more is wondering less, and wondering less is knowing less. For information without humility, or love, or astonishment, or reverence, becomes the worst kind of misinformation.” Perhaps this is the place for laymen like us to start: not with “information” per se (these issues are above my paygrade), but with the appetites that underlie our risk-generating behavior. Humility, love, astonishment, and reverence could keep us from eating ourselves alive. 

To be continued…

Author: Alisa Ruddell

Alisa Ruddell is an associate editor and staff writer for Christ and Pop Culture. She is a homeschooling mother of four who lives in Charlottesville, VA with her husband Steve. She loves classic literature, reading aloud to her children on the couch, listening to theology podcasts, and watching science fiction movies.

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