Let’s take a moment to consider the world in the early 21st Century. Some things are better than they’ve ever been, and getting better all the time, while other very dangerous trends are moving rapidly in the opposite direction. Something must be done if we are to survive and thrive as a species, but naturally people cannot agree on what must be done, because they have different interests and outlooks. Reality is not going to wait for us to politely resolve our differences before it offers its verdict on humanity’s future.

The situation is complicated, as it ever was, and only getting more so. Another phenomenon which is also ancient but getting worse every day is the simultaneous overconfidence of selfish fools, and undue reticence of truly visionary experts and leaders. As Yeats said, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

To cut this Gordian Knot – to resolve the existential crisis facing humanity – we must clearly identify both what must be done, and how it can be done. Only total commitment to a completely clear vision will suffice, given the scale of the challenges we face. The piece below considers the question of what must be done, and subsequent articles will address the question of how to do it.

At the end of the day, things will inevitably go better for some than others. That cannot be helped. Those for whom things could go well are those with [1] intelligent goals and plans, [2] access to and effective management of resources (including the latest technological tools), and [3] a clear understanding that you must look after yourself before you try to help others. My own preferred metaphor for that third statement is the instruction given on aeroplanes, that in the event of an emergency parents should put on their own oxygen mask first, before tending to their children. The reason for this is sheer pragmatism: If you pass out from lack of oxygen, then you will be in no position to help your children. Similarly, societies which do not take any care for their own continued existence and health will not be able to help any other segment of humanity.

Doing any of these things any other way will quite simply lead to (1) an inability to reach goals systematically, (2) squandering of or lack of access to critical resources, and (3) everybody left unable to help others or to be helped themselves.

Those who follow these basic rules have a chance of making it out of the 21st Century alive. Those who do not, simply do not. No amount of obfuscation, misguided idealism or wishful thinking will change these simple facts.

What Must Be Done?

People must cooperate to survive, and that cooperation is the foundation stone of civilization. At the same time, cooperation only works when all parties involved have a sense of who they are as a distinct entity, and under what circumstances the cooperation is beneficial to them. In this way, human societies are like the individual organism writ large, working to survive on their own terms first and foremost, then working peacefully with others toward the greater good where possible, beyond that.

Our society currently has little sense of its own identity, boundaries, ideals or principles. If that situation is allowed to continue, our society will not survive, and will not be in any position to help others. It will continue to erode as it tries to do everything for everyone, with no sense of over-arching purpose or limitation. If we want to survive and thrive, we must unapologetically embrace a sense of our own personal and collective mission to preserve and expand human knowledge, on our terms, and then help others only insofar as our societal vision can grow from strength to strength in the process. It is not a bad thing to seek growth and strength for ourselves. If we can achieve true excellence as a civilization, then we will by definition have guaranteed our survival, and will then be in a position to help others.

We must focus on the healthiest, most energetic, most forward-thinking aspects of our civilization, transforming them into the foundation for a new “Diamond Age” of excellence and exploration. Anything less is a squandering and betrayal of human potential.