Milliongenerations:Presentation 15 Jun 2011 at LongNow Brussels

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LongNow Brussels is a forum for fans of The Long Now Foundation and its efforts to promote long-term thinking. It meets monthly for a series of open-ended conversations, a group exploration of big ideas. On 15 June 02011, Trey invited Chris and Michael, contributors to milliongenerations, to discuss the ideas around milliongenerations at a meeting in Brussels for about 30 - 45 minutes, during which they should expect questions, and discussion afterwards. The meeting starts at 19:00 and runs about 2 hours.

What should they talk about? Discuss below:

General Introduction is a small effort to make lasting civilization more likely, based in Utrecht, started in 2008. The foundation that runs the website was set up in 2009 and is limited to a period of 25 years, because this seems a critical period for the future of human civilization and because if its approach has not had useful results it probably won't after that, either.

milliongenerations hosts a few efforts at the moment

  • an open source think tank around an unusual perspective that might be helpful
  • a guided research project
  • a poem without end
  • an effort to give rights to possible future generations
  • an effort to identify, collect and connect to similar thinking
  • a competition around the question how there can be most happiness, and an environment around such a competition
  • an environment better suited to an open source think tank

Let's introduce them, and first the thinking behind them.


Good ancestors

Jonas Salk, of polio vaccine fame, thought that the most important question we must ask ourselves is “Are we being good ancestors?” Given the rapidly changing discoveries and conditions of the times, this opens up a crucial conversation – just what will it take for our descendants to look back at our decisions today and judge us good ancestors?"

We all hope our children are happy and have a good life. And their children, too...

Conscious experience is a puzzle, but it certainly seems a worthwhile use of energy. While we enjoy it we can make it more or less likely that others can do so, too.

Resources and knowledge, predicting the future

Resources we use seem likely to become scarce, yet it is difficult to predict gains in knowledge and their effects.

Predicting the future of civilization is difficult, because we don't know what we will know some time in the future. But we can make sensible assumptions on conditions for life on this planet. Life seems to have been on this planet for about 3.5 billion years, multicellular life for about 1.5 billion years, and it has been resilient in face of amazing challenges. Physics suggest that the sun is going to provide a suitable environment for about 5 billion more years, so we should expect that life can continue for most of that time. Of course we can't know that. Things could happen that prevent that. But it seems rather unlikely that we'll have a black hole gobble us up or a passing star throwing us out of orbit or a supernova nearby blow us away or the creator of the universe could decide that it should end. So it is a useful assumption that life will be possible for a long time to come. So if someone wants to save the earth, I think it's fair to say "don't worry, the earth will stay."

Culture, civilization is usually understood to contrast differences between cultures. The perspective at milliongenerations looks at civilization from the point of individuals advancing and communicating their knowledge. That seems to have been going on on this planet in a noticeable way for only a few ten thousand years.

Knowledge seems beneficial, mainly because it allows more individuals to exist. Human population has grown 7 fold in the past 200 years, about 1% per year on a global scale. Resources have an influence, but they were there before industrializtion began. We rightly perceive population growth as threatening, it can not continue indefinitely. But let's face it, most of us wouldn't be here. I wouldn't trade existence, or rather the concsious experience of it, for anything else. So I have to consider it a good thing. I know it won't last, at least in this way, but I hope that others will continue to share it. So population is a good thing. Population is the goal, not the problem.

So knowledge is beneficial, and as it grows, things become ever easier, and a higher population can be sustained. And some, like the rational optimist Mark Ridley, argue that this process will never stop, it will solve all problems.

On the other hand all our traditions speak of an apocalypse of some sort or other. We've been warned of the imminent end of the world many times. As Trey noted, Danny Hillis conceived the clock of the Long Now to counter fears that the turn of the millenium would be the end of the world. Civilizations like the Maya's and Easter Islands have vanished with hardly a trace, killing most of their people and leaving the few survivors unable to read or do what their ancestors had done. Many people casually say that it's a good thing if the earth rids itself of humans. I don't think they realize the horrors that such a scenario would inflict on those alive. I find such statements amazingly cruel, careless, lacking any empathy. As we enjoy life, we can help to make it more likely that others can to. As Jörg Tremel has said, we can enable advancement.

Is everything going to be all right?

Maybe everything is going to be all right. But unless there are automatic mechanisms, that is unlikely. Threats like finite resources or conflict certainly exist. So as long as we don't know if automatic mechanisms are in place that ensure that everything is going to be all right, I think there's work to do.

The open source think tank

Knowledge seems beneficial, so we should undertake everything within our control to increase the chances that useful knowledge remains available (and mitigate the threats posed by knowledge itself). To this end it should be helpful to identify necessary conditions for lasting civilizations. milliongenerations, a small foundation in Utrecht/Netherlands, hosts a discussion to try to deduct required conditions for lasting civilizations. It starts with the simple assumption that there still are conscious beings on this planet exchanging information in, say, a billion years. The assumption should be simple to allow useful insights even when faced with rather big changes like a technological "singularity". The perspective would seem to be helpful in answering questions like

  • How much did each generation/each year consume?
  • Where did the waste go to?
  • Which materials were used?
  • What was the average population growth?
  • What was the average economic growth?
  • Where does the energy come from?

Even if the perspective does not answer all relevant questions, knowing some conditions might help to implement them and leave more time to work out remaining questions. It would seem useful to spread the perspective of our obligations to future generations and the idea that as knowledge grows future beings will know essentially everything about us.

Guided research project

Million Generations is about philosophy and awareness as much as it is about knowledge. To this end, we are developing a guided thesis discovery project for up to 5 Utrecht University graduate students who wish to take on a difficult--perhaps even nebulous--question, and translate it into empirical research that can help guide our way forward. Students will be given access to collaborative workspaces throughout the Netherlands, have facilitated group discussions every week to discuss their research and the philosophical questions that surround it, and will be given opportunities to meet with people and institutions that work on aspects of future generations and the longevity of human society.

The guided thesis projects will last for 4-5 months and will also include an optional opportunity for participating students to work together on a project that raises the level of thinking about future generations among local business leaders, civil society, and policy-makers.

poem without end

Milliongenerations:Stone clock project The stone clock project provides a visible representation of the long-term passage of time. The idea is to place it in a central location, such as beginning in the center of Utrecht or another major city, and place a new stone or engrave a new stone each week. The project provides no quick-fix; what it does hope to accomplish is to add to the collective consciousness an element of long-term thinking that has a compound effect moving forward.

an effort to give rights to possible future generations

A Bill of Rights of Future Generations implore us to ask which rights we should guarantee future generations and how should those rights be weighed against future living beings. The question forces us to think about what should be given as a right to begin with. Natural rights have evolved over time, and it is logical to believe they will evolve further still as social norms, technology, and scarcity shift as time moves forward.

There have been various attempts to define these rights, but little ability to guarantee them or to establish a punitive or regulatory framework to maintain them. A challenge worth taking on is for us to establish our own bill of rights that inspire our current generation to take the rights of future generations as seriously as we take our own rights.

an effort to identify, collect and connect to similar thinking


  • Long Now Brussels
  • Zukunft25
  • Appropedia a competition around a question

...competition around a question and an environment around such a competition Milliongenerations:How can there be most happiness?

  • an environment better suited to an open source think tank

Milliongenerations:Environment for the contributions


All information on the effort can be found at - though site (and effort) could be much improved. This is an open source effort. Ideas are welcome.