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.
  • Foundation set up in 2009 for a limited 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 is now famous for the polio vaccine.
  • In the long run I think he will be remembered for something else
  • He thought 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
  • 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

a collaborative slow thought movement?

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. Some of these can be deducted by assuming a desired outcome: lasting civilization. So simply assume that civilization still exists on this planet an astronomical timescale from now and then work backwards.

So milliongenerations hosts a discussion to try to deduct required conditions for lasting civilizations. It starts with the simple assumption that there still are conscious individuals 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".

Civilization can be seen as the basis on which individuals exchange and learn information. So the assumption of lasting civilization can be reduced to that of the existence of individuals exchanging information, no assumptions on the specific nature need to be made. Obviously, the fewer assumptions are made, the more valid the conclusions will be.

To clarify with an old example. When you see a hungry man, they say, you can give him a fish. Or teach him to fish (exchange of information). More recently entrepreneurial solutions such as those proposed by the Unreasonable Institute - strive to implement ways so that all who are hungry get fishing poles. These are important, and many worthy efforts exist.

The assumption here is different. This is like assuming that a very long time from now there still is a man who can fish.

What can you deduct from that? From the assumption it is clear that the man knows how to fish. But also that there still are edible fish in the water. If you think about giving everyone fishing poles or nets or trawlers, these are not likely to come about together automatically. So we look for what is needed so that they will.

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. So that we will want to collaborate not only for others to benefit but because we care about our reputation.

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 - or poem without end might be a better name - provides a visible representation of the long-term passage of time.

Rather than the clock of the Long Now this one requires constant human attention to function, it consists of a line of stones placed at a rate of one a week.

The plan, suggested by poet Ingmar Heytze, is that a guild of poets in Utrecht, the dichtergilde conceives a poem but keeps it secret. Only one letter is published per week by placing a stone with the letter on it in one of the streets in the city. The following week another stone with the next letter next to the previous one. The poem is published at a rate of about one sentence per three years. The guild will extend the poem before it is published. The idea is to place it in a central location, such as beginning in the center of Utrecht, 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.

The project could be an entry for a competition that Trey proposed, and probably will tell you about soon.

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

Background 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

might help to look in the direction of Cohere, Collaboratorium or Global Sensemaking


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.