2014 Revealed How Badly We Need Futurism
Human civilization is creating problems faster than scientists can solve them.
Landing on a fucking comet. Image: DLR/German Aerospace Center.
Like any year in science, 2014 was packed to the brim with both exciting breakthroughs and ominous warnings for the future. But if there was one overarching theme to the past twelve months, it is the increasing awareness that human civilization is creating problems faster than scientists can solve them.
The most pertinent example is the increasing environmental devastation caused by humans, which was quantified in great deal this year. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2014 is on track to be the hottest year on record, thanks in part to human-driven climate change. Humans are also edging out species at 1,000 times the normal rate, prompting fears of a sixth mass extinction event, dubbed the Anthropocene. The year in medicine was similarly apocalyptic, dominated by the worst outbreak of Ebola in history.
On the upside, the public is clearly cognizant of these problems, as demonstrated by the largest climate change march in history in September. The Ebola pandemic inspired multiple new methods for dealing with diseases, from the epicenter of the crisis all the way to outer space.
On top of all that, there was a lot of other positive medical news: doctors grew an entire organ in a live animal for the first time, mind-controlled prosthetics became a reality, e-cigarettes are catching on fast, and there were numerous advances in synthetic biology.
All of those medical gains stand to increase human longevity, which is, in theory, fantastic. But in practice, longer lifespans may also contribute to a rising global population, which will in turn exacerbate the aforementioned environmental crisis and could also increase pandemics like Ebola. Thus, the overarching theme: problems are outpacing solutions, and are sometimes even a result of them.
Problems are outpacing solutions, and are sometimes even a result of them
Indeed, even the most triumphant victories of 2014 were plagued with unexpected setbacks. For example, by far the biggest story of the year broke on November 11, when ESA's Rosetta mission succeeded in landing a probe on a fucking comet (cue thunderous applause). But the achievement was undermined slightly first by the "Shirtgate" controversy and then by the loss of the Philae lander. By no means does this negate Rosetta's historic mission, but it does give rise to new challenges for future missions.
Along those lines, space exploration unfortunately took several hits in 2014 including a fatal Virgin Galactic crash, a devastating Orbital Antares rocket explosion, and mounting political tensions over the ISS. However, NASA was able to round the year out nicely with the successful first test launch of the Orion spacecraft—the flagship vehicle of its manned deep space program—on December 5.
Last but not least, scientists have conclusively confirmed that a 527-year-old body found under a parking lot in 2012 belongs to British monarch Richard III. The study caps off the oldest successful DNA identification case ever, and as a bonus, it also proved there was some juicy adultery going on in the royal family. It's interesting to note here that even research with more of a novelty edge seemed to expose human imperfection this year.
In this way, 2014 was a year of truly ambitious and innovative work, backed by a generous amount of funding, that resulted in an upshot of hard truths and unforeseen challenges. It's difficult to group a year under one banner, but speaking generally, the last twelve months have highlighted the imperative to address humanity's future on a much longer timescale.
This was an obvious theme even in science fiction, with Snowpiercer, Interstellar, and the Syfy series Ascension all addressing the tenuousness of our long-term future—a great example of Brian Merchant's argument that we need dystopian fiction now more than ever.
How are we going to sustain our civilization over the coming centuries? Should we bail on Earth and head to Mars, or build a more sustainable planet? How can we regulate the population without trampling reproductive rights? How should we handle the integration of robots into the workforce?
The priority for 2015 and beyond should be a more concerted effort to address these types of admittedly difficult questions with an eye to the very far future. And not to toot our own horn too obviously, but that is exactly Motherboard's mission statement.
The future is wonderful, the future is terrifying. We should know, we live there. Let's try to keep it that way.