Pending Threats to Humanity
Meet the Visionary Working Hard to Save Mankind
In a world that can so often seem confused and directionless, Vinay Gupta has made it his life’s work to pinpoint possible threats to humanity, and then figure out how to thwart them. After 14 years spent operating as a disaster consultant and self-described “global resilience guru” with partners like the Rocky Mountain Institute and the US Department of Defence, he has switched his attentions to venture capitalism after inventing a relatively new type of temporary housing known as a hexayurt. Durable and absurdly inexpensive, it is aimed at saving the lives of millions of people who are expected to lose their homes due to climate change in the next few decades.
Gupta remains the kind of man that you want to be texting in a crisis; someone who has trained his mind and eyes to see an apocalypse coming long before anyone else. I called him up to ask what the future is going to look like, and how we might possibly even begin to deal with it.
VICE: For the last 14 years, you’ve made it your job to identify the ways in which humanity might be destroyed. Do you still believe in our ability to survive as a species?
Vinay Gupta: I give us about a one-in-three chance of making it through the 21st century. I see the right-wing swing across the Western democracies giving us three really rough presidential terms. When they’re done, I think the advent of affordable solar panels, industrial robots and AI – things like self-driving cars – will have changed the way the economy works and we’ll get a swing left again, with a great push for universal basic income. A world with universal basic income, robots and solar panels is pretty utopian, until nanotech and biotech craziness comes along to push the world in directions that are impossible for us to understand or regulate.
My prediction is basically: rough period, brief golden age, then another round of technological mayhem that threatens our survival as a species.
What do you think we’re currently getting wrong in our relationship with time?
The pace of change means that we don’t have time to see and feel the direction of change. Also, people aren’t thinking about their lives in a way that corresponds to biological reality. We created something called “Childhood” and people called “Teenagers”, we have people in education till they’re 25… We basically shifted the point of maturity back 15 years and then we wonder why our teenagers are all insane.
If our average lifespan jumps to 100 or 150, how should we reconfigure our relationship to time?
Psychologically, will you still be an adolescent at 50? Or will there instead be a generation of fully mature old people who are physically strong, but have all the perspective that comes with age? Do we end up with a very boring, rational planet, or do we run around with a bunch of permanent adolescents causing trouble? It could go either way.
What could you see being a potential impetus for any shift in our relationship with time?
You know the global nomad thing, where you’ve got kids with laptops roaming the world, working freelance and living wherever it’s cheap and fun? I think you could imagine a similar breakdown with time instead of space. You could see a ‘Third Shift’ civilisation, in which you’ve got people that are nocturnal. They rent super-cheap hotel beds in the daytime, and super-cheap offices at night because nobody works those hours. I think you could see very strange things happen in the hyper-competitive urban centres, because time is another barrier of inefficiency. With drugs like Modafinil, which remove the need for sleep, 36-hour day civilisations could emerge, as people distort their biological rhythms to be increasingly competitive in the global marketplace.
What role could money play in our ability to change the world?
What we really need is the ability to do government-sized spending without having governments involved. The Gates Foundation is a great example of that but what if it wasn’t one man’s vision, but more inclusive and democratic? It might cost you a thousand pounds a year to be a voting member, but if you’re a mid-career professional, that’s affordable. From that, we could constitute things that could well save your kids’ or your grandkids’ lives. We need to stop expecting the political system to solve our problems.
I think politics is dead, it’s a busted flush.
As a generation, what do you think we should be aiming for our legacy to be?
As a species, if we survive, that will be legacy enough. If we can get through becoming essentially godlike in our ability to do stuff like rewrite DNA, we’ll be in a position where we can colonise the entire universe, planet by planet, over millennia. And if we fail, we stand a pretty good chance of wiping out all the life that we can prove exists in the entire universe. So we could do a very good thing, which is fertilise the universe, or we could do a very bad thing, which is extinguish all of the life that we can prove. Thirteen billion years and we can’t prove we’re not the only life that exists. And we might screw that up? Woooo! Responsibility.
What excites you most about the future?
The Mars landing we’re expecting in the mid 2020s; if Elon Musk can pull that off it would be astonishing. By then, we should be in a bout of global optimism, finally having solar panels cheap enough to meaningfully end the carbon age.
Interview by Kev Kharas
Photography by Tom Skipp