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Wisdom Gap

Science and engineering have given us powers that were traditionally reserved for gods: raising the dead, creating new life forms, and destroying the world. In contrast to our awesome physical power, humanity's social progress is at best in the adolescent phase. This chasm between our technological powers and our social development has created a recipe for disaster that demands urgent attention if the human race is to survive. Humanity is like a 16-year-old with a new driver's license who somehow got his hands on a 500-hp Ferrari. He will either mature rapidly or kill himself.

For 99.9 percent of our tenure on this planet, we could wait for direct evidence of our errors before correcting our actions. Sometimes the results were horrendous, as in the two World Wars and the environmental degradation due to hydraulic mining (now outlawed). As bad as those results were, our trial-and-error approach did not threaten our existence as a species. But during the last 0.1 percent of our existence our physical power has become so great that we can no longer wait for direct evidence that we are on the wrong path before changing our ways. Given that 99.9 percent of humanity's data says trial and error works, it is understandable—but horribly dangerous—that we have not yet recognized the obsolescence of that approach. . . .

[O]nce society has recognized the highly unacceptable risk of our current approach to nuclear weapons, it would be natural to raise the question, “How did we get into such a mess, and where else might we be neglecting catastrophic threats?” That would lead us to consider the long-term consequences of our actions, and not wait for disaster to strike before taking corrective action. If we are able to do that, efforts to avert global warming, severe environmental degradation, nuclear terrorism, nuclear war, bioterrorism, and other catastrophes would be seen as part of the same underlying effort. They would then reinforce one another, rather than compete for resources. —

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