We stand at the beginning of history. For every person alive today, ten have lived and died in the past. But if human beings survive as long as the average mammal species, then for every person alive today, a thousand people will live in the future. We are the ancients. On the scale of a typical human life, humanity today is barely an infant struggling to walk.
Although the future of our species may yet be long, it may instead be fleeting. Of the many developments that have occurred since this magazine’s first issue a century ago, the most profound is humanity’s ability to end itself. From climate change to nuclear war, engineered pandemics, uncontrolled artificial intelligence (AI), and other destructive technologies not yet foreseen, a worrying number of risks conspire to threaten the end of humanity.
Just over 30 years ago, as the Cold War came to an end, some thinkers saw the future unfurling in a far more placid way. The threat of apocalypse, so vivid in the Cold War imagination, had begun to recede. The end of communism a few decades after the defeat of fascism during World War II seemed to have settled the major ideological debates. Capitalism and democracy would spread inexorably. The political theorist Francis Fukuyama divided the world into “post-historical” and “historical” societies. War might persist in certain parts of the world in the shape of ethnic and sectarian conflicts, for instance. But large-scale wars would become a thing of the past as more and more countries joined the likes of France, Japan, and the United States on the other side of history. The future offered a narrow range of political possibilities, as it promised relative peace, prosperity, and ever-widening individual freedoms.
The prospect of a timeless future has given way to visions of no future at all. Ideology remains a fault line in geopolitics, market globalization is fragmenting, and great-power conflict has become increasingly likely. But the threats to the future are bigger still, with the possibility of the eradication of the human species. In the face of that potential oblivion, the range of political and policy debates is likely to be wider in the years ahead than it has been in decades. The great ideological disputes are far from settled. In truth, we are likely to encounter bigger questions and be forced to consider more radical proposals that reflect the challenges posed by the transformations and perils ahead. Our horizons must expand, not shrink.
Chief among those challenges is how humanity manages the dangers of its own genius. Advances in weaponry, biology, and computing could spell the end of the species, either through deliberate misuse or a large-scale accident. Societies face risks whose sheer scale could paralyze any concerted action. But governments can and must take meaningful steps today to ensure the survival of the species without forgoing the benefits of technological progress. Indeed, the world will need innovation to overcome several cataclysmic dangers it already faces—humanity needs to be able to generate and store clean energy, detect novel diseases when they can still be contained, and maintain peace between the great powers without relying on a delicate balance of nuclear-enabled mutually assured destruction.
Far from a safe resting place, the technological and institutional status quo is a precarious predicament from which societies need to escape. To lay the groundwork for this escape, governments must become more aware of the risks they face and develop a robust institutional apparatus for managing them. This includes embedding a concern for worst-case scenarios into relevant areas of policymaking and embracing an idea known as “differential technological development”—reining in work that would produce potentially dangerous outcomes, such as biological research that can be weaponized, while funding and otherwise accelerating those technologies that would help reduce risk, such as wastewater monitoring for pathogen detection.
The greatest shift needed is one of perspective. Fukuyama looked to the future a little mournfully, seeing a gray, undramatic expanse—a tableau for technocrats. “The end of history will be a very sad time,” he wrote in 1989, in which “daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands.” But at this beginning of history, this critical juncture in the human story, it will take daring and imagination to meet the various challenges ahead. Contrary to what Fukuyama foresaw, the political horizon has not narrowed to a sliver. Enormous economic, social, and political transformations remain possible—and necessary. If we act wisely, the coming century will be defined by the recognition of what we owe the future, and our grandchildren’s grandchildren will look back at us with gratitude and pride. If we mess up, they might never see the light of day.