The Longevity of Human Civilization

Will the longevity of human civilization on Earth be imperiled, or enhanced, by our world-changing technologies? Scientists, humanists, journalists and science-fiction authors convened to answer this question in a daylong symposium. 


  • David Biello – Journalist covering environmental issues in the United States and internationally
  • Ken Caldeira – Atmospheric scientist at the Department of Global Ecology of the Carnegie Institution for Science
  • Steven Dick – Astronomer, author, historian of science, and 2014 Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology
  • Jacob Haqq-Misra – Planetary climatologist with a specialty in environmental ethics
  • Ursula Heise – Professor of English, UCLA’s Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and Immediate Past President of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environment
  • Odile Madden – Materials Scientist & Engineer, Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute
  • Rick Potts – Paleoanthropologist, director of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program and curator of anthropology at the National Museum of Natural History
  • Andrew Revkin – Non-fiction, science and environmental writer, New York Times DotEarth blog
  • Kim Stanley Robinson – Science fiction author
  • Seth Shostak – Senior Astronomer at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) Institute in Mountain View, California

The symposium’s first panel asked what is the nature of “Nature,” and what should we choose to save. Paleoanthropologist Rick Potts, materials scientist Odile Madden, and journalist David Biello discussed how societal and cultural values inform what of nature is preserved and what information about nature is transferred between generations.

The day’s second panel explored the future in literary and scientific imagination.  Professor Ursula Heise, astronomer Steven Dick, and science fiction author Kim Stanley Robinson offered contrasting views on how humans imagine the future, informed by history, scientific discovery, and social and cultural differences.

The third panel asked if humans can form a healthy, stable, long-term relationship with technology and the biosphere. Astronomer Seth Shostak, science writer Andrew Revkin, atmospheric scientist Ken Caldeira and planetary climatologist Jacob Haqq-Misra debated how taking a short-term or long-term perspective on the question makes great impact on how to answer it. The panelists discussed how human civilization may survive, and what the quality of civilization may be.

The final panel invited all speakers to the stage to engage with the audience in discussion. David Grinspoon said that, in his estimation, the largest threat to human civilization would be a lack of developing a healthy relationship with technology. The sciences and the humanities can offer solutions for a long-lasting healthy civilization, he said.

Photographs from the event are now available on the event webpage. A full webcast of the symposium will be available in the coming weeks. Highlights and insights from the discussions can be found on Twitter: #LongCiv.

The John W. Kluge Center was established at the Library of Congress in 2000 to foster a mutually enriching relationship between the world of ideas and the world of action, between scholars and political leaders. The Center attracts outstanding scholarly figures to Washington, D.C., facilitates their access to the Library’s remarkable collections, and helps them engage in conversation with policymakers and the public.

From Video of the event can be found here by clicking on the “webcast” tab.


2 Responses

  1. Abelard Lindsey says:

    I think that once we get out into space that human civilization will become effectively immortal. First it will be O’neill style settlement through out the solar system. Later, we expand into interstellar space (through out the galaxy). Once we do these things, human civilization ought to last as long as the universe itself.

    There are potential existential threats as long as we are all cooped up here on Earth.

    Given these realities, I surprised the transhumanist community is not as enthusiastic about expanding into space as we should be.

  1. December 19, 2013

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