On A Desire To Save The World

Suppose that, for better or worse, it appears that I want to save the world. Very well, I do. It’s been a running theme with me, most recently reawakened by a book I read (review forthcoming).Today we’re going to analyze this desire in depth.

The first question, of course, is whether I actually want to save the world? This asks two additional questions: does the world need saving, and if so, what from? Here things get tricky, because while I doubt that modern civilization will survive the next few centuries without deliberate action, it’s not clear that “saving” is the word to use. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. So really, I want to inoculate humanity against certain threats.

Existential risk comes in a lot of different forms. Personally, I think biological, chemical, and nuclear threats are overrated. Not that we shouldn’t be worried about such things because they’d be really bad on their own—they just don’t strike me as posing an existential threat in quite the same form as, say, an asteroid strike.

Climate change, similarly, seems like a serious issue but not a species-ending event. Now a supervolcano eruption—that is a genuine problem. There’s not a whole lot we can do for it, besides trying to backup the biosphere on Mars or L5. The same story with a geomagnetic reversal (if that’s actually a risk) and asteroid strikes. The problem only widens when we consider cosmological issues, like a hypernova or gamma ray burst. Nothing can really be done about those in the medium-term.

More exotic issues also include alien invasion, artificial intelligence, or runaway nanotechnology. These are all very interesting concerns, but not, for the most part, something I wish to discuss here.

Let it suffice to say that the world will need saving if nothing is done. Yet this essay isn’t about saving the world. It’s about my desire to save the world.

A desire to save the world is distinct from a desire for the world to be saved. Even at my most nihilistic, at some level I’ve wanted for the train to be put back on the tracks, for the catastrophe to be averted. A great part of my pre-Objectivist angst can be attributed to the fact that middle school administrators seem more concerned with riding herd over five hundred humanoid hormone bags than dealing with the pressing issues of global warming and space colonization.

“Down to earth” has never been an accurate description of me.

But I digress. Why should I want to save the world myself? Most folks don’t think its their responsibility or power. That’s not an unreasonable view. Unless the world needs saving most Tuesdays, it’s not exactly a job for everyone. Why is it a job for me?

Arrogance, in part. Big challenges seem more worthwhile than smaller ones.

Systemization and eternalism. If I can’t live in a quasi-static universe, then what’s the point of trying?

And fear. Fear of dying, fear of never accomplishing a goal worth setting. This is a big part of the sentiment I’m calling a desire to save the world. Despite various attempts, I’ve yet to truly accept the notion of a “boring” life. Doing the same damn thing, over and over again, for no greater purpose than to pass that dull routine on to another generation seems worse than pointless. If you’re not having fun, then what’s the point?

That’s sort of what’s going on. Treating my nine-to-five (or nine-to-nine) as the daily grind sounds counterproductive. Framing my work as saving the world sounds fun.

Which brings us to another question: what would saving the world actually entail for me?

Unlike many others concerned with existential risks, I’m not planning to restructure my life around it. That would be necessary if I wanted to focus on a particular risks. If, for instance, I wanted to tackle artificial intelligence, I could treat aerospace engineering as my day job and spend the next few years moonlighting as an autodidact until I knew enough about mathematics and computer science to contribute towards that conversation.

I am not changing majors this late in the game. Instead, my plan is simple: keep plugging away at getting humanity off the planet. Finish school, get a job building spacecraft, and treat my work as part of a grand project to save the human race. It’s not a far stretch if I can keep my mind on it.

What does this mean for me right now? Well, it means I should really try at aerospace engineering.

Story time: during the last final exam I took at Purdue, happened to look around and noticed that one of the nearby test-takers was balding. It was a sudden reminder of the adult world. My plans were crashing in around me, yet on a certain level I knew that I wasn’t really acting like this was serious business.

College felt like more school i.e. not fully real. I was going through the motions but not entirely convinced that the whole situation was real. In that moment, the truth suddenly became apparent. I felt like an impostor—I wasn’t really trying to understand everything, to engage System 2 and do the work necessary to pass that exam (which I didn’t). I felt like an irresponsible kid. In that way, I was.

(Don’t take this as excusing Purdue Engineering’s role in my failure. They definitely share a lot of that blame, making things more difficult and less intuitive than necessary yet offering little benefit in return. Eventually I’ll get around to writing about conceptualization in education, but suffice to say that my thermodynamics professor at KU offered considerably better insight for fewer migraines.)

So that’s my meta-level theme for this year: taking both my schooling and myself seriously. Removing distractions and unpleasant pastimes, narrowing my life down to something closer resembling the essentials. No more politics, no more inanity. Rather than viewing my assignments as an obstacle to overcome in pursuit of a passing grade, I’d like to see them as part of a project to accomplish great things—each fact or equation a brick in an edifice of engineering erudition, world-saving or no.

As I’ve said elsewhere, you can’t rely on the schools to educate you. Now the professors here are pretty decent, but the curriculum only goes so far. Reading ahead, branching out into relevant side topics—that’s what excites me. I’m already building my pleasure reading list with this in mind.

Not that it’s all textbooks. It’s not even mostly textbooks. The majority is general science, history, and philosophy, alternated with fiction. Keeping balance is essential. Staying on top of my schoolwork is one aspect of that, but relaxing once I’m caught up is another key component. Saving the world through BRUTE STRENGTH only works in fantasy worlds. Indeed, I could have finished this essay sooner, but decided my limited recreation time was better spent split between writing and Kerbal Space Program, than on writing alone.

This approach seems like the best way, to date, of motivating myself to pursue my own self-interest. It’s both sufficiently meta to withstand internal scrutiny, and manages to unify present and future behavior.

But please be advised that this is not general advice. It’s a consciously adopted crutch. If this works as itself, it works. If it doesn’t work as itself, it collapses into functional behavior. And if it fails, well, another one for the rejects pile. This is my personal approach. It is not intended for everyone. Most people are relatively happy with “a normal life” as a terminal goal. I’m not. There’s no strong philosophical backing for this preference. It’s a quirk of my own mental apparatus.

I want to save the world. I want to help humanity spread out from this world. I want to shape the world in my own image. I don’t expect your help, dear reader (unless you teach engineering at the University of Kansas). But in the words of John Galt: get the hell out of my way.