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Setting our sights on the next frontier

Commentary

How do we pull ourselves out of the doldrums of decadence?

That question is fundamental to The Hub’s mission and purpose. We launched this new media platform just over a month ago committed to a proposition that Canada’s economy, society and politics had become too complacent and slumberous.

Modern Canada has come to cast its energy and attention on the here and now and, as such, we have lost our ability for collective aspiration. We’ve in effect traded off the adventurous possibilities of the future for the conspicuous consumption of the present.

It has turned out to be a bad trade. The result has been drift, repetition, sclerosis, and stagnation — what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has diagnosed as “decadence.”

This lack of future orientation, as we observed in The Hub’s founding mission and statement, has various consequences. Not only does it contribute to pessimism and polarization in the present, but it also fails to reckon with our individual and collective capacities to shape the future. And, as Douthat and others have shown, decadence only gets stronger as modern societies retreat further from the future and withdraw into the false comfort of our smart phones.

The Hub’s goal is to be a platform against decadence and a voice for the future. Its primary aim is to revive a future orientation to our popular debates. We want to be a platform where people of goodwill and good faith can come together and debate different conceptions of Canada’s future. Our big bet is that such debates can be a catalyst for renewed ambition and aspiration.

The hope in this sense is to be a bit countercultural: we want to subtly yet purposefully push back against the economic, cultural, and political tendencies towards short-termism and a lack of collective aspiration.

In this vein, we are pleased to launch today a new essay series that we are calling The Next Frontier.

We are still a young, dynamic country with a frontier spirit.

The essay series starts with a recognition that while Canada may not have its own Turner thesis, our story is a frontier story. We settled the world’s second largest land mass, built a national rail system to connect us from coast-to-coast, landed at the beaches of Normandy, produced path-breaking inventions (including insulin, canola and the Canadarm), and are now pursuing a new frontier of pluralism and diversity in a multi-ethnic democracy. We are still a young, dynamic country with a frontier spirit.

A frontier narrative is key to Canada’s history and our own self-image. Think, for instance, of the “stalwart peasants in a sheep-skin coat” who arrived in the country in unprecedented numbers in the late nineteenth century and helped to settle Canada’s untamed western territories. These often obscure yet transformational contributions required people of aspiration and ambition who were committed to a frontier vision.

If Canadian history is a narrative of our collective pursuits of the next frontier, then decadence may be the outgrowth of a closing of the frontier. We have mapped most corners of our country and the globe. We have fulfilled the Biblical call to “fill the earth and subdue it.” The question is: what comes next? The answer that emanates from our current state of decadence is: “not much.”

Over the coming weeks, The Hub will be publishing essays by leading Canadian thinkers and writers that aim to provide better answers to the modern frontier question. In particular, the different essays will grapple with the different issues, ideas and technologies that will shape Canada’s future over the next 30 years.

Our contributors will have full discretion to put forward which issue, idea or technology will be the most consequential for Canada in 2050. It might be demographic change, the rise of China, the prospect of new currencies and financial systems, the effects of climate change, progress on Indigenous reconciliation, or something altogether different. The onus will be on the contributors to make the case for why their vision of the future represents Canada’s next frontier.

Readers can anticipate two or three essays from this series each week through the spring and summer. Their cumulative foresight and wisdom will help to push ourselves and the broader national conversation away from the day-to-day of politics to a different and better future for Canada.

The Hub’s founding essay argued that, as a society, we need to get back to the future. The Next Frontier essay series can help to lay out a roadmap to get us there.

Stephen Webb: Don’t be surprised if we find a silent universe

Commentary

The following is adapted from remarks made by Avi Loeb and Stephen Webb in a Munk Debates podcast, on the topic: Be it resolved, we are not alone in the universe. Listen to the whole episode at: https://munkdebates.com/podcast/we-are-not-alone

When we think about how many alien civilizations might be out there, people tend to use a framework set out by Frank Drake.

Crudely put, we multiply the number of potential sites for life by the probability that life will arise and go on to develop technology that we can detect. And for many people, this question is settled because astronomers now know for certain there is a lot of real estate out there. There could be five billion earth-like planets in our galaxy, but we don’t know whether that’s a big number in this context. Those probabilities are completely unknown.

Take abiogenesis, the creation of life from non-life. Some biologists believe abiogenesis might be a vanishingly rare event. Even more uncertain is the path from unicellular life to a space faring civilization.

Here’s another big number: perhaps five billion different species have lived on earth, but only one can contemplate the question, are we alone? There’s nothing inevitable about the emergence of a species that’s curious about the cosmos. Crows, octopuses, and dolphins are remarkably intelligent creatures, but if humans go extinct, crows are not going to go on to build a radio telescope. Why would they?

I would much prefer to look out there and find intelligent life, and it’s entirely possible we will. And I think the question is so important that we should throw more resources into finding new ways to look into this. Looking and not finding is not the same as not looking. And given what we know about abiogenesis and of the contingency of evolution, I don’t think we should be surprised if we look out and see a silent universe.

The exact same question about alien civilizations was being debated more than half a century ago. Back then, astronomers were convinced contact was imminent, but some of the greatest biologists and evolutionary thinkers of the 20th century, like Ernest Mayr and George Gaylord Simpson, argued that any species here on earth is the result of chance and a quirky process of terrestrial evolution. Cognition isn’t an end goal or a goal at all. It just is. And if we don’t find high intelligence amongst creatures with whom we could share billions of years of evolution, why should we expect to find it among creatures with whom we share nothing but abiotic chemistry?

I’m willing to be convinced otherwise, and I would like to be convinced otherwise. And if there are civilizations out there, or if they were there, they would have been much more advanced than ours. And I think they could disturb the universe in a way that would be visible and convincing.

But 50-60 years on from those earlier debates, we’re still having the same debate. We haven’t made contact. We haven’t seen any of these signs of them out there.