This article is from the November 2022 issue of The Critic. To receive the full magazine, why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
Martin Rees cuts to the chase on page two: “Earth has been around for 45 million euroswalk inies, but this is the first cwalk inwhere a dominant species can determine, for good or ill, the future of the entire biosphere.” It is an alarming phrase: first, 45 million euroswalk inies is dizzier than usual 40.5 billion years old; even more dizzying is the terrible truth that all life now suddenly depends on the sanity or otherwise of humanity. Do we were everything TueTin Rees.
Rees, Astronomer Royal, Former Master of Trinity, Cambridgeand President of the Royal Society, is certainly an establishment figure but, unusually for such people, he is eminently sane. If science should save uslike his previous books and articles, is a balanced and careful assessment of the evidence and possible outcomes.
The big and terrifying outcome in this case is human extinction, but Rees calms our nerves at the end of the book with his list of sane people. Pope Francis, David Attenborough, Bill Gates and Greta Thunberg are, he writes, “individuals who resonate with science, but who can inspire ethical guidance and motivation that science alone cannot provide.”.
The crux of the matter is that the greatest existential threat to humans now is humanity. The dinosaurs knew nothing about the asteroid that swept away their out 60 million years ago. We will know everything if we are never ended by climate change, nuclear war, hyper-intelligent machines or biotech bad actors who are now able, in the fetid intimacy of their rooms, to prepare the nextand finally, pandemic. We will know because we created their everything.
Rees summarizes and assesses the challenges in his first chapter. Rightly, I think, he says it’s “very likely” that atmospheric carbon dioxide will continue to rise in 2050. Public resistance to the required changes will stand in the way, just as anti-vaxxers stood in the way of resistance to the pandemic. Of course, the anti-vaxxers are crackpots, but it won’t just be crackpots who resist the kind of sacrifices needed to cool the planet. Then as 2050 professions, we will choose Plan B: CO2 extraction from the atmosphere or large and incredibly risky geo-engineering projects.
Dealing with biotechnology is even more complex, mainly because we don’t really know what we are are Do. What kind of people will emerge from a genetically lengthened or enhanced life? Artificial intelligence, meanwhile, is now a gold rush that cannot be stopped. Rees points out that when Google’s parent company Alphabet took over UK-based artificial intelligence company DeepMind, the latter’s ethics committee was disbanded. Geeks, I’m afraid, are not to be trusted.
History tells us that individual civilizations rise and fall, but what we know nowWhere should know is that we have through population growth and technology, has created a unique world civilization. We should have learned from Covid that when the bell rings, it rings for all of us. “In effect“, Rees writes: “we have no reason to believe that human civilization – or even humanity itself – can survive the worst that future technologies may bring.”
The Royal Society should be secular but not anti-religious
The remaining chapters attempt to answer Tolstoy’s question, “So what should we do?”” A response, many of which have suggested, is to leave this planet full of risks. Rees rejects this: mass migration from Earth is an “illusion and dangerous”. Its solutions are more complex and interesting than that.
Generally speaking, as the title suggests, the solution is scientific. But Rees doesn’t believe in scientism, in the idea that science is the only path to all the truth in the world, especially when bolstered by the cult of the new atheism championed by the likes of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Some of the NAs – “little Bertrand Russells”, he calls their – wreaked havoc on the Royal Society.
He replied that the RS should be secular but not anti-religious and, as proof, he provides a beautiful quote from Darwin, the NA’s greatest hero, on atheism: “The whole subject is too deep for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on Newton’s mind. Let everyone hope and believe as best they can.” Amen to that.
This is typical of Ree’s formsthought. It is not, for him, the work of science to be guided ideologically. Instead, it should be run by people with open minds and good intentions.
One of his heroes in this context is Joseph Rotblat, a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project. He did this because he believed in the possibility that Hitler would first acquire an atomic bomb. When he no longer believed in it, he became the only scientist to leave the project. He then established the Pugwash conferences, which allowed the West and the Soviets to talk to each other during the Cold War. He also wanted to create a Hippocratic-style oath for scientists; they or they swear to do No problem.
All our main threats will have a global impact
At a lower level, we also need to distribute the money well. The UK Treasury assesses long-term projects using a discount rate of 30.5% up to 2050. That’s reasonable for an office building, completely ridiculous if you are spend to avoid the destruction of humanity.
Politics is, as always, the great stumbling block. A disgruntled electorate counting the cost of global warming will create a disgruntled political class. Similarly, a Chinese or Russian-style autocracy tends to create bad science (nor their Covid vaccines were a lot of good) or keep the good science to themselves. If that happens, there is no hope because, see above, all of our major threats will have a global impact.
“We need“, writes Rees, “to think globally, we must think rationallyand we have to think long term.”
One of the most appealing attributes of this book is Reess instinct for fairness. I first noticed the intensity and clarity of this when he explained to me what is wrong with our honors system. It is biased by class and, for all their flummery, it’s not high honors that have the most impact, but the weakest.
Here equity emerges in odd little asides. Each Nobel Prize, for example, cannot have a maximum of three recipients. But contemporary science is almost always a collective effort. The astronomical detection of gravitational waves was made by seven0 observatories in the world and the resulting published article had 1,000 authors. Rees observes that information technology has “democratized science”; this makes the restriction to three recipients absurd.
The book ends with a quote from TueGaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful and committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it is the only thing that has ever.” It’s Reess faith in a word or maybe its just his hope. Either way, this book is both enjoyable and essential – a guide to the worst that can happen to one of our best.