Nov 9th 2008

Why the end of the world may be nigh

by Martin Rees

Martin Rees is an eminent British astrophysicist.

We live in an ever more complex world, and an ever more interconnected one. There are greater opportunities, but greater risks too. That's why it's an immensely difficult challenge for our political leaders to steer an optimum course - to achieve security and to avoid hazards.

There are powerful grounds for being an optimist. For most people in most nations, there's never been a better time to be alive. The innovations that will drive economic advances - information technology, biotech and nanotech - can boost the developing as well as the developed world. We're becoming embedded in a cyberspace that can link anyone, anywhere, to all the world's information and culture - and to every other person on the planet. Twenty-first century technologies will offer lifestyles that are environmentally benign - involving lower demands on energy or resources than what we'd consider a good life today. We have the resources - if the will were there - to ease the plight and enhance the life-chances of the world's two billion poorest people.

And there's another reason for optimism. The greatest threat to confront the world in the 1960s and 1970s - nuclear annihilation - has diminished. During the Cold War the superpowers could have stumbled towards Armageddon through muddle and miscalculation. We were at great hazard; a nuclear war could have killed a billion people, and devastated the fabric of civilisation - most catastrophically in Europe.

Now there are new anxieties. For the first time one species - ours - can threaten the Earth's future. Over most of history, the threats have come from nature - disease, earthquakes, floods and so forth. But now they come from us. Human activities are ravaging the entire biosphere - perhaps irreversibly. We've entered what some have called the "anthropocene" era.

Soon after World War II, some physicists at Chicago started a journal called the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, aimed at promoting arms control. The "logo" on the Bulletin's cover is a clock, the closeness of whose hands to midnight indicates the Editor's judgement on how precarious the world situation is. Every few year the minute hand is shifted, either forwards or backwards.

It came closest to midnight in 1962 because the Cuban Missile stand-off was the most dangerous moment in history. Robert MacNamara was then the US Secretary of Defense. It wasn't until he'd long retired that McNamara spoke frankly about it in his confessional movie "Fog of War". He said that "we came within a hairsbreadth of nuclear war without realising it. It's no credit to us that we escaped - Khrushchev and Kennedy were lucky as well as wise".

When the cold war ended, the Bulletin's clock was put back to 17 minutes to midnight. There is now far less chance of tens of thousands of bombs devastating our civilisation. But the clock has been creeping forward again. There's now more chance than ever of a nuclear weapon going off in a localised conflict. We are confronted by proliferation of nuclear weapons (in North Korea and Iran for instance). Al Qaida-style terrorists might some day acquire a nuclear weapon. If they did, they would willingly detonate it in a city centre, killing tens of thousands along with themselves; and millions around the world would acclaim them as heroes.

The threat of global nuclear catastrophe could be merely in temporary abeyance. During the last century the Soviet Union rose and fell and there were two world wars. In the next 40 years, geopolitical realignments could be just as drastic, leading to a nuclear standoff between new superpowers, which might be handled less well - or less luckily - than was the Cuba crisis.

That's why we should welcome the Nuclear Threat Initiative - the campaign to aim towards an eventual zero level of nuclear weapons - espoused by such prominent Americans as former Senator Sam Nunn, former Secretaries of State George Schultz and Henry Kissinger and former Defence Secretary William Perry.

Even if the nuclear threat can be contained, the 21st century could confront us with new global threats as grave as the bomb. They may not threaten a sudden world-wide catastrophe - the doomsday clock is no longer such a good metaphor - but in aggregate they are worrying and challenging.

Climate change looms as the 21st century's prime long term environmental challenge. Human actions - the burning of fossil fuels - have already raised the carbon dioxide concentration higher than it's ever been in the last half million years: moreover, its concentration is rising at about 0.5 % a year.

More disturbingly, coal, oil and gas are projected to supply most of the world's every-growing energy needs for decades to come - a new coal fired power station opens almost every week in China. If that trend continues, the concentration of CO2 will rise to twice the pre-industrial level by 2050, and three times that level later in the century.

These facts alone, combined with simple ideas on greenhouse warming dating back to the 19th century, are in my view enough to motivate deep concern about impending climate change. The details are uncertain. But the higher CO2 rises, the greater the warming and - more important - the greater will be the chance of triggering something irreversible such as rising sea levels due to the melting of Greenland's icecap.

The science is intricate. But it is simple compared to the economics and politics. Global warming poses a unique challenge for two reasons: First, unlike more familiar kinds of pollution, the effect is diffuse. The CO2 emissions from Europe have no more effect here than they do in Australia, and vice versa. That means that any credible framework for mitigation has to be broadly international. Second, the main downsides are not immediate, but lie a century or more in the future: inter-generational justice comes into play; how do we rate the rights and interests of future generations compared to our own?

In Europe specially, we're mindful of our heritage and the debt we owe to centuries past. Our forebears devotedly added bricks to cathedrals that would take a century to finish. Our space and time horizons are far wider than theirs, and history will judge us harshly if we discount too heavily what might happen when our grandchildren grow old.

The threat is long-term but we must change course quickly if we are to turn around the still rising graph of annual CO2 emissions. To quote Al Gore: "We must not leap from denial to despair. We can do something and we must".

The world spends nearly $7,000bn a year on energy and its infrastructure; yet our current R&D efforts are not up to meeting the climate change challenge. There is no single solution, but some measures like better insulation of buildings would actually save rather than cost money. Efforts to develop a whole raft of techniques for economising on energy, storing it and generating it by "clean" or low-carbon methods deserve priority and the sort of commitment from governments that were accorded to the Manhattan project or the Apollo moon landing. They should appeal to the idealistic young, and I can't think of anything that could do more to attract the brightest and best of them into science than a strongly proclaimed European commitment to clean and sustainable energy.

Top priority should be a coordinated effort by Europe, the US and the other G-8+5 countries to build demonstration plants to develop carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. This is crucial because whatever technical advances there may be in solar and other renewable energy sources, we're going to depend on coal and oil for the next 40 years. Yet unless the rising curve of annual emissions can be turned around sooner than that, the CO2 concentration will irrevocably reach a truly threatening level.

Mankind also has to confront other global "threats without enemies" that are separate from (though linked with) climate change. High among them is the threat to biological diversity. The extinction rate is 1000 times higher than normal and is increasing. We are destroying the book of life before we have read it.

Biodiversity is often proclaimed as a crucial component of human wellbeing and economic growth, and that is manifestly true. We're clearly harmed if fish stocks dwindle to extinction, and less evidently there are plants in the rain forest whose gene pool might be useful to us. But for environmentalists these "instrumental" - and anthropocentric - arguments aren't the only compelling ones. For them, preserving the richness of our biosphere has value in its own right, over and above what it means to us humans.

The pressures on our planet depend, of course, on our lifestyle. The world could not sustain its 6.5bn population if they all had the style of present-day Americans, or even of Italians. But it could if even prosperous people adopted a vegetarian diet, travelled little and interacted via super-internet and virtual reality. New technology will determine our lifestyle, and the demands people make on energy and environmental resources.

But all the problems are aggravated because the world's population is still rising fast. It's projected to reach 8bn or even 9bn by 2050. If the rise continues beyond 2050, one cannot help but be exceedingly gloomy about the prospects for most people.

There are now, however, more than 60 countries in which fertility is below replacement level, and we all know the social trends that have led to this demographic transition. If these were to extend to all countries, then the global population could start gradually to decline after 2050 - a development that would surely be benign.

The prognoses are not good, though especially in Africa where the rising population makes it harder to break out of deprivation and achieve the demographic transition that has occurred elsewhere. So the pressures on resources and water will inevitably be aggravated.

More people than ever are concentrated in megacities, and it is this overcrowding together with rapid travel that renders the world so much more vulnerable to pandemics. That's just one of the new vulnerabilities that stem from the greater empowerment of individuals or small groups by 21st century technology.

Science is not only evolving faster, but in qualitatively new ways, even if the one thing that hasn't changed for millennia is human nature and human character. In this century, however, novel mind-enhancing drugs, genetics, and "cyberg" techniques may start to change human beings themselves. That's something qualitatively new in recorded history. And we should keep our minds open, or at least ajar, to concepts that seem on the fringe of science fiction - superintelligent machines, for instance.

All these developments - cyber, bio or nano - will open up new risks of misuse. For instance, the American National Academy of Sciences has warned that: "Just a few individuals with specialised skills ... could inexpensively and easily produce a panoply of lethal biological weapons. ... The deciphering of the human genome sequence and the complete elucidation of numerous pathogen genomes ... allow science to be misused to create new agents of mass destruction." Not even an organised network would be required; just a fanatic with the mindset of those who now design computer viruses. The techniques and expertise for bio or cyber attacks will be accessible to millions, and we're kidding ourselves if we think that technical education leads to balanced rationality. It can be combined not just with the traditional fundamentalism that we're so mindful of today, but with new age irrationalities too. The Raelians, extreme eco-freaks, animal rights campaigners and the like. The global village will have its village idiots.

In a future era of vast individual empowerment, how can our open society be safeguarded against error or terror? Will we need to shift the balance between privacy and intrusiveness? These are stark and deeply questions. In our ever more interconnected world, there are new risks whose consequences could be widespread - and perhaps global. Even a tiny probability of global catastrophe is unacceptable if we apply to catastrophic risks the same prudent analysis that leads us to buy insurance - multiplying probability by consequences - we'd surely conclude that measures to reduce this kind of extreme risk needs higher priority.

We must surely accept, too, that scientific effort isn't deployed optimally - either in purely intellectual terms, or in respect of human welfare. Some fields have had the "inside track" and gained disproportionate resources, so that huge sums are still devoted to new weaponry. But environmental research and work on renewable energies and suchlike, deserve much more effort. In medicine, the focus is disproportionately on cancer and cardiovascular studies - the ailments that loom largest in prosperous countries - rather than on the infections that are still endemic in the tropics. In other words, the decisions that we will make both individually and collectively in the foreseeable future will determine whether 21st century science yields benign or devastating outcomes.

Copyright: Europe's World

If you wish to comment on this article, you can do so on-line.

Should you wish to publish your own article on the Facts & Arts website, please contact us Please note that Facts & Arts shares its advertising revenue with those who have contributed material and have signed an agreement with us.

Below a video Sir Martin Rees: Earth in its final century?, recorded July, 2005 in Oxford, Great Britain.

Please comment the article and/or the video underneath the video.

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

Dec 2nd 2023
EXTRACTS: "In a recent commentary for the Financial Times, Martin Wolf trots out the specter of a 'public-debt disaster,' that recurrent staple of bond-market chatter. The essence of his argument is that since debt-to-GDP ratios are high, and eminent authorities are alarmed, 'fiscal crises' in the form of debt defaults or inflation “loom. And that means something must be done.' ----- "If, as Wolf fears, 'real interest rates might be permanently higher than they used to be,' the culprit is monetary policy, and the real risk is not rich-country public-debt defaults or inflation. It is recession, bankruptcies, and unemployment, along with inflation." ---- "Wolf surely knows that the proper remedy is for rich-country central banks to bring interest rates back down. Yet he doesn’t want to say it. He seems to be caught up, possibly against his better judgment, in bond vigilantes’ evergreen campaign against the remnants of the welfare state."
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "The first Russia, comprising those living in Russia’s two biggest cities, Moscow and Saint Petersburg, can pretend there is no war at all." ---- "Then there is the other Russia, the one you find in small towns and villages scattered across the country’s massive territory. Here, the Ukraine war is a source of patriotic pride,"
Nov 27th 2023
EXTRACTS: "I interviewed Wilders in 2005 " ---- "Frankly, I thought he was a bore, with no political future, and did not quote him in my book. Like most people, I was struck by his rather weird hairstyle. Why would a grown man and member of parliament wish to dye his fine head of dark hair platinum blond?" ----- "His maternal grandmother was partly Indonesian" ----- "Eurasians, or Indos as they were called, were never fully accepted by the Indonesians or their Dutch colonial masters. They were born as outsiders." ---- "Ultra-nationalists often emerge from the periphery – Napoleon from Corsica, Stalin from Georgia, Hitler from Austria." ---- "Henry Brookman founded the far-right Dutch Center Party to oppose immigration, especially Muslim immigration. Brookman, too, had a Eurasian background, as did another right-wing politician, Rita Verdonk, who founded the Proud of the Netherlands Party in 2007." ---- "A politician who might fruitfully be compared to Wilders is former British Home Secretary Suella Braverman. As a child of immigrants – her parents are double outsiders, first as Indians in Africa and then as African-Indians in Britain – her animus toward immigrants and refugees “invading” the United Kingdom may seem puzzling. But in her case, too, a longing to belong may play a part in her politics."
Nov 19th 2023
EXTRACT: "The good news is that the San Francisco summit was indeed an improvement on last year’s meeting. Above all, both sides took the preparations far more seriously this time. It wasn’t just the high-level diplomatic engagement that resumed in the summer, with visits to Beijing by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, and climate envoy John Kerry. Equally important was identifying in advance the key issues on which the two leaders could cooperate and eventually agree."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: "It would be naive to hope that the Russian government or US diplomatic outreach would prevent nuclear war in the event of a serious threat to Putin’s political survival. The risk that Russia’s Ukraine misadventure could culminate in nuclear nihilism demands nothing less than a systemic review of America’s options."
Nov 11th 2023
EXTRACT: " Hamas’s barbaric massacre of at least 1,400 Israelis on October 7, and Israel’s subsequent military campaign in Gaza to eradicate the group, has introduced four geopolitical scenarios bearing on the global economy and markets. As is often the case with such shocks, optimism may prove misguided."
Nov 10th 2023
EXTRACT: "The last two years have been catastrophic for investors in US Treasury bonds. By one measure, 2022 was the worst year for such investors since 1788. Bond prices are poised to fall again in 2023, making this the first time in US history that they declined for three consecutive years. But now the “smart money” is jumping back in."
Nov 6th 2023
EXTRACTS: "China’s economic slowdown could lead the CPC to embrace a militant form of Chinese nationalism in an effort to maintain public loyalty. This would spell trouble for Taiwan, the Asia-Pacific region as a whole, and China itself in the long run. Given the threat posed by China’s assertiveness, it is no surprise that Japan is increasing its defense budget and that other countries have decided to follow America’s lead and explore ways to support Asia’s liberal democracies." .... "The difference between China’s and Japan’s economic trajectories raises the question: Can a corrupt Leninist regime outperform a free society? Whatever the answer, China is facing an uphill battle."
Nov 2nd 2023
EXTRACT: "Of course, Putin owes his authoritarian mandate to Russians themselves. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russians – reeling from rapid, profound economic changes and the new culture of consumerist individualism – grew nostalgic for the 'strong' state. Their superpower status, historic breakthroughs in space, and grand victories on the battlefield were all long gone. Trading their new freedoms for the promise of renewed imperial glory seemed like a good deal." ----- "After Stalin, the only time the state engaged so openly in such violent repression was under Yuri Andropov, who headed the KGB in the 1970s before becoming General Secretary of the Communist Party in 1982 (he died in 1984). -- Putin, who regards Andropov as a personal hero, has reinstated the Andropov-era 'disciplinary check-ups' of cultural institutions." ------ "We are dealing with people who want 'full revenge for the fall of the Soviet empire.' The empire they want to build will include Andropov-style control over every aspect of Russian life, as well as a grander claim of being anointed by God. Like the Orwellian equation “2+2=5,” it is a story that you would have to be insane – or brutally compelled – to believe."
Oct 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "The cost of electricity from solar plants has experienced a remarkable reduction over the past decade, falling by 89% from 2010 to 2022. Batteries, which are essential for balancing solar energy supply throughout the day and night, have also undergone a similar price revolution, decreasing by the same amount between 2008 and 2022. ---- These developments pose an important question: have we already crossed a tipping point where solar energy is poised to become the dominant source of electricity generation? This is the very question we sought to address in our recent study."
Oct 9th 2023
EXTRACT: "Sooner or later, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s destructive political magic, which has kept him in power for 15 years, was bound to usher in a major tragedy. A year ago, he formed the most radical and incompetent government in Israel’s history. Don’t worry, he assured his critics, I have “two hands firmly on the steering wheel.” But by ruling out any political process in Palestine and boldly asserting, in his government’s binding guidelines, that “the Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel,” Netanyahu’s fanatical government made bloodshed inevitable."
Oct 9th 2023
EXTRACTS: "....whereas Israel can prevail militarily over any of its enemies, albeit at an increasing toll in blood and treasure, it cannot stop the most dangerous threat of all—the deadly erosion, resulting from its continuing brutal occupation, of that moral foundation on which the country was established." --- "....the Israeli public must demand the immediate resignation of Prime Minister Netanyahu."
Sep 27th 2023
EXTRACT: "’s American body politic has little patience for long-term thinking. This was not always the case. George Kennan, first as a diplomat and later as an academic, devised the containment strategy that the United States used against the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Andrew Marshall, as the head of the Pentagon’s Office of Net Assessment, pushed the envelope on US military strategy. And Henry Kissinger, of course, was the ultimate practitioner of what has been dubbed “Grand Strategy.” "
Sep 23rd 2023
EXTRACT: "In a recent CNN interview, Paul Krugman of The New York Times finds it hard to understand why ordinary American voters do not share his euphoric view of US President Joe Biden’s goldilocks economy – which appears to be neither hot nor cold. Inflation is falling, unemployment remains low, the economy is growing, and stock-market valuations are high. So why, Krugman asks, do voters give Biden’s economy a lousy 36% approval rating?" .... "what matters to working people is not the monthly or yearly price change taken alone. What matters is the effect on purchasing power and living standards over time. Whether these are rising or falling depends on the relationship of prices to wages. When wage growth exceeds price increases, times are generally good. When it doesn’t, they aren’t."
Sep 14th 2023
EXTRACT: "The fundamental lesson, then, is that the issuer of an incumbent international currency has it within its power to defend or neglect that status. Thus, whether the dollar retains its global role will depend not simply on US relations with Russia, China, or the BRICS. Rather, it will hinge on whether the US brings its soaring debts under control, avoids another unproductive debt-ceiling showdown, and gets its economic and political act together more generally."
Aug 31st 2023
EXTRACT: "TOULOUSE – The days between Christmas and the New Year often prompt many of us to reflect on the problems facing the world and to consider what we can do to improve our own lives. But I typically find myself in this contemplative state at the end of my summer holiday, during the dog days of August. After several weeks of relaxation – reading books, taking leisurely walks, and drifting in a swimming pool – I am more open to contemplating the significant challenges that will likely dominate discussions over the coming months and pondering how I can gain a better understanding of the issues at stake."
Aug 30th 2023
EXTRACT: "To the extent that international relations is an extension of interpersonal relations, how leaders publicly talk about their adversaries is important. US rhetoric about Putin, as much as shipments of F-16s, can push him – and thus the war – in various directions."
Aug 20th 2023
EXTRACT: "Since the end of World War II, the United Nations has been the cornerstone of the international rules-based order. While numerous other international agreements address issues such as chemical weapons, biological warfare, and regional stability, the UN has been entrusted with the overarching role of maintaining global peace and stability. What made it effective, at least for a while, was the support of the world’s liberal democracies and, crucially, the unwavering commitment of both Democratic and Republican administrations in the United States." ---- "That all changed with the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq, a sovereign country, in the face of fierce international opposition and without the UN Security Council’s approval. In doing so, the US severely damaged its own credibility and undermined the global rules-based system,... "Many of America’s current domestic political divisions grew out of the Iraq War. Whereas presidents like Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Dwight Eisenhower demonstrated that effective leaders can make the world a safer and better place, even in the face of great adversity, Bush’s presidency showed that the opposite is equally true."
Aug 20th 2023
EXTRACTS: "a period of parliamentary history between 1719 and 1772 called 'the age of liberty'. This marked the end of autocratic monarchy and the beginning of an era of parliamentary power " ---- "This was a period of large-scale legislative projects and freedom of speech became central to the idea of freedom from tyranny. The most important piece of legislation was the Freedom of the Press Act of 1766, a law that aimed to protect freedom of information as a means of promoting democracy. It has been amended since but its tenets remain the same. " ---- "Describing Muslims, to allude to the situation of the Qur’an burnings, as criminals would be criminal. But to burn the Qur’an is in itself not, according to the current formulation of the law, an attack on Muslims. It is rather seen as an attack on the religion of Islam. Such attacks are not illegal because the aim of the attack is not directed against a protected group of people but against a belief – an idea. That is not illegal."
Aug 18th 2023
EXTRACTS: "But if the dollar should lose its privileged place, what could replace it? At present, the euro, which accounts for 20% of global central-bank reserves, is the only currency that could realistically serve as a substitute. Its appeal, however, is undermined by the fragmentation of Europe’s national sovereign-debt markets, as well as lingering doubts about the European Union’s long-term viability in the wake of the UK’s departure.'" ---- "The Chinese renminbi, which accounts for less than 3% of global reserves, is not a serious threat to dollar hegemony. "