The optimism of Mark Stevenson

The former pop star and cryptographer who knows how to save the world.

With swaths of Australia's eastern seaboard underwater, this week's New Statesman has a timely piece on the simple idea that could stop the country's destructive cycle of drought and flood. (You'll never guess what it is.)

It's written by Mark Stevenson, whose book An Optimist's Tour of the Future was published yesterday. It has received stellar reviews all over the place and is one of the most interesting science books I've read for a long time.

It turns out that Mark's got the best back story since Brian Cox – he, too, was in a pop band (they were big in Chile) and he was also a cryptography expert. Now, he's a stand-up comedian, writer and educator, trying to find out whether we're all doomed.

He has decided to take an optimistic – but rational – look at what the future might hold for us as a species. In his own words:

I've travelled over 60,000 miles across four continents, talked to more than 30 geniuses, met four robots and had two terrible conversations with computers. I've contemplated immortality, the end of capitalism and a new age of human evolution. In the process, I've attended an underwater cabinet meeting, helped invent one cocktail, been insulted in the outback, made a brace of new friends and had near-death experiences. I'm not the same person I was when I started.

The contentious subjects covered by the book include the human genome, nanotechnology, genetic engineering and renewable energy. Stevenson tackles them in an approachable way by focusing on the individual stories of the (often quite eccentric) people involved.

One of them is Aubrey de Grey, the gerontologist whose work on rodents makes him think that people can live to a 1,000 years old (as long as we don't get fat). You can see de Grey in action at a Ted talk here. Not only does he have the best beard in science, he might be the fastest talker you'll ever hear.

Mark also met a Columbia University professor called Klaus Lackner, who's developed a cheap and efficient way to scrub CO2 from the atmosphere – and now needs $20m to build a commercial prototype.

Then there's the controversial futurist Ray Kurzweil, who believes that humans will soon merge with technology and become a new species. (I knew my Xbox had been looking at me oddly.)

You can read more about the book (and Mark's pop career) here.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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Michel Barnier is Britain's best friend, but the Brexiteers are too shallow to notice

The right's obsession with humilating a man who should be a great British asset is part of why negotiations are in a mess. 

Sam Coates of the Times has the inside track on what Theresa May is planning to say in her big speech in Florence tomorrow: a direct appeal to the leaders of the European Union’s member states over the head of Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator.

I explained some of the problems with this approach in my morning briefing earlier today, but just to reiterate: the major difficulty is that Barnier’s mandate as a negotiator hasn’t emerged fully formed from the mind of some scheming bureaucrat in the European Commissio, but after discussion and agreement by the heads of member states. There are problems with the EU approach to sequencing talks, but the chances of changing it by appealing to the people who set it in the first place seems unlikely, to put it mildly.  

Barnier seems to occupy a strange position in the demonology of right-wing Brexiteers, I suspect largely due to ignorance about how the EU works, and in some cases Francophobia. The reality is that Barnier is the single politician outside of the United Kingdom with the most to lose from a bad Brexit deal.

If the Brexit talks end badly, then that will be the first line of Barnier’s obituary. Back in his native France, the centre-right is in opposition and none of the candidates vying to lead the Republicans are are going to give him a big domestic job to save his reputation.

His dream of parlaying a successful turn as the EU27’s chief negotiator into running the Commission relies not only on the talks succeeding, but him cultivating a good relationship with the heads of government across the EU27. In other words: for Barnier to get what he wants, he needs both to secure a good deal and to keep to the objectives set for him by the heads of member states. A good deal for all sides is a great deal for Barnier. 

As a result, the Brexit elite ought to see Barnier as what he really is: their best friend on the other side of the table. Instead, they are indulging in fantasies about tricking Barnier, undermining Barnier, and overcoming Barnier. In short, once again, they are bungling Brexit because they don’t want to think about it or approach it seriously. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.