Waiting for the end of the world

Supervolcanoes, ash clouds, supernovas, asteroids, climate chaos - take your pick.

So, we’re finally there: December 2012, the month the world ends. Assuming the Mayan prophecies are right, it seems awfully late in the day for the University of Cambridge to open its Project for Existential Risk.

Martin Rees, a former president of the Royal Society and noted doom-monger, is leading the way. He has long been convinced that human activity is capable of wiping us all out. We should worry less about the effect of pesticides in our food, he says, and more about the possibility of a bioengineering lab unwittingly releasing a new plague into the world. Or someone pressing the nuclear bomb button. Or robots rising up to make us their slaves. Or computers becoming sentient and shutting down the systems on which we depend.

These are the “low-probability, high-impact” events that could do us in and we’re not paying them enough attention. “These issues require a great deal more scientific investigation than they currently receive,” says the project’s philosopher, Huw Price.

We could be accused of an overinflated self-importance here. The greater part of humanity has always survived a virus pandemic, for instance, so there is no reason to think that any human-engineered virus will bring about an extinction event. Yes, the computers and robots could become self-aware in theory but that’s something we’ve been actively trying to engineer for decades – without success. And they might not want to destroy us even if they do become sentient. At least, not until they get to know us.

Much more scary is what natural catastrophes – whether on earth or beyond it – could do to us. We can reasonably expect a catastrophic supervolcano eruption in the next 100,000 years, for instance. The ash cloud from such an event would do more than keep aircraft grounded: it would envelop the earth in near-darkness for years, bringing global food production to a halt. Billions would die.

A supernova explosion or gamma-ray burst that fires its radiation towards earth would destroy the ozone layer, creating an ultraviolet ray burden that would give most of us fatal cancers. Such events happen at random every few hundred million years and there is no defence.

We might be able to deflect an incoming asteroid but species-destroying asteroids are not too frequent. Experts reckon that an impact with global significance happens maybe twice in a million years. For now, the skies are clear.

It’s worth noting that scientific projects such as the one starting out in Cambridge talk about existential risks to humanity but tend to focus on events that would primarily affect developed western societies. You are much more likely to suffer a nuclear strike, say, if you live in a highly developed part of the world, especially one of its capital cities.

Similarly, an event that destroys electricity supply infrastructure – whether it results from terrorist action or a solar flare – poses a much greater existential risk for those living in areas where heating or air conditioning is essential to survival. Again, these tend to be more developed, technologically reliant societies.

In many ways, it’s the inverse of the climate change threat. Rising sea levels and crop failures may change the economics of the western world but they are not an existential threat here. Less developed areas of the world, however, face total wipeout. These areas are powerless to protect themselves, largely because they are not the source of the problem. It would be interesting to set up a Tuvalu Project for Existential Risk. The islanders might well conclude that their most pressing problem would be solved by a small nuclear war among the earth’s major civilisations.

Michael Brooks’s “The Secret Anarchy of Science” is published by Profile Books (£8.99)

Fragments of a star: an image of a Cas A supernova. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Greece: a warning for Britain?

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How Theresa May laid a trap for herself on the immigration target

When Home Secretary, she insisted on keeping foreign students in the figures – causing a headache for herself today.

When Home Secretary, Theresa May insisted that foreign students should continue to be counted in the overall immigration figures. Some cabinet colleagues, including then Business Secretary Vince Cable and Chancellor George Osborne wanted to reverse this. It was economically illiterate. Current ministers, like the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, Chancellor Philip Hammond and Home Secretary Amber Rudd, also want foreign students exempted from the total.

David Cameron’s government aimed to cut immigration figures – including overseas students in that aim meant trying to limit one of the UK’s crucial financial resources. They are worth £25bn to the UK economy, and their fees make up 14 per cent of total university income. And the impact is not just financial – welcoming foreign students is diplomatically and culturally key to Britain’s reputation and its relationship with the rest of the world too. Even more important now Brexit is on its way.

But they stayed in the figures – a situation that, along with counterproductive visa restrictions also introduced by May’s old department, put a lot of foreign students off studying here. For example, there has been a 44 per cent decrease in the number of Indian students coming to Britain to study in the last five years.

Now May’s stubbornness on the migration figures appears to have caught up with her. The Times has revealed that the Prime Minister is ready to “soften her longstanding opposition to taking foreign students out of immigration totals”. It reports that she will offer to change the way the numbers are calculated.

Why the u-turn? No 10 says the concession is to ensure the Higher and Research Bill, key university legislation, can pass due to a Lords amendment urging the government not to count students as “long-term migrants” for “public policy purposes”.

But it will also be a factor in May’s manifesto pledge (and continuation of Cameron’s promise) to cut immigration to the “tens of thousands”. Until today, ministers had been unclear about whether this would be in the manifesto.

Now her u-turn on student figures is being seized upon by opposition parties as “massaging” the migration figures to meet her target. An accusation for which May only has herself, and her steadfast politicising of immigration, to blame.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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