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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For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood