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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10 times Nicola Sturgeon nailed what it's like to be a Remain voter post-Brexit

Scotland's First Minister didn't mince her words.

While Westminster flounders, up in Holyrood, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has busied herself trying to find a way for Scotland to stay in the European Union

And in a speech on Monday, she laid out the options.

The Scottish Nationalist acknowledged the option of independence would not be straightforward, but she added: “It may well be that the option that offers us the greatest certainty, stability and the maximum control over our own destiny, is that of independence.”

She also hinted at a more measured stance, where Scotland could “retain ties and keep open channels” with the EU while other countries within the UK “pursue different outcomes”. 

And she praised the new PM Theresa May’s commitment to wait for a UK-wide agreement before triggering Article 50.

But Sturgeon’s wide-ranging speech also revisited her memories of Brexit, and the days of chaos that followed. Here are some of the best bits.

1. On the referendum

I am the last person you will hear criticising the principle of referenda. But proposing a referendum when you believe in the constitutional change it offers is one thing. Proposing - as David Cameron did - a referendum even though he opposed the change on offer is quite another. 

2. On the result

I told the Scottish Parliament a few days later that I was “disappointed and concerned” by the result. I have to admit that was parliamentary language for a much stronger feeling.

3. On the Leave campaign

I felt, and still feel, contempt for a Leave campaign that had lied and given succour to the racism and intolerance of the far right.

4. On leadership

It seemed abundantly clear to me that people - even many of those who had voted to Leave - were going to wake up feeling very anxious and uncertain. It was therefore the job of politicians, not to pretend that we instantly had all the answers, but to give a sense of direction. To try to create some order out of the chaos. That’s what I was determined to try to do for Scotland. I assumed that UK politicians would do likewise. I was wrong. 

5. On EU nationals

I felt then – and still feel very strongly today - that we must give them as much reassurance as possible. It is wrong that the UK government has not yet given a guarantee of continued residence to those who have built lives, careers and families here in the UK.

6. On karma

You tend to reap what you have sown over many years. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise to politicians who have spent years denigrating the EU and pandering to the myths about free movement, that some voters simply did not believe them when they suddenly started extolling the virtues of both.

7. On teenage voters

I think it was wrong in principle to deny EU nationals and 16 & 17 year olds the right to vote. But, as well as being wrong in principle, it was also tactically foolish. 

8. On slogans

While “Brexit means Brexit” is intended to sound like a strong statement of intent it is, in truth, just a soundbite that masks a lack of any clear sense of direction.

9. On Scotland

Some will say that we also voted to stay in the UK, so we must accept the UK wide verdict. But in 2014, we voted to stay part of a UK that was a member of the EU - indeed, we were told then that protecting our EU membership was one of the main reasons to vote against independence.

10. On taking back control

To end up in a position, which is highly possible, where we have to abide by all the rules of the single market and pay to be part of it, but have no say whatsoever in what the rules are, would not be taking back control, to coin a phrase we’ve heard more than once recently- it would be giving up control.