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?

Getty
Show Hide image

Election 2017: 30 MPs at risk from a Lib Dem surge

The Lib Dems are hopeful of winning "dozens" of seats on June 8. Here's a list of the 30 most vulnerable if the party surges.

Buoyed by the 48 per cent's Brexit backlash, Labour's disarray, a famous win in Richmond Park and a string of council by-election victories, the Liberal Democrats say they are on course to make "dozens" of gains come June 8. 

Its targets can for the most part be divided into two broad categories: the first a disparate clutch of seats held before their 2015 collapse, the second a handful of new targets whose pro-Remain electorates are at odds with Brexiteer MPs.

The party is particularly hopeful of recouping the losses it made to the Tories in its erstwhile south west heartlands at the last election. As George revealed last month, internal polling reveals most of those seats could be vulnerable to a Lib Dem surge - as several Labour-held seats in England and Wales that broke heavily for remain in last year's referendum. 

EU referendum results were, for the most part, released by local authority rather than Westminster constituency – the totals in this list, where not officially available, are taken from political scientist Dr Chris Hanretty’s estimates, of which a full table is available here.

Labour-held:

Daniel Zeichner – Cambridge
Majority: 599 (1.2 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 69 per cent Remain

Julie Cooper – Burnley
Majority: 3,244 (8.1 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 40 per cent Remain

Neil Coyle – Bermondsey and Old Southwark
Majority: 4,489 (8.7 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 68 per cent Remain

Thangam Debbonaire – Bristol West
Majority: 5,673 (8.9 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 80 per cent Remain

Jo Stevens – Cardiff Central
Majority: 4,981 (12.9 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 62 per cent Remain

Jess Phillips – Birmingham Yardley
Majority: 6,595 (16 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 36 per cent Remain

Kate Hoey - Vauxhall 
Majority: 12708 (25.6 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 81 per cent Remain

Conservative-held:

Maria Caulfield – Lewes
Majority: 1083 (2.1 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 50 per cent Remain

Luke Hall – Thornbury and Yate
Majority: 1459 (3.1 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 44 per cent Remain

James Berry – Kingston and Surbiton
Majority: 2834 (4.8 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 60 per cent Remain

Marcus Fysh – Yeovil
Majority: 5293 (5.3 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 39 per cent Remain

Derek Thomas – St Ives
Majority: 2469 (5.1 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 46 per cent Remain

Kevin Foster – Torbay
Majority: 3286 (6.8 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 40 per cent Remain

Paul Scully – Sutton and Cheam
Majority: 3921 (7.8 per cent)
EU referendum vote:  49 per cent Remain

Ben Howlett – Bath
Majority: 3833 (8.1 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 66 per cent Remain

Will Quince – Colchester
Majority: 5575 (11.5 per cent)
EU referendum vote:  49 per cent Remain

Mary Robinson – Cheadle
Majority: 6453 (12.1 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 58 per cent Remain

 Alex Chalk - Cheltenham
Majority: 6516 (12.1 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 57 per cent Remain

Peter Heaton-Jones - North Devon
Majority: 6936 (13.3 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 43 per cent Remain

James Heappey – Wells
Majority: 7585 (13.3 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 47 per cent Remain

Scott Mann - North Cornwall
Majority: 6621 (13.7 per cent)
EU referendum vote:  40 per cent Remain

Anne-Marie Trevelyan – Berwick-upon-Tweed
Majority: 4914 (12.2 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 45 per cent Remain
 

Flick Drummond - Portsmouth South
Majority: 5241 (12.5 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 48 per cent Remain

Nicola Blackwood – Oxford West and Abingdon
Majority: 9,582 (16.7 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 61 per cent Remain

Anne Main – St Albans
Majority: 12,732 (23.4 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 64 per cent Remain

 

SNP-held:

John Nicolson – Dunbartonshire East
Majority: 2167 (4 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 71 per cent Remain

Michelle Thomson – Edinburgh West
Majority: 3210 (5.9 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 71 per cent Remain

Stephen Gethins – North East Fife
Majority: 4344 (9.6 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 62 per cent Remain

Paul Monaghan – Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross
Majority: 3844 (11.2 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 51 per cent Remain

Ian Blackford - Ross, Skye and Lochaber
Majority: 5124 (12.2 per cent)
EU referendum vote: 57 per cent Remain

 

 

 

0800 7318496