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?

Photo: Getty Images
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The future of policing is still at risk even after George Osborne's U-Turn

The police have avoided the worst, but crime is changing and they cannot stand still. 

We will have to wait for the unofficial briefings and the ministerial memoirs to understand what role the tragic events in Paris had on the Chancellor’s decision to sustain the police budget in cash terms and increase it overall by the end of the parliament.  Higher projected tax revenues gave the Chancellor a surprising degree of fiscal flexibility, but the atrocities in Paris certainly pushed questions of policing and security to the top of the political agenda. For a police service expecting anything from a 20 to a 30 per cent cut in funding, fears reinforced by the apparent hard line the Chancellor took over the weekend, this reprieve is an almighty relief.  

So, what was announced?  The overall police budget will be protected in real terms (£900 million more in cash terms) up to 2019/20 with the following important caveats.  First, central government grant to forces will be reduced in cash terms by 2019/20, but forces will be able to bid into a new transformation fund designed to finance moves such as greater collaboration between forces.  In other words there is a cash frozen budget (given important assumptions about council tax) eaten away by inflation and therefore requiring further efficiencies and service redesign.

Second, the flat cash budget for forces assumes increases in the police element of the council tax. Here, there is an interesting new flexibility for Police and Crime Commissioners.  One interpretation is that instead of precept increases being capped at 2%, they will be capped at £12 million, although we need further detail to be certain.  This may mean that forces which currently raise relatively small cash amounts from their precept will be able to raise considerably more if Police and Crime Commissioners have the courage to put up taxes.  

With those caveats, however, this is clearly a much better deal for policing than most commentators (myself included) predicted.  There will be less pressure to reduce officer numbers. Neighbourhood policing, previously under real threat, is likely to remain an important component of the policing model in England and Wales.  This is good news.

However, the police service should not use this financial reprieve as an excuse to duck important reforms.  The reforms that the police have already planned should continue, with any savings reinvested in an improved and more effective service.

It would be a retrograde step for candidates in the 2016 PCC elections to start pledging (as I am certain many will) to ‘protect officer numbers’.  We still need to rebalance the police workforce.   We need more staff with the kind of digital skills required to tackle cybercrime.  We need more crime analysts to help deploy police resources more effectively.  Blanket commitments to maintain officer numbers will get in the way of important reforms.

The argument for inter-force collaboration and, indeed, force mergers does not go away. The new top sliced transformation fund is designed in part to facilitate collaboration, but the fact remains that a 43 force structure no longer makes sense in operational or financial terms.

The police still have to adapt to a changing world. Falling levels of traditional crime and the explosion in online crime, particularly fraud and hacking, means we need an entirely different kind of police service.  Many of the pressures the police experience from non-crime demand will not go away. Big cuts to local government funding and the wider criminal justice system mean we need to reorganise the public service frontline to deal with problems such as high reoffending rates, child safeguarding and rising levels of mental illness.

Before yesterday I thought policing faced an existential moment and I stand by that. While the service has now secured significant financial breathing space, it still needs to adapt to an increasingly complex world. 

Rick Muir is director of the Police Foundation