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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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.