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/Christopher Furlong
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A dozen defeated parliamentary candidates back Caroline Flint for deputy

Supporters of all the leadership candidates have rallied around Caroline Flint's bid to be deputy leader.

Twelve former parliamentary candidates have backed Caroline Flint's bid to become deputy leader in an open letter to the New Statesman. Dubbing the Don Valley MP a "fantastic campaigner", they explain that why despite backing different candidates for the leadership, they "are united in supporting Caroline Flint to be Labour's next deputy leader", who they describe as a "brilliant communicator and creative policy maker". 

Flint welcomed the endorsement, saying: "our candidates know better than most what it takes to win the sort of seats Labour must gain in order to win a general election, so I'm delighted to have their support.". She urged Labour to rebuild "not by lookin to the past, but by learning from the past", saying that "we must rediscover Labour's voice, especially in communities wher we do not have a Labour MP:".

The Flint campaign will hope that the endorsement provides a boost as the campaign enters its final days.

The full letter is below:

There is no route to Downing Street that does not run through the seats we fought for Labour at the General Election.

"We need a new leadership team that can win back Labour's lost voters.

Although we are backing different candidates to be Leader, we are united in supporting Caroline Flint to be Labour's next deputy leader.

Not only is Caroline a fantastic campaigner, who toured the country supporting Labour's candidates, she's also a brilliant communicator and creative policy maker, which is exactly what we need in our next deputy leader.

If Labour is to win the next election, it is vital that we pick a leadership team that doesn't just appeal to Labour Party members, but is capable of winning the General Election. Caroline Flint is our best hope of beating the Tories.

We urge Labour Party members and supporters to unite behind Caroline Flint and begin the process of rebuilding to win in 2020.

Jessica Asato (Norwich North), Will Straw (Rossendale and Darween), Nick Bent (Warrington South), Mike Le Surf (South Basildon and East Thurrock), Tris Osborne (Chatham and Aylesford), Victoria Groulef (Reading West), Jamie Hanley (Pudsey), Kevin McKeever (Northampton South), Joy Squires (Worcester), Paul Clark (Gillingham and Rainham), Patrick Hall (Bedford) and Mary Wimbury (Aberconwy)

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.