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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue