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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Unite stewards urge members to back Owen Smith

In a letter to Unite members, the officials have called for a vote for the longshot candidate.

29 Unite officials have broken ranks and thrown their weight behind Owen Smith’s longshot bid for the Labour leadership in an open letter to their members.

The officials serve as stewards, conveners and negotiators in Britain’s aerospace and shipbuilding industries, and are believed in part to be driven by Jeremy Corbyn’s longstanding opposition to the nuclear deterrent and defence spending more generally.

In the letter to Unite members, who are believed to have been signed up in large numbers to vote in the Labour leadership race, the stewards highlight Smith’s support for extra funding in the NHS and his vision for an industrial strategy.

Corbyn was endorsed by Unite, Labour's largest affliated union and the largest trades union in the country, following votes by Unite's ruling executive committee and policy conference. 

Although few expect the intervention to have a decisive role in the Labour leadership, regarded as a formality for Corbyn, the opposition of Unite workers in these industries may prove significant in Len McCluskey’s bid to be re-elected as general secretary of Unite.

 

The full letter is below:

Britain needs a Labour Government to defend jobs, industry and skills and to promote strong trade unions. As convenors and shop stewards in the manufacturing, defence, aerospace and energy sectors we believe that Owen Smith is the best candidate to lead the Labour Party in opposition and in government.

Owen has made clear his support for the industries we work in. He has spelt out his vision for an industrial strategy which supports great British businesses: investing in infrastructure, research and development, skills and training. He has set out ways to back British industry with new procurement rules to protect jobs and contracts from being outsourced to the lowest bidder. He has demanded a seat at the table during the Brexit negotiations to defend trade union and workers’ rights. Defending manufacturing jobs threatened by Brexit must be at the forefront of the negotiations. He has called for the final deal to be put to the British people via a second referendum or at a general election.

But Owen has also talked about the issues which affect our families and our communities. Investing £60 billion extra over 5 years in the NHS funded through new taxes on the wealthiest. Building 300,000 new homes a year over 5 years, half of which should be social housing. Investing in Sure Start schemes by scrapping the charitable status of private schools. That’s why we are backing Owen.

The Labour Party is at a crossroads. We cannot ignore reality – we need to be radical but we also need to be credible – capable of winning the support of the British people. We need an effective Opposition and we need a Labour Government to put policies into practice that will defend our members’ and their families’ interests. That’s why we are backing Owen.

Steve Hibbert, Convenor Rolls Royce, Derby
Howard Turner, Senior Steward, Walter Frank & Sons Limited
Danny Coleman, Branch Secretary, GE Aviation, Wales
Karl Daly, Deputy Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Nigel Stott, Convenor, BASSA, British Airways
John Brough, Works Convenor, Rolls Royce, Barnoldswick
John Bennett, Site Convenor, Babcock Marine, Devonport, Plymouth
Kevin Langford, Mechanical Convenor, Babcock, Devonport, Plymouth
John McAllister, Convenor, Vector Aerospace Helicopter Services
Garry Andrews, Works Convenor, Rolls Royce, Sunderland
Steve Froggatt, Deputy Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Jim McGivern, Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Alan Bird, Chairman & Senior Rep, Rolls Royce, Derby
Raymond Duguid, Convenor, Babcock, Rosyth
Steve Duke, Senior Staff Rep, Rolls Royce, Barnoldswick
Paul Welsh, Works Convenor, Brush Electrical Machines, Loughborough
Bob Holmes, Manual Convenor, BAE Systems, Warton, Lancs
Simon Hemmings, Staff Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Mick Forbes, Works Convenor, GKN, Birmingham
Ian Bestwick, Chief Negotiator, Rolls Royce Submarines, Derby
Mark Barron, Senior Staff Rep, Pallion, Sunderland
Ian Hodgkison, Chief Negotiator, PCO, Rolls Royce
Joe O’Gorman, Convenor, BAE Systems, Maritime Services, Portsmouth
Azza Samms, Manual Workers Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Dave Thompson, Staff Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Tim Griffiths, Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Paul Blake, Convenor, Princess Yachts, Plymouth
Steve Jones, Convenor, Rolls Royce, Bristol
Colin Gosling, Senior Rep, Siemens Traffic Solutions, Poole

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.