Reasons to be cheerless: all the ways in which humanity might soon be obliterated

Remarkably, Martin Rees’s extended menu of our potential fates does not feel as depressing as it ought to.

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In 1902, in a lecture at the Royal Institution in London, HG Wells itemised the existential dangers to mankind. His checklist of calamities included “something from space, or pestilence, or some great disease of the atmosphere, some trailing cometary poison…or new animals to prey on us, or some drug or wrecking madness in the mind of man.”

If Wells has an heir in this gloomy regard, it is Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal and former president of the Royal Society. His concise new offering, On The Future: Prospects for Humanity, serves an updated menu of the ways in which we might, accidentally or not, find ourselves obliterated.

Climate change, nuclear war or an asteroid strike could wipe out the planet as a viable habitat. An overpopulated world – there are projected to be nine billion citizens by 2050 – offers handsome prospects for starvation and pandemic disease. In a highly connected world run by machines, the consequences of cyber-attacks can cascade globally. Who knows, the rise of artificial intelligence may even put us under the titanium jackboot of future robotic overlords.

Remarkably, what seems like an extended state-of-the-planet essay does not feel as depressing as it ought: Rees dispenses his apocalyptic overview of the coming decades like cocktail party wisdom. The author, who moves in elevated circles and has the papal ear, is an affable doom merchant for the time-poor Davos crowd.

He sets out his dual-identity stall at the outset: he is both an “anxious member of the human race” and, unsurprisingly for a celebrated scientist, a techno-optimist who favours checking progress over halting it (his mantra is “responsible innovation”). His duality draws comparison with Wells, whose novels and other writings presaged both the utopian and dystopian implications of scientific advances.

This planet, Rees points out, has been in existence for 45 million centuries but it is only over the past 100 years that the future has looked dicey. That is because we find ourselves in the Anthropocene period, a new chapter in the planet’s history, in which humans are the dominant factor in altering the environment. Sadly, we are making a meal of it: polluting the atmosphere and spoiling the habitats of other species. “Extinction rates are rising – we’re destroying the book of life before we’ve read it,” he laments. Elizabeth Kolbert, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning best-seller The Sixth Extinction, has similarly argued that this unthinking destruction could end up being our final legacy.

Rees believes, along with most scientists, that global warming should be taken far more seriously – as gravely as if an asteroid were on a collision course with Earth. Certainly, the recent report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, advocating that the global temperature rise be capped at 1.5°C by 2030, warns that unless the world makes “unprecedented changes” in lifestyle, industry, land use, transport and energy production, we are heading for environmental catastrophe. Sensitive habitats such as coral reefs will die off irreversibly; climate-linked diseases such as malaria will spread; rising sea levels will affect millions in coastal communities, triggering migration and poverty; millions more will face the health hazards of heatwaves. It is hard not to see global warming as Wells’s  “great disease of the atmosphere”.

The problem, of course, is that politicians prioritise easy, short-term local wins. Combating climate change is a diffuse, long-term prize that involves immediate pain: it is the planet and future generations, not me personally, that will benefit from my sacrifices, such as giving up a car, switching to vegetarianism and turning the thermostat down.

To solve this, Rees recommends that nations empower supra-national organisations, perhaps along the lines of the United Nations, to fill the leadership vacuum. It is a surprisingly naive thought: it takes no special insight to see that populist  movements are turning against global institutions in favour of nationalistic self-interest.

Another threat is rogue biotechnology. The spread of cut-price, easy-to-use scientific equipment has turned “biohacking” into an amateur hobby. You can fiddle around with DNA in a garage. Rees writes: “Whatever can be done will be done by someone, somewhere… technical expertise doesn’t guarantee balanced rationality. The global village will have its village idiots and they’ll have global range.” His nightmare is an unhinged loner armed with a bioweapon, perhaps a deadly virus engineered to be as contagious as the common cold.

Extermination, though, can also come from ineptitude. In his 2003 prelude, Our Final Century, Rees calculated a 50 per cent chance that, by 2020, a single incident of bioterror or bio-error (the accidental release of a pathogen) will lead to a million deaths. The Harvard psychologist and arch-optimist Steven Pinker bet him $200 against. In two years, we will learn whether it is the pessimist or the Pollyanna who has taken the planet’s pulse correctly.

For completeness, I should mention the extremely unlikely but headline-grabbing apocalyptic scenario associated with high-energy particle physics experiments, such as those carried out at Cern in Geneva. There are several loopholes in physics theories that allow for a theoretically non-zero risk of cosmic catastrophe, such as the creation of a black hole or a “phase transition” powerful enough to rip the fabric of space. The odds of such an exotic and complete ending are on a par with the sun not rising tomorrow – but it still behoves us to contemplate them.

Humanity might survive these existential perils but become altered in the process. Rees wonders how cybertechnology, biotechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence will change or enhance us. These technologies are now keenly associated with the private sector: he warns of the “emergent threat from technically empowered mavericks” as we race into the future, barely pausing to consider the ethical implications of the journey. 

While we might be horrified at the prospect of super-intelligent machines usurping our own species, though, Rees seems strangely enervated. Our obsolescence, he implies, is cause for optimism: “The civilisation that supplants us could accomplish unimaginable advances – feats, perhaps, that we cannot even understand.” Some form of near-immortal electronic life could end up exporting itself into the cosmos.

This passage delivered my “a-ha” moment as a reader. If Rees can list various plausible routes to total oblivion with detachment, even jauntiness, it is because he apparently reserves no special affection for humanity. We are a mere staging post in the march of evolution.

He does not wish for more humans: he longs for population decline, especially as low-income countries aspire to the profligate lifestyles of richer nations. Some think it our moral duty to preserve the planet for unborn generations; Rees is less sentimental about our unrealised descendants.

While not contemptuous, he is certainly exasperated by the humans who exist today, rolling his eyes at our selfishness, stupidity and short-sightedness: “Spaceship Earth is hurtling through the void. Its passengers are anxious and fractious. Their life-support system is vulnerable to disruption and breakdowns. But there is too little planning, too little horizon scanning, too little awareness of long-term risks.”

Let me summarise with a monstrous hybrid: the spirit of Rees embodied in the words of Wells. The most dangerous wrecking madness in the mind of man might not be killer robots or bioterrorism, but carelessness. 

Anjana Ahuja is a Financial Times contributing writer

On the Future: Prospects for Humanity
Martin Rees
Princeton University Press, 272pp, £14.99

This article appears in the 26 October 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit crash