by Steven B. Kurtz
ScienceDirect - Futures - Volume 37, Issue 1
London (2003) 228 pages, £17.99
This is as macro as it gets, folks. Multiverses,
big bangs, solar systems, and yes, our planet are systemically linked
and existentially evaluated by Sir Martin Rees in this superb work. The
universal and the particular, objective and subjective, probable and
unknowable, are among the tensions and dynamics running throughout this
examination of various risks that humans are helping to concoct for the
future. The book examines highlights and trends of human history from
anthropological, environmental, and sci-tech perspectives.
Rees discusses the 20th century arms race and the
dilemma of mutually assured destruction via nuclear weapons. Indeed, he
thinks we are lucky to have survived the past 50 years. He surveys the
environmental degradation and resource depletion that
have accelerated since the industrial age began, and appreciates
the ‘green’ or full-cost accounting that some economists have
suggested which counts more than monetary costs and profit.
Rees questions the value of the views of the future
by many known ‘experts’: "Scientists are often blind to the
ramifications of their own discoveries." (p. 13). He gives examples
including the opinion of both computer designer Von Neumann and IBM
founder T.J. Watson that only a few computers would be needed in the US.
Rees generally agrees with Ray Kurzweil (The Age of Spiritual
Machines), Gordon Moore (Moore's Law), Hans Moravec (robotics), and
John Sulston (Human Genome Project) that the speed of technological
change will continue increasing. But he perceives far more risk from the
likely progressions than do the others. And he integrates physical
limits, which most do not, noting "some limits are set by energy
and resources." (p.20). Rather than viewing science as a requisite
sum of certainties, Rees agrees with Isaac Asimov, whom he quotes:
"No matter how much we learn, whatever is left, however small it
may seem, is just as infinitely complex as the whole was to start
with." (p. 142).
When future probabilities are considered, best
judgments usually depend upon a consensus of best current
evidence.Religious-like fervor in adherance to particular theories is
irrational behaviour; yet that seems to be a dominant human trait.
Sociobiologists like E.O. Wilson have examined this for decades. Rees
engages this issue indirectly. Evolution selects traits that best fit
the circumstances for the life form. Imprudent risk-taking and feelings
of invincibility are characteristics of the explorer in us—like those
who sailed the flat earth risking the unknown cliff. That irrational
trait may now have become our achilles heel, as the ramifications of our
technologically enhanced behaviour create horrific possible outcomes.
The quadrupling of our numbers in one century stresses our everyday
lives and earth's biosphere, increasing our self-destructive potential.
Rees covers all of this and more.
Rees is among the few scientists who easily think
in a whole-system fashion while largely avoiding jargon and convoluted
explanations. His examination of the history and trajectory of earth and
its' life forms is systemically connected to the cosmos via feedback
loops at many levels. The inter-linkages demonstrate interdependence;
and humans are pushing the envelope on many fronts. Rees accepts
infinite reality as the most reasonable assumption rather than positing
a boundary for which there is no evidence. We do not know if
‘intelligent life’ (as we define it) exists elsewhere. So he feels
we have a responsibility to carry on successfully if possible.
Rees gives major consideration to ‘bioerror’
and ‘bioterror’. He has offered US$1000 as his half of a charitable
bet that at least one million humans will die from a single event
involving one or the other of these within 10 years. The offer may be
accepted at http://www.longbets.org. The Long Now Foundation operates
this website, with participants such as Kurzweil,
Paul Hawken, and myself. I urge everyone to have a
look at this site, as it encourages long-term thinking about a wide
variety of issues affecting our future.
The risk with the potential for the greatest
destruction would threaten not only earth but conceivably the entire
universe. A knowledge of astrophysics may be required to properly grasp
this, but the gist of it makes sense. Future, vastly more rapid
high-speed particle collision experiments are known to have the unlikely
potential to create a ‘new’ particle called a "strangelet",
which could cause earth to compress into a 100 m diameter sphere. A
black hole could also be a result, engulfing earth. There is a third
risk: the creation of a ‘vacuum bubble’. This "could trigger a
‘phase transition’ that would rip the fabric of space itself."
(p. 121). Since this would occur at the speed of light, the event would
be unknown until it happened.
Rees makes the point that the greater the risk, the
less the high odds against the occurrence matters. The stakes are just
too high. Yet he claims that many risks have been taken without a proper
societal evaluation of the merits of doing so. Many people worldwide now
plead for the use of ‘The Precautionary Principle’ when discussing
what they perceive to be reckless, inadequately tested scientific
experimentation and technological applications. Rees agrees that the
current system is flawed, going as far as discussing the ‘Paymasters
of Science’ (p. 79).
According to some futurists, progress in
nanotechnology risks the future takeover of life forms by machines. Rees
is concerned about the perpetuity of what he calls intelligent life.
Humans could live virtually indefinitely with smart parts. But earth
might not be hospitable. Perhaps we will attempt to colonize other
worlds, following the irrational urge of the flat-earth explorers. Rees
thinks it is possible that there is other intelligent life some
This leads to my only critical comment about the
book. In effect, Rees follows the ‘Anthropic Principle’ in opting
for a continuation of our type of being as of utmost import. This
implies teleology, a positive direction of evolution or development in
which complexity of mind and senses somehow matters. And it implies a
plan or purpose, to some a first cause. Of course this is existentially
normal: to create value subjectively from one's point of view. But Rees
also holds that infinite multi-verses are as likely as a single
"…what we have traditionally called our
universe may be just one ‘island’ in an infinite archipelago."
The notion of infinite possibilities can lead one
to the conclusion that whatever ‘is’, must exist some place-time.
Infinite combinations of elements of reality MUST-some place-time
arrange as they do here-now. The usual argument made is that given the
numbers of things that had to fit properly for humans to develop on
earth, there must have been a plan. In my view, this is The Spirit in
the Gene at work ; humans feel
special and create the meaning of life to suit that need. Obviously,
given infinite time-space and constant change, a planet ripe for human
life is a necessary eventuality. We have difficulty with the concept of
infinity; and we do not like thinking of ourselves as an accident!
It seems to me that most humans have difficulty
thinking and behaving with long term horizons in mind. We may focus on,
for example, our next bonus, paycheck, job, meal, sexual encounter, or
crime. The tougher our personal circumstance is, the shorter term is our
required focus. Survival is number one. Recall the native American
notion of Seven Generations. A sustainable human future requires that
sort of thinking in my opinion, and I think Rees fully agrees.
All in all, Rees has done a magnificent job of
framing the risks of the 21st century. The book is quite accessible, and
I would like to see it required reading for all capable of high school
level material. The fewer of us flying blind into the future the better.
||Further Reading|| Please
answer the survey
the PowerPoint Ebook
an ecological bag