The Grief Lectures 2010 – Part Two

by | Jun 23, 2010

In the previous post, I looked at the first of Martin Rees Reith Lectures. The President of the Royal Society believed that there is ‘a 50 percent chance of a setback to civilisation as bad as a nuclear war, or some consequence of 21st century technology equally serious’ occurring before this century is out. On this view, the dangers we have created for ourselves are so great that the notion of citizenship has to be rethought. Science is no longer limited to laboratories. It has transformed the human condition. It has created previously inconceivable possibilities of liberation, but also created the possibility of our annihilation. All it would take is one bad egg…

But on the other hand, concluding his second lecture, Rees finds reason to be cheerful…

I am actually an optimist – at least a techno-optimist. There seems no scientific impediment to achieving a sustainable world beyond 2050 where the developing countries have narrowed the gap with the developed, and all benefit from further scientific advances that could have as great and benign an impact as information technology and medical advances have had in the last decade.

Rees says that we can respond to the challenges that he and ‘science’ have identified. Those challenges are principally: overpopulation – which wouldn’t be a problem, if we ‘all adopted a vegetarian diet, travelling little but interacting just via super internet and virtual reality’; and global warming – which could be addressed by limiting individual CO2 equivalent usage to 2 tonnes per person per year. Straddling these two issues are other matters such as energy security, which can be solved by greater investment in R&D in the renewable and nuclear sectors. Our incautious actions are – says the Astronomer – causing the sixth largest extinction event in the Earth’s history.  We are precariously standing atop an increasingly fragile ecosystem and systems of our own creation that we have long since taken for-granted. And even scientists themselves may be the agents of our doom:

We’re kidding ourselves if we think that those with technical expertise will all be balanced and rational. Expertise can be allied with fanaticism – not just the traditional fundamentalism that we’re so mindful of today, but that exemplified by some New Age cults: extreme eco freaks; violent animal rights campaigners, and the like.

Even ‘eco freaks’ can be bad eggs, says Rees. Yet look what he is asking for. He may well distance himself from deep ecologists, but it is Rees who is setting out the case for revolution, premised not merely on the possibility of nature’s wrath, but the possibilities for apocalypse that are created by the existence eco-freaks themselves, and the endless appetites of the endlessly reproducing masses. Science has the solutions, but the problems lie with silly, irrational humans themselves:

It’s the politics and the sociology that pose the deepest concerns. Will richer countries realise that it’s in their self-interest for the developing world to prosper, sharing fully in the benefits of globalisation? Can nations sustain effective but non-repressive governance in the face of threats from small groups with high-tech expertise? And, above all, can our institutions prioritise projects which are long-term in political perspective even if a mere instant in the history of our planet?

Rees has an odd idea of ‘sharing fully in the benefits of globalisation’. He’s just told us that we’re to limit our use of energy to 2 tonnes of CO2 equivalent per year, that we’re all going to be vegetarians, and that we’re going to have to travel less, and engage with distant friends and families more ‘virtually’… If we want to survive, that is. These are all things that we usually hear from people pushing an argument in favour of localism – in which people live closer to the production of the goods they consume, and are more involved in that process, including a necessary increase in the amount of manual labour.

He worries about the continued possibility of liberal values (by which I mean the values that we enjoy in the West, not those opposite to ‘conservative’) in the face of scientifically-minded terrorists, but doesn’t this look more like a justification for a distinctly illiberal agenda? He’s just spent the best part of twenty minutes talking about population control. Indeed, who gets to decide really what ‘long-term political perspectives’ really ought to consist of? If Rees is concerned about the foundations of liberal society, he hasn’t done much to shore them up with ‘science’. In this speech he identifies – seemingly with scientific authority – the human as a destructive and irrational being, needy of control and supervision by institutions that govern as yet inadequately. This irrational creature has created the conditions of his own demise, and is committed to it unless he is properly supervised. Rees uses science to supply authority with the argument it needs legitimately rob people of political agency.

Science and technology created the possibilities from which global super powers – the USA and Soviet Union – emerged. The mutual threat that each posed gave rise to a peculiar form of politics. Now that threat seems to be over, Rees seems to be asking ‘what is today’s cold war?’ But rather than identifying its contemporary equivalent, might Rees not be mourning its loss, and the simplicity that it gave to our perspective on the world? Good versus evil. Left versus Right. Freedom versus oppression. West versus East. Rees was born in 1942, and therefore grew up in the shadow of the holocaust and then the Cold War. Just as these things defined the world’s condition, so too they would have created the basis of political authority. The possibility of annihilation gave shape to the politics of the era spanning most of Rees’s life. Having established today’s existential threat, he works backwards to locate its agent: the irrational human. To complete this picture, he puts us, and our society into cosmic perspective:

But in just a tiny sliver of the Earth’s history, the last one millionth part, patterns of vegetation altered at an accelerating rate. This signalled the growing impact of humans and the advent of agriculture.

Then, in just one century, came other changes. The amount of carbon dioxide in the air began to rise anomalously fast. The planet became an intense submitter of radio waves – the output from TV, cellphones and radar transmissions. And something else unprecedented happened: small projectiles, launched from the planet’s surface, escaped the biosphere completely. Some were propelled into orbits around the Earth; some journeyed to the moon and planets.

If they understood astrophysics, the aliens could predict that the biosphere would face doom in a few billion years when our sun flares up and dies. But could they have predicted this sudden fever less than halfway through the Earth’s life? And if they continued to keep watch, what might these hypothetical aliens witness in the next hundred years in this unique century? Will a final spasm be followed by silence? Or will the planet itself stabilise? And will some of the objects launched from the Earth spawn new oases of life elsewhere?

With the cold objectivity possessed by aliens, Rees peers at us and our futures. His optimism that we can navigate the challenges he identifies is mediated by the bleakness of what he says will happen if we fail to recognise them. This is optimism only in the sense that it is prefixed with a caveat. It’s nearly blackmail, in other words. In this way, Rees turns scientific authority into political authority: we can survive, but only on his terms. Who are we to challenge this authority? But isn’t that the point? Whatever the truth of Rees’s claims, and whatever his conscious intentions, it is not clear that the desire for this authority doesn’t precede his argument. In other words, might it not be that Rees’s anxiety about the future owes more to a loss of authority, than ‘science’ accurately foretelling doom?


  1. JMW

    Seems like Rees is asking the world, “Which would you like? The carrot peelings or the stick? If you take the carrot peelings [settle for lowered expectations, like veggie burgers instead of beef burgers], we’ll all be fine. If you take the stick [austerity for all], we’re doomed.”

    He’s got a very strange definition of optimism here.

  2. Alex Cull

    Strange indeed. And also contradictory. “Rees has an odd idea of ‘sharing fully in the benefits of globalisation’.” His vision seems to be of a rather peculiar kind of globalisation, with specific terms, conditions and limitations.

    So international trade between rich and developing nations leads to prosperity, and is therefore nominally good. But how does this square with “travelling little”? Just as Henry Ford allowed his customers to choose any colour of car they liked, so long as it was black, it looks as though globalisation is wonderful, just as long as it doesn’t involve much travel, doesn’t involve meat-eating, doesn’t involve more than a tiny amount of CO2 generation and doesn’t involve the possibility of doing potentially unwise or dangerous things.

    It all sounds just a little contradictory, but I think one way it might work, though, is with a two-tier system. The political, media and scientific elite – we could call them “enlightened ones” or “alphas”, maybe, would only need to be few in number (although they would need a larger support cadre – “betas”? – of admin people and technicians.) They would do the travelling, the technology transfer, the flying, the information gathering and information dissemination. The vast remainder of us (“gamma” through to “epsilon” categories, I suppose, would stay home, cultivate our beans and cabbages, live the low carbon life and be content with experiencing the rest of the world via our high-speed internet connections. The possibilities for terrorism and environmental damage would be curtailed, as so few people would travel (mainly the alphas and their staff); from the point of view of the elite, the world would be safe and at peace.

    I’m curious – can anyone suggest another way in which the above contradictions could be resolved?

    “With the cold objectivity possessed by aliens, Rees peers at us and our futures.”

    Yet across the gulf of ideology… intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this untidy and riotous modern civilisation with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us…

    (with my apologies to Mr Wells.)

  3. Peter S

    An alien in space, of course, replaces the more traditional, and now absent, God in Heaven – and we can wonder what the difference is? Unlike the idea of God, Rees’s alien – as a sort of fantasy friend – is completely compliant with whatever Rees himself wishes… in keeping with all fantasies (especially sexual ones), this idealised figure sees and does exactly what its creator bids it to.

    Rees uses his imaginary God substitute to let us know he is needy of a conclusion. In the sort of language any real alien (if they exist) might more readily associate with kindergarten, Rees asserts that either his will must reach a self-satisfying conclusion (ie, he must get his own way) or the world will conclude. To lend his demand meta-authority, he pulls his post-democratic alien friend out of the hat to dutifully nod in compliance.

    The useful thing about aliens, of course, is that they are inhuman… which is probably why Rees has a preference for them over and above the human nature he rails against. Rees’s idealised fantasy visitor is presented as being curiously detached from all the supposed human mayhem witnessed beneath himself on Earth – like some extra-terrestrial snob – and we can wonder if this is because Rees has conjured him up as perfectly objective or perfectly neutered of all desire. The problem with reaching conclusions – as Rees’s alien might tell you, had he a voice of his own – is that it leaves one with nothing left to do except, perhaps, be a voyeur on the exciting lives of those who haven’t (or who find a value in refusing to).

    God, of course, was the all-time grand saboteur of conclusions. Just when we believed we had reached one – or that one was within our grasp – God was good at popping up to remind us of just how small-minded and pompous our doomed ambitions were… of how there is an infinite universe of knowledge we could not possibly know (and perhaps never know). And that golden calfs and aliens are merely a scoundrel’s stage props for bullying the submission of others to the conclusions of his own will.

  4. JMW

    “An alien in space, of course, replaces the more traditional, and now absent, God in Heaven – and we can wonder what the difference is? Unlike the idea of God, Rees’s alien – as a sort of fantasy friend – is completely compliant with whatever Rees himself wishes…”

    Including caring about the things Rees cares about, namely, the environment and avoiding some uncertain-about-the-details yet unanimously doom-laden future.

    I don’t think Rees’ metaphorical alien would really give a damn about us beyond passively observing the scurryings of humans on their planet Earth, but Rees seems to think otherwise, or he wouldn’t be using it in place of What Would God Think?.

    “And that golden calfs and aliens are merely a scoundrel’s stage props for bullying the submission of others to the conclusions of his own will.”

    And all of it done in the name of our best interests.

    “One day,” the eco-nobility [the “alphas” or “enlightened ones”] says to us eco-peasants, “you’ll thank us for doing all of this. Really, it was for your own good we did it. Have another Boca-burger.”

  5. geoffchambers

    The most fascinating part of the second lecture was the question and answer session. The BBC clearly vets questioners carefully, and any suggestion that global warming, or even climate prediction, were controversial subjects was carefully avoided.

    Here are the questions:
    1. Peter Harper, Head of Research at the Centre for Alternative Technology “focussing on the changes people can make to their everyday lives, such as organic farming or environmentally friendly ways of running their homes” asked: “Do you think that some of the more fun stuff, we should do less of? I’m thinking of things like the moons of Saturn, the origins of humanity, even the mighty Higgs boson. Perhaps it’s time to stop doing that stuff or defer it until the 22nd century. Isn’t it time for all hands on deck?”

    2. Dr Nick Thomas, principal scientist at one of the world’s biggest medical technology companies, asked: “Do you believe there’s a fundamental need to readdress the way science is funded? And if so, do we have to accept a compromise in individual survival if we reduce healthcare spending to the greater good for global survival?”

    3. Lackie Mulville asked: “Is the survival of the maximum number of humans worth the environmental cost?”

    4. Dr Simon Jones, principal lecturer in geography, asked about the proposed Severn barrage: “Would you agree that such proposals are cumulatively perhaps examples of destruction of the biosphere that inevitably will lead to human extinction? Are our chances with these things 50/50?”

    5. Rod Dubrow-Marshall, a social psychologist “whose work focuses on how we can prevent such people unleashing their bio-terror on the planet” asked “Do you think our ultimate survival actually depends on the pooling of knowledge across science, the social sciences and humanities?”

    6. Jenny Hainsworth-Lamb asked: “Hi there. I feel that we’re fed politically motivated, one-sided scientific opinions. Making informed decisions about the environment is difficult. To empower ordinary people to change, do you agree that it’s the responsibility of the scientific community to ensure that facts and balanced arguments are delivered in plain English?” and she added:
    “I grow my own vegetables and I also, because I do an awful lot of driving in my professional career – I decided to keep bees to try and balance out the effect I was having on the environment”.

    7. Nick Pidgeon, Professor of Environmental Psychology at Cardiff University, “currently investigating public attitudes towards climate change and energy resources” asked: “Your analysis points to the inescapable fact, in my view, that combating climate change will require a revolution in technology, in politics, and in our lifestyles on a scale not seen since the Second World War. Are the public and politicians ready for the scale of change that will be required here?”

    It must be said that Sir Martin’s responses were mostly uncontroversial, and often interesting, thus deflecting attention away from the fact that the lunatics have taken over the asylum, and have learned to comport themselves with all the aplomb one expects from people who have taken charge of how we are to live for the next hundred years.

  6. geoffchambers

    .. and here’s one for Peter S – a quote from the 4th lecture:
    “.. physicists would confidently assert that time-machines will remain forever fiction. That’s because changing the past would lead to paradoxes – infanticide would violate logic as well as ethics if the victim was your grandmother.”
    Going back in time and (accidentally) killing an ancestor is a commonplace of science fiction. Describing killing your grandmother as infanticide is something else …

  7. Philip

    “.. physicists would confidently assert that time-machines will remain forever fiction.”

    Not fiction if we happen to live in a Godel Universe and we possess fast enough spacecraft. I checked this out with my grandmother only the other day and it is definitely true.

  8. Philip

    Dear Editors: I hope you are not being too generous to Martin Rees and his friends. For myself, I find it quite difficult to contemplate their behaviour at the RS without feeling a little nauseous, so I hope you won’t mind my being blunt. I think they have pursued an anti-scientific propaganda campaign regarding climate change, which has turned the RS in a laughing stock for many people. And yet according to your articles, here is Rees at it again, pushing all the emotional buttons in support of his anti-human political beliefs. If he wants to play at politics then clearly that is his right, but I think he should do it in his own time and not by taking advantage of his position as a spokesman for UK science.


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