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?