U.K. Astronomer Royal: Is This Our Final Century?
Ten years ago, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, wrote a book, Our Final Century, about how the technological “advances” we humans are making could be the end of us.
While Sir Martin’s day job is studying the cosmos, he remains very concerned with the tiny microcosm called life on Earth. At Cambridge University, he’s setting up an organization called the Center for the Study of Existential Risk, to study the risks posed to humankind and the rest of this world by modern technology.
“This is the first century,” he says, “when one species, namely ours, will determine the future of the planet.”
Five years ago, I talked with Sir Martin about Our Final Century. What he said in 2008 has only become more relevant today, which is doubtless the motivation for his new Center.
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In your book Our Final Century, you took a hard look at the damage we’re doing to our own planet. Have you seen any indication that we’re turning the clock back from that final hour?
I don’t think so. The concerns I raised were of two kinds. One is about what we’re doing to our habitat in nature through destroying biodiversity, change in the climate, etc. The other is the consequence of misapplication of ever more powerful technology, whether by error or by terror. I’m thinking not only of cyber technology but also biotechnology and genetics. People who used to design computer viruses could, with a similar mindset, design real viruses.
Even if we have a full century, is there anything the average person can do to make some kind of difference?
Well, the main lead has to come from governments. It’s clear that we can never have a sustainable world where everyone lives the lifestyle of present-day Americans and Europeans. I hope developing countries won’t emulate the way we in the West have developed – with such intense consumption of energy and raw materials. And we in the West will have to change our lifestyles, too.
Many experts say that radically reducing the human population itself is the only thing that’s going to make much difference.
It’s imperative to do what we can to preserve the natural world, and this has to go beyond any human self-interest.
Nothing barring catastrophe is going to stop it from rising to around nine billion by the year 2050. After that, there could be a gradual decline. There are more than 60 countries where present-day fertility is below replacement level. That’s a consequence of social trends, women’s education, etc. I do believe that there is a much brighter future if the world’s population comes down gradually to maybe half its present level 150 years from now.
There are other scientists who say that within the next 15 or 20 years, such huge advances are going to take place in technology that all of this is going to be sorted out for us.
Maybe 50 years from now, there will be ways of generating energy more cleanly by advanced solar energy techniques or nuclear fusion, or maybe some biological techniques. But it won’t help us enough during the immediate decades. And meanwhile, in our more-than-ever-interconnected world, a few weirdos or malcontents can have a literally global impact.
You’re somewhat pessimistic about human civilization, but you have a sense of awe and wonder at the universe and life, and the complexity and the vastness of it all.
If there are any creatures around to witness the death of the sun, six billion years from now, they’ll be as different from us as we are from micro-organisms.
Scientists do have a sense of wonder and of mystery. Even though there are things we understand, most of the key questions are still unanswered. There may even be a limit to what we’ll ever understand simply because of the capacity of our brains.
One perspective that astronomers and cosmologists have is in relation to the immense time expanse lying ahead. Most educated people are aware of the huge spans of time in the past and how we have emerged over three or four billion years. But most people, nonetheless, think we humans are the end of the process – that we are the culmination. The fact is, the time lying ahead is probably even longer.
So we need to look at humanity as being an intermediate stage, perhaps even an early stage – in the emergence of the cosmos. If there are any creatures around to witness the death of the sun, six billion years from now, they won’t be humans. They’ll be as different from us as we are from micro-organisms.
Where do you draw the line in terms of how we treat other animals and nature?
Nature has value in its own right. So it’s imperative to do what we can to preserve the natural world, and this has to go beyond any human self-interest.