Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and former President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, is (apparently without irony) the latest of science’s discontents to pen a sensationalist collection of alarmist projections.
The recurring themes of risky runaway technology, impending global catastrophe and underlying anti-humanist sentiment suggest a shared cultural template for not so dissenting voices. As with Susan Greenfield’s Tomorrow’s People, Rees engages in reckless scenario-building, moving from one to another with just enough rapidity to give the impression of imminent doom. Surely we should be worried when the Royal Society research professor at Cambridge University, joins the director of the Royal Institution to condemn humanity to its inevitably sorry fate? Each is so apparently eminent after all.
But, like Greenfield, Rees is a crude technological determinist. The internet is charged with creating ‘sharper social segmentation’ and isolation. The communications technologies are inducing panic as apparently evidenced by the anthrax scares in the US, and the UK’s foot and mouth disease epidemic. And, admittedly with some justification this time, Rees argues that new technologies will continue to allow greater ‘leverage’ to those with the darkest of designs, that is, everyone from the Unabomber to Al Qaeda. Yet none of this tells us why acts of nihilistic violence are on the increase, or why society is so atomised and fearful. ‘It is easier to conceive of extra threats than of effective antidotes’ he says. Or explanations.
Rees’s proposed solution to the supposedly escalating threats that society and the planet face is to establish criteria whereby ‘we can rule out catastrophe with a confidence level that reassures us.’ To this end he recommends potentially disastrous experiments be put to public consultation to ensure that any risks entailed fall below what is collectively deemed an ‘unacceptable threshold.’ But the technical exercises advocated by Rees will satisfy no-one, least of all his lay experts. Risk consciousness is all pervasive and not at all susceptible to cost-benefit analysis. The much-heralded democratisation of science, already instituted in the fields of biotech and reproductive technologies, introduces yet another drag factor into these already highly regulated fields of enquiry.
Indeed, such fears, as Rees recognises, tend to limit the scope for scientific endeavour. Economic short-termism and ethical considerations are symptomatic of wider trends, rather than responsible for holding back cutting-edge science, as he claims. The panicky climate in the business world and the rise of the ‘ethics committee’ is testament to our anxious times. The spectre of Monsanto as corporate ogre, and the retreat of an elite feeding off the popular resonance of reactionary lobbyists, means the social and economic potential of GM crops isn’t even debated.
In citing areas of research bereft of ‘compensatory benefit’ outside the lab, Rees suggests a profound decoupling of science and society. The notion of harnessing technical advance to effect social progress is largely absent from this book. Again, as with Tomorrow’s People, people don’t feature much except as grotesques intent on crimes against… Well, humanity (for what that’s worth). Consequently, he finds the notion of anything other than the lightest of humanity’s future footprints unimaginable. From technological to demographic determinism, an urban population explosion in the developing world fills Rees with dread. The global population, he confesses, is likely to fall post-2050 from a peak of 8 billion. Yet, he continues, the planet could sustain up to 10 billion people living in ‘capsule hotels’ Tokyo-style perhaps, on a rice-based subsistence diet.
Rees gets all nostalgic for the 4.5 billion years that preceded us when ‘nothing happened suddenly’. We are the unwelcome ‘unprecedented spasm’ gate-crashing the biodiverse party with our agriculture and incessant radio-noise, hurtling chunks of metal into orbit. He describes the search for alien life, or another ‘blue dot’, as the most significant for science since Darwin. ‘Ever since Copernicus, we have denied ourselves a central location in the universe’, he continues. But in asking, ‘Is their life on Mars?’ Rees evokes Ziggy Stardust’s alienated plea rather than the confident pioneering spirit of the Space Age. But the ‘right stuff’ values of this era aren’t so much ‘antiquated’ as at odds with today’s mission-fatigue. Rees’s concern for humanity’s ‘biological or cultural legacy’ reveals an identity-crisis behind Our Final Century, and perhaps explains its broad appeal. Apparently he doesn’t do much star-gazing anymore. In fact, this is a scientist on the couch – if we are alone in the universe, he imagines, such a counter Copernican revelation would at least ‘boost our cosmic self-esteem’.
As a consequence, Our Final Century, a book about the future, is depressingly unable to imagine a tomorrow that transcends the present in any meaningful way. Rees worries that the relentless accumulation of near negligible risks will eventually result in catastrophic consequences, perhaps within a generation or two. On the strength of the apocalyptic imaginings of two of Britain’s most distinguished scientists, I worry that the ‘cumulative impact’ of their improbable scenarios on rational debate, and already failing nerves, is far more of a threat to our best interests. If, as Rees rightly says, ‘the stakes are high in opening new worlds’ we need to rediscover the confidence that take’s society beyond their generation’s survivalist ethic.