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Are We Hurtling Towards the End of Human History?


“If there is danger in the human trajectory, it is not so much in the survival of our own species as in the fulfilment of the ultimate irony of organic evolution: that in the instant of achieving self-understanding through the mind of man, life has doomed its most beautiful creations.” EO Wilson

The way I process what I see unfolding around me is through fiction. My novels are set in a version of the future I have assembled by reading books by Michio Kaku, Martin Rees, Alan Weisman, James Lovelock and James Hansen. My full list of sources can be found here. My weekly New Scientist addiction also inspires me, and anything I can find in the news or any other publication that talks about the future of science, technology, medicine, geopolitics and climate change.

In a world of exponential technological change, an increasingly complex global business and political world, and climate change, we are in the midst of a period of extraordinary transformation. It would be a massive understatement to say that we could do with better means of modelling the likely futures of humankind to make whatever is to come easier for our children and to plan and manage where likely scenarios are not positive.

Fiction has always been a good way of testing out “what if” scenarios, our old version of virtual reality. In my stories, I am trying to do that. I try, as best I can, to explore versions of what might happen based on good sources.

All my reading and research has led me to conclude that we are hurtling towards a point where two unstoppable trains are on course to collide.

The first train is the exponential rise of technology in almost every avenue you can imagine: medicine, nanotechnology, data science, automation, materials science, energy, computing, artificial intelligence and robotics, consumer electronics, brain science, food science and agriculture, business, finance, money, synthetic biology, bioengineering and transport (I’m missing so much here!).

So much of what is happening is wonderful. Work is well underway that will give people back their sight and new limbs. There are new techniques in diagnosis, work to create blood and organs for those that need them and within my lifetime, there will very likely be a cure for cancer. One would hope the extraordinary revolution in medicine that is underway will rise to meet the looming threat of antibiotic-resistant super-bugs that over-consumption of antibiotics has led us to.

Much of what is happening is almost magical, and in general, I am a techno-optimist. But not everyone feels the same way. Recently there has been a lot of focus on the potential threat of artificial intelligence, as high profile figures in the world of technology including Bill Gates and Elon Musk have voiced concerns about the possibility that we may invent an intelligence that supersedes us.

Former Manhattan Project physicists founded the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was initially founded to track the level of threat to humanity by nuclear weapons, symbolised by its famous Doomsday Clock. In the seventy years, since the threat from nuclear weapons has never completely receded. Still, the bulletin has widened its remit to include other existential threats, now including biotechnology, emerging technology and climate change. The clock is currently set to two and a half minutes to midnight, the closest it has been since 1984 and the peak of the cold war.

To me, the advance of technology is the inevitable full expression of humanity. It is making us more human, not as many people argue, less so. It is all the more tragic that just as we begin to flourish as a species finally, all this is under threat.

So the second big train is climate change. I have watched the debate on climate change for many years, and it finally feels like the subject is getting the media and political attention it deserves, albeit without much concrete action. There is little doubt now that we will blow our carbon budget and continue to burn fossil fuels and increase global temperatures over the coming decades. The most pessimistic scientists already argue that we have already passed the tipping point. There is an unprecedented scientific consensus that climate change is happening and that it is human-made. There is a more varied opinion about when the worst effects will start to kick in.

The relatively conservative Cambridge Centre for Existential Risk says, “a rise of more than 4°C appears to be as likely as not by 2050… a rise of 7°C more likely than not during the course of the 22nd century… A rise of more than 10°C over the next few centuries cannot be ruled out.” The report continues, “In future, climatic conditions could exceed potentially lethal limits of heat stress even for individuals resting in the shade.”

It is a terrifying future we are handing to the generations that come after us. But former NASA scientist, and one of the world’s leading experts on climate change, James Hansen, has long argued that the catastrophic effects of climate change will be felt by people much sooner. A recently published report by Hansen and sixteen colleagues, argues that even 2 ◦C global warming is disastrous and will have unstoppable consequences, amongst them the melting of the Western Antarctic ice sheet within ten years of now leading to catastrophic sea-level rise. See here for Hansen’s report, here for the Washington Post article and here for a balanced review by the New Scientist.

But technology will save us from climate change, won’t it?

Many people argue that humans have survived massive climate change before and that technology will save us. Although our species has existed through periods of dramatic climatic change, we were almost wiped from the face of the earth on at least one occasion. Human civilisation is only 10,000 years old, and it arose in a period of climatic stability. In the overpopulated world we live in, it is hard to imagine civilisation surviving the massive resource stress scientists are predicting will happen over the next hundred years. What is more, humans and mammals are not biologically capable of adapting to the kind of heat rise; we are likely to see by the end of this century, or early next.

In his book Earthmasters: The Dawn of the Age of Climate Engineering, Clive Hamilton catalogues the list of technologies that are meant to save us from this happening – including geoengineering – sucking carbon, regulating sunlight with solar shields, debunking their feasibility one by one. He writes, “There is something increasingly desperate about placing more faith in technological cleverness when it is the unrelenting desire to command the natural world that has brought us to this place.”

A perfect storm

The concern is that as climate change kicks in and food, water and energy become scarcer, rather than coming together as a species,  old frictions between nations will open up. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is extremely concerned about the trend of nation-states refreshing their nuclear arsenal and technology, and biotechnology is providing more sophisticated weapons. To quote the Bulletin:

“Unchecked climate change, global nuclear weapons modernizations, and outsized nuclear weapons arsenals pose extraordinary and undeniable threats to the continued existence of humanity, and world leaders have failed to act with speed or on the scale required to protect citizens from potential catastrophe. These failures of political leadership endanger every person on Earth.” Despite some modestly positive developments in the climate change arena, current efforts are entirely insufficient to prevent catastrophic warming of Earth. Meanwhile, the United States and Russia have embarked on massive programs to modernize their nuclear triads—thereby undermining existing nuclear weapons treaties. “The clock ticks now at just three minutes to midnight because international leaders are failing to perform their most important duty—ensuring and preserving the health and vitality of human civilization.” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 2015, 3 Minutes to Midnight

The worst bet ever

The scientific consensus is saying we only have less than two decades before we blast through our carbon budget unless we put the brakes hard on. There is nothing in our technical armoury right now that can help us once the tipping point is reached. But if we buy ourselves some time, by sticking to our carbon budget, over decades we might find a way through technological innovation and management of CO2 emissions to move beyond this crisis. Many people resist the call to manage our carbon budget, saying it will damage the world economy. There is growing evidence that ignoring climate change will actually decimate our economy. The Economist recently published a report that concluded:

“The value at risk to manageable assets from climate change calculated in this report is US$4.2trn, in present value terms. The tail risks are more extreme; 6°C of warming could lead to a present value loss worth US$13.8trn, using private-sector discount rates. From the public-sector perspective, 6°C of warming represents present value losses worth US$43trn—30% of the entire stock of the world’s manageable assets.”  The Economist Intelligence Unit, ‘The cost of inaction: Recognising the value at risk from climate change.’

As Nick Robins, co-director of the Inquiry into the Design of a Sustainable Financial System at the UN Environment Programme “We wouldn’t get on a plane if there were a 5% chance of the plane crashing, but we’re treating the climate with that same level of risk in a very offhand, complacent way.”

I sincerely hope that 97% of the world’s scientists are dead wrong and climate change is an alarmist hoax. If the pessimists are wrong, the consequences of taking positive action to reduce carbon emissions are relatively minor in human and planetary historical terms. If they are right, then the consequences of ignoring them are unimaginably dire. We only have one planet. It’s the worst bet ever conceived to be optimistic about the issue of climate change.