Our world faces many perils but we will prevail

Sled dogs wade through water on the sea ice of Greenland as the Arctic faces the consequences of global warming. DANISH METEOROLOGICAL INSTIUTUTE/STEFFEN OLSEN/GETTY IMAGES
Sled dogs wade through water on the sea ice of Greenland as the Arctic faces the consequences of global warming. DANISH METEOROLOGICAL INSTIUTUTE/STEFFEN OLSEN/GETTY IMAGES

Covid-19 should not have struck us so unawares. Why did the warnings of Bill Gates and others go unheeded? Why were even rich countries so unprepared? The answer is clear. Governments recognise a duty to prepare for floods, terrorist acts and other risks that are likely to occur in the short term and be restricted to their own countries. But they have little incentive to tackle longer-term threats that are likely to occur long after they’ve left office and which are global rather than local.

Such threats are many and varied — and looming ever larger. As we’ve discovered to our cost, pandemics can strike at any time; so can worldwide failures of infrastructure. But they’re rare enough to be ignored, even though the worst-case scenarios are so bad that one occurrence would be devastating. Our leaders should heed the mantra: “The unfamiliar is not the same as the improbable.”

Other threats such as climate change and environmental degradation emerge insidiously. We fail to deal with them because their impact stretches beyond the horizon of conventional political cycles. We are, in short, like the proverbial boiling frog: content to be in a pan of warm water until it’s too late to save ourselves.

Covid-19 should be a wake-up call. It reminds us that our interconnected world is getting more fragile — vulnerable to catastrophes that aren’t just national but global. Humans are leaving an increasingly heavy footprint on the planet. We’ve developed ever more powerful technologies that can be hugely beneficial but which, if misapplied, could trigger catastrophic setbacks to civilisation.

Even without a crystal ball we can forecast two things about the coming decades. First, the world is getting more crowded. Fifty years ago, world population was below 4 billion. It’s now about 7.8 billion. The growth’s been mainly in Asia but it’s now fastest in Africa. The number of births per year is falling in most countries. Nonetheless world population is forecast to rise to around 9 billion by 2050. That’s partly because most people in the developing world are young. They are yet to have children and they will live longer. Moreover, this trend has yet to percolate to populous rural sub-Saharan Africa. And there’s more urbanisation. Preventing megacities of more than 10 million people becoming turbulent dystopias will be a big challenge.

Population growth seems under-discussed. That’s partly, perhaps, because of its association with eugenics in the 1920s and 1930s, and with China’s one-child policy. But also because doom-laden forecasts — by, for instance, the Club of Rome in 1972 — proved off the mark. As it’s turned out, food production has kept pace with rising population; famines still occur but they’re due to conflict or poor distribution, not overall scarcity.

To feed 9 billion sustainably will need improvements to agriculture, such as food that requires less water to grow and GM crops, as well as perhaps dietary innovations such as converting insects, which are highly nutritious and rich in proteins, into palatable food rather than the stuff of I’m A Celebrity challenges. It will also require greater advances in artificial meat and milk so vast herds no longer encroach on forests and other natural habitats. To quote Mahatma Gandhi, there should be enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.

Demographics beyond 2050 are uncertain: it’s not even clear whether there will be a global rise or fall. If families in Africa remain large, then according to UN projections the continent’s population could double again by 2100, to 4 billion. Nigeria alone would by then have as big a population as Europe and North America combined.

Optimists say that each extra mouth brings two hands and a brain. But the geopolitical stresses are surely worrying. Those in poor countries know, thanks to the internet, what they’re missing out on and they’re not prepared to accept their fate: migration is a lot easier than it was for their parents. Moreover, the advent of robots and “reshoring” of manufacturing to western countries means that still-poor countries won’t be able to expand their economies by offering cheap skilled labour, as the Asian Tiger states did 20 years ago. It’s a recipe for disaffection and instability. Wealthy nations, especially those in Europe, should urgently promote prosperity in Africa, and not just for altruistic reasons. What’s needed is an equivalent of the Marshall Plan that stimulated Europe’s recovery after the Second World War. If we don’t, China will increase its hold over the continent.

Population growth aggravates another concern: if humanity’s footprint becomes too big, we risk wiping out many species and destroying the book of life before we’ve read it. Ten per cent of all species are under threat this century. Biodiversity is a crucial component of human wellbeing: we are clearly harmed if fish stocks dwindle to extinction; there are endangered plants in the rainforest whose gene pool might be useful to us, and insects are crucial for the food chain and fertilisation. But for many environmentalists, preserving the richness of our biosphere has value in its own right.

Moreover, these pressures are aggravated by man-made climate change. If our energy continues to come mainly from fossil fuels we can’t rule out, later in the century, really catastrophic warming that triggers long-term trends like the melting of Greenland’s icecap, and mass extinctions — outcomes that would bequeath a depleted and impoverished world to future generations. Unless we’re prepared to write off the life chances of our children and grandchildren, it’s surely worth paying a substantial “insurance premium” to alleviate the worst-case scenarios.

But to reduce these risks, we don’t need to put the brakes on technology; on the contrary, we need to enhance our understanding of nature and deploy innovation more urgently. Nations should accelerate research into all forms of low-carbon energy generation and other technologies where parallel progress is crucial, especially storage (batteries, compressed air, and hydrogen) and smart power grids. The faster clean technologies develop, the sooner prices will fall so they become affordable. More generating capacity will be needed, for instance, in India, where the health of the poor is jeopardised by smoky stoves burning wood or dung, and where there would otherwise be pressure to build coal-fired power stations.

Climate change is potentially a global fever, a slow-motion version of Covid-19. It’s a long-term threat but the case for acting now is overwhelming. We should be evangelists for new tech, not Luddites: without it the world can’t provide food, good health and sustainable energy for a demanding population. But many of us are anxious that it’s advancing so fast that we may not be able to cope with it.

We’re increasingly dependent on elaborate networks: electric power grids, air traffic control, international finance, just-in-time delivery and globally-dispersed manufacturing. Unless these networks are strong enough, their benefits could be outweighed by breakdowns that send shockwaves around the world, just as happened in 2008 to the financial system. Our cities would be paralysed without electricity. Supermarket shelves would be empty within days if supply chains were disrupted. Air travel can spread a pandemic worldwide within days. And social media can spread panic and rumour, leading to psychological and economic contagion, at the speed of light.

Advances in microbiology, such as better diagnostics, vaccines and antibiotics, offer prospects of containing future pandemics. But they also raise fears about the safety of experiments, the dissemination of “dangerous knowledge” and the ethics of how it’s applied. Governments will want to have lots of safeguards. But I’d worry that whatever regulations are imposed, on prudential or ethical grounds, they can’t be enforced worldwide any more than drug or tax laws can. Whatever can be done will be done by someone, somewhere.

Natural pandemics are a constant threat, but is it just scaremongering to raise concerns about human-induced risks from bio error or bio terror? Sadly, I don’t think so. We know all too well that technical expertise doesn’t guarantee balanced rationality. The global village will have its village idiots and they’ll have global range. The spread of an artificially released pathogen can’t be predicted or controlled. And that’s a nightmare. Whereas an atomic bomb can’t be built without being conspicuous or easily monitored, bio and cyber activities can. The rising empowerment of tech-savvy groups (or even individuals) by bio as well as cybertechnology will pose a big challenge to governments and aggravate the tension between freedom, privacy and security.

These concerns will intensify in the next ten years. But what about 2050 and beyond? The smartphone and the internet would have seemed magic even 25 years ago. So, looking several decades ahead, we must keep our minds open to transformative advances that might now look like science fiction. On the bio front we might expect two things. A better understanding of the combination of genes that determine key human characteristics and the ability to create genomes that match these features. Research on ageing is at the forefront. Will ageing one day be a “disease” that can be cured? Dramatic life extension (if it extends healthy and active life) would upend population projections, with huge social ramifications. But it may happen, along with other forms of human enhancement, and could lead to a new kind of inequality if it were available only to a privileged elite.

Information technology may wreak further transformations. Artificial Intelligence can already cope with fast-changing networks like traffic flow management or electricity grids. It could give the Chinese an efficient planned economy that Marx could only dream of. But for interactions with humans, processing power is not enough; computers need sensors that enable them to see and hear as well as humans do, and the software to process and interpret what the sensors relay. Learning about human behaviour involves observing actual people in real homes or workplaces. The AI machine would feel sensorily deprived by the slowness of real life — it would be like us having to watch trees grow.

Few people doubt that machines will one day surpass some of what we consider human capabilities; the only question is the speed at which it happens. How long will it be before artificial intelligence worries us more than natural stupidity? If the AI enthusiasts are vindicated, it may take just decades before flesh-and-blood humans are transcended, or it may take centuries. Either way, compared to the aeons of evolutionary time that humanity took to emerge, it’s a mere blink of the eye. Society will be transformed by autonomous robots, even though the jury’s out on whether they’ll be idiot savants doing basic tasks or display superhuman capabilities.

Technology will place more power at our disposal. How can we harness the benefits but minimise the risks as the stakes get higher? Pandemics are plainly a global challenge. And the problem of shortages of natural resources, as well as switching to low-carbon energy, can’t be solved by each nation on its own. Nor can the regulation of potentially threatening innovations, especially those spearheaded by global tech companies. Indeed a key issue is whether, in a “new world order”, nations need to yield more sovereignty to new organisations along the lines of the World Health Organisation.

Government scientific advisers have limited influence except in emergencies like Covid-19: their political masters are normally too preoccupied with short-term issues to address a long-term global agenda. Scientists and conservationists must enhance their leverage by taking a bigger role in public life. I doubt that Michael Gove would have introduced curbs on plastic waste if the public had not been persuaded of the case by David Attenborough, whose BBC series Blue Planet II showed an albatross attempting to feed its young plastic debris. This may be as powerful an image as the polar bear on a melting ice-flow was for an earlier generation of environmental campaigners. It’s encouraging to witness more activists, especially among the young, who can hope to live to the end of this century. Their campaigning is welcome. Their commitment gives us all grounds for hope.

For medieval Europeans, the history of the universe, from creation to apocalypse, spanned only a few thousand years. And Earth was mainly “terra incognita”’. But despite their limited horizons in space and time, they left an extraordinary legacy: masons added stones to glorious cathedrals that would take centuries to finish, and which still inspire us almost a millennium later. We’ve now mapped the Earth and domains far beyond it. And we know that we’re in a cosmos whose past and future are measured in billions of years. It may seem a paradox that our far greater horizons in space and time have coincided with increasing short-termism. But there’s a clear explanation. Medieval people expected their children and grandchildren to live similarly harsh lives to their own — there was little hope of progress. In contrast, today’s pace of change makes it impossible to predict lifestyles or technology more than a decade or two ahead. That’s why there’s too little focus on safeguarding the world we’ll leave future generations.

Without a broader perspective, without realising that we’re all on this crowded world together, governments won’t prioritise projects that might seem long-term to them but account for a mere instant in the history of the planet. Spaceship Earth is hurtling through the void. Its passengers are anxious and fractious. Their life-support system is vulnerable to disruption. But there is too little planning or horizon-scanning by the officers on the bridge.

We need some “cathedral thinking” — global, rational and unashamedly long-term — empowered by 21st-century technology but guided by values that science alone can’t provide.

Lord Rees of Ludlow is the astronomer royal and was president of the Royal Society, 2005-10.

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