In his book, “Our Final Hour,” Cambridge professor and Britain’s
“Astronomer Royal” Martin Rees predicts humanity has no more than a
50/50 chance of survival into the next century and that by 2020 a
million people will perish due to scientific error or terror. Some would
call him prescient, while others would interpret his words as alarmist,
resembling a layer cake with environmental fears on top of nuclear
fears on top of chemical and biological threats, ad infinitum. With a
sci-fi flare, he warns of runaway technology, human clones and an
ability to insert memory chips into the brain.
get much the same respect as the “toxic fumes” sign at the local
service station; they impart their wisdom, yet we yawn. Situations which
seem grim and overwhelming, even potentially lethal, tend to be
ignored. Attention on more immediate and “American” concerns, such as
consumer goods and personal advancement, monopolize our daily thoughts.
This is arguably foolhardy and indicative of the “another doomsday,
another dollar” mentality.
Rees is not a lone voice on the
scientific stage. The “Bulletin of Atomic Scientists” reports we have
seven minutes until our final bow at midnight. Other reputable experts
surmise that a “gray goo” or nanotechnological catastrophe poses the
greatest threat. This involves the invention of miniature,
self-replicating machines that gnaw away at the environment until it is
devoid of life. It need not be deliberate sabotage–as in technological
warfare by one nation against another–but could result from a
Astronomers speak of fugitive asteroids that
could destroy major sections of our planet within the next 30 years.
Others point to atom-crashing tests and their potential for a lethal
strangelet scenario. Strangelets are malformed subatomic matter, which
could distort all normal matter and dissolve the earth in seconds.
are streams of alerts from environmental experts who tell us natural
disasters are on the rise. They warn of climatic change and tell us the
world’s species die at a rate 1000 times greater than they did prior to
human existence due to habitat destruction and the introduction of
non-indigenous species into the ecosystem. Their conclusion? If we do
not reverse the damaging trend, Earth itself will be extinct.
we open our minds to doomsday predictions? And if we accept them, what
is the next step to insure or increase our chance of planetary survival?
his book, “Science, Money and Politics,” Daniel Greenberg follows a
trail of suspicion. He condemns what he believes to be the self-serving,
greedy scientific community with its bungled research, conflicts of
interest and findings that never see the light of day due to suppression
by corporate sponsors. But this seems to be an overly cynical,
embellished perspective; there are surely many scientists dedicated to
discovery and social responsibility, apart from any personal gain. And
we should not forget that offering controversial insights can be at a
cost; proponents of “radical” theories often expose themselves to public
and professional ridicule.
Regardless of skepticism, the
“Pascal’s Wager” game plan seems a good bet. This essentially means we
should not gamble with eternity, but instead urge the scientific
community to take precautions since Armageddon allows no second chance.
Better to err on the side of life, even if it means some black holes
will go unexplored and some research grants will be pulled.
means building contingency plans–such as shields and containment
measures–into emerging technologies so that if an experiment goes awry,
a safety net will kick into place. It means the scientific community
should better police itself. It means committees or boards–both local
and international–should be established for oversight and regulations,
much like Albert Einstein proposed in 1947 to maintain worldwide peace.
Many nation-states and multinational corporations are known for fighting
even minimal efforts to regulate dangerous technology, and they must be
There are pragmatic hurdles to be negotiated when
trying to impose rules on private parties or on authorities in renegade
lands, but the ozone hole “near disaster” demonstrates how the world can
cooperate when it comes to life-and-death matters. As cultures
dovetail, as communications rise, as borders become more porous, and as
the world figuratively shrinks, it will be easier to impose structure
and scientific parameters on nations that seem combative today
must shift its course and find new mountains to climb. It looks to us
for cues. Due to our materialistic bent as a culture, our cursory
endorsement of “progress” and our captivation with the Prometheus-like
aura of technology, we subtly ask the scientific community to scale
those mountains that are the highest (great accolades can be received),
the easiest (the path of least resistance) or the most profit-oriented
(grant money from special interests or an emphasis on reducing labor so
companies can realize greater proceeds) rather than those that are the
most ecological and peace-enhancing.
The research community has
rivers of creativity and forests of energy that could instead be
directed towards rivers and forests. It could move towards ecological
preservation and restoration, peaceful alternatives to conflict and a
furthering of life on this planet.
We will know a cultural
transition is underway when news reports following fires, earthquakes
and other disasters address the impact on natural systems and nonhuman
species, rather than just the human and economical consequences, such as
the number of homes lost. Our capitalistic culture thrives on the fact
that nature is cost-free, which in turn, reinforces the notion that it
is expendable and devoid of value. This reality must change. Our
reality must change. And science must change. It must shift towards
peace and ecology. It’s as plain as doomsday.