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Better next time

Review of The Meaning of the 21st Century - a vital blueprint for ensuring our future, by James Martin. Eden Project Books, 320 pp. £20, ISBN 1903919843. Published 26 January 2007 in the Times Literary Supplement.

Prospects for this century include an alarming variety of possible disasters but also amazing opportunities. So far few have tried, or even dared, to look at all the factors or to see them in terms of each other. It is this extraordinary cross of possibilities that is the central theme of James Martin's new book.

Since the industrial revolution began around 250 years ago, our small animal species has been changing conditions for almost all sorts of life on the planet. For those of us who live in industrial countries, it has been a bonanza with more consumption of resources, higher living standards and greater longevity. But humans, like any other species in expansion, are coming up against the environmental stops. These stops are well known, and at the beginning of the 21st century are increasingly evident. They include population increase on an epic scale, damage to the natural environment, depletion of resources, ranging from oil and gas to fish stocks, accumulation of toxic wastes, pollution of water both fresh and salt, changes in the chemistry of the atmosphere with climate change, and destruction of the diversity of other living organisms on which we totally depend.

Of course the living environment of the Earth has changed constantly since life began almost 4 billion years ago. The complexity of the total ecosystem as it has evolved, and the degree of dependence between the component parts, passes current knowledge and understanding. In general terms the biological and physical elements regulate themselves within variable limits, and the Earth system - or Gaia - has proved remarkably resilient. There is a precedent for most things in the history of the Earth. Yet our present circumstances are unprecedented.

This is James Martin's starting point. He is not of course alone in questioning the way our society is going. In his new book The Creation, E.O. Wilson explores the implications for biodiversity; and in The Revenge of Gaia James Lovelock paints a frightening picture of what could happen if we continue to press the Earth system beyond its natural limits. Martin now carries the debate further. Beyond the obvious hazards, he sees a 21st century revolution to change the whole future of humankind.

"If we get it right, we will make the planet sustainable and manageable. If we get it wrong, we will see our civilization being steadily, or suddenly, destroyed. If we establish an appropriate highway code for the future, the 21st century and centuries beyond it can be more magnificent than anything we can imagine because technology will enhance human creativity and culture in ways enormously beyond anything that is generally realized today."

Establishing a highway code for this purpose will not be easy. It requires thinking differently across the whole spectrum of human affairs: from respect for the precautionary principle to the use of violence in international affairs with horrible new weapons of mass destruction. Martin draws particular attention to the limitations of current economics, which need to take proper account of depletion of natural capital, environmental costs, and the perversities created by government budgetary processes.

Economists also need to modify methodologies which measure productivity and so-called growth rather than human welfare and wellbeing. Here the Chinese with their new green accounting systems have something to tell us. We anyway need a successor to the green revolution of the last century which did almost as much harm as good. Martin describes China as the giant in the kitchen as future patterns of Chinese demand and consumption increasingly affect the balance of the world economy.

Here Martin brings in the effects of the still widening division between the world's rich and the world's poor, and rightly calls into question the current categories of allegedly developed, developing, least developed and destitute countries, with implications not only for the current direction and ideology of change but also for the stability of future world society. At present, he writes,

"Many poor countries have in effect two economies side by side and barely communicating with each other. Economy A is like the West, but less smoothly operating. Economy B is a shantytown economy in desperate poverty, sometimes with mafia-like control, often social violence bordering on anarchy."

He sees civilization entering a kind of canyon halfway through this century:

"...with a soaring population, declining amounts of arable land and usable water, a stressed environment, increasing civil violence and cheap mass-destruction weapons, the extreme poverty in some parts of the world will contrast with extreme development of technology in other parts."

In a way these problems are already familiar, and answers to them are the subject of constant debate, explored here in interesting detail. Take three of them. We know how to limit population growth if we try. The essential factors relate to the status of women, their education, care in old age, and the availability of contraceptive devices. Likewise we know how to cope with chemical pollution, and its impact on the health of living organisms, including ourselves. We are now seeing the inadvertent effects of DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), POPs (persistent organic pollutants) and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and can recall the only too justified warnings of Rachel Carson in Silent Spring in the 1960s.

We know at least some of the impacts of climate change, and all but a few interested parties accept the need to limit emission of greenhouse gases, and go for new energy policies, whether development of fuel cells, solar and wind power, geothermal energy, and - still in anxious debate - nuclear power in new configurations. Among such are nuclear pebble bed reactors which have advantages well explained by Martin: they are as safe as any generating station can be; they use fuel that cannot be used to make weapons; and their waste products are of a size that can be easily managed. The first major pebble bed reactor is now under construction in China. On the far horizon is fusion technology, the subject of extensive international cooperation.

So technology is already making a difference in those countries which can make use of it. Even if the highway code is far from complete and has yet to be respected and acted upon, there has been a start. It has to be seen in the widest framework, bringing in social, political and economic factors, and awareness of what the future is likely to bring. In looking forwards, Martin distinguishes three broad patterns of evolution. First there is primary evolution, the Darwinian process of mutation, drift, mixture and natural selection of species over billions of years. Next comes secondary evolution by which, in his own words,

"...an intelligent species learns how to create its own form of evolution. It invents an artificial world of machines, chemical plants, software, computer networks, transport, manufacturing processes, and so on. It learns how to manipulate DNA ... There is a great diversity of evolutionary tracks."

This is taking place at increasing speed. Thirdly there is tertiary evolution in which an intelligent species learns to automate evolution itself. Once initiated, this could take place with incredible speed, and could lead to what Martin calls a singularity with unknowable but possibly explosive results.

Obviously we are now somewhere into stage two, but few have yet begun to reckon with the consequences. In industrial countries, people have already become partially dependent on electronic devices, and probably recognize that the growth of ubiquitous sensors, nano-technology, global data warehouses and other networks, will increase their dependence still more. Many believe that computers will eventually become more intelligent than people because they can do some things more quickly and comprehensively than the human brain. Martin firmly rejects this thesis. He believes that the two are fundamentally different. He wants to bring the two together into a new relationship.

This could provide at least some of the means to navigate the mid-century canyon before us. For what Martin calls the transitional or trans-human generations to come, the challenges and risks are enormous. In a way this will represent nature's biggest experiment so far. If we are to survive and profit from it, new kinds of non-human intelligence, and new kinds of association of this intelligence with the human brain. There is already a variety of ways in which this might be done. They include the placing of nano-transponders in brain fluid, which will lead to learning processes by which humans will make use of non-human intelligence. It will, Martin suggests, be like learning to ride a bicycle.

Then there are the possibilities of genetic enhancement of individuals: some would relate only to those already alive (for example adding a 24th chromosome), while others could be designed for inheritance by later generations. Contrary to popular belief, human nature is itself a variable, and for our civilization to survive and prosper, it needs to change in new, even astonishing, ways. In all this education of present and future generations must be the key.

There is material in this remarkable and well-written book for lively controversy, but that can only be good. It will certainly be on the agenda for the 21st Century School which Martin has set up at Oxford University. Two special points emerge. First is the sheer scope of the book and the way in which so many diverse ideas are put together and effectively related to each other. Second is the author's optimism. The 21st century may be radically different from all others; the path through the canyon may be horrendously difficult; the challenges and even more the risks may look overwhelming; but Martin would still prefer to live at this time rather than at any other. For our own sake as well as that of our children, let us hope that he is right.

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