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A Darker Future for our Pale Blue Dot

Published in the Times Higher Education Supplement, 22 August 2003.

Book review: Our Final Century, by Martin Rees. William Heinemann, 228 pp 17.99 ISBN 0 434 008 095, 2003.

The title of this book Our Final Century originally had a question mark after it. The same went for the title of the US edition Our Final Hour. But in each case the question mark now comes under the sub title: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty First Century? Clearly the publishers wanted to make our hair stand on end.

Do they succeed? Up to a point. But I suspect that many people will approach this book by the Astronomer Royal with the scepticism borne of knowledge of previous forecasts of apocalypses that never happened. From biblical times to our own, "the end is nigh" has been the chorus line of fanatics of all descriptions. More recently some political leaders, drawing on scientific advice, have also held their breath, for example during the nuclear confrontations of the cold war. Only two years ago scientists from the four great global research programmes met at Amsterdam, and concluded that human activities had put the earth in a "no analogue state", and that the business-as-usual way of dealing with the earth system was "not an option".

The central thesis of this book, originally a collection of essays, is that "humanity is more at risk than at any earlier phase in its history". Our little animal species has only existed in the last few seconds of geological time. Over more than three billion years our ancestors have known every kind of natural disaster, from super-volcanoes to asteroid impacts, and extinctions of species are commonplace in evolutionary history. Our disappearance would be no surprise.

We would not even be here, at least in our present form, if the Chicxulub impact of 65 million years ago had not drastically changed the prevailing earth ecosystem, removed the last of the dinosaur family, and opened the way for the development of mammals. Natural disasters have repeatedly affected human history since the end of the last glaciation some ten thousand years ago. Of the thirty or so urban societies which have developed since then, only our own now remains.

The prime element for which there is no analogue is the industrial revolution and the ever developing technologies which underlie it. The last century saw an extraordinary acceleration of human knowledge and its myriad applications. That acceleration continues, although its consequences cannot be predicted. Certainly its effects on our prospects for survival are with us every day.

At present the hazards are increasing. Some are relatively slow acting. The linked problems of human population increase, resource depletion, disposal of wastes, pollution of land, water and air, climate change, and destruction of biological diversity are getting worse. They certainly affect us all but the survival of civilization or even the human species is not at risk. For most people they seem indirect, and a catastrophe or two, with cause clearly linked to effect, might be necessary before radical action were taken.

More direct threats fall into three broad categories.

So far we have been in luck, but there have been one or two near misses of much lesser proportions.

Actions in the first category are familiar. In broad terms the United Nations, itself a combination of governments, was set up to cope with wayward governments in coping with global issues, especially those of peace and war. At present there is another self-appointed world policeman, but even he finds it hard to cope with anything but governments. The problem is that governments are far weaker and less in control than they ever were before.

Actions in the second and third categories are far more difficult to deal with. The implications of terrorism reach far. Measures to detect and limit it create almost as many problems as they solve. Control of scientists and engineers, and strict application of risk assessment procedures to their work would scarcely be practical in any but a few cases. Nowhere are there easy answers. The management of human impacts on the earth system is one of the central issues of our time.

This is a book which has rightly attracted attention. It makes easy and persuasive reading, and above all serves as a stimulus to thought. I would have liked more on natural hazards, for example the evolution of such new diseases as AIDS and SARS. Some of the arguments are a bit disconnected. But the author marvellously brings out not only the dangers, but also the inherent limitations on our understanding of them.

I may be a bright-eyed optimist, but I wonder if he is right in saying "the odds are no better than 50-50 that our present civilization on earth will survive to the end of the present century". I have greater faith in human ingenuity and good sense, at least once the problems are recognized. It was the first astronauts who saw the world, as Carl Sagan expressed it, as "a pale blue dot" in the vastness of the universe. We need to remind ourselves every day that its care, and that of the people on it, now and to come, must be our absolute priority.

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