A Science Shelf Guest Review by Charlotte Laws, Ph.D, republished with permission of the author
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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.
Doomsday predictors get much the same respect as the "toxic fumes" sign at the local service station; they impart their wisdom, yet we yawn. Situations that 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 nano-technological 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 laboratory mishap.
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.
There 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 1,000 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.
Should 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?
In 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.
Precaution 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 the infrastructure Albert Einstein proposed in 1947 to maintain world peace. Many nation-states and multinational corporations are known for fighting even minimal efforts to regulate dangerous technology, and they must be countered.
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.
Science 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. And science must change. It must shift towards peace and ecology. It's as plain as doomsday.
Charlotte Laws is a Councilmember in Valley Glen, California and the president of the League for Earth and Animal Protection (LEAP).
Read Charlotte's Blog.
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