Colliding Worlds 2: Ecological disaster

24 July 2014

Wellcome Collection recently hosted Colliding Worlds, an event exploring the extraordinary research of Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, in the thought-provoking context of a conversation with curator and art critic Hans Ulrich Obrist. From astronomy and ecological disaster to science fiction and advice to young scientists, watch the exchange below. 

We’re also publishing excerpts of the conversations that led to this event in a seven-part series. In our second Colliding Worlds post, Hans Ulrich speaks to Martin about his views on the fragility of our global situation, looming ecological disaster and the role of the concerned scientist.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

In the last couple of years there has been ever growing interest among many artists in your books, such as Our Final Century, and From Here To Infinity, where you address the fragility of our current condition. As early as the 60s there was an awareness about the looming ecological disaster, but when did this enter your work?

Martin Rees

I think I first became concerned with the fragility of our global situation through concern about nuclear weapons during the later part of the cold war – especially in the 1980s. I involved myself in the Pugwash Conferences and other activities of that kind. This led, later on, to a concern about how the advance in technology is generating new threats to the planet. These threats are of two kinds: our collective actions are depleting resources, disrupting ecosystems and affecting the climate; and also novel risks stemming from the misuse (by error or terror) of ever more powerful technology by a few individuals. Ten years ago I wrote Our Final Century, which was really an attempt to highlight the risks that may confront us later in this century. This is a theme I’ve continued to engage with in the subsequent years.

I am sometimes asked whether my being an astronomer brings anything special to this subject. I think there’s indeed one special perspective that astronomers offer, which is an awareness of the huge future lying ahead.

Most people who are familiar with Darwinism know that we are the outcome of about four billion years of evolution on Earth, starting from simple organisms and evolving towards our present biosphere, and of course human beings. However, most people, I think, see us humans as the culmination of evolution. No astronomer could think that way. That’s because we’ve learnt that the sun has five or six billion years to go before it flares up and dies: it’s less than halfway through its life! So we should think of humans as just some intermediate stage in evolution. Much more wonderful creatures will emerge in the future here on earth and far beyond. Indeed that claim is strengthened because future evolution may be much faster – intelligently directed rather than natural selection, and perhaps eventually silicon-based rather than organic.

The reason that we should be so concerned about what happens this century is that if we snuff out human life, it’s not just us and our immediate descendants who would be destroyed, but we would destroy the potential for post-human life which could extend for billions of years. So the stakes seem even higher to an astronomer than to most people because we are aware that a disaster here on earth this century could foreclose millennia or even millions of years of future evolution.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

Yes and also it would extinguish the possibility of life on other planets?

Martin Rees

That’s right. But of course if humans can eventually escape from the earth and produce self-sustaining colonies, our species would thereafter be less vulnerable to the kinds of disaster that could affect most of the earth. I think that within a few centuries there will indeed be small communities living away from the earth. They will of course be empowered by huge computer power, and an understanding of genetics and they will use the knowledge of those fields to modify their progeny to adapt to that alien environment. At that stage the post-human era will begin, because they will adapt to a different environment to the extent that they would within only a few centuries become a different species.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

I was also interested in the idea that very often, as the artist Orion Pernosky says, we invest in a future made out of fragments from the past. You’ve mentioned Joe Rablat, in relation to the Pugwash Movement as a kind of the model of the concerned scientist, and I was wondering if you could tell me what inspired you from Joe’s work and if there are any other scientists from the past whom you consider influences or inspirations.

[editors note: The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs are an international organization that brings together scholars and public figures to work toward reducing the danger of armed conflict and to seek solutions to global security threats. It was founded by Joseph Rotblat in 1957 and Rotblat and the Pugwash Conference won jointly the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995].

Martin Rees

I became interested in the Pugwash Movement because I got to know people like Joe Roblat, Hans Bethe and Rudolf Peierls, who had all been involved in creating the first nuclear weapons at Los Alamos in World War II. These man, all great scientists, felt an obligation to do all they could in civilian life to control the power that they had helped to unleash. I was very impressed by their commitment and their sense of responsibility. They are all sadly now dead, but I feel it is important that younger scientists should learn from their attitudes – their conscience and their commitment.

We now need ‘concerned scientists’ not just in the context of nuclear weapons but also in other areas. We need them to ensure that all the other areas of science which are of social relevance, in biomedicine and in computers and robotics, are exploited in ways that benefit us but that we strive to avoid their serious downsides. One of my current activities,incidentally, is helping to set up a Cambridge-based group to study the extreme risks that may confront humanity if we don’t control advancing technology in the bio, cyber and robotics spheres.

Be sure to read the rest of the series as they are published.