Martin Rees

Gavin Esler talks to the UK’s Astronomer Royal. "The solutions for reducing existential threats are within our grasp"
Scientist Martin Rees. PHOTO: ROGER HARRIS

Private Frazer was my childhood Home Guard hero. In the old BBC TV series Dad’s Army, Frazer always raised a laugh with his catchphrase: “Doomed! We’re doomed!” uttered at every opportunity in actor John Laurie’s broad Scottish accent. It helped that, despite Frazer’s gloom, viewers knew the Allies won World War II. We’ll get to more up-to-date reasons to be cheerful in a moment, but if Dad’s Army has long gone out of fashion, the pessimistic sense that humanity has reached an existential crisis has never been more obvious. Are we doomed? The daily feed of news suggests… well, possibly.

Peace, tranquillity and goodwill are in short supply. Putin’s war in Ukraine, for example, has revealed that the Kremlin contemplated – and one assumes still contemplates – using tactical nuclear weapons on a battlefield in Europe. That tripwire would presumably demand a NATO response. And the daily horrors from Gaza are only one of the more newsworthy and therefore more widely reported examples of our human capacity for destruction. The Council on Foreign Relations’ global conflict tracker estimates there are at least 32 active conflicts right now across the world. The Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights is more gloomy, identifying 45 different armed or unresolved conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa alone, several dozen in the rest of Africa and around 21 in Asia.

Other horsemen of the modern apocalypse have been galloping along. Coronavirus is only the latest of our plagues. More will follow. The next could be much worse, with potentially tiny groups of scientifically educated malefactors using the threat of germ warfare as blackmail, just as computer hackers and cyber crime have become normalised. And there’s famine, poverty, global heating and the resulting population displacements from soon-to-be uninhabitable regions.

The European Commission estimates 110 million people in the world are now displaced, many internally within countries that barely function. These include more than six million asylum seekers, perhaps coming to a rich country near you. Meanwhile rich potential host countries – the US, UK, Germany and most of Europe – display serious political divisions over migration policies. And lest we forget, there’s a new high-tech potential Armageddon from AI, a benefit and simultaneously a potential curse that many of us barely comprehend.

Add it up and beyond the ostrich strategy of pretending none of it will affect us, there remains an overwhelming sense that as citizens we are powerless in the face of a doom-laden future. Individual governments cannot do much. International institutions are weak and have not got a grip – never mind an agreement – on existential threats to our planet. But there is good news. Some of the best brains in Britain and beyond are thinking about these interlinked crises, and not in the doomsday spirit of Private Frazer.

For insight and wisdom – and in the hope of cheering us all up – Perspective turned to cosmologist and astrophysicist Martin Rees, Baron Rees of Ludlow, who remains good-humoured and exceedingly good company despite years of studying existential threats to mankind. He is one of the 2012 founders of Cambridge University’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk and also the Astronomer Royal. The latter is a historic post created in 1675, bringing with it the royal (and not inflation-proofed) stipend of £100 a year.

A centre to study existential risk means bringing together thinkers, mostly scientists of various kinds, to study extinction-level threats caused by existing or future technologies. That includes everything from biological weapons to climate change and other human activities, including errors and criminal or malicious acts.

I begin our conversation provocatively by suggesting that humans have always felt “doomed”. It’s in the Bible, in the book of Revelation (apokalypsis in Greek), and it extended into the 1950s and 1960s when the world worried that a nuclear war or human error might destroy us all.

“We’re living in a world that is different from that of previous generations in a number of ways,” responds Rees. “There are more people, all demanding more energy resources, affecting the whole global habitat. We have developed new technologies which mean that even a few people have the power to cause massive disruption. And we are in an interconnected world where a disaster in one region can cascade globally in ways that haven’t happened before. These changes in technology and the way we live aren’t discussed enough. The reason that I and others set up this small centre in Cambridge was simply to deploy the expertise in universities to think about these scenarios which we felt are under-discussed compared with more routine hazards.”

But, I persist, there is nothing new in the idea that humanity is finished. “In the 1960s the threat of nuclear annihilation was serious,” says Rees. “That was the first context in which human ingenuity had led to a technology that could destroy all life on earth. If you look back to earlier generations, then people were helpless in the face of nature. They couldn’t cause a disaster and they couldn’t do much about it when it happened, so there was nothing to do but to despair – and hope.”

Our conversation turns to what kind of legacy humans are now leaving for future generations, compared with what happened in the past.

“I go and visit Ely Cathedral, which is near where I live,” says Rees, a building he finds a continual source of inspiration. “I was amazed that they built that vast edifice which is still there a millennium later despite their primitive technology. They planned almost a century ahead. They knew this building would not be finished in their lifetime but went ahead and built it. They thought the world might only last a thousand years, until the Day of Judgement.

“We know now that in a physical sense the world will last for billions of years but we don’t plan even a hundred years ahead as our forebears did. The people in the Middle Ages didn’t think things were changing from one generation to the next. They were confident their grandchildren would appreciate the finished cathedral, whereas I don’t think we can say with very much confidence what the case will be for people at the end of this century.

“So our horizon for confidence and planning has shrunk. It’s partly because technology is changing rapidly. If we imagine the huge legacy the Victorians left for us – the railways, the magnificent solid buildings made nearly 200 years ago – we do wonder if we are going to leave for our descendants an equally valuable legacy. Are we going to be ‘good ancestors’ in the way the Victorians were for us?”

Other thinkers – such as cognitive psychologist and author Steven Pinker or historian and writer Yuval Noah Harari – seem ultimately optimistic: life in the past was nasty, brutish and short; nowadays perhaps we have never had it so good.
“Pinker is a great optimist,” says Rees. “He quite rightly has highlighted the way in which lives in the Middle Ages were miserable. But there are two things he doesn’t take account of. First, the new threats caused by human impact on the planet. Second, he goes on to say that humans have improved ethics. In some sense that may be true, but I’m not convinced. And global ethics have got worse. In the Middle Ages life was grim but there was not much they could do about it by organising society differently. They didn’t have the knowledge or the technology. Now life is a bit better but the gap between the way the world is and the way the world could be is far wider.

“With our present technologies we could provide the life that you and I enjoy for all the world’s inhabitants by redirecting technology and reducing inequalities and we’re not doing that. We can’t claim any overall ethical progress in the way international relations are conducted.”

My worst nightmare is not a nuclear war. It’s misuse of biotech to engineer viruses much worse than natural ones

I suggest that our sense of doom in the past was theological, whereas now it is logical – based on science and knowledge rather than belief. Isn’t the good news that we can do more than pray – that logical problems have logical solutions?

“Yes,” he agrees. “Whether we’ve got beliefs or not we can hope to reduce these risks and moderate them. That’s the purpose of our Centre.” He gives a recent example. “We have to realise Covid-19 was a wake-up call. It told us we are vulnerable to a disaster that can disrupt life for more than a year. It can spread globally and cascade from one sector to another. It was a health emergency but it affected education, the economy, productivity and supply chains.

“One lesson we have learned is ‘just in case’ rather than ‘just in time’. We need to have multiple supply chains and keep inventories in stock in order to be more resilient. There’s a trade-off between resilience and efficiency, and one lesson from the pandemic is that resilience needs to be promoted even if it seems to be less cost effective.”

My worry is that although we have global institutions to deal with global problems – the World Health Organisation, the United Nations and its subsidiaries – they depend upon agreements to cooperate. And from Gaza and climate change to geopolitics, such agreements may not function well. There are also surely huge gaps in international agreements which cannot keep up with rapidly advancing technologies?

“I think you’re quite right,” says Rees. “We need rather more – for example, something to monitor the internet and IT. They are hard to moderate because they are dominated by international conglomerates that can’t be taxed properly, so they can’t be regulated. We do need more international bodies.”

But, he insists, some international agencies have been successful in diminishing threats to human existence. “A good example is the International Atomic Energy Agency which is able to monitor and regulate nuclear stores and buildings that involve nuclear facilities. That’s because they require large conspicuous building which can be monitored.

“But if you were to ask me what’s my worst nightmare, it’s not a nuclear war. It’s misuse of biotech to engineer viruses much worse than natural ones. The fatality rate of Covid-19 was about one per cent, whereas that of other viruses can be about 70 per cent. There can be far worse pandemics spreading globally which may be natural but could be engineered.

“The difference between engineering a virus and building an H-bomb is that the latter requires very special purpose-built facilities which international bodies can monitor – a weaponised virus could be created by a small group of people using facilities available in laboratories in universities or industries. I really worry about how we can eliminate that risk without introducing intrusive surveillance of all the people with expertise. One bad actor is too many when the consequences are global.

“Bio-weapons aren’t used in war or by terrorist groups because you can’t predict the consequences of how they are spread, but the absolute nightmare is some fanatic who thinks that humans are polluting the world or there are too many humans around and so thinks: ‘Let’s kill as many as we can.’ There are some people who think that way.”

Rees is not only one of the world’s great thinkers and scientists but also one of its great communicators. Everything he says is based on a rational and informed assessment of the human predicament in the 2020s and, on top of that, he speaks in a way that communicates that predicament to non-scientists and non-experts.

Our conversation turns to what for me has always seemed the most idiotic way of facing up to the current existential problems on Earth: fantasising about living on Mars alongside Elon Musk. Rees laughs.

“I rather hope there will be a few people on Mars by the end of the century,” he says. “But they will be the kind of people who need to accept a very high risk, maybe even a one-way trip, and they will be bankrolled by the private sector. What is a dangerous delusion is to imagine that we can escape Earth’s problems and global warming by going to Mars. Dealing with climate change on Earth is a serious issue but it’s a doddle compared with terraforming Mars.

“The first people going to Mars will be living in conditions less habitable than the bottom of the ocean or the South Pole. The idea of a pleasant community on Mars is not the kind of thing we should be planning for now. Elon Musk says he would like to die on Mars but not on impact. He is 52 years old… so 40 years from now? Well, good luck to him.”

He adds: “Space is expensive but robots are getting more capable. As that happens, the practical need for sending humans into space is falling away.” Blasting off to Mars, feeding humans for six months or more and sending rockets to bring them back is “very expensive and very hard to do without a high risk of failure” which is unacceptable where humans are concerned. “But if you do want to learn about the surface of Mars, you can send a robot that needn’t be brought back.

“I’d like to see zero money spent by NASA and the European Space Agency on human space flights. The reason for that is that they’ve got to ensure [sending humans] is pretty safe,” and it’s therefore extremely costly. Plus, space shuttle failures, he says, led to “national trauma”. He’s referring to the US’s 2003 space shuttle Columbia disaster on re-entry, killing all seven astronauts on board, and the loss of the Challenger and seven crew 73 seconds after blast-off in 1986.

We end our discussion with practical solutions. He believes a priority is modernising the English education system to bring it into line with the US, France, Germany and other advanced countries. “We need a better understanding of what science is about – its potential and limitations. It’s a great pity that many drop science aged sixteen. That can be because the teaching is uninspiring in schools. Most very young kids are fascinated by space and dinosaurs. A good teacher can build on that and make kids interested in nature, but there aren’t enough good teachers doing that.”

Dealing with climate change on Earth is a doddle compared with terraforming Mars

The result is a minimal understanding of science in the English system of specialising at A-levels which may “foreclose the option” of studying science at university. Universities should be more flexible, he says, offering part-time learning and four-year instead of three-year degrees.

I note that democracies are poor at long-term planning, compared with China and other autocratic countries. He agrees but switches tack: “Our politics in the UK has been quite deplorable for the past ten to fourteen years because of the mantra that low tax is a good thing. They have learned too much from the US and not enough from northern Europe and Scandinavia. We could be a much happier country if we were rather higher tax and more equal. There should be a heavier tax on rich people and big conglomerates, the money hypothecated to pay those displaced [by automation] and in areas of the economy where humans are important, such as carers and others. That would be win-win.

“We also need to narrow the gap between the Global North and the Global South. We may reach net zero in the Global North but emissions in the Global South are increasing and that would be really serious. There could be massive migration if they do not benefit – and disaffection unless they are benefitting from new technologies. They need to leapfrog the fossil fuel stage, just as [the Global South] went to mobile phones without the landline stage.”

Our conversation stayed in my mind long after it ended. Surprisingly, I had cheered up, and wondered why. Then I recalled that towards the end of the Cold War I had filmed a BBC documentary about the prospect of a nuclear war setting off the US early warning system on the Aleutian island chain between Alaska and Russia. At a US base on the island of Shemya, personnel track Russian missiles and military aircraft 24 hours a day. The US military store had T-shirts and baseball caps for sale reading: “Shemya: it’s not the end of the world – but you can see it from here.” Martin Rees is one part of our global early warning system. He doesn’t foresee the end of the world, but he can see potential disaster from his Cambridge Centre. He encourages us all to do the one thing humans are, when pressed, rather good at: thinking. If we think about the worst, he believes, we can still avoid it. It’s not the end of the world – but you can see it from here.

Gavin Esler is a contributing editor at Perspective and an author, most recently of “Britain Is Better Than This”

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April 2024, People, The Interview

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