Sunday, 9 April 2017

Two and a Half Minutes to Midnight


Being a Cassandra is a risky business. Cassandra, the daughter of King Priam, was a prophet who was considered insane, so although she prophesied true things, she was not believed.

Modern day prophets can run the risk of both dismissal and insanity. One of the most sobering books I've read recently is the Utopia Experiment, by an academic named Dylan Evans. The book concerns a disastrous attempt to set up a survivalist community in Scotland. Evans, a specialist in the philosophy of Artificial Intelligence, became convinced that civilization was highly likely to collapse soon.

As a result, he sold his house and scuppered his academic career in order to start an experiment in simple living. This was to prepare for the inevitable hardships that would come after civilization fell.

The experiment did not end well: the book opens with Evans interned in a psychiatric ward. As a result of these experiences, Evans ended up highly critical of those who believe that disaster is imminent, and strongly supportive of a high-tech civilization.

On top of all this, there have been end of the world prophets throughout history, who have invariably been wrong. However, most of those prophets were acting from personal revelation: today's tend to base their conclusions on a more empirical basis.

In January, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists moved the dial of the Doomsday Clock to two and a half minutes to midnight. The Doomsday Clock has been produced each year since 1947, and indicates the probability of a technologically or environmentally produced disaster.

Two and a half minutes is the closest setting to disaster since the early nineteen-eighties, when there was a significant war scare. It's also only thirty seconds away from the record two minutes, which was set in 1953 when the US and the Soviet Union exploded their first thermonuclear devices within months of one another.



Image:Wikipedia, Fastfission.

With the end of the Cold War, the dial moved significantly away from midnight; in 1991, it was at 17 minutes. However, over the next twenty years, it sauntered ever closer to twelve. This has largely been for two reasons: the beginning of a second age of nuclear confrontation, as many nations have gained a capability to strike with atom bombs, and in response to unfolding environmental disasters like global warming.

It should be obvious why the scientists decided to move the clock closer to midnight this January, but it's worth quoting from the report. The full statement can be read here.

"On the big topics that concern the board, world leaders made too little progress in the face of continuing turbulence. In addition to the existential threats posed by nuclear weapons and climate change, new global realities emerged, as trusted sources of information came under attack, fake news was on the rise, and words were used in cavalier and often reckless ways."

A number of political trouble spots make nuclear war more likely, so it's surprising that this issue isn't commanding more attention in the media. The board notes that the "climate change outlook was somewhat less dismal—but only somewhat." This is because some action has been taken, and because carbon dioxide emissions remained essentially flat in 2016. However, this is no reason for complacency:

"Keeping future temperatures at less-than-catastrophic levels requires reductions in greenhouse gas emissions far beyond those agreed to in Paris—yet little appetite for additional cuts was in evidence at the November climate conference in Marrakech."

Against this background, the rise of what they term 'strident nationalism' is very worrying. Donald Trump's election is especially concerning because of his commitment to nuclear weapons, and his denial of climate change. I'd include Brexit as a further manifestation.

Nationalism, as Yuval Noah Harari suggested recently, offers no solutions for global problems. In fact, it's making things a lot worse because it's promoting discord between nations. In my view, its resurgence represents a significant failure of governance. As the board noted:

"Last year, and the year before, we warned that world leaders were failing to act with the speed and on the scale required to protect citizens from the extreme danger posed by climate change and nuclear war. During the past year, the need for leadership only intensifed—yet inaction and brinksmanship have continued, endangering every person, everywhere on Earth (my emphasis)."

In other words, in becoming preoccupied with distracting and resource-hungry projects like Brexit, our leaders are showing a breathtaking, almost suicidal, level of irresponsibility. Governments and populations who act so recklessly are in effect playing Russian roulette with civilisation.

This issue, by the way, goes beyond the usual tired disputes between the 'left' and 'right.' David Brin seems broadly correct when he suggests that the current significant divide is between those who accept and those who deny the realities of our situation.  I can't put it better than the board:

"Wise men and women have said that public policy is never made in the absence of politics. But in this unusual political year, we offer a corollary: Good policy takes account of politics but is never made in the absence of expertise. Facts are indeed stubborn things, and they must be taken into account if the future of humanity is to be preserved, long term."

Maybe we should be listening to Cassandra, after all.

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