Crawl Across the Ocean

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Good News For People Who Like Bad News

"‘Well sure as planets come
I know that they end
And if I'm here when that happens
Will you promise me this, my friend,
Please - Bury me with it!
I just don't need none of that Mad Max bulls**t"1

Post Holiday book review #2: "Our Final Century"2 by Martin Rees

For the last few years, I've had this gradually growing sense that the laws of probability are working against mankind and the continued existence of our current civilization.

While the capacity of the system which sustains us (the earth + all our inventions and institutions) to withstand damage is relatively static, our capacity to inflict large scale damage is growing rapidly (exponentially, arguably).

Looking back 200 years, the only real threats to our entire civilization were things like (natural) viral outbreaks, an object from outer space hitting the earth, or an enormous volcanic eruption - that is, the same threats we have always faced.

Those threats are still with us, but we now face added risks like nuclear annihilation and deliberately engineered viruses. On top of that, our growing integration and ever greater sophistication leave us more and more vulnerable to severe computer viruses, economic crises and any number of other threats.

The odds of any one of these things occurring (severely enough to threaten our civilization) are all very small. But as you keep adding more and more things which could potentially go wrong, the probability steadily rises.

So, what about the book? Rees' contention is that, because of the argument I just outlined, we are unlikely to survive to the end of the century. At least not unless we find a way to send life to other planets or we give up much of our freedom to a totalitarian government. Rees devotes chapters to the various threats we face such as biological agents and nuclear threats as well as more esoteric stuff like universe threatening physics experiments while throwing out various depressing thoughts such as the idea that in any field of science the most pessimistic and negative people tend to be the ones who know the most - i.e. the true experts.

But when I got to the end, to tell the truth, I found it a bit disappointing. The writing is clear and concise and not alarmist in tone at all but I think if you just spend five minutes and close your eyes and imagine all the things which could go catastrophically wrong with our entire world that couldn't have gone wrong one or two centuries ago, then you probably don't need to bother reading it, but maybe it's just me. Still, if you find bad news interesting, or you think what I wrote above is just a bunch of bs, or if you want to see it spelled out thoroughly in book form by someone with actual credibility, it's worth a read.

For those of you who are skeptical that we only have one century left, here's a timely piece of news from the BBC, (brought to my attention by Doug and his dynamic drivel) which provides a great example of the kind of thing me and Rees are talking about.

According to the article, the amount of sunlight reaching the earth has dropped by 10 to 30% in the last few decades. The same amount is reaching the earth's outer atmosphere as ever, but it's not all finding it's way through to the ground.

The leading theory to explain why is that "tiny airborne particles of soot, ash, sulphur compounds and other pollutants" are both reflecting sunlight and 'thickening' clouds so that they reflect more sunlight as well.

Apparently, scientists have been surprised that the increase in greenhouse gases hasn't caused a greater rise in temperatures. But they figure that this loss of sunlight ('global dimming' as it is known) may be offsetting global warming to a large extent.

So it seems possible, perhaps even likely, that the only reason we haven't suffered either a painful cooling or warming so far is that our activities have caused two large impacts on our climate, and they just happened to cancel each other out to a fair extent. i.e. We were lucky.

Now we're not making too much progress on reducing our emission which cause global warming, but the pollutants which cause global dimming are more and more coming under control because they are the cause of the visible air pollution which prematurely kills off so many in our large cities (not to mention blocking out the sky).

But if the dimming effect recedes, we may end up facing a much more severe warming trend. From the article:
"We're going to be in a situation unless we act where the cooling pollutant is dropping off while the warming pollutant is going up.

"That means we'll get reducing cooling and increased heating at the same time and that's a problem for us," says Dr Cox.

Even the most pessimistic forecasts of global warming may now have to be drastically revised upwards.

That means a temperature rise of 10 degrees Celsius by 2100 could be on the cards, giving the UK a climate like that of North Africa, and rendering many parts of the world uninhabitable."

Final century? I wouldn't bet against it.

1Despite taking it's name from a song lyric, this site isn't really a good source for musical info (especially on anything current), but I have to take a moment to mention the album "Good News for People Who Like Bad News", by Modest Mouse which is probably the best thing I've heard in quite a while and (obviously) provided the title for this post as well as the quote at the top which is from track 6, 'Bury Me With It'.

2In North America, the book was given the title, The Sorcerers StoneOur Final Hour, but I don't see why you would replace the literal 'Final Century' which is what the book is about with a metaphorical 'Final Hour' which just sounds like the hyperbole that it is.

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