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Book review: ‘On the Future: Prospects for Humanity’ by Martin Rees

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Astronomer Royal’s rallying call for rational thinking about how we can shape our own destiny.

The world is changing so fast that Martin Rees is probably justified in revisiting the same territory he covered in the 2003 book that he wanted to call ‘Our Final Century?’. As he admits, his UK publisher persuaded him to remove the question mark, while US readers got ‘Our Final Hour’.

Despite describing himself as a techno-optimist, Rees predicted that when all the risks were taken into account, there was only a 50 per cent chance that humanity would reach the end of the 21st century without experiencing a disastrous setback. It was a speculative argument, but based on compelling evidence. We’ve reached the first century in the 45 million for which the Earth has been around in which one species alone can determine the planet’s fate.

Technology is improving life for many people, but at the same time it’s exposing us to new threats in parallel with a booming population and unsustainable stresses on the environment. Yet our approach to the future, particularly when it comes to the level at which governments decide national priorities, is characterised by short-term thinking, polarizing debates, alarmist rhetoric and pessimism.

Best known to the public as Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Rees has been master of Trinity College and director of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University. As a member of the UK’s House of Lords and former president of the Royal Society, he is deeply involved in international science and issues of technological risk. ‘On the Future: Prospects for Humanity’ (Princeton University Press, £14.99, ISBN 9780691180441) is his rallying call for the sort of rational thinking that seems to have become unpopular in recent years.

There’s no doubt that the ‘prospects for humanity’ mentioned in the sub-title are bound to the future of science and how successfully we harness technology. If we are to avoid the dystopian risks that so many commentators are warning of, we need to think rationally, globally, collectively and optimistically – and in a long-term way.

Humankind has the ability, and the will, to one day colonise worlds beyond our own. Until then, though, there’s a balancing act to be negotiated between developing the necessary technology and at the same time tackling poverty, climate change, nuclear conflict and the like. There’s no Plan B – no viable alternative within reach if we do not care for our home planet.

Rees’s message is that there’s no need to slam the brakes on. What society needs to do is take a close look at where technology is taking us and redirect it. Which, of course, means paying more attention to scientists and engineers and less to the interests of politicians and shareholders. The dilemma is that issues like climate change and regulation of tech can only be properly addressed with some degree of international cooperation: at the moment that looks like a big ask.

While the argument running through this short, but persuasive, book is in favour of objective analysis of where we are and where we’d like to be, Rees’s closing appeal is an emotional one. Do we want to go down in history as the selfish generation that was aware of the problems it was creating, but happy to leave them for future generations to deal with?

“There is too little planning, too little horizon scanning, too little awareness of long-term risks,” he concludes. “It would surely be shameful if we bequeathed to future generations a depleted and hazardous world.”

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