What Will the World Be Like in 2100?

According to the British Astronomer Royal Sir Marin Rees, the odds are good that no one will be around to find out.  In his (very informed) view, it essentially comes down to a coin toss.

It’s easy to dismiss doomsday claims – they’ve been happening for thousands of years and humanity is still going about its business.  So, why should we pay any attention to another apocalyptic voice foretelling the demise of our species?

For one, this naysayer backs up his claims with hard science and mathematics, not some crackpot psuedo-religious fantasy.  The gist of Sir Rees argument is one that is not new to any informed person – humanity, with its machines and medicine and computer technology, has the unique ability  to engineer its own extinction.  Yet, while we all know that this is true, its easy to imagine that the probability of a species-wide suicide is negligible.

Not so, says Rees.  The democratization of information inevitably means that more and more people will have access to increasingly powerful technologies.  While Rees mentions nuclear technologies with some concern, he maintains that it will be the biological and chemical technologies which pose the real threat to humanity.  For a disaffected individual, access to the materials to cook up a deadly plague or a chemical weapon are readily available and attacks like this have happened before (see Tokyo subway sarin attack).  Even discounting malicious actions, with thousands of labs working with such deadly materials, the risk of accidental release rises exponentially.

In fact, Rees is so confident in his predictions that he’s literally put his money where his mouth is:  he’s put $1000 dollars down on the idea that a biological  or chemical attack will have killed one million people by the year 2020.  A bit macabre and perhaps even distasteful?  Sure.  Sobering?  Yup.

As if that wasn’t scary enough, Rees delves into particle physics to consider the idea that new advances in collider technology could pose not only a risk to humanity but to the very fabric of time and space.  As scientists figure out ways to smash atoms together at ever increasing velocities, some have voiced concern that these collisions might produce results with disastrous consequences.  We’re not talking about an explosion or a radioactive leak.  We’re talking about the entire known universe being swallowed up.  Scientists maintain that this risk is exceedingly unlikely –  somewhere in the area of 1 out of 50 million.  Still, they cannot rule it out.

So, what is humanity to do?  Rees offers few concrete suggestions.  While he offers some palliatives about working to stave off disasters and finding new energy sources and such, they’re unconvincing and unrealistic.  He seems to feel that the die has been cast and humanity is entering its final era.

Where does this leave us?

To hope that this very smart, very convincing man turns out to be wrong.

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8 comments

  1. I’m fairly cynical about my fellow man, so I’m just recording this message whilst digging very very very deep bunker lined with anything I can get my grubby technological mits on.

  2. While I love post-apocalyptic novels, I wouldn’t want to live in a world like that myself.

    I’m sceptical that anything as serious as this writer predicts would happen, but that is partially self-protection. To live with the idea that we’re heading into decades of disasters and terrorist attacks would be too depressing to live with. Especially if there aren’t any ways, according to Rees, that we could avoid the troubles.

    Bunker or window? (To jump in or jump out)

    1. I’m a fan of post-apocalyptic novels myself. Stephen King’s The Stand is among my favorite books written. Rees isn’t quite to the point of saying there’s nothing we can do – it’s just that his solutions seem a but unrealistic after he spends so much time laying out exactly how we’re going to self-destruct.

  3. This is interesting. I read an article yesterday in The Guardian about Stephen Hawking, where he basically said the same thing as Rees, that we’re all going to blow ourselves up in the next couple of centuries and our only chance for survival as a species is to colonize in space. Those particle colliders scare the hell out of me.

  4. I tend to take a slightly different view on this. I take all crystal-ball gazing with a big pinch of salt, regardless of how eminent the gazers are. If you were to go back 100 years and read what the pre-eminent thinkers of that age were predicting for now, I suspect virtually all of them would be way off the mark. There are so many alternatives that it is entirely possible that the future will be totally different to anything that has been predicted.

    1. I completely agree with you and Rees discusses this point. For example, so many futurists predicted flying cars and manned space colonies by the year 2000, none of which actually happened. Still, he makes a very convincing point that, for a particular result such as flying cars or what not, a very specific string of events will have to occur. If anyone link in the chain is broken, then the result becomes highly unlikely – for example, if humans don’t come up with a highly compact, highly powerful practical source of power, the whole idea of flying cars becomes moot. However, with human destruction, there are so many way it could happen that a broken link on one particular chain of events still allows for others to continue unimpeded. There are certainly flaws in his argument, but its compelling. Thanks for the post!

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