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.