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Our Final Century?: Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-first Century? (Hardcover) Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal - 2003


This book, published nearly a decade since, has survived with us close on thirteen years into the 21st Century, it remains to be seen if some of us get past the 2012 Olympics being staged in London, UK.


The subtitle for Rees's 228 page book is "Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-First Century? " Perhaps this should be "Will the Planet Survive another Century of Human Endeavour?" Speaking as an all-round scientist myself (more accurately, a polymath) I would doubt it.


Martin Rees is a fellow astronomer for whom I have a great deal of respect. His writings are lucid and economical and therefore well focussed. My only regret with the present volume is that he could not resist bringing in cosmology (he is after all more of a theoretician than a practical astronomer, despite holding the rank of Astronomer Royal). Therefore I am bugged by allusions to big bangs, string theory and the like; but I'll disregard this aspect of the book and concentrate on what appears to me to be the real threats to our continued tenancy of planet Earth.


The Prologue starts well: "The twentieth Century brought us the bomb, and the nuclear threat will never leave us; the short-term threat from terrorism is high on the public and political agenda; inequalities in wealth and welfare get ever wider. My primary aim is not toad to the burgeoning literature on these challenging themes but to focus on twenty-first century hazards, currently less familiar, that could threaten humanity and the global environment still more."


The theme of thermonuclear self-destruction is developed in the Prologue. And it needs to be emphasized that, as indeed Rees himself asserts, this threat has not gone away in these post-cold war years, neither is it likely to; further I would add that the so-called nuclear deterrent has not deterred us from warring but has merely acted as an umbrella (the presumption being that no state or nation will fall back on its nuclear arsenals for fear of self-mutilation) for "conventional" hostilities and adventures such as we are currently witnessing in Afghanistan and elsewhere.


Chapter Two entitled "Technology Shock", commences: "In the past century, there were more changes than in the previous thousand years. The new century will see changes that will dwarf those of the last".

A good deal of this is common sense. But our ever-increasing reliance upon technology is depriving most us of an understanding of those forces that are bringing about such change; hence, I would submit, wisdom and common sense are dwindling commodities in a rapidly expanding world population of humans.


From Chapter Six "Slowing Science Down", we have the important section under the sub-titles: "The Paymasters of Science". The intermingling of science research with military motivation is not ignored: " The Hubble Space Telescope (HST) would have cost even more had it not shared some development costs with spy satellites."


Chapter Seven: "Baseline Natural Hazards - Asteroid Impacts" opens with reference to the impacting on the surface of giant planet Jupiter fragments from Comet Shoemaker-Levy, the aftermath from which could be observed in quite small telescopes (refractors of 80mm aperture for example).

Rees puts fears of a similar impacting asteroid that might hit Earth into perspective. We are indeed at greater risk from man-made hazards than from the chance encounter with a "natural" intruder from space.


This theme is developed in Chapter Eight: "Human Threats to Earth": "Environmental changes induced by human activities, still poorly understood, may be graver than the "baseline" threats from earthquakes, eruptions, and asteroid impacts."


Chapter Ten: "The Doomsday Philosophers: Can pure thought tell us whether humanity's years are numbered?"


It is good to find some credence being handed to so-called pure thinkers. Rees mentions the "doomsday" scenario pioneered ". . . (by) my friend Brandon Carter and presented by a conference hosted by the Royal Society as far back as 1983."


It is impossible to ignore this proposition. The speculation can of course run riot but the significances should not be overlooked from these apparently (to some) far-flung notions of "pessimism" and gloom.


From my own observations (seeing so many of my kind ambling along the street with a mobile jammed in at the ear or worse, clapped in headphones-- what has the natural environment got to do with me attitude?) I fear more for our universal demise through inaction than from viruses or thermonuclear explosions. By this I mean that so much of the essentials of life--food production and distribution, the governance of life-support apparatus (social care etc. etc.), heating, ventilating, the theme is almost endless--are now solely dependent upon a few control factors overseen by the microchip. A malfunction in any of these control systems could bring human activity to an abrupt halt from which it might never have time to recover, or it might just be that a large solar eruption could paralyse the entire network.


Rees's book, if nothing else, should make us appreciate the complexities that have intruded into our everyday lives and the direction in which we are travelling towards ever increasing specialization, and an overburdening of mind and body with a plethora of new-fangled technologies.


Ignoring the damage done to our bodies through bad dietary practices, inadequate and inappropriate physical exercise, etc., I doubt if our minds will survive the twenty-first century's onslaught from the "gadgets" of our own devising.


John C Vetterlein

18 July 2012

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