© Academy of medical sciences

If I ruled the world: Martin Rees

We need an enlightened despot to save our vulnerable planet
August 20, 2014

Space-ship Earth” is hurtling through space. Its passengers are anxious and fractious. Their entire life-support system is vulnerable to break-downs. But there is no “captain”—no authority to safeguard the planet’s future.

Our politics focuses on the urgent and immediate; the parochial trumps the global; and getting re-elected trumps almost everything. We downplay what’s happening in impoverished far-away countries. And we discount too heavily the problems we’ll leave for our grandchildren. In the world’s two largest democracies, India and the United States, hard choices about infrastructure and the environment get postponed and sidelined. Only an enlightened despot could push through the measures needed to navigate the 21st century safely.

The problem isn’t just governance. Conventional economics overlooks what happens at the end of the century, or assumes future generations will be richer, so we needn’t make sacrifices on their behalf. But can we be sure growth will continue? Shouldn’t we worry about “worst case” climate scenarios? The despot would willingly pay a higher insurance premium to guard against future catastrophes; he or she would generate a vast “sovereign wealth fund” to finance infrastructure and research and development at low interest rates.

We shouldn’t discriminate on grounds of date of birth. The lifetime welfare of the new-born should rate as highly as that of the middle-aged. Indeed many philosophers would assign equal value to the rights of those not yet born: for them, the extinction of humanity, foreclosing the potentialities of all future generations, would be so catastrophic that we should strive to reduce even the tiniest probability that this could happen.

By the middle of this century there will be nine billion people—hopefully all lifted from poverty. Modern agriculture, together with better engineering to reduce waste, improved irrigation, and so forth, could feed that number if deployed worldwide. These people will need energy too. There should be a firmly-proclaimed priority to develop and deploy clean energy for the developing and the developed world.

The world in 2050 will be more crowded, and warmer. And we can predict something else. Novel technology—cyber, nano and bio—will offer amazing prospects but will open up new threats and pose new ethical dilemmas. Wealth generated by robots will erode middle-ranking jobs; this wealth must be redistributed from the technological elite to establish secure careers for carers, teaching assistants, and so forth—for which demand is almost unbounded.

And we’ll confront new vulnerabilities. We depend on elaborate networks: electric power grids, air traffic control, international finance, just-in-time delivery and so forth. Their manifest benefits could be outweighed by catastrophic (albeit rare) breakdowns cascading through the system. Pandemics could spread at the speed of jet aircraft, causing maximal havoc in the shambolic megacities of the developing world. Social media could spread psychic contagion—rumours and panic—literally at the speed of light. Malign or foolhardy individuals and small groups have ever-greater leverage as technology empowers them more. Concern about cyber-attacks is rising sharply. Advances in synthetic biology, likewise, offer huge potential for medicine and agriculture—but they amplify the risk of bioerror or bioterror. Recent experiments that rendered an influenza virus more virulent and transmissible are a scary portent of threats to come, if such biotech falls into the wrong hands. If malign or careless acts can resonate globally, even one could be too many. So the tension between security, privacy and freedom will become more acute.

The despots of the past built vast and lasting monuments. In medieval Europe the princes of the church built cathedrals that they would never see finished, and which uplift us nearly a millennium later. They did this despite a world-view constricted in space and time. We know that we are stewards of a precious “pale blue dot” in a vast cosmos with a future measured in billions of years. But despite these vastly expanded conceptual horizons, politics and economics are short-term and parochial.

We need a change in priorities and perspective—and soon—to cope with growing pressures on the Earth’s resources and environment, to share the benefits of globalisation, and to handle the Promethean challenge posed by ever more powerful technology. We need rulers who care what happens in the 22nd century and beyond.