Monday, September 04, 2006

It's Worse Than You Thought

We all know the world is a dangerous place, but however dangerous you think it might be, it's worse than you thought. I've been looking through the web site of the Lifeboat Foundation, which is dedicated to the study and prevention of "existential risks" - risks that are both global and terminal. The sad fact is that many of the technologies that could make life better in the future have a "dark side" that could make life much worse, or even end human (and perhaps all) life completely.

These technologies include genetics, nanotechnology, robotics, and others. Of course "conventional" terrorism and nuclear weapons are also risks, but the newer fields have the disturbing feature that the resources required to use and abuse these technologies are small (i.e., small lab facilities and powerful computers that are widely available). In the next few years, groups and even individuals working at the molecular level with biological or nanotechnology methods could create destructive organisms or devices, accidentally or intentionally, much like computer viruses today. But these could be real viruses that would infect people, not their computers.

I wish this were science fiction, but alas it is not. The Lifeboat Foundation has 200 high-power people on its scientific advisory board, with 23 sub-boards and 21 research programs. They are also looking at what to do if the various shield programs are not enough and something really bad and global happens anyway. This is the lifeboat side of things, looking at ways to preserve at least some of humankind. So yes, there's a space connection here (Lifeboat Foundation space habitats). But it's much more than that.

I think it's time to find out more about these risks, and to urge our government to take these things seriously and to increase funding for defense against these dangers. Unlike the 9/11 attacks, there may not be time after the fact to figure out what to do. Existential risks require proactive actions. Senator Bill Frist proposed in 2005 a 21st century "Manhattan project" to prepare to respond to epidemics and bioterrorism. That might be a good start at the government level, but the Lifeboat Foundation is casting an even wider net.

We certainly all hope that none of the things the Lifeboat Foundation is concerned about ever really happens. But as General Tommy Franks said once in a different context, "I learned long ago that hope is not a strategy."


Lokabrenna said...

I don't post much on the blogs. In fact, this is my second post to anyone's blog anywhere. But I have recently begun posting more regularly to a blog where I participate (Burb Rocking). Still finding my way with this blog stuff.

But I really like your site, which I've referenced on the site where I post. We're rather close in age, and I share your interest in space, which, in my case was born when my mother woke me up at some ungodly hour to see Neil and Buzz set foot on the Moon.

You must get tons of traffic, but I don't see enough comments. So here's mine.

You're right. The nuclear threat was really a result of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction as practiced by the two reigning superpowers. That paradigm was laid to rest over a decade ago. If we see a big nuclear meltdown in the world in the future, the most likely setting would be an India-Pakistan flare-up. Devastating, to be sure, but far from world-ending.

The mainstream media enjoys playing on our fears. So why have they left this one - the Big One: bio-disaster - alone? Short answer: They didn't. We all remember the hysteria over Ebola and the Hot Zone. But our attention span is short. Terrorism and the misery of the Middle East, which we help to perpetuate, sell better on the evening news.

Edward O. Wilson's The Future of Life speaks to this issue, though perhaps from a different stance. A characteristic of the modern technological era is our position at a crossroads, where our mastery of scientific-technological forces affords us a choice: to create a better world; or to destroy the one we have.

We will continue to to recklessly indulge our addiction to fossil fuels (thereby fueling global warming), to casually wipe species forever out of existence, to degrade our natural environment and the renewable resources upon which we rely, to wantonly engage in mass murder of our own species. You live in New England, and Plum Island - the source of Lyme Disease and the West Nile Virus - is not so far away. You may not be living so far from a future Ground Zero for a biological disaster. We continue to develop bioweapons. And so, of course, other countries also continue to pursue such research (though all lag woefully behind the US).

A biowar ending for humanity? Why not? Shades of The Omega Man. Swords? Or plowshares? Which will humankind ultimately choose?

Sadly, if I were a betting man, I know where my money would be.

FlyingSinger said...

Thanks for visiting and posting some insightful comments! I'm not really sure what sort of traffic I get - maybe I'll install a counter sometime, but I guess I just like to write anyway, so if few people comment - well, OK. It's nice when some do but I know there are blogs I really like that I rarely visit and almost never comment on, just too busy juggling everything.

I'm reading The Weather Makers ( right now and recently read Jared Diamond's "Collapse" - scary stuff - Earth will carry on but societies come and go, and we may too. Hard to be optimistic sometimes, but I still mostly am, and I'm working on educational outreach stuff, mostly space related. Hoping for a butterfly effect - positive influence on some kid somewhere who someday comes up with a huge breakthrough or something.


Lokabrenna said...

Jared Diamond - now there's a mind!

While I'm here, by the way, I wish to correct a false impression my previous comment may have left. I post frequently to the Burb Rocking blog, but have only posted two comments on other blogs. One of those being here. And now this makes #3.

I have not read Collapse. Is Diamond arguing that our modern civilization is replicating on a global scale what we've seen before in the Easter Island, Cahokia, Pueblo and other ancient civilizations? If so, then I must agree. Can we avert the catastrophe we are racing toward? There is always hope, but the "logic" of power may overwhelm it.

It is indeed difficult to be optimistic at times. In fact, I've given up. My hope now is to be neither optimistic nor pessimistic - just realistic.

Realistically, it is to be expected that we will do as previous civilizations have done, and exhaust our resources. Unfortunate, since virtually every corner of the globe participates at some level in the global civilization we have been creating.

There is some wiggle room here, nevertheless. Wind, solar, ocean-thermal, tidal energy, nuclear power and other sources will remain available. There is probably a very painful transition coming down the road, possibly as soon as sometime this century. Something resembling a new Dark Ages is likely to ensue. Chaos, bloodshed, and the usual mayhem can all be expected, but that is not so different from how things are today.

Afterward, however, our species may actually be in better shape than ever before in its history. We will have had the fossil fuels I.V. forcibly removed from the veins of our civilization. A painful - and, one would hope, unforgettable - lesson will have been learned: Our civilization is highly interdependent, what hurts one eventually hurts all, and the relationship between our civilization and the natural world is also an interdependent one. For awhile at least, we will have learned how to be better stewards of our planet, as well as better masters of technology and civilization.

It's that painful transition that is going to be the tricky part. Our capacity for destruction - and restraint - will be tested to the limit. I expect we will survive, very battered, but still clinging to existence.

Which makes what you do with your educational outreach all the more critical and important. You are helping to sow seeds for something constructive to emerge when the destruction inevitably comes. Making the future picture just a bit less grim. Future generations will owe you and others like you a heartfelt debt of gratitude.

- John