the world in 2050

Went along to see Martin Lord Rees talk last week.

Rees is the President of the Royal Society of London, more or less the most prestigious scientific organisation in the world.

The talk was called “the world in 2050”.

It was a competent genteel coverage of where we are heading, and the challenges ahead. There was nothing new in it. Population will grow, then fall; climate change and energy resources need dealing with; biodiversity is dropping at an alarming rate due to our actions;; a lot of interesting developments may or may not happen in biotech, genetics, AI, etc.

It was entirely grounded and reasonable, but frankly tame. I came away thinking if this is the pinnacle of scientific leadership, then we are doomed.

Easily the most coherent thing, and the only sign of vision, was his call for something equivalent to a Manhattan project, or the race to put a man on the moon, for developing new technologies to adapt to the challenges of climate change. The situation is stark; we cannot go on as we are without facing disaster. If we want to maintain economic growth and reduce emissions – and I wonder how long it will be before we realise that is having our cake and eating it too – we need new clean technology to power our civilisation. We have the means to pursue those technologies, while we still have fossil fuels to power the research and development (and it will take about 30 years to shift society to new technology); the question is as ever political will.

Creating political will means communicating strongly with the public, and strongly with the politicians.

I guess my objection was to the genteel nature of the call. For fuck’s sake. Advocating the urgent adoption of one of the largest scale endeavours in human history to avoid disaster should not be done with a polite cough. Grab the politicians by the fucking lapels and scream in their face. Scientists say: ‘if we don’t do this your constituents’ children will be fucking dead’ – are the headlines we need.

Knowledge is power, and with power comes responsiblity. Politicians are stupid. Okay, not all of them. But the skill set required to lie and cheat and get elected is not the same as one that requires you to have a comprehensive knowledge of the world and applied intelligence.

Right now the knowledge is with the scientists. Yes, it needs to be communicated to the masses. But the time for being polite about it is over. Otherwise we will just see the continual side-lining of the issue by a confused corporate-owned media that can’t tell the difference between the opinions of a paid corporate lobby group and a scientific consensus. [EDIT: this is timely – Greenpeace reveals the oil company subsidiary sponsoring tonnes of climate skeptic propaganda.]

We get most of our information from journalists. Journalists are not actually any smarter than the rest of us. They just copy shit from press releases from PR companies and act smug.

But if the scientific community isn’t smart enough to realise that they have the power and responsibility to lead the debate and set the agenda – and here we are talking actually demanding society reorder itself to attain goals that matter – then they aren’t that smart either.

And if we are collectively too stupid to figure this out, we can die off. Evolution takes no prisoners. We are not the end product of evolution, we are a part of the process. The process can go in other directions, with another species dominating.

Maybe I am being too hard on him. Maybe speaking to another audience he would put forth a different message. (The link up top is to his TED talk, which I haven’t watched, which will probably cover similar ground.) But I feel we need more participation in leading and shaping our political will from our scientific community. Scientists are also members of the democratic population, and free to act as such, not being limited by what is perceived as appropriate to the scientist’s role.

2 Responses to “the world in 2050”

  1.   JamesM
    April 1st, 2010 | 4:02 pm

    “The time for being polite about it is over.”
    “Scientists say: ‘if we don’t do this your constituents’ children will be fucking dead.’”

    Nice. I concur. And you speak in more personal terms about evolution and technology in a similar way to how I did yesterday—

    Carry on then.

  2.   bruce
    April 8th, 2010 | 1:57 pm

    Genteel is all I really have patience for from the head of the royal society. They =should= be mild mannered in their suggestions, since their whole approach to science is built on outdated and disproven paradigms.

    Look at the whole genome sequencing thing– the last manhattan project. What we’ve got now is a whole heap of data and a whole industry built on a paradigm (gene control of organism) that is demonstrably false. Do you really want these jokers messing with terraforming? I sure don’t.

    First, the fear. Then the promised technological solution. Then the money going to cronies and fellow travelers. Then the problem never actually solved, and things typically made worse.