Great Britain's Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees on technology's "yuck factor".
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; environmental gloom is pervasive. My primary aim is not to add to the burgeoning literature on these depressing themes , but to focus on twenty-first-century hazards, currently less familiar, that could threaten humanity and the global environment still more.
Some of these new threats are already upon us; others are still conjectural. Populations could be wiped out by lethal "engineered" airborne viruses; human character may be changed by new techniques far more targeted and effective than the nostrums and drugs familiar today; we may even one day be threatened by rogue nanomachines that replicate catastrophically, or by superintelligent computers.
Other novel risks cannot be completely excluded. Experiments that crash atoms together with immense force could start a chain reaction that erodes everything on Earth; the experiments could even tear the fabric of space itself, an ultimate "Doomsday" catastrophe whose fallout spreads at the speed of light to engulf the entire universe. These latter scenarios may be exceedingly unlikely, but they raise in extreme form the issue of who should decide, and how, whether to proceed with experiments that have a genuine scientific purpose (and could conceivably offer practical benefits), but that pose a very tiny risk of a calamitous outcome.
We still live, as all our ancestors have done, under the threat of environmental disasters that could cause worldwide devastation: volcanic supereruptions and major asteroid impacts, for instance. Natural catastrophes on this global scale are fortunately so infrequent, and therefore so unlikely to occur within our lifetime, that they do not preoccupy our thoughts, nor give most of us sleepless nights. But such catastrophes are now augmented by other risks that we are bringing upon ourselves, risks that cannot be dismissed as so improbable.
During the Cold War years, the main threat looming over us was an all-out thermonuclear exchange, triggered by an escalating superpower confrontation. That threat was apparently averted. But many experts—indeed, some who themselves controlled policy during those years—believed that we were lucky; some thought that the cumulative risk of Armageddon over that period was as much as fifty percent. The immediate danger of all-out nuclear war has receded. But there is a growing threat of nuclear weapons being used sooner or later somewhere in the world.
Nuclear weapons can be dismantled, but they cannot be uninvented. The threat is ineradicable, and could be resurgent in the twenty-first century: we cannot rule out a realignment that would lead to standoffs as dangerous as the Cold War rivalry, deploying even bigger arsenals. And even a threat that seems, year by year, a modest one mounts up if it persists for decades. But the nuclear threat will be overshadowed by others that could be as destructive, and far less controllable. These may come not primarily from national governments, not even from "rogue states," but from individuals or small groups with access to ever more advanced technology. There are alarmingly many ways in which individuals will be able to trigger catastrophe.
The strategists of the nuclear age formulated a doctrine of deterrence by "mutually assured destruction" (with the singularly appropriate acronym MAD). To clarify this concept Dr. Strangeloves envisaged a hypothetical "Doomsday machine," an ultimate deterrent too terrible to be unleashed by any political leader who was one hundred percent rational. Later in this century, scientists might be able to create a real nonnuclear Doomsday machine. Several possibilities are described in this book. Conceivably, ordinary citizens could command the destructive capacity that in the twentieth century was the frightening prerogative of the handful of individuals who held the reins of power in states with nuclear weapons. If there were millions of independent fingers on the button of a Doomsday machine, then one person's act of irrationality, or even one person's error, could do us all in.
Such an extreme situation is perhaps so unstable that it could never be reached, just as a very tall house of cards, though feasible in theory, could never be built. Long before individuals acquire a "Doomsday" potential, indeed, perhaps within a decade, some will acquire the power to trigger, at unpredictable times, events on the scale of the worst present-day terrorist outrages. An organised network of Al Qaeda–type terrorists would not be required: just a fanatic or social misfit with the mindset of those who now design computer viruses. There are people with such propensities in every country, very few, to be sure, but bio- and cybertechnologies will become so powerful that even one could well be too many.
By mid-century, societies and nations may have drastically realigned; people may live very differently, survive to a far greater age, and have different attitudes from those of the present (maybe modified by medication, chip implants, and so forth). But one thing is unlikely to change: individuals will make mistakes, and there will be a risk of malign actions by disaffected or embittered loners and dissident groups. Access to advanced technology will offer new instruments for creating terror and devastation; instant universal communications will leverage individual actions. Catastrophes could arise, even more worryingly, simply from technical misadventure. Disastrous accidents (for instance, the unintended creation or release of a noxious and fast-spreading pathogen, or a devastating software error) are possible even in well-regulated institutions. As the threats become graver, and the possible perpetrators more numerous, disruption may become so pervasive that society corrodes and regresses. There is a longer-term risk of global devastation that could even eliminate humanity.
Science is emphatically not, as some have claimed, approaching its end; it is surging ahead at an accelerating rate. We are still flummoxed about the bedrock nature of physical reality, and the complexities of life, the brain, and the cosmos. New discoveries, illuminating all these mysteries, will engender benign applications; but will also pose new ethical dilemmas and bring new hazards. How will we balance the multifarious prospective benefits from genetics, robotics, or nanotechnology against the risk (albeit smaller) of triggering utter disaster?
My special scientific interest is cosmology: researching our environment in the widest conceivable perspective. This might seem an incongruous viewpoint from which to focus on practical terrestrial issues: in the words of Gregory Benford, a fiction writer who is also an astrophysicist, study of the "grand gyre of worlds… imbues, and perhaps afflicts, astronomers with a perception of how like mayflies we are." But few scientists are unworldly enough to fit Benford's description: a preoccupation with near-infinite spaces doesn't make cosmologists especially "philosophical" in coping with everyday life; nor are they less engaged with the issues confronting us here on the ground, today and tomorrow. My subjective attitude was better expressed by the mathematician and philosopher Frank Ramsey, a member of the same College in Cambridge (King's) to which I now belong:
I don't feel the least humble before the vastness of the heavens. The stars may be large, but they cannot think or love; and these are qualities which impress me far more than size does…. My picture of the world is drawn in perspective, and not like a model drawn to scale. The foreground is occupied by human beings, and the stars are all as small as threepenny bits.
A cosmic perspective actually strengthens our concerns about what happens here and now, because it offers a vision of just how prodigious life's future potential could be. Earth's biosphere is the outcome of more than four billion years of Darwinian selection: the stupendous time spans of the evolutionary past are now part of common culture. But the future could be more prolonged than the time spans over which we have evolved from single-celled organisms. In the aeons that lie ahead, even more marvellous diversity could emerge, on and beyond Earth. The unfolding of intelligence and complexity could still be near its cosmic beginnings.
A memorable early photograph taken from space depicted "Earthrise" as viewed from the Moon. Our habitat of land, oceans, and clouds was revealed as a thin delicate glaze, its beauty and vulnerability contrasting with the stark and sterile moonscape on which the astronauts had left their footprints. We have had these distant images of the entire Earth only for the last four decades. But our planet has existed for more than a hundred million times longer than this. What transformations did it undergo during this cosmic time span?
About 4.5 billion years ago our Sun condensed from a cosmic cloud; it was then encircled by a swirling disk of gas. Dust in this disk agglomerated into a swarm of orbiting rocks, which then coalesced to form the planets. One of these became our Earth: the "third rock from the Sun." The young Earth was buffeted by collisions with other bodies, some almost as large as the planets themselves: one such impact gouged out enough molten rock to make the Moon. Conditions quietened and Earth cooled. The next transformations distinctive enough to be seen by a faraway observer would have been very gradual. Over a prolonged time span, more than a billion years, oxygen accumulated in Earth's atmosphere, a consequence of the first unicellular life. Thereafter, there were slow changes in the vegetation, and in the shape of the land masses as the continents drifted. The ice cover waxed and waned: there might even have been episodes when the entire Earth froze over, appearing white rather than pale blue.
The only abrupt worldwide changes were triggered by major asteroid impacts or volcanic supereruptions. Occasional incidents like these would have flung so much debris into the stratosphere that for several years, until all the dust and aerosols settled again, Earth looked dark grey, rather than bluish white, and no sunlight penetrated down to land or ocean. Apart from these brief traumas, nothing happened suddenly: successions of new species emerged, evolved, and became extinct on geological time scales of millions of years.
But in just a tiny sliver of Earth's history—the last one-millionth part, a few thousand years—the patterns of vegetation altered much faster than before. This signalled the start of agriculture: the imprint on the terrain of a population of humans, empowered by tools. The pace of change accelerated as human populations rose. But then quite different transformations were perceptible, and these were even more abrupt. Within fifty years, little more than one hundredth of a millionth of Earth's age, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which over most of Earth's history had been slowly falling, began to rise anomalously fast. The planet became an intense emitter of radio waves (the total output from all TV, cellphone, and radar transmissions).
And something else happened, unprecedented in Earth's 4.5 billion year history: metallic objects—albeit very small ones, a few tonnes at most—left the planet's surface and escaped the biosphere completely. Some were propelled into orbits around Earth; some journeyed to the Moon and planets; a few even followed a trajectory that would take them deep into interstellar space, leaving the solar system for ever.
A race of scientifically advanced extraterrestrials watching our solar system could confidently predict that Earth would face doom in another six billion years, when the Sun, in its death throes, swells up into a "red giant" and vaporises everything remaining on our planet's surface. But could they have predicted this unprecedented spasm less than halfway through Earth's life, these human-induced alterations occupying, overall, less than a millionth of our planet's elapsed lifetime and seemingly occurring with runaway speed?
If they continued to keep watch, what might these hypothetical aliens witness in the next hundred years? Will a final squeal be followed by silence? Or will the planet itself stabilise? And will some of the small metallic objects launched from Earth spawn new oases of life elsewhere in the solar system, eventually extending their influences, via exotic life, machines, or sophisticated signals, far beyond the solar system, creating an expanding "green sphere" that eventually pervades the entire Galaxy?
It may not be absurd hyperbole—indeed, it may not even be an overstatement—to assert that the most crucial location in space and time (apart from the big bang itself) could be here and now. I think the odds are no better than fifty–fifty that our present civilisation on Earth will survive to the end of the present century. Our choices and actions could ensure the perpetual future of life (which may lie not just on Earth, but far beyond it). Or in contrast, through malign intent, or through misadventure, twenty-first-century technology could jeopardise life's potential, foreclosing its human and posthuman future. What happens here on Earth, in this century, could conceivably make the difference between a near eternity filled with ever more complex and subtle forms of life and one filled with nothing but base matter.
This has been excerpted from Our Final Hour: The Threat to Humanity's Survival by Martin Rees © 2003 by Basic Books.
US regulator to investigate cell phone tower deaths
The US's telecoms regulator, the FCC says that it has adopted a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) to gather comment and information on the impact that communications towers may have on migratory birds. One of the FCC's critical responsibilities is to manage the expansion of
communications towers in a way that best preserves the country's environmental resources.
This inquiry is part of the Commission on environmental and historic preservation action plan announced by Chairman Powell in May 2003. The adopted NOI is one of many continuing efforts to protect environmental resources while at the same time accelerating the deployment of communications infrastructure that is critical to the rapid rollout of advanced communications services, as well as for public safety and homeland security.
Migratory birds breed throughout the United States and Canada and, in the autumn of each year, migrate to the southern United States, Mexico, and Central and South America for the winter. To the Commission's knowledge, to date there have been no studies sufficient to support a reliable estimate of the number of migratory birds that may have died as a result of collisions with an extensive number of communications towers located, for example, over wide geographic areas. In addition, while some literature suggests that certain factors such as tower height, lighting systems, type of antenna support structure, and location may increase or decrease the hazards that towers pose to migratory birds, there does not appear to be systematic research on an adequate scale regarding exactly how and to what extent, if at all, these factors contribute to any risk to migratory birds.
This inquiry is designed to gather comment and information on scientific research and other related data relevant to migratory bird collisions with communications towers.
Certain migratory bird species may hold particular cultural or religious significance to Indian Tribes. The Commission has made a commitment to consult with federally recognized Indian tribes to the extent practical prior to implementing any regulatory action or policy that will significantly or uniquely affect Tribal governments, their land and resources. Consistent with that commitment, the NOI requests comments from the Tribes and other parties on whether any of the questions raised in this inquiry will significantly impact Tribal governments, their land, and resources. Depending on the record developed in this proceeding, the Commission will consider whether the current state of research would support further action by the Commission in this area, including possible amendments of its environmental rules.
Depending on the record developed in this proceeding, the Commission will consider whether the current state of research would support further action by the Commission in this area, including possible amendments of its environmental rules.
Informant: Don Maisch
Radar Masts, Denmark
Our paper on a cancer cluster in soldiers exposed to radar masts was published, and the reference is below.
4. Richter ED, Ben-Michael E, Berman T, Laster R, Westin JB , Cancer in Radar Technicians Exposed to RF/MW: Sentinel Episodes; Intl Journ Occ and Env Health. 75: 187-193. 2000
Message from Dr Elihu D Richter
Am I tare???
Last night was as loud as they can get. If they were any more arrogant it would make you get sick, as a torchering me is a blast to them. My ears, my inner ears are like a tuning fork. The pulse radiations are tremendous. The heating of my frontal lobe and temporal lobes is sicking, as they think this is a game and I am some kind of tare. I feel like I am in a pression of their war. Bouncing back and forth from San Diego to phz they are always there, and have been doing this for 2 years now. Almost ever night of the week. They do this even when I am sleeping. The people working this job are truly working for satin. As they even mock me as I try to say my prayers as the pulse radiation is also pounding. These torment is getting easier, but I wonder what is happening to my brain nerve system or my neurotransmitters, as they send there acoustic lights and synthetic telepathy along with the radiation pulse. They have done this to me so much, who knows what a mri will show. If I make it with their constant brain blocks. I need some advise on what to do. They have assured me they wont stop, till I am either gone locked up in a mental institution or dead.
CAN ANY ONE GIVE ME SOME ADVICE. HELP HELP HELP HELP.
Northern Ireland: Human rights redefined on sectarian lines
Hi Klaus: A good article. Have just read it and--yes--the author gets to the heart of the matter.
Human Rights transcends all religions with their socio-political loyaltites and distinct cultures, all sectarian loyalties, all racial type-casting, all national boundaries and identities, etc. The essential difference, I feel, that exists between its precursor, CIVIL RIGHTS and HUMAN RIGHTS is this focus away from a group's grievance (nationalist,
religious, racial . . . ) to an individual's rights.
There are no unique sectarian circumstances in N. Ireland when it comes to Human Rights. Increased multiculturalism in N. Ireland should bring in some well needed fresh air to get rid of all that historic sectarian fetid odour.
Thanks for making me aware of the article.
Lawsuit for Gulf War Veterans Targets WMD Businesses
An lawsuit on behalf of over 100,000 Gulf War veterans has the Bush administration on edge and businesses running for cover.
The class action suit names 11 companies and 33 banks alleged to have helped Iraq with its chemical weapons program in the 1980's, despite knowledge Saddam Hussein was actively using WMD against both Iranians and his own people.
At the time, Reagan's Middle East envoy was one Donald Rumsfeld, hard at work opening doors for Hussein's regime to purchase millions in aircraft, hardware and other potential weaponry.
But after the invasion of Kuwait bumped Hussein from Pentagon friend to the "Most Wanted" list, coalition forces got stuck with the nasty task of dealing with the same chemical weapons that businesses had profited by helping Iraq amass.
Unfortunately, most Gulf War troops didn't realize that in destroying Hussein's WMD, they would also be endangering their own lives.
In the 1991 air war against Iraq, coalition forces bombed weapons production facilities and ammunition dumps, subjecting themselves to widespread and unexpected fallout; in one disastrous case, over 100,000 service members were exposed to sarin nerve gas when the US military improperly blew up chemical weapons sites in Khamisiyah.
Today, it is estimated that up to half of the 697,000 Gulf War veterans are sick, many suffering from a variety of symptoms collectively known as Gulf War Illness. The US Department of Defense (DOD) has been repeatedly criticized for mishandling the veterans' health complaints, often citing lack of diagnosis as justification for withholding treatment and compensation.
However, recent medical research has established causal links between exposure to chemical warfare agents, Gulf War Illness and birth defects among veterans' children.
It's those links attorneys Gary Pitts and Kenneth McCallion will address.
Maintaining "companies and banks have not yet had any negative consequences for helping Saddam Hussein build his chemical weapons of mass destruction," Pitts and McCallion claim the lawsuit is not only "to seek just compensation for the poisoned veterans and their birth-defected children, it is to deter companies from engaging in this kind of behavior in the future."
And in light of today's conflict in Iraq, the lawsuit's implications are both broad-reaching and ominous. At least 100 Gulf War II troops have already contracted a "mystery" pneumonia-like illness the US Department of Defense can't properly diagnose, and the families of soldiers based in Iraq are demanding answers.
Michael Neusche describes how his 20-year-old son Josh, a former track star from Missouri, wrote home from active duty in Iraq on June 26 saying would be doing a secretive "hauling" mission. By July 1 Josh had fallen into a coma; the military promptly reclassified Josh as "medically retired," thus stripping him and his family of entitlements, and on July 12th Josh died from what the Pentagon called "other causes."
In a similar case, Zeferino E. Colungo, a 20-year-old from Texas, died after battling an unexplained pneumonia-like illness. In a recent letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, the Colungo family says, "We deserve to know why a healthy young man who was supposedly screened and determined fit for deployment would suddenly die. It is our right to receive honest answers."
It's clear the DOD has some explaining to do; GW II troops must not be forced to receive the same medical run-around suffered by their predecessors.
The lawsuit on behalf of Gulf War veterans, however, ups the ante considerably - this time not only the DOD is under fire. By targeting companies and banks for compensation, veterans are sending the weapons industry a clear warning: it's getting dangerous to profit by helping dubious governments produce WMD.
Tune in to www.radioleft.com tonight (Thursday 21st) at 5:00PM EST to hear Geoff Staples interview Heather Wokusch on the Gulf War veterans' lawsuit and the upcoming Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty conference. The interview will be repeated periodically for 24 hours on radioleft, then available on www.heatherwokusch.com
Informant: Heather Wokusch
Press Release: The Peace Party
Date: Sunday the 14th September, 12 noon - 7.30pm
Place: Victoria Park, East London
CND is putting on a free party
CND is working with various communities and grassroots organisations to bring together a culturally engaging positive event - a celebration of life.
Saturday the 15th of February 2003 brought a new era in the British Peace Movement. CND helped organise the biggest ever demonstration in the history of the UK, where over two million people across the UK marched for peace - the peace movement was re-born.
This party, occurring 3 days and two years after the tragic events in the USA, is an opportunity for people to get together for peace showing community spirit is alive and people can bring about change. The event is a growth opportunity designed to bring people on board an exciting peace experience - a vision for the future.
Carol Naughton, CND Chair said, "This positive statement is our affirmation in a belief of global peace, designed to show international leaders positive action and a movement of peace."
1. For further information and interviews please contact Ben Miller - CND Press Office - 020-7700-2350 or 07968-420-859 or Carol Naughton 07736 - 698 - 702
2. CND - Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament - formed 1958, has expert knowledge on all nuclear issues
Informant: Carol Wolman
Blood on the sky-blue flag
Losing the war on terror
Big business and government
No charges, no trial, just jail
Ashcroft and the legacy of Iraq
Big government conservatism
Central planning of electricity must fail
Informant: Thomas L. Knapp
Bush's Occupation of Iraq Begins to Crumble
"The American Approach is Incoherent"
Soldier's Death Linked to Experimental Anthrax and Small Pox Vaccines
Price of Gulf War is Too High
Pentagon Hides True Gulf War Casualty Count
Withdraw US Forces from Iraq
Citizens' Initiative Omega