We are living on a zombie planet that is both alive and dead, or in a death-spiral
Talks to Astronomer Royal Martin Rees about the future: what will it look like — and will there even be one?
could, by contagion, convert anything it encountered into a new form of matter, transforming the entire Earth into a hyperdense sphere about a hundred metres across.” I owe that particular vision to Professor Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, and his new book, On the Future: Prospects for Humanity.
As he points out, he is not an astrologist and doesn’t have a crystal ball, but his book shrewdly weighs up our chances of survival. Which, as we all know, is zero, once the sun conks out. As Maynard Keynes once said: “In the long run we’re all dead.” There is an egalitarianism to catastrophe.
Maybe a rogue asteroid will smack into the planet but whether Bruce Willis is available to save us (as he did in Armageddon), it’s still not very likely.
The “blaze of glory” narrative is always appealing, butto Martin Rees’s way of thinking, it’s a “dangerous delusion”.
Likeor wise, the Stephen Hawking vision of everyone taking off into outer space: “Terraforming Mars is always going to be a lot harder than fixing our own climate. Nowhere in the solar system is half as congenial as the coldest place on this planet.”
“Just don’t mention the strangelets!” he said, when I went to speak to Rees in his rooms in Trinity College Cambridge, where Isaac Newton once studied and where Rees was Master not so long ago. The problem with strangelets is that once they worm their way in you end up talking about nothing else.
Sporting a great mane of silver hair, Rees is willing to give an opinion on anything under (or, indeed, over) the sun. He is pro-euthanasia, but says he wouldn’t mind immortality just so long as he can remain on Earth and not have to float off into some celestial holiday camp where you lie around the pool all day. “Suppose you were a Roman who was still alive today — you wouldn’t be bored.”
It has to be admitted that the future is not what it used to be. Back in the day, everyone was going to have a personal jet-pack à la James Bond. And if we weren’t flying through the air then we’d be living in vast cities under the ocean. Or maybe on artificial satellites orbiting the Earth. It was a naive form of technological optimism. Everything is going to get better. And maybe we’ll learn to behave better too.
We’ve always had the Frankenstein anxiety, on the other hand. Even setting aside actual nuclear weapons — and the realistic potential for techno-annihilation — we suspect that everything we invent is going to kill us. Socrates was dubious about this new-fangled technology called “writing”. We probably feel somewhat similar about the internet. Hal, dead? Both alive and dead, comes the paradoxical answer. In the same way our futures are now “superposed” and simultaneous. We are living on a zombie planet that is both alive and, increasingly, dead, or at least in a death-spiral.
We now have parallel universes in which some select parts of the population live in pampered bubbles cut off from reality while everybody else is