Our estimation of disaster has evolved ... everyone is more of a snowflake now
the super-computer of 2001, A Space Odyssey fame, comes to the conclusion that it would be logical to get rid of humans because they’re bound to screw up the mission. And he surely had a point.
Looking on the bright side, my favourite among utopian thinkers is the French visionary Charles Fourier, who dreamed up the “Phalanstery” and, shortly after the French Revolution, foresaw a world in which the oceans would be turned to lemonade. In the Age of Harmony (some distance in the future), there would be so much to eat and drink that we’d have to stage culinary Olympics. And — a first in human history — everyone would be sexually satisfied too (with an AA call-out service for anyone a bit desperate).
So is everything getting better or is it really getting worse? The fact is we are now living in a quantum world where both of these propositions are true. The classic quantum thought experiment revolves around a cat (Schrödinger’s) whose fate is determined by the indeterminate, indifferent behaviour of a random particle. Is the cat alive going under. With corresponding effects on migration. And a sense of resentment. This asymmetry partly accounts for why the eschatological vision of “end times” is so appealing, because at least it levels the playing field and solves all existing problems.
Martin Rees points out that our social and subjective estimation of disaster has evolved over the ages, so that everyone is more of a snowflake now. “Back in the Middle Ages, the Black Death wiped out as much as half the population in Europe. But people carried on because there was not a lot they could do about it. Now, in the event of a pandemic, if only 1% of the population were to die, the whole health service and the political system would collapse.”
On one hand, we are faced with truly global phenomena, going far beyond borders, on the other, in our fear and anxiety, we are retreating behind our picket fences, as if that could save us from an impending tsunami. A quantum world driven by a quantum mentality.
I assume the existence of aliens. If you can have life flourishing in the volcanic vents at the bottom of the deepest ocean, there must be scope for life in the vicinity of the (approximately) 10 stars in the known universe.
The only question is are they like the Mekon, Daleks and Alien, or cuter, like ET? Or giant jellyfish? I’d really be scared if they turned out to resemble the most vindictive and murderous species we’ve come across so far, ie humans.
“The prospect of an end to the human story would sadden those of us now living.”
So says Martin Rees in his book. But he is sometimes almost too rational. Perhaps even stranger than strangelets is that we are succumbing to a prematurely terminal way of thinking. In our mythic, symbolic way of thinking, we are relying on a star in the Vega system, or a visiting asteroid, or aliens landing on Earth, or the Second Coming, or fasterthan-light starships, or plain old death and transcendence, to come up with the final fix.
There is a brilliant short story by Arthur C Clarke in which two computer engineers mock the belief of a group of Tibetan monks who reckon that the point of existence is to utter “the nine billion names of God”, after which the universe will simply cease to exist. But at the end of the story, as they are crossing a high Himalayan pass, they look up into the night sky (for the last time) and notice that “overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out”.
It’s beautiful and elegiac, but we need to get out of the cosmic graveyard. We can’t help thinking of how, one day, it will all be over. Maybe, like Martin Rees, we need to think more in terms of staying alive a lot longer.
The Earth has been around for a few billion years and, strangelets and Tibetan monks notwithstanding, will almost certainly stick around for a few more. Rumours of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. It’s not apocalypse now.
It’s more carry on, but don’t necessarily keep calm.
If you really want a future.
Andy Martin is the author of Reacher Said Nothing: Lee Child and the Making of Make Me. He teaches at the University of Cambridge. On the Future: Prospects for Humanity, by Martin Rees, is published by Princeton University Press