I’ve got round to reading the New Scientist‘s 60th anniversary issue, published in November, which tries to look forward in the general direction of 2076. There are 14 short “What If…” essays, on everything from “What if we engineer new life forms?” (we’ll need a ‘kill’ switch) to “What if we found a theory of everything?” (it’s a very slow train coming) to “What if we discover room temperature super conductivity?” (it would utterly transform our energy systems).
In this post I’m going to review some of the essays on themes that futurists spend more time on, and pull out some of the ideas.
I don’t often use this blog to summarise single articles, but a recent New Scientist has an article in it which is in urgent need of summary (the full article is behind the NS paywall).
The piece, called Global Warning, written by Michael le Page, observes that if the 2007 prognosis of the IPCC was gloomy, the next one ought to be even grimmer. Le Page offers seven reasons why: in a nutshell, our earlier climate change models didn’t have sufficiently strong system-wide feedback loops in them, and despite our knowledge of climate change science we’ve done nothing meaningful to change our behaviour. Here’s a summary of the seven reasons.
“We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it”. Stewart Brand’s brand of eco-pragmatism, spelt out in his new book Whole Earth Discipline, is prefaced with his knowing nod back to the Whole Earth Catalog, this time with added urgency. And being god-like involves solving the accelerating climate and resource crisis by adopting nuclear power, learning to love GM crops, and indulging in quite a lot of geo-engineering. A review by Jon Turney in The Guardian seemed to welcome Brand’s vision of “a new generation of science-led, environmentally aware ecoengineers who recognise that the state of the Earth is now in our hands”. I haven’t finished the book yet, but it’s worth unravelling some of this. The first point is that as the triple impact of resource scarcity, climate change, and increasing global population becomes more apparent, and as we continue to do little to mitigate them, the clamour for technology-based solutions grows louder. But they’re unlikely to be successful.
This is one of those posts where a picture is worth a thousand words.
It’s prompted, of course, by the news that the Home Office has turned down flat a recommendation from the UK’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs that the classification of ecstasy should be downgraded from Class A, where it sits alongside heroin and crack cocaine, to Class B, in line with cannabis and amphetamines.This would have nudged the legal assessment a little closer to the evidence of harm – as shown by the chart below the fold.
I’ve been reading Steven Johnson’s book The Ghost Map, about the 1854 cholera epidemic in Soho, London, that proved to be the breakthrough in linking cholera to infected drinking water, partly though John Snow‘s famous map. The book – which is wonderfully readable – is interesting for several reasons; as a social history of Victorian England; second, in tracing the battle between competing scientific and medical explanations of cholera; and third, for some reflections on the vulnerability of the modern city.
The decision by the British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith to reclassify cannabis as a Category B drug, despite the opposing views of her expert advisers, has reminded me of the chaotic state of Britain’s drugs policy. It is an area where policy has remained completely immune to evidence – as one ‘killer chart’ demonstrates.
The populations of the rich countries are ageing (pretty quickly) and scientists are working hard to extend ‘normal’ longevity into the 90s, 100s, or beyond. Author Gemma Malley has explored the consequences in an interesting ‘what.. if’ novel for young adults, The Declaration, set in 2140. This caught my eye in a short interview in The Big Issue. It’s not online, so I’ve retyped the good bits below.
Some recent reports and trends – the Conservatives propose a happiness index; first UK wave turbine off Cornwall; and Greenspan teases on oil and the war. (more…)
Scientists – even climate researchers – don’t usually use hyperbole. But Mark Serreze, of the US National Snow and Ice Data Centre at Colorado University in Denver, said the latest Arctic sea ice figures – which show accelerating decline – had “simply fallen off a cliff and we’re still losing ice.”
Let’s face it, futurists mostly love robots. The word (from the Czech robota, meaning servitude or drudgery, coined in the 1920s), the history of the idea (back to the Greeks, through Leonardo, to Frankenstein), the associations. So maybe it’s not surprising that one of the most intriguing stories I’ve read recently – and meant to blog before now – is about the rapidly emerging issue of robot ethics, courtesy of SEED magazine.