Our Final Hour: A Scientist's Warning Paperback – April 14, 2004
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The phase shift of humanity from Anthropocene into a radically novel epoch which I call “Anthroporegenesis”, in which humanity will recreate itself and its environments thanks to surging power supplied by science and technology, raises three fateful questions: what are the novel dangers and opportunities; what are the options for coping with them; and who should decide what to do and be in charge of doing so.
Most of this book is devoted to the paramount part of the first question and explores main dangers posed to humanity by emerging science and technology. It does so admirably, including enlightening philosophic discourse and inspiring ideas. With some updating, such as the population projections, pp. 102-105), and some additions, such as on human enhancement, this volume should be obligatory reading for all public leaders and all students of humankind issues.
But, as nearly all books dealing with emerging human predicaments resulting from peaking science and technology, this one too does not cope with the fateful question who, on behalf of humanity and for its sake, should decide what to do and enforce what is necessary.
Rees recognizes the problem, stating “some physics experiments offer an interesting ‘case study’ of who should decide (and how) whether to sanction an experiment with a catastrophic ‘downside’ that is very improbable but not quite inconceivable” (p. 119). He quotes Fred Ikle’s 1997 statement “The knowledge and technique for making biological superweapons will become dispersed among hospital laboratories, agricultural research institutes, and peaceful factories everywhere. Only an oppressive police state could assure total government control over such novel tools for mass destruction” (p. 48). The book also mentions the need for “intrusive surveillance” (pp. 66-68); Fukayama’s suggestion of strict control of mind-altering drugs (p. 69); and, the need to restrain science and technology, or at least slow them down (discussed in excellent chapter 6). Rees fully recognized that “Ethical constraints on research, or relinquishment of potentially threatening technologies, are difficult to agree and even tougher to implement” (p. 73).
The need for deeply tragic existential choices is acknowledged by statements such as “These risks can’t be eliminated; indeed, it will be hard to stop them from growing without encroaching on some cherished personal freedoms” (p. 186). All the more pressing is the question who shall decide what is more important: reducing humanity-endangering risks or preserving cherished personal freedoms, when every choice is in essence a fuzzy gamble.
The insight that “Our destiny depends …above all on choices that we ourselves make during the present century” (p. 130), expanded into the daring conjecture that “We live at what could be a defining moment for the cosmos, not just for our Earth” (p. 181) sharpens even more the question who are “we” making the choices.” But, as nearly all the books dealing with emerging human predicaments resulting from peaking science and technology, this one too does not tackle this crucial issue. The section on “Who Should Decide” (pp. 127-129), however interesting, does not really do so.
This is disturbing, but not surprising. Revising the “two cultures” thesis of C.P. Snow, I think that three “pure type” cultures/communities are (1) science and technology, devoted to advancing knowledge and applications; (2) science and society, dealing with interactions between novel science and technology and society as well as humanity as a whole; and (3) power and politics, concerned which decision makers and powerful actors. 1 and 2 interact and partly overlap. But both often lack real understanding of of power and politics, while the latter does not understand 1 and hardly cares about 2.
If we add the “politically incorrect” and even “taboo” nature of what may be essential for coping with the dangers posed by science and technology, then lack of adequate treatments of the needed agency is not surprising. But this is a potentially fatal lacuna, which needs urgently deeper and franker treatment the available at present. This book helps a lot by succinctly posing main issues; but the question of humankind agency remains open.
Professor Yehezkel Dror
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Rees begins with familiar threats from nuclear and biological weapons, noting Fred Ikle's view that only an oppressive police state could assure total government control over novel tools of mass destruction. Rees then turns to the implications of genetic engineering, including the creation of new forms of life that could feed off other materials in our environment. Thanks to genetic engineering, the nature of humans could begin to change within this century; human character and physique will soon be malleable. The potential threats may remind some readers of Frank Herbert's novel The White Plague, in which a lone scientist creates a spectacular method of revenge.
Rees is most effective when he describes the potential implications of scientific experiments, particularly in particle physics. He notes that some experiments are designed to generate conditions more extreme than ever occur naturally. Here readers will learn about the possible human creation of black holes and strangelets. Errors and unpredictable outcomes are a growing cause for worry; calculations of risk are based on probability rather than certainty. Rees tells us that one person's act of irrationality, or even one person's error, could do us all in. That should motivate a circumspect attitude toward technical innovations that pose even a small threat of catastrophic failure, though putting effective brakes on a field of research would require international consensus. Rees speculates that the abandonment of privacy may be the minimal price for maintaining security.
Rees is particularly critical of American attitudes toward science and technology. Commenting that there are some who have a tenuous hold on rationality, he states that "their numbers may grow in the US." Later in the book, he writes that in the US "bizarre beliefs seem almost part of the mainstream." The United States is hardly the only source of irrational people.
Rees then turns to more conventional futurism, discussing the search for extraterrestrial life and human expansion into the solar system. He implicitly advocates that humans should establish colonies beyond the Earth to assure that the species will survive a disaster on its home planet.
There are some errors. Rees writes that the Challenger explosion took place in 1987; it actually was a year earlier. He describes Gerard O'Neill as an engineering professor; O'Neill actually was a professor of physics. Rees links the SETI at Home computer network with the SETI Institute; in fact, that program is associated with Serendip IV, a project invented by professors at the University of California at Berkeley.
Top international reviews
The books have different covers, and are different sizes, but they are both the same book!
WORD FOR WORD.
I felt cheated by Amazon for selling me the same thing twice!!
BE WARNED !