Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The Meaning of the 21st Century

There are lots of books around that speculate how life will change during the next 100 years, but very few that have the authority of someone whose predictions have been vindicated by the passage of time. James Lovelock is the most obvious example, but equally deserving of attention is James Martin. In the mid-70s he wrote a book called The Wired Society which has proved to be remarkably prescient, anticipating inventions like the internet and mobile phones. Last year he published a book called The Meaning of the 21st Century, which sets out to analyse the challenges that mankind faces and suggest solutions.

According to Martin we are on the verge of either a golden age or a collapse. The outcome depends entirely on what choices we make during the next decade. He lists 16 possible threats to our existence:

1. Global warming
2. Excessive population growth
3. Water shortages
4. Destruction of ocean life
5. Mass famine in poorly-run countries
6. The spread of deserts
7. Pandemics
8. Extreme poverty
9. Growth of shanty-cities
10. Unstoppable global migrations
11. Terrorists with WMDs
12. Religious extremism
13. Runaway computer intelligence
14. Nuclear war
15. A new Dark Age
16. Scientific experimentation

It's a terrifying list. Some events are unlikely but nevertheless pretty scary (for example I had no idea that when scientists built an atom-smashing machine there was a very remote possibility that it could have started a chain reaction that would destroy the universe!) whilst others seem a certainty. But Martin's book is not designed to overwhelm the reader with a sense of helplessness. On the contrary, this is a very positive book that clearly demonstrates that most problems can be easily remedied. All that is required is the political will.

If I was a dictator I would make everyone read this book (although I suppose I wouldn't have to, as I would be able to implement all of James Martin's recommendations without any opposition).
If you want an overview of what the next 50 years is probably going to look like, this is the book to buy.


Gonçalo Veiga said...

Interesting book. :)

On the scientists' experiences: did you know that some scientists are presently trying to create a black-hole on laboratory? Like, right now, here on Earth?! When I saw this on this National Geographic channel program, it got my thinking: "And does no one stop these people?!" Imagine what can happen when you mess with such uncontrolable forces...

bye bye bellulah said...

What scares me most is the unstoppable mass migration of animals, plants, insects and diseases. So out of our control. And, who knows what the consequences will be.

Steerforth said...

Yikes! Apparently the scientists at Los Alamos believed that there was a very slight possibility that the first A-bomb test could start a chain reaction which would destroy the planet, but they went ahead anyway.

Bellulah, I am also terrified by this. There are so many examples where the addition or removal of even the most innocuous creature messes everything up - cane toads, rabbits, flatworms...