Book by, Martin Rees, pub. William Heinemann 2003
This recently published book by a well-known scientist has a great title, the ultimate book of doom. This is obviously something that concerns us all, the end of the human race! However after reading Professor Rees’ book your reviewer was left with the impression that this is all very interesting, but where’s the beef.
Most readers of PS-Magazine.com have an interest in the future; their own, that of their children, or grandchildren. This is a view of the future written by a scientist, but the author seems to vary from doom-laden worries to talk of the issues of research. Please read the book, it is full of interesting material, but don’t expect it to fully live up to its title.
The author concludes with the statement that, “the theme of this book is that humanity is more at risk than at any earlier phase in its history.”
Professor Rees seems to regard bio-engineered diseases as the greatest threat to humanity, with super-intelligent machines, “near-Earth objects” (asteroids), nanotechnology, and nuclear weapons as runners-up. If you like worrying then this book will give you adequate cause, but the more interesting parts of the book are when the author speculates about the possible use of drugs and other means of controlling or changing the behaviour of people.
This book has attracted a lot of attention because of the reputation of its author, however this reviewer felt that the author never really addressed his subject matter in a robust manner. We recently reviewed “The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight” by Thom Hartmann and this is a far more readable account of the threat to humanity from changes in the environment. Deborah Cadbury’s “The Feminization of Nature, Our Future at Risk” (Hamish Hamilton. London 1997) in which she highlights the effects that common chemicals in the environment are having on the ability of humans (and other mammals) to reproduce, in particular in the rapidly dropping sperm count, also deals with a more immediate issue, that affects us all – did you wonder why the population of Europe is no longer replacing itself and why so many men are infertile. We will try to review this book at length in due course.
Professor Rees points out that we are also at risk from asteroids hitting earth and from other natural events, but for most of us these are possibilities which may not happen in any possible timescale that affects us, he also highlights the threat of nuclear war, but again for those of us who grew up in the Cold War period with the constant threat of massive nuclear exchanges (known as “MAD” or mutually assured destruction – yes really!) the thought of a dirty bomb taking out a major city is not a threat to the whole of humanity; MAD was a threat to billions.
This reviewer also feels that post – 9/11 Professor Rees over plays the threat from terrorists. The horror of that day is hopefully a one-off event which much better security at airports has made far less likely.
Most British people have grown up in an environment where you could be blown up by the IRA without warning, and the City of London experienced major destruction when the Baltic Exchange was blown up, but people live with these risks and the “terrorists” often become politicians, when they have killed enough women and children.
Again Professor Rees highlights the threat from crazy individuals with suit-case nuclear bombs (but these require rebuilding periodically – they have a limited shelf life), and bio-toxins, and considers whether the State should use chemical or other systems to modify the personalities of its citizens (the Chinese used to do this and they called it “Thought Reform” – brain washing).
However Professor Rees does not identify the over-whelming power of the State to repress and control its citizens as one of the greatest threats to humanity. The great terrors of the 20th century were unleashed by nation states; Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China. Today North Korea, with its’ nuclear program and Israel with its’ large nuclear arsenal represent serious threats to their regions. In South Asia India and Pakistan from time to time threaten to use nuclear weapons, their politicians apparently in ignorance of the real dangers that these weapons embody. US generals from time to time talk of “limited” nuclear war; come back Dr Strangelove!
The modern state has access to formidable systems of control and monitoring, it itself can also be a threat to humanity; who will guard the guardians.
Professor Rees also tends to ignore the near-term problems that will probably arise with the shortage of oil (Peak Oil) and the difficulties of feeding the world’s population in an era that no longer has access to very cheap energy (unless the Professor’s scientific colleagues can produce a real alternative energy source in the next few decades).
By all means borrow this book from your library and read it, but keep your money in your pocket for a better book on this important subject.