Oxford Martin School series — “Thinking again about the future and prospects for humanity”
(Listen again here)
I took these notes in the days prior to, and on the night of, the live interview/webinar with Lord Rees hosted by Oxford Martin School. It’s part of a fascinating series that started up in 2020 and has sustained at a roughly weekly cadence, with a panel running every Monday and Thursday (always around 7–8pm; a great cooking soundtrack!) and the result is that I’ve got so many notes from al the webinars, but too little time to catch them up with a proper editing/triage process. So this is just one of the many I’d planned to post; might get around to publishing the others later this year.
Martin Rees himself reads the preface & introduction to the Princeton Audio edition of his 2018 book; one eye-catchingly crafted observation takes the form of four iambic lines that feel like something out of Marina Carr:
The gulf between
The way the world is
… And the way it could be …
Is wider than it ever was.
Handling debates well
A favourite description from Chapter Two…
I followed closely the debate in the UK that led to legislation allowing experiments on embryos up to 14 days old. This debate was well handled. It was characterised by constructive engagement betwen the researchers, the parliamentarians, and the wider public. There was opposition from the catholic church. […]
In contrast the debate on genetically modified plants & animals was handled less well in the UK. Even before the public was fully engaged there as a stand-off betwen Monsanto and environmentalists.
- Monsanto was accused of […]
- The wider public was influenced by a newspaper campaign against […]
- There was a yuck factor when […]
These reflections on the subjective, polarising GM debate vs the objective, constructive embryo debate, were cogent and motivating. We need the latter as we are forced to tackle the resurgence of ignorance, identity politics, and cancel culture.
Predicting the CV-19 fallout
The passages in Ch2 forewarning of the dangers to today’s entitled society… have dated well; they feel like they may as well have been written post-Covid.
Other notable points that were new to me on reading the book:
- Thorium as the more abundant (in Earth’s crust) and less hazardous (in its waste products) than uranium
- Shipping “standardised small modular reactors” vs fewer massive reactors
- “Subprime airlines”
- HLI as complementary to HLP (section 2.4)
- Be the end of the nineteenth century the belief in and obsession with extra-terrestrial life in our solar system, had risen to such a fever pitch as to elicit a prize of Fr.1,000 offered to anybody who could provide evidence… with the exception of Martians which were deemed too easy.
… and one that seemed about to be implied in the perspectives on driverless cars, but was never fully articulated:
- The lives of those put at risk in the development of new technologies, have been getting progressively more expensive as we enhance the standard of living and set so much store by the safety & security of workers. This is excellent, and should be celebrated. However we should keep it in mind when we are tempted to complain at slow progress… part of the reason it’s increasingly difficult to catch up with the cutting edge, is that we’re competing with the millenia of blood, sweat, tears, and downright maiming & death, that went into every step of human progress that got us to where we are today.
- “Common sense” as more than a mental model for individuals; tangibly, the common as the place where the thinking actually takes place. We all operate in one or more commons at all times, be they Earth, Home, Work, etc… we need to be think generously and communally. As we become more intractably connected to each other’s minds, it’s becoming harder to do anything without influencing the lives of others (even buying a book for one’s own consumption, or listening to a piece of music, are acts that contribute a data point into an enterprise and has some influence out there in a world we may not be able to visit or experience).
Selected questions from the live audience:
- From anonymous — how about legislation on climate change?
- From yours truly (54:50) — how can new generations entering the workforce, address humanity’s existential risk/s by picking careers that are going to be needed? (Lord Rees responded with a chuckle and and encouragement toward lifelong learning / continuing education; also a reminder that we may be moving into a new age of scientific research in which the individual hobbyists are so empowered by technology that they ascend to heights of enablement seen in the past with individuals like Darwin & Newton making their discoveries sans lab/dept).
- From anonymous — is humanity’s future on Mars? (The response was a concrete No: why send humans up when with each passing year it’s getting more feasible to send nano-robots instead).
Watch again at this link. Enjoy!