The Most Important Century

The next 50 years will bring tech­no­lo­gic­al, social and geo­pol­it­ic­al change great­er than we can ima­gine, says Astro­nomer Roy­al Mar­tin Rees, but the emer­ging prob­lems of pop­u­la­tion growth and cli­mate change make this cen­tury argu­ably the most import­ant in Earth’s 4.5 bil­lion year his­tory, even from the per­spect­ive of an astro­nomer.

It’s some­times wrongly ima­gined that astro­nomers, con­tem­plat­ing timespans meas­ured in bil­lions, must be serenely uncon­cerned about next year, next week and tomor­row. But a “cos­mic per­spect­ive” actu­ally strengthens my own con­cerns about the here and now.

Ever since Dar­win, we’ve been famil­i­ar with the stu­pendous timespans of the evol­u­tion­ary past. But most people still some­how think we humans are neces­sar­ily the cul­min­a­tion of the evol­u­tion­ary tree. No astro­nomer could believe this.

Our sun formed 4.5bn years ago, but it’s got 6bn more before the fuel runs out. And the expand­ing uni­verse will con­tin­ue – per­haps for ever – becom­ing ever colder, ever emp­ti­er. As Woody Allen said, “Etern­ity is very long, espe­cially towards the end”. Any creatures who wit­ness the sun­’s demise, here on Earth or far bey­ond, won’t be human. They will be entit­ies as dif­fer­ent from us as we are from a bug.

But even in this “con­cer­tinaed” timeline – extend­ing mil­lions of cen­tur­ies into the future, as well as into the past – this cen­tury is spe­cial. It’s the first in our plan­et’s his­tory where one spe­cies – ours – has Earth’s future in its hands, and could jeop­ard­ise not only itself, but life’s immense poten­tial.

As Richard says (via), the art­icle “seems to be a trun­cated ver­sion of his book Our Final Cen­tury”.