Tag Archives: martin-rees

Long-Term Thinking and Climate Change

One of the reas­ons the gen­er­al pub­lic are slow in act­ing on cli­mate change in the man­ner the situation’s import­ance demands is our reluct­ance to think too far bey­ond our imme­di­ate time hori­zon. How­ever this shouldn’t stop us.

That is the sug­ges­tion of Mar­tin Rees, Astro­nomer Royal, who extols the vir­tues of long-term think­ing more elo­quently than I’ve heard before:

“As in polit­ics,” he says, “the imme­di­ate trumps the import­ant.” Our future-blind­ness may reflect a basic lim­it­a­tion of the brain. “In so far as brains evolved to cope with every­day life on the savan­nah, they evolved in a con­text where you didn’t plan 50 years ahead and you cared about your loc­al com­munity. Although…” A pause. A sip of tea. “Although, it’s odd—I gave a talk at Ely cathed­ral not long ago. The people who built the cathed­ral had a lim­ited view of the world. Their world was the fens, and they thought it would end quite soon, but nev­er­the­less built this won­der­ful struc­ture which is part of our her­it­age 1,000 years later. And it’s shame­ful in a way that we, with our longer hori­zons and great­er resources, are reluct­ant to think 50 years ahead.”

via The Browser

Note: The full art­icle is behind a pay wall. The above quote and the con­text there­of is avail­able.

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”.