The Awesome Meaning of This Century

    Excerpt from The Meaning Of The 21st Century: A Vital Blueprint For Ensuring Our Future, by James Martin (Eden Project Books, 2007). Reprinted with permission from the author.

    Chapter 13: The Awesome Meaning of This Century

    So, what is the meaning of the 21st century?

    Evolution on Earth has been in nature’s hands. Now, suddenly, it is largely in human hands. The extreme slowness of nature-based evolution makes it almost unnoticeable alongside human-based evolution. As we automate some of the processes of evolution, the rates of change will become phenomenal. This change from nature-based evolution to human-based evolution is, by far, the largest change to occur since the first single-cell life appeared. Its consequences will be enormous.

    One might speculate that such a change occurs on faraway planets when their creatures reach a high-enough level of intelligence. When it first happens on a planet, it is probably dangerous. The creatures that take evolution into their own hands have no experience in the game.

    Now that we are in charge of evolution, we need to learn the rules. We need to be cautious, using our scientific know-how as responsibly as possible. The change to responsible, scientific management of our own evolution is perhaps the most critical aspect of the 21C Transition.

    Nature’s evolution experiments, constantly trying new things. We humans are a new type of experiment – a young trial species, still adolescent and playing with fire. Unlike migrating swallows or foraging ants, we are not biologically programmed to know what to do. Instead we are an experiment in free choice. This gives us enormous potential. We will spur evolution of the technology and management capability to exercise that free choice on the grandest scale.

    On Earth, nature hasn’t played this game before. There hasn’t been a species before that can set goals, invent technology or organize ambitious projects. We are nature’s biggest experiment so far.

    We are not masters of nature – we are a component of nature. We must have the deepest respect for what nature has taken 4 billion years to create. Nature’s biodiversity is of staggering complexity, and we are immersed in this complexity. When we interfere with it, we damage it in subtle ways. Unless this is understood, we will live in an increasingly tattered environment. The environment should not be something that we manipulate, like landscaping, but something we understand and treat much more responsibly than today.

    Britain’s eminent “green” authority, James Lovelock, created the hypothesis that Earth is a self-regulating ecosystem, which he called Gaia. We can interfere with Gaia up to a point; it’s highly resilient. If we interfere with it too much, we’ll be in trouble. Lovelock says that if we don’t stop pumping carbon into the atmosphere, “We’ll suffer the pain soon to be inflicted on our outraged planet.”[1] From the viewpoint of Gaia, it is possible that our urban sprawl, climate change, holes in the ozone layer and products that poison nature are like a form of cancer starting to metastasize. In the long run, adjusting itself on its very long timescale, Gaia will survive, even if humanity doesn’t.

    A vital part of the meaning of the 21st century is that we must not push the Earth’s control mechanisms beyond the zone in which they are self-regulating and stable. We have already gone too far in harming the climate, the wetlands, the soil, the oceans and numerous smaller-scale ecosystems, so a vital part of this century is to correct the damage. This will be increasingly difficult to do as the Earth’s population grows, consumerism races across China and India, water runs short and the stresses of the canyon worsen.

    Nature is metastable (like the cyclist described earlier). Up to a point, when we perturb it, it recovers, but beyond that point, it wobbles out of control. A country pond may have clear water and healthy fish indefinitely, but if there is too much runoff into it from a farmer using fertilizers, the algae blooms and consumes the oxygen, and the pond becomes a green and stinking mess. The ecology of the Black Sea collapsed suddenly, its stench closing the fashionable Russian resorts. Then there were out-breaks of cholera and hepatitis.

    Many scientists passionately believe it is their destiny to change nature, but we need to understand the ways in which nature is fragile and know when and how to be cautious. A naive view from the past is that technology gives us mastery of nature. A more appropriate view is that it has given us a depleted planet and an artificial world increasingly dependent on technology. Advanced technology puts us in need of even more advanced technology. Rather than being masters, we are being swept away in the rapidly accelerating floodwaters of our own technology. The Faustian bargain may be that a magnificent lifestyle comes with deepening entrapment in our own, even more complex inventions. For the most part, we enjoy this deepening trap because it gives us entertainment, anaesthetics, mobility, corporate profits and lifestyles that past kings couldn’t have dreamed of.

    Sooner or later, humanity has to learn how to control technology and avoid what is too dangerous, just as we must control a teenager if he is learning to drive a Ferrari. We are learning to drive something monstrously powerful. This capability for control needs to exist before technologies become more dangerous that they are today.

    A special part of the meaning of this century is to put into place controls to make sure that we don’t accidentally destroy the utter magnificence of humankind’s long-term future. We don’t know the details of how to control future technology, but we know enough to believe that control is possible. It’s a matter of good engineering with excellent safeguards and good management with strong discipline – all of which can be taught. This century, ones hopes, will see a transition to a planet managed well enough to make its long-term survival likely. As man began to create science in the 17th century, he was unlocking a power that would grow in ways that he couldn’t possibly understand then. Once unlocked, that power would grow over centuries until it could change the Earth, change biology, change civilization and change Homo sapiens. Humankind excitedly released the powers of science with no caution. We split the atom, created electronic intelligence, learned how to modify the genes of every living thing and are now learning how to modify ourselves. Science unlocks unimagined riches, but it also leads to forces that can destroy us. As the avalanche of technology gains speed and momentum, its capability for both good and ill becomes more powerful.

    We live on a beautiful but totally isolated world. We won’t find another world that can replace it. At the beginning of the 21st century, we are trashing this world, and we are gaining the power to destroy civilization. We have the intelligence to manage planet Earth well and, to a large extent, correct the damage we have done. We need to do so fairly quickly because the capability for destruction is growing fast. We need to make the planet work well with an excessive population.

    By the end of the 21st century some technologies will have astonishing power; so, part of our learning how to manage our planet is learning how to live safely with these technologies and to build civilizations that live well with one another. Theoretical science today makes it clear that we are still only in the early stages of a much longer journey. Technology will grow in power and momentum for centuries beyond this one, taking us into areas that utterly defy our intuition and common sense – areas describable only with mathematics. We have no idea, for example, where quantum entanglement will lead. By the 23rd century, science will be unimaginably more powerful than today.

    Sooner or later on this long journey, we have to learn how to control what we are doing, and this is the century in which it must happen. In this extraordinary 21st century, we must put the controls in place. This capability to manage what we are doing needs to be established before the game becomes too dangerous. Diverse types of control must be established to enable Earth’s civilizations to thrive.

    The 20th century was the most violent century so far. It was like a teenage world swept with intense emotional traumas and violence, prior to adulthood. Because of mass-destruction weapons, the 21st century cannot withstand similar behaviour. It’s the century when we have to achieve adulthood, and there are some early signs of this developing.

    Improvement in behaviour is critical in the 21st century because, suddenly, we’re all in the same totally isolated melting pot, amidst dreadful weapons. We’ll have new wealth and capabilities that can greatly upgrade what humanity is all about, but we have to grow up pretty quickly. This is childhood’s end.

    The melting pot is global. In the long run, this is good if we all treat one another with decency and share democratic freedoms. Eventually, we’ll understand the ramifications of our statement “All people are one people,” but today, globalism has massive flaws. Large corporations have major bridges to countries where they can make a profit but are bypassing countries where they can’t. Because of this, the disparity between rich and poor countries is enormous. Failed nations are not on the big corporate map of the world. Unless well-managed and well-funded action is taken, the worst poverty will become more extreme. The average cow in the European Union receives more than $2 per day from subsidies, but 3 billion people – 47% of the world’s population – live on an income lower than $2 per day,[2] a hopelessly inadequate amount to feed a family and give them the most basic education, and billions more people will be added to the poorest countries by midcentury. To make matters worse, in many of these countries, the water that is essential for growing food will be running out.

    We may be trashing part of the Earth’s environment, but billions of the Earth’s people are being trashed in an even worse way. While globalism is spectacularly increasing the wealth of the richest countries, the poorest can barely feed themselves. I happen to be writing this in St Petersburg, where such extremes also arose, and there was violent revolution followed by seven decades of oppression and trauma.

    Childhood’s end is about much more than environmental correctness. It’s about removing the reasons for future bloodshed and human horrors. It’s about getting rid of the unspeakable poverty, disease and hunger that plague many on the planet. It’s about learning what we should do with the extraordinarily transforming new technologies that we are unlocking. It should be understood that future science is both magnificent and dangerous and can open up counterintuitive worlds that are grandly different from what we can see and feel, and that these gifts of science should be global.

    If we are to survive, we have to learn how to manage this situation. We need to put in place rules, protocols, methodologies, codes of behaviour, cultural facilities, means of governance, treaties and institutions of many types that will enable us to cooperate and thrive on planet Earth. If we can do that with whatever the 21st century throws at us, we’ll probably be able to survive future centuries. If our 21st-century world falls apart at the seams, civilization will be set back many centuries.

    [1] James Lovelock. Independent, London, May 2004.

    [2] Julian Filochowski, director of the Catholic agency for Overseas Development, in Time, 7 October 2002.

    Excerpted from The Meaning Of The 21st Century by James Martin. Copyright © James Martin, 2007. All rights reserved.

    James Martin founded the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford, which has 30 institutes doing scholarly research into the problems, dangers and opportunities of the near future. He is the largest individual benefactor to the University of Oxford in it’s 900-year history. He has written more textbooks than any other living person – 104, many of which have been seminal in their field. He is renowned for his electrifying lectures about the future. He wrote The Meaning of the 21st Century, which was made into a major film, and is a Pulitzer nominee for his book The Wired Society. He was a pioneer in the automation of software development, and was ranked 4th in Computer World’s 25th Anniversary Edition’s most influential people in computer technology. He was a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the U.S. Department of Defense. He is an Honorary Life Fellow of the British Royal Institution, a Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science, an Honorary Fellow of Keble College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow of the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies at Monterey, California. He has honorary doctorates from all six continents.

    The Meaning of the 21st Century: A Film by James Martin Narrated by Michael Douglas

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