Colliding Worlds 6: A fair inheritance

31 July 2014

Wellcome Collection recently hosted Colliding Worlds, an event exploring the extraordinary research of Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, in the thought-provoking context of a conversation with curator and art critic Hans Ulrich Obrist. From astronomy and ecological disaster to science fiction and advice to young scientists, watch the exchange below. 

We’re also publishing excerpts of the conversations that led to this event in a seven-part series. In our sixth Colliding Worlds post, Hans Ulrich asks Martin how science can help to provide a fair inheritance to future generations.

Hans Ulrich Obrist

You conclude your book From Here to Infinity by saying “In today’s runaway world, we can’t aspire to leave a monument lasting a thousand years, but it would surely be shameful if we persisted in policies that denied future generations a fair inheritance.” You were President of The Royal Society until a few years ago, what do you think is that institution’s role in providing future generations “a fair inheritance”.

Martin Rees

I think science is clearly going to be an important part of the solution to most social problems. To address must of this century’s challenges, we need to think internationally and also to think long-term. But that is a problem for most politicians, for whom the urgent always trumps the long-term and the parochial always trumps the global. Politicians want to please their own electors — and please them before the next election.

This is a structural problem with all attempts to address the most serious problems —providing food and energy for the world and controlling technology. I think scientists make special contribution because science and technology are crucial to meeting these challenges, and they are more far-sighted than the average person in forseeing the implications of their work. Their crystal ball is still, however, very cloudy!

Also science is the one truly global culture. As I say in my book, protons and proteins are the same all over the world and everyone looks up at the same sky wherever they are in the world, it’s universal. Scientists have a tradition of transcending political barriers – even in the depths of the Cold War there was strong and often benign contact between the physicists in the Soviet Union and in the West – so scientists are a special international community, and this perhaps gives them a special opportunity and a special commitment to doing what they can to address these problems.

It’s crucially important that we are prepared to think in a longer-term because issues like transforming to a low-carbon economy, and feeding nine billion people sustainably will depend on science. But it will take more than 50 years to achieve these goals – to transform our infrastructure — and we need to think that far ahead. And we need to care about the long-term future. We’ve got to avoid any discrimination on grounds of date of birth: we should surely value the welfare of someone born today just as much as the welfare of someone who’s now aged 50. That means we need to take precautions to ensure that lifestyles in the later part of this century will be sustainable. We are not doing this enough. It’s sad that even though we have much broader horizons in both space and time than our ancestors did, and we don’t have such immediate hazards to face, we are reluctant to plan very far ahead.

There’s, somewhat ironically, only one context where people think a long way ahead and that’s in deciding how to dispose safely of radioactive waste, when they talk seriously about whether it will be in a repository that is safe for ten thousand years. But they won’t think seriously about how we are going to keep the lights on fifty years from now or whether we will avoid causing dangerous climate change. Scientists can perhaps be more activist in campaigning to ensure that these long-term global issues don’t fall too low on the agenda.

However, scientists have to be modest. They’ve got to realise that all these political questions have a scientific dimension but they are not just scientific. They have to discuss these questions in terms of economics and ethics and politics as well, and in those arenas scientists have no special expertise. So what we need is socially engaged scientists who are prepared to raise public consciousness of long-term issues and who are prepared to engage with the public and the politicians. We all want to ensure that we navigate the century safely – but it’s going to be a bumpy ride because of the unpredictability of new technology.

Be sure to read the rest of the series as they are published.