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Friday 1 February 2019

The destination of the species

Short-termism characterises governments and jeopardises future generations, says Martin Rees

For medieval Europeans, the entire cosmology – from creation to apocalypse – spanned only a few thousand years. And most of our Earth was “terra incognita”. But despite their constricted horizons in both space and time, they left a visionary legacy: masons built cathedrals, adding bricks to vast edifices that would take a century to finish and which still inspire us almost a millennium later.

We’ve now mapped the Earth – and domains far beyond it. And we know that we’re in a cosmos whose past and future are measured in billions of years. But despite our enhanced understanding of the natural world, and control over it, our planning horizon rarely stretches beyond a decade or two.

Politicians look to their own voters – and the next election. Stockholders expect a pay-off in the short run. We downplay what’s happening even now in faraway countries. And we discount too heavily the problems we’ll leave for new generations. Without a broader perspective – without realising that we’re all in this crowded world together – governments won’t properly prioritise projects that are long-term in a political perspective, even if a mere instant in the history of the planet.

It may seem paradoxical that our hugely extended conceptual horizons have been accompanied by attenuated planning horizons. But there’s a clear explanation. Despite living in turbulent and uncertain times, medieval people expected their children and grandchildren to live similar lives to their own. In contrast, we fully expect drastic changes in the “backdrop” to human lives, from one generation to the next.

This is a time when we need immediate action, but based on a long-term plan. Humans are far more numerous – 7.7 billion of us – and far more demanding of energy and resources. We’re collectively impacting on the planet’s ecosystem. Governments need to act now to guard against irreversible threats. Extinction rates are rising – we’re destroying the book of life before we’ve read it. And, to quote the great ecologist E.O. Wilson, “if human actions lead to mass extinctions, it’s the sin that future generations will least forgive us for”. This is the first century, in the 45 million since our Earth formed, in which one species – ours – can determine the planet’s future.

Why do governments respond with torpor even to climate change, the most prominent and pervasive environmental threat? Despite the uncertainties – both in the science and in population and economic projections – there’s a consensus that business-as-usual scenarios, with continuing dependence on fossil fuels, could, by the end of the century, induce really catastrophic warming, and tipping points triggering long-term trends like the melting of Greenland’s ice cap. Last October’s IPCC report lent added urgency to the case for action.

Concerns about future generations (and about people in poorer parts of the world) tend to slip down the agenda. Indeed, the difficulty of impelling CO2 reductions (by, for instance, a carbon tax) is that the impact of any action not only lies decades ahead but also is globally diffused.

“Space-Ship Earth” is hurtling through the void. Its passengers are anxious and fractious. Their life-support system is vulnerable to disruption and breakdowns. But there is too little planning, too little horizon scanning, too little awareness of long-term risks. It would be shameful if we bequeathed to future generations a depleted and hazardous world.

Martin Rees is the Astronomer Royal and emeritus professor of cosmology and astrophysics at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of On the Future: Prospects for Humanity (£14.99, Princeton University Press, 2018)