Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Life, the universe

This afternoon I went to the opening sessions of the First World Forum on Science and Civilization (thanks, James Tansey).

James Martin himself speaking on 21st century challenges was better than I had expected. He’s absorbed the lessons about natural capital (Amory Lovins) and runaway feedbacks (James Lovelock). He alluded to but didn't make a detailed case for (message: " buy TF book") a revolution in human organisation and society necessary to avoid catastrophe, and the possibility of "eco-affluence". One of the points of his I didn’t buy was his suggestion that the likes of Jeffrey Sachs and Hernando de Soto had never been in the shanty towns which present one of the greatest challenges of the next few decades.

Joel Garreau was entertaining and compelling. He suggested that neither the "heaven" nor "hell" scenarios arising from what he saw as an overly techno-deterministic take on the convergent GRIN technologies (genetics, robotics, information, and nano) were adequate. His favoured scenario was "prevail" – and the parable here was the 9/11 flight that crashed in Pennsylvannia. It wasn’t top down actors – the Pentagon or White House – that had prevented this plane crashing into its target, but the sixty or so people who – with their mobile phones – were in under an hour capable coming up with a solution that avoided catastrophe for others but cost them everything. Garreau placed his bet on "human nature" – surprising and unpredictably clever - in the "ultimate final exam" of the 21st century.

In one of the contributions from the floor, John Schellnhuber turned again to the question of how much time we had. There was a maximum of 20 years to avoid dangerous climate change, he said. (I had a quick chance to catch up with Schellnhuber later, talking briefly about drivers and passengers in the earth biogeochemical system)

Martin Rees, chairing, riffed on the larger picture. The notion of cosmological time – how much time this particular universe still had – had expanded many billions of years into the future, while the rate of technical change had accelerated. Perhaps this offered us the prospect of more time than we could ever previously have imagined.

The panelists and some others seemed happy to settle, for the purposes of this discussion at least, on a definition of humans as pattern-seeking, story-telling entities. Hmmm.

Later, John Harris lectured on enhancement, justice and rights. I think the enhancement bit is relatively uninteresting in the sense that it's not too hard once you really think about it (and assuming you think J S Mill makes sense). The really important questions are with regard to justice.

Before Harris’s lecture I went out for a run for an hour or so along the river from where I live (after two days chained to my desk, it was necessary) and experienced a pico-moment of "eco-affluence". The river path closed yesterday for repairs to erosion and after just one day with no people using it there was a heron right there on the path. I ran right by it – a metre or so tall and inexpressibly beautiful.

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