Earth has reached a critical point as humanity ventures further into the Anthropocene, an epoch of history defined by human impacts on the planet. In his 2018 book, On The Future: Prospects for Humanity, Lord Martin Rees quotes the big picture, and provides a multidimensional vision of a future defined and altered by everything from climate change to biotech, artificial intelligence to post-humanism, religion to reality. On The Future is suffused with wisdom; it is a prophecy that, even within the three years since publication, is already being fulfilled. Perhaps what really sets this book apart is that, despite humanity’s potentially catastrophic outcomes, Martin Rees remains optimistic and offers words of hope for our ability to save, repair and improve our home planet. 

Astronomer Royal Lord Martin Rees is a self-professed ‘techno-optimist,’ believing that the ways we harness technological advances can form the backbone to solutions for the existential challenges that we face. Martin offers specific and innovative solutions to all our problems, which makes the book incredibly engaging to read. 

Critical to achieving Martin’s vision of the future is renewable energy. He emphasises the importance of solar power, pointing out that ‘the Sun provides 5 000 times more energy to the Earth’s surface than our total human demand for energy.’ Transcontinental high-voltage direct current grids have the potential to reduce the issue surrounding storage and shortage due to weather fluctuations. Another technological advancement that the author is tellingly enthusiastic about is the potential of carbon capture. The permanent sequestering of billions of tons of carbon dioxide is immensely complex – Martin raises the idea of a high-tech variant using ‘artificial leaves’ to incorporate carbon directly into fuel. In all this, he does not forget to propound the dangers of cyber warfare as the world becomes increasingly interconnected and interdependent. 

Despite his optimism towards technology, Lord Rees also describes himself as a political pessimist. Humanity’s approach to the future, and our governance of it, is dominated by short-termism. Secular, economic and political institutions don’t plan far enough ahead, and there is a depressing gap between what could be done and what actually happens. “The Earth has been around for 45 million centuries, but we are in the first where one species has the future of the planet in its hands, because we are numerous enough and empowered enough to actually change the world in ways that could be irreversibly disastrous” Martin told us during a recent interview with Earth.Org. He raises the key question of whether or not we should limit our own gratification for the benefit of future generations, but perhaps a better question would be whether or not we are sacrificing future generations for our own immediate gratification. 

His solution is bold – “it is possible we might need more international organisations which can take sovereignty from individual nations, because many of the world’s problems confronting us cannot be averted without collective international actions,” Martin told us. A new international institution would need to be informed and enabled by well-directed science but also responsive to public opinion, ensuring that it is building towards a better future for all of humanity. Creating such an institution, and taking power away from individual nations, could create shifts in global attitudes, facilitate new laws and keep everyone on track with the shared goal of enacting long-term and sustainable change.

Institutional change needs to be accompanied by technological growth that allows us to do things we never could have imagined before. Innovations in biotechnology, cybertechnology, robotics and artificial intelligence need to be pursued and applied wisely to underpin needed innovation, but we must be cautious not to become overly reliant on these techno-fixes, lest we encounter severe dystopian risks. “I am not one to worry about the machines taking over, but I do worry about our undue dependence on them,” Lord Rees said. 

But Martin does also emphasise that we must be aware of the ‘precautionary principle’ – if we don’t take risks we may miss out on any benefits. Moving from biological to electronic intelligence could inaugurate billions of years of post-human evolution. Further advances in space science and the growing use of robots and AI may allow humans to explore the universe. These are technologies and developments that could make life better for all of us, and make us all proud to call ourselves human.

“But”, as Lord Rees reminds us, “there is no Plan B for Earth”. Our pale blue dot in the cosmos is a special place, there may be no other like it. And we are its stewards: “The future is in our hands, and the stakes are higher than ever before. That’s what we need to realise, and these things need to be higher on everyone’s agenda”. 

Techno-fixes can often appear like an absurd and ironic cycle of humans trying their best to fix problems that were created by humans trying to fix problems, and a common criticism is that technology alone cannot save us from the pit we have thrown ourselves into. But at this point, we need to employ all the tools in our arsenal, of which technology might be the biggest, most dangerous one, but also the most efficient, if used with caution. With On The Future, Lord Rees wrote a brave and honest book, explaining to the reader what is going to happen, why it will, and how to solve it. It is a compass to help us navigate the future. 

For more, watch Lord Rees speak with Earth.Org founder Constant Tedder in a fascinating 80-minute conversation here.

On the Future: Prospects for Humanity
Martin Rees
2018, Princeton University Press, 272pp