When I was a kid and NASA's Mariner program was beginning a rudimentary exploration of Mars, I imagined in my youthful naiveté that one morning I would wake up and the newspaper headline would read in four-inch high letters:
LIFE ON MARS
That never came to pass, of course, and unfortunately we've had to wait many years to get where we are today. But at last we are conducting a moderately ambitious search for life on Mars.
And so, when I saw the story posted on Google News today from the San Francisco Chronicle (and many other sources), my heart jumped with joy -- ICE ON MARS -- probably, anyway, and probably abundant. And maybe, just maybe, we'll find evidence within the next few weeks of life somewhere beyond Earth.
KUN WAN, Myanmar — They paddle for hours on the stormy river, or carry their sick parents on their backs through the mud and rain, traveling for miles to reach the one source of help they can rely on: Buddhist monks.
At a makeshift clinic in this village near Bogale, an Irrawaddy Delta town 75 miles southwest of Yangon, hundreds of villagers left destitute by Cyclone Nargis arrive each day seeking the assistance they have not received from the government or international aid workers. . .
The May 3 cyclone left more than 134,000 dead or missing and 2.4 million survivors grappling with hunger and homelessness. This week, some of them who had taken shelter at monasteries or gathered on roadsides were being displaced again, this time by the junta, which wants them to stop being an embarrassment to the government and return to their villages “for reconstruction.” On Friday, United Nations officials said that refugees were also being evicted from government-run camps.
The survivors have little left of their homes and find themselves almost as exposed to the elements as their mud-coated water buffaloes. Meanwhile, outside aid is slow to arrive, with foreign aid agencies gaining only incremental access to the hard-hit Irrawaddy Delta and the government impounding cars of some private Burmese donors. . .
With tears welling in her eyes, Thi Dar, 45, pressed her hands together in respect before the first monk she saw at the clinic here and told her story. The eight other members of her family were killed in the cyclone. She no longer had anyone to talk with and felt suicidal. The other day, word reached her village that a monk had opened a clinic six miles upriver. So on Thursday, she got up early and caught the first boat.
“In my entire life, I have never seen a hospital,” she said. “So I came to the monk. I don’t know where the government office is. I can’t buy anything in the market because I lost everything to the cyclone.”
Nay Lin, 36, a volunteer doctor at the clinic, one of the six emergency clinic shelters Sitagu Sayadaw has opened in the delta, said: “Our patients suffer from infected wounds, abdominal pains and vomiting. They also need counseling for mental trauma, anxiety and depression.”
While the government has been criticized for obstructing the relief effort, the Buddhist monastery, the traditional center of moral authority in most villages here, proved to be the one institution people could rely on for help.
You can make a real difference for victims of the cyclone by visiting Avaaz.org and donating to the monks' relief effort.
Interesting debates on a wide range of topics can occur among readers of this blog, or members of CRN's Global Task Force, or people we associate with in other similarorganizations -- but no matter how cogent our discussions might be, how much power do we truly have in making our ideas matter?
I've been thinking about this issue for quite some time. Last September, I drew up a small diagram (below) to illustrate the power disparity, as I saw it, and showed the graphic to several colleagues for their reaction. Almost everyone accepted the basic proposal, and no one, as I recall, had any argument with my estimate that only about one in a million among us -- about six thousand people in the whole world -- possesses enough power to effect change on a global basis.
A long article by Rothkopf in the April 14, 2008, issue of Newsweek summarizes his arguments and describes how he defines this 'superclass':
So how does one become a member? As ever, being rich certainly helps. Many superclass members are wealthy, wealthier in relative terms than any elite ever has been. The top 10 percent of all people, for example, now control 85 percent of all wealth on the planet. But wealth is only part of the equation. Power is the other currency of any true elite, and if we want to understand the superclass, we need to look at those who have influence that crosses borders—one of the factors that differentiates them from most of the elites of history, whose influence was predominantly national or even more local in nature.
One can debate who is in and who is out endlessly. . . This is a very fluid ranking. But for the purposes of trying to understand the nature of today's topmost global elite, working with the above criteria, I have ended up with a core group of somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 people—meaning that each one is "one in a million."
Well, imagine my surprise when I read that. Originally I'd pulled the numbers out of my hat (or anywhere else you'd prefer to name) as little more than an educated guess. But it looks like my intuition was correct, or at least that someone else with access to much more information came to the same basic conclusion.
Stephen Schwarzman, CEO of Wall Street's Blackstone Group, says, "The world is pretty small. In almost every one of the areas in which I am dealing or in which we at Blackstone are looking at deals, you find it is just 20, 30 or 50 people worldwide who drive the industry or the sector." Numbers tell the same tale. If you take just the people who serve in top management positions or on the boards of the five biggest companies in the world, you'll find they also serve on the boards of an additional 140 other major companies and 22 universities. To Schwarzman, being a member of the superclass means being able to "get to anybody in the world with one phone call."
So, what does this mean? How can those of us in the small green segment of the global pyramid above make an impact on the much tinier red segment at the top? Is there any real hope for that? Or are we just spitting into the wind as we hold forth with our opinions?
(Photograph: Alberto Garcia/Corbis)Would pouring sulfates into the atmosphere -- as the volcano above is doing -- be a good thing for humans to attempt as a solution to global warming?
Maybe, says this article from today's edition of The Guardian.
Maybe not, says this blog entry from Jamais Cascio, CRN's Director of Impacts Analysis.
Geoengineering -- or 'ecohacking' as The Guardian dubs it -- is an idea gaining more and more attention these days. So, will such radical ideas ever be attempted?
We think it's a safe bet to predict that the following things will happen, in roughly this order:
New and stronger evidence of atmospheric global warming will be found each year.
Clearer results of warming in the form of damaging climate change will occur with increasing frequency.
Computer models for determining the probable course of events will become more sophisticated and more accurate.
Those models and the evidence from 1 and 2 will show that only the most drastic action (meaning huge cuts in CO2 emissions over a short period of time) could head off the worst case scenarios.
Political support for the required drastic action will be in short supply and/or slow in coming.
Detailed proposals for geoengineering will gain a fresh hearing as the public, government, and industry all look for a quick fix that may cost a lot but will not require so much lifestyle change.
Assuming that our crystal ball is functioning properly today, and that the scenario outlined above plays out, what will be the result?
We're quite worried that some attempts at ecohacking will be undertaken -- either by governments or by well-meaning vigilante billionaires -- but that the system dynamics, secondary impacts, and possible side-effects of whatever methods they choose may not be fully understood. The earth's climate is massively complex, with long, slow functions that ebb and flow, while simultaneously being subject to sudden, rapid cascades of change. If we try to mess with all that unadvisedly, we may be very sorry.
As noted yesterday, CRN's mission statement includes a call for thorough examinations of "social, medical, and ethical implications" of molecular manufacturing, as well as other issues. Our interest is in promoting serious study of both the benefits and the dangers that advanced nanotechnology may bring.
Besides the fact that the first one, if it's all out, stands a good chance of eliminating worries about the second one (because the war could bring a nuclear winter) while also making interest in the third one essentially obsolete -- besides all that, what do these three items have in common?
What you've just read is CRN's mission statement. Now consider that other organizations concerned with other issues might adopt a similar statement regarding nuclear war, global warming, or anti-aging research. (Obviously, it's hard to imagine any sane person calculating benefits from nuclear war, but you could easily substitute nuclear energy for that clause.)
But what these three issue areas have in common is that CRN (and other groups like ours) can learn lessons from each of them about raising awareness, encouraging studies, and developing solutions.
So, who has done the best? Which one is struggling the most, and why?
NUCLEAR WAR (& ENERGY)
We're tempted to say that those who have worked hard to prevent nuclear war are the most successful of the lot. Until, that is, you remember that their efforts did not get going until after an initial catastrophe already had taken place. When just two bombs can cause some 200,000 deaths in a few months (about half in the first few seconds), that does have a tendency to concentrate interest and activity. Since then, attempts to contain proliferation and avert nuclear war have been markedly successful, when you consider that in more than half a century, only a handful of nations have gained nuclear capability.
So, should CRN look at this as a model for success? Or, because it took a deadly crisis to generate wide interest, should this example be ruled out? Can we afford to wait for the first nano-weapon shots to be fired, thereby gaining the impetus needed to accomplish a global agreement on responsible administration of molecular manufacturing? We don't think so.
For 99.9% of our tenure on this planet, we could wait for direct evidence of our errors before correcting our actions. Sometimes the results were horrendous, as in the two World Wars and the environmental degradation due to hydraulic mining (now outlawed). As bad as those results were, our trial and error approach did not threaten our existence as a species. But during the last 0.1% of our existence our physical power has become so great that we can no longer wait for direct evidence that we are on the wrong path before changing our ways. Given that 99.9% of humanity's data says trial and error works, it is understandable – but horribly dangerous – that we have not yet recognized the obsolescence of that approach.
This warning is about the obscene danger of taking a "trial and error" approach to nuclear war, but we think it applies equally well to the equally severe threats posed by a nanotech arms race and an out of control war.
The IPCC's latest report [PDF] — signed off by 130 nations including the U.S. and China — slams the door on any argument for delay and makes clear we must under no circumstances listen to those who urge that we wait for a more convenient time to take the needed steps, however difficult they may be.
Members of the panel said their review of the data led them to conclude as a group and individually that reductions in greenhouse gasses had to start immediately to avert a global climate disaster that could leave island states submerged and abandoned, African crop yields decreased by 50 percent, and cause over a 5 percent decrease in global gross domestic product.
Concerns about global warming are nothing new. Since at least the 1980s, some world leaders and many scientists have warned that atmospheric effects from human activity would begin causing problems in the 21st century. What is unexpected is how quickly some of those effects seem to be occurring -- and are now strengthening -- showing that the old models were far too conservative in their predictions.
Why are we still dragging our feet? Instead of decreasing, carbon dioxide emissions are rapidly accelerating. Why hasn't more been done? Is it because the plans proposedare just too unpalatable to the public and politicians alike? Is it because the oil and gas and goal and automobile manufacturer lobbies are just too strong? Or is it because we haven't yet had a full-scale environmental disaster, a cataclysm equal to Hiroshima and Nagasaki that's directly traceable to global warming? Have scientists not yet made a strong enough case? It's hard to imagine how the evidence could become more conclusive without clearly being way beyond the point of no return.
So, unfortunately, this model also does not look like a good one for molecular manufacturing policy advocates to emulate.
They're making lots of news, getting coverage everywhere from "60 Minutes" to Popular Science to the Wall Street Journal. They've hosted large conferences and built a significant foundation with a large staff and millions of dollars in contributions. Still, though, the research touted by the main exponents is usually dismissed and sometimes ridiculed by mainstream gerontologists. That situation is changing, but slowly.
Hoping to hurry things along, a series of large cash prizes is on offer for researchers able to demonstrate that aging in mice can be delayed or reversed. In effect, they're looking for the opposite of a major catastrophe, instead trying to provoke the achievement of a scientific "miracle" that will turn the world in their direction.
Could such an effort succeed for nanofactory technology? Possibly, although no one yet has figured out how to set up and market a competition that gains as much interest, publicity, and practical results as the M-Prize. That doesn't mean it won't happen in the future, but it also doesn't mean that it will.
Besides, even if this approach did generate a lot of researchers spending a lot of money to build the first operational molecular fabricator, that alone would offer no guarantee that CRN could fulfill our mission statement. Remember, our aim is not just to hurry the technology along. It's mostly about understanding all the implications of a nanofactory-enabled world and being prepared for it so that we don't have to suffer through a disastrous learning experience.
That is exactly what you think it is: Phoenix descending to the Martian surface underneath its parachute. This incredible shot was taken by the HiRISE camera on board the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. You can easily see the ‘chute, the lander (still in its shell) and even the tether lines!
Think on this, and think on it carefully: you are seeing a manmade object falling gracefully and with intent to the surface of an alien world, as seen by another manmade object already circling that world, both of them acting robotically, and both of them hundreds of millions of kilometers away.
Never, ever forget: we did this. This is what we can do.
Here is an update on where I will be traveling and speaking over the next few months...
June 17-19: International Conference on Nanotechnology, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Next month, I'll make a presentation on "Responsible Nanotechnology" in Saudi Arabia as part of ICON008. This is the first International Conference on Nanotechnology (ICON) to be hosted by the Center of Nanotechnology at King Abdulaziz University. Their stated aim is "to provide a platform for eminent researchers from both academia and industry as well as graduate students to exchange their ideas and concepts about the latest developments" in nanotechnology.
June 25: Workshop on Emerging Issues, Washington, DC
I'm giving a talk in Washington at a workshop in connection with the Issue Management Council's 20th Annual Conference. This special one-day event "will feature a blue-ribbon collection of leading issue advocates. As change agents in their respective fields, these individuals and the organizations they represent are actively turning up the volume on issues that demand and deserve corporate attention."
July 17-20: Conference on Global Catastrophic Risks, Oxford, UK
This event, organized by the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, is built around a new book composed of essays on the full range of global catastrophic risks. Chris Phoenix and I co-authored a chapter on advanced nanotechnology
for the book, and we will make a joint presentation at the conference
on the subject of "Small Machines, Big Choices: The Looming Impacts of
September 3-5: Basque Country Program on Globalization, San Sebastian, Spain
This is an annual event sponsored by the Basque Savings
Bank Federation. In previous years they have covered the digital
revolution, sustainable development, demographic evolution, climate
change, and other issues. For this year's conference, I've been asked
to give a lecture "broadly focused on globalization and nanotechnology."
If you are able to attend any of these events, I look forward to seeing you there!
Dramatic evidence of the break-up of the Arctic ice-cap has emerged from research during an expedition by the Canadian military. Scientists travelling with the troops found major new fractures during an assessment of the state of giant ice shelves in Canada's far north.
The team found a network of cracks that stretched for more than 10 miles (16km) on Ward Hunt, the area's largest shelf. The fate of the vast ice blocks is seen as a key indicator of climate change.
Satellite image of Ward Hunt Ice Shelf. (Red lines: new cracks; yellow lines: cracks from 2002; blue lines: extent of the ice shelf)
One of the expedition's scientists, Derek Mueller of Trent University, Ontario, said, "I was astonished to see these new cracks. It means the ice shelf is disintegrating, the pieces are pinned together like a jigsaw but could float away."
According to another scientist on the expedition, Dr Luke Copland of the University of Ottawa, the new cracks fit into a pattern of change in the Arctic. "We're seeing very dramatic changes; from the retreat of the glaciers, to the melting of the sea ice. We had 23% less (sea ice) last year than we've ever had, and what's happening to the ice shelves is part of that picture."
Fasten your seat belts. It looks like we're in for a bumpy ride over the next few decades.