So far 115 people have been diagnosed with a strain of bird flu known as H7N9 that was previously unknown in humans. Twenty-three of the people known to have contracted the disease have already died. The discovery of a 4-year-old boy who has the virus but who has no apparent symptoms raised concerns that the virus could be spread more widely. Researchers are also investigating at least several possible cases of human-to-human transmission. Taiwanese authorities report that a businessman who recently returned from Suzhou has become the first case diagnosed outside of mainland China. Epidemiologists worry that if the virus continues to spread at the same rate it could be a serious public health problem. Authorities in Shanghai destroyed more than 20,000 birds after the virus was discovered in birds at a live poultry market. There is currently no vaccine for H7N9, although it does appear to respond to antiviral medications. In Foreign Policy, Laurie Garrett argues that the outbreak of H7N9 in humans could be linked to the mysterious deaths of pigs, ducks, and swans in China. “If we were imagining how a pandemic would unfold,” Garrett writes, “this could certainly serve as an excellent script.”
In Science, British Astronomer Royal Martin Rees argued that we need to take existential risk more seriously. Foreign Policy did a profile of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, which Rees helped found. Aeon interviewed members of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. And The Huffington Post hosted an expert discussion of the greatest threats to humanity’s survival.
In February, B612 Foundation chairman Ed Lu wrote—the day before a meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia—that the close flyby of asteroid 2012 DA14 should wake us up to the need to anticipate and prevent asteroid impacts. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry renewed his call for an international initiative to protect the planet from asteroids. The US Air Force’s Lt. Col. Peter Garretson called for a federal asteroid policy. NASA head Charles Bolden told the House Science Committee that if we detected an asteroid the size of the Chelyabinsk meteor three weeks away, there would be nothing we could do to prevent an impact. In an interview with The New York Times, Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson described the meteor as “a shot across our bow.”
On February 15, a 10,000-ton meteor broke up in the atmosphere over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk. The meteor exploded with the force of nearly 500 kilotons of TNT—about 30 times the energy of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima in 1945—injuring more than 1,200 people. The unexpected impact was a dramatic reminder of the danger that large asteroids pose. NASA recently gave $5 million to the University of Hawai’i's ATLAS Project to develop an early warning system for asteroid collisions. But a survey last year of near-Earth objects suggested that there are around 4,700 asteroids—of which we have identified only a quarter—that are both large enough and come near enough to Earth to cause damage on a wide scale.
The human race’s prospects of survival were considerably better when we were defenceless against tigers than they are today, when we have become defenceless against ourselves.—Arnold Toynbee (1)
The human race probably faces a greater risk of extinction today than at any time in recorded history. The eminent cosmologist Martin Rees has put the human race’s chances of surviving this century at just 50%. (2) Nick Bostrom has found that academic risk experts generally give us an 80-90% chance of survival, which is better but hardly reassuring. (3) Before the development of modern technology, we faced a relatively low level of what Bostrom calls “existential risk.” But while our mastery of technology has increased our ability to protect ourselves against environmental dangers, it has also made us a much greater threat to our own survival. Now we have reached a critical phase in our development as a species: if we don’t learn to manage our growing technical power, we are in danger of destroying ourselves. (4)
We live in the Anthropocene. The age of humanity. It is the period of Earth’s history largely shaped by human activity. Over roughly the last 10,000 years we humans have changed the composition of both the planet’s atmosphere and its oceans, radically transformed its ecosystems—driving many species to extinction in the process—and have even begun to alter our own biology.
The transformation of the world is the result our collective activity but is not in its totality the product of some deliberate, careful plan. Our tremendous power to reshape the world gives us both an opportunity to make it a better place or to do it great harm. Although the benefits of human civilization are obvious, human civilization has also had a host of serious unintended consequences. It is not beyond our abilities to destroy either ourselves or the planet that is our home.
As the pace of change increases we have to consider as a species where we are heading. We can’t continue to use our power carelessly much longer. This blog will focus on the way we are transforming both the planet and ourselves. If there is anything that you think I should cover here, please don’t hesitate to pass it along. In particular, I would love to hear your suggestions for articles to read or books to review. Likewise, if you have any original photos you would like featured on the site, please let me know.