Memoirs of a Boffin


Energy is only one of many problems that threaten the global future, although it ranks with population growth as one of the most serious. In both instances, to be effective in time, action should have been taken forty or fifty years ago. Peccei realized that there was not much time left when he built a sense of urgency into The Chasm Ahead [1], in 1968. Now, almost forty years later we are still faced with all the problems Peccei described, plus a few more, and every one of them has been aggravated by the passage of time, the growth of population and the inaction of governments.

Pollution of land, water and the atmosphere is now reaching a truly menacing level and many aspects may be irreversible in a declining world economy. Special interest groups will continue to exacerbate the problem. Because of the tragic deterioration of the educational system, huge numbers of young people emerge ill-equipped, lacking the knowledge, the dedication and the discipline the future will require of them. The pressure of population growth will increase the unrest in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the dozens of other unsettled regions and it will take a great deal of pride-swallowing and leadership to achieve any vestige of world peace. The combination of man-made climate change, population growth and conflict will cause mass migrations, faced with countries determined to protect their own people from the competition from unwanted immigrants. Terrorists will thrive on these unsettled conditions and will find it easy to cause further disruption. The burgeoning trade in drugs will feed the confusion. Conditions will increasingly favour the spread of epidemics such as AIDS, TB, and Avian Flu.

In the meantime countries will find it increasingly difficult to find the capital and the energy to replace the crumbling infrastructure of roads, bridges, city services, etc. It stands to reason that if more people are admitted to this finite planet, individual expectations must fall. Yet it is often political suicide for a leader to say so. Consequently, political action will be too late, as usual.

The question arises as to whether it will ever be possible to address all these problems before they get completely out of hand. Reason says that it will not – that there will be global chaos within the lifetime of people already on Earth. However I like to think that events can transcend rational prediction. If we have no faith in the future, why do we live? It is impossible for me to imagine the loss of all the results of man’s genius, from the great works of art and music to the astounding complexity of the chips in the state-of-the-art computer on which this book has been prepared. Intellectual, artistic and technological achievements represent an indispensable record of the continuity of intelligent life on Earth. I cannot envisage that continuity being broken.

The 20th Century was the age of incredible technological achievements. Perhaps the 21st Century will be the age of miracles. If it is not, the human race as we know it is unlikely to see the 22nd.

1. The Chasm Ahead: Macmillan, NY (1969)