One of the comforts I had growing up as a bookish nerd was the steady stream of science fiction available –the books and short stories that explored what if? What if in the future X or Y happened? What if there were threats to the continued existence of humans? What if the Earth became uninhabitable? What if there really are aliens “out there”? What if they’re not friendly? What if they are?
These scenarios triggered all sorts of speculation–especially about what an “evolved” future might look like. (There was a reason that, when the Star Trek franchise came on the scene modeling such a future, so many of us enthusiastically embraced it.)
Unfortunately, when a recent speech by the chief of the UN described not-theoretical existential threats faced by humans on planet Earth, I looked in vain for a Jean-Luc Picard-like figure able to lead a bunch of not-so evolved humans from chaos into a satisfactory future.
In an alarming assessment, the head of the United Nations warned world leaders Tuesday that nations are “gridlocked in colossal global dysfunction” and aren’t ready or willing to tackle the challenges that threaten humanity’s future — and the planet’s. “Our world is in peril — and paralyzed,” he said.
Speaking at the opening of the General Assembly’s annual high-level meeting, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres made sure to emphasize that hope remained. But his remarks reflected a tense and worried world. He cited the war in Ukraine and multiplying conflicts around the world, the climate emergency, the dire financial situation of developing countries and setbacks in U.N. goals for 2030 including an end to extreme poverty and quality education for all children.
He also warned of what he called “a forest of red flags” around new technologies despite promising advances to heal diseases and connect people. Guterres said social media platforms are based on a model “that monetizes outrage, anger and negativity” and buys and sells data “to influence our behavior.” Artificial intelligence he said, “is compromising the integrity of information systems, the media, and indeed democracy itself.”
The world lacks even the beginning of “a global architecture” to deal with the ripples caused by these new technologies because of “geopolitical tensions,” Guterres said.
It’s hard to dispute his analysis.
As Guterres accurately pointed out, geopolitical divisions are steadily undermining the efforts of the U.N. Security Council–not to mention international law, trust in democratic institutions and most forms of international cooperation.
“The divergence between developed and developing countries, between North and South, between the privileged and the rest, is becoming more dangerous by the day,” the secretary-general said. “It is at the root of the geopolitical tensions and lack of trust that poison every area of global cooperation, from vaccines to sanctions to trade
The conflict between Russia and Ukraine not only unleashed a global food crisis–it has worsened divisions among major powers in a way not seen since the Cold War and raised fears of a nuclear catastrophe, either due to accidental mishaps at nuclear plants or (as Putin becomes cornered) via weaponry. Inflation is worldwide. Diseases and pandemics are proliferating.
And looming above every other threat is climate change, and the almost daily reports of extreme weather it is triggering.
In those long-ago stories I read, this confluence of emergencies would either be countered with scientific innovations, or human ingenuity would allow some portion of humanity to escape our doomed planet and find a new (class M) home.
I hate to be negative, but at least in the short term, I don’t see either of those things happening.
I should hasten to say that I do see evidence that the threat of environmental disaster has incentivized some truly impressive science. Whether those breakthroughs will ameliorate some of the worst of the crisis or are “too little, too late” remains to be seen.
It’s also too early to tell just how much the fat cats who have been massively profiting from fossil fuels (and the legal advantages they’ve managed to buy for themselves) will slow adoption of those breakthroughs….
Science also is producing enormous progress in automation, which–at least in the short term–will displace millions of people from the tasks they are currently performing; that displacement will only add to the existing grievances that are increasingly being expressed through violence, as people unable to cope productively with enormous social, technological and climate change look for someone or some group to blame.
And while we face these and multiple other challenges, our governing institutions are gridlocked by obsolete mechanisms that empower corrupt and wildly incompetent lawmakers.
The term “a world of hurt” has never been more apt.
Unfortunately, there’s no Federation to come to our rescue….we will have to rescue ourselves.