What next for humanity? Closing the survey, opening the debate
As we publish the final contributions, spiked editor Mick Hume summarises the survey and highlights some themes.
Enlightening the Future 2024 is a survey of experts, opinion formers and interesting people from across many sectors, initiated by spiked with the modest ambition of challenging the downbeat spirit of the age. The survey is now closed, but the debate about where humanity is headed is hopefully only just beginning to open up.
Why did we want to do such a survey? Ours is a time of widespread cultural anxieties and insecurities. As a society, we now seem to live in permanent fear of the future, worrying about whether we can survive the next threat, be it terrorism, global warming, avian influenza, or even an asteroid strike.
At the same time, our society appears uncomfortable with the achievements of its own past. The science and technology sectors, so often the means to human advancement, now find themselves operating under a cloud of public suspicion. Industries such as food and pharmaceuticals, which have helped to create a situation in which people live longer and healthier lives than ever before, are today widely mistrusted.
Disenchanted with the past yet fearful of the future, we appear stuck in a today where a mood of miserabilism and low expectations influences discussion and developments on many fronts – where human activity is often seen as the problem rather than the solution. This irrational insight goes against the grain of history, which teaches us that human ingenuity and endeavour has propelled society from the caves to something approaching civilisation. It not only risks wasting the gains of the past, but also missing opportunities for future advancement.
The Enlightening the Future 2024 survey, hosted by spiked in partnership with Orange, was launched to suggest that things do not have to be this way. Our aim has been to identify some key questions facing the next generation – those born this year, who will reach the age of 18 in 2024 – and to start a discussion about some possible answers. Our intention was not to try to meet cultural pessimism with mindless optimism. Instead, we wanted to encourage more constructive engagement with challenges, hopefully in a future-oriented and problem-solving spirit.
Contributors were asked to identify the key challenges facing both their own specialist field, and society more broadly. The contributions reflect the diversity of those approached for this project. They range from professors and international leaders in their field to more up-and-coming young bloods, from the UK, Europe, America, Asia and Africa. The issues they raise, too, reflect the diversity of the contributors – from the science of climate change to science fiction; from artificial intelligence and IT to development in Africa or design; from health to housing; from the future of philosophy or education to the future of psychiatry or TV drama. But in their different ways, all of them revolve around similar issues that have to do with how we might act today in order to help shape the ideas and society of tomorrow.
This is a summary of some of the themes touched on to date, drawing on a representative selection of the contributions.
Rising to the challenge?
Many contributors identified challenges that will be all-too familiar, in particular those posed by climate change, population growth, and securing future energy sources. It was always likely that, in the current social and intellectual climate outlined above, some would be more inclined to see challenges as problems rather than opportunities. However, the survey overall has demonstrated a welcome absence of the bleak doom-mongering that tends to characterise much debate on these issues.
The biologist and science writer Professor Brian J Ford is far from the only one to insist that the “central preoccupation” has to be global warming: ‘How can human societies survive in an overheated world? That’s our only major concern; it must be.’ But his emphasis is on the need to adapt and rise to that challenge. Only one contributor from the scientific community – Dylan Evans of the University of the West of England – went so far as to announce that there is no solution to the challenge of global warming because it is simply too late to do anything about it. It has since been reported that he is abandoning his scientific career to go and live in a tepee in a commune.
There are other traces of stark pessimism in the survey. The Orange prize-winning novelist Lionel Shriver, for example, predicts that population growth, mass immigration and water shortages will result in ‘water wars, violent race and class divisions in Western countries when the immigrant underclass gets sick of cleaning toilets for a pittance, and the tragic demise of the long shower’.
But we needn’t panic; one way of another, most contributors are seeking to engage more constructively with the challenges they identify. For example, Neil Bartlett, emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of California in Berkeley, calls for coordinated large-scale research to develop long-lived rechargeable batteries that can power our transport: ‘This requires concerted creative interaction of chemists, physicists and engineers, in a project akin to the Manhattan Project’ – the huge US government programme to develop the nuclear Bomb. Hugh Sharman, founder of Incoteco suggests that government should switch its attention away from ‘chaotic’ climate change, which has always happened and ‘about which we can do absolutely nothing’, towards the provision of secure energy supplies ‘about which, if we are sufficiently serious and determined, we might still do something’.
And Philip Ball, consultant editor on the journal Nature, whilst agreeing that in the light of global warming to come the key challenge is energy, calls for science to rise to that challenge and discover what relative possibilities for coping with its impact could be offered by nuclear fission and fusion, hydrogen from non-fossil sources, renewables and conservation. ‘I’d like,’ he concludes, ‘to see science find its proper social role as an enabler and a humanistic endeavour, rather than being seen as either a panacea or the source of all ills.’
The appliance of Science and Technology
So what is the future for our relationship to science? One central challenge identified by several contributors is the need to tackle contemporary cultural and political barriers to scientific advance. Professor Michael Baum of UCL, the leading cancer specialist, suggests that, while medical science is progressing, so are anti-science arguments: ‘If we wish to make progress not only in science and medicine but also in our quality of life, then we must challenge the threat of the anti-science lobby by bringing the intellectual honesty of the scientific process into the political arena.’
Science writer Anjana Anhuja calls for a rigorous response to the intrusion of religious belief and emotion into the scientific arena – ‘Superstition and sentiment are no substitute for scientific evidence; scientists, politicians and the media and theologians should be bolder about saying so’ – and to the obsession with the risks of technology: ‘My children will depend on, perhaps even invent, future technologies to combat such threats as climate change, energy shortages and mass starvation.’ Norman Levitt, professor of mathematics at Rutgers University in New Jersey concludes that in trying to bridge the gap between modern science and popular culture, ‘The problem that confronts us is to devise a pedagogy, in the broad sense, that will enable the population at large to deal with scientific matters with mature comprehension rather than fearful ignorance.’
Elsewhere Dr Sonja A Boehmer-Christiansen, editor of Energy and Environment, argues that the emergence of environmentalism as a ‘powerful political force’ could undermine both scientific and economic progress, even leading to ‘soft eco-fascism’. Her key challenge is ‘to learn how to distinguish between knowledge and ideology, science and politics’.
Dr Kerry Hempenstall of the RMIT University in Australia notes that a child born today should benefit more than any previous generation from advances in understanding human development, but worries that potential may be wasted by ‘fad-dominated education systems’. He concludes that, ‘A recognition of the proper role of science in informing policy is a major challenge for this generation.’
Don Braben, physicist and supporter of ‘the research that can radically change the way we think about something important’, argues that
bureaucracy is ‘strangling scientific research’, stifling the spirit of path-breaking inquiry that in the past gave us everything from lasers and computers to antibiotics and genetic manipulation. ‘It is fashionable today,’ he concludes, ‘to focus on the threats to humanity from war, disease, famine, global warming, or from extinction by some wayward meteor. However, the most important threat by far comes to us today from the insidious tides of bureaucracy because they strangle human ingenuity and undermine our very ability to cope.’ Graeme Laver, former professor of biochemistry and molecular biology at the Australian National University in Canberra, rails against concerned about the ‘ridiculous requirement’ that scientists applying for research grants are required to spell out what they hope to discover – an ‘absurd’ attitude to experimentation. ‘Scientists should be judged on what they have discovered in the past, not on what they are going to discover in the future’.
Can new technologies solve social problems? Professor Peter Cochrane, co-founder of ConceptLabs, goes so far as to suggest that developments in computer modelling offer our best hope to save the world. Arguing that ‘the overriding issue facing mankind is the rise of… chaotic systems’ governing everything from the world economy to the weather, he says that ‘networked computer and sensor systems across the planet might just be developed in time to save the day.’ Clint Sprott, professor of physics at the University of Winconsin – Madison, concurs that, while the challenges facing humanity remain much the same as in the past, ‘fortunately, computers are now sufficiently powerful to model the complex systems underlying political, social and environmental issues and rapid progress can be expected’.
Among those advocating technological solutions, Kevin Warwick, professor of cybernetics, even suggests that humans will need to take on board superior forms of artificial intelligence ‘and become one with it’. By developing ‘a much better developed interface system between the human nervous system and silicon/technology’, he argues humans will gain a more developed memory, increased sensory range and ‘the ability to communicate by thought alone’.
Rather than entrusting our future to technological developments, however, other contributors argue positively for humanising new technologies. David S Taylor, founder of the People’s Petition for Medical Research – an online campaign in defence of research using animals – suggests that the worldwide web can be used to re-energise our moribund political culture: ‘If party politics continues to revolve around focus groups and fads, rather than principles, the web will become the single most important engine for achieving political change in our society.’ Professor Soumitra Dutta says ‘The main challenge in my field of technology is the more effective integration of technology into our everyday lives… A key focus should be the need to be clear about our core values and principles and use them to drive the use of technology within our organisational and societal contexts.’
That ‘need to be clear about our core values’ has itself become a core theme of the survey. It raises its head again in the different views contributors take of the impact of scientific and industrial advance on something as important as food production. Professor David E Cooper of Durham University argues that industrial food production is responsible for health problems such as obesity and for environmental degradation, and wants to ‘engineer’ a return to ‘atrophied traditions…that once sensibly regulated what human beings ate and how they related to the creatures and environments that supplied their food’.
But Ingo Potrykus, chairman of the Humanitarian Golden Rice Board and Network, argues that the advance of bio-technology is the key to feeding the world in a future when we will have to produce ‘much more food on less land with less water’. In particular he warns that ‘extreme precautionary regulation’ of GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) threatens to waste what progress in science can provide: ‘higher potential for the exploitation of natural resources’ – which has historically been key to human advancement. Professor Jonathan G Jones, leading researcher on plants, microbes and disease, is one of several to argue that, in order to make use of the ‘spectacular’ progress in our knowledge of crop issues, ‘we need to get over our irrational societal neurosis about genetically-modified crops and food’.
Elsewhere, in a contribution that links concerns about food production back to the energy debate, soil scientist Professor Tom Addiscott notes that the world is ‘collectively dependent on nitrogen fertilizer produced by the Haber-Bosch process’, without which we could not feed the world now, far less in 2024, but which takes a lot of energy. The challenge, he suggests, is to balance this against all the other future demands on energy: ‘I don’t always agree with Tony Blair, but I’m sure he’s right to reintroduce the nuclear option. As the lady said, there is no alternative.’
Among contributions focused on future challenges in the mobile and information technology sectors, there is an emphasis on the tremendous changes we are likely to witness over the next 18 years – and the need to challenge our society’s fears of these technologies, or risk wasting the opportunities they are likely to offer.
Mike Dolan, executive director of the Mobile Operators Association speaks for others when he says the key challenge in his area is for society ‘to learn to embrace unprecedented innovation… fearlessly, as it will bring enormous benefits in everyday life.’ Norman Lewis, director of technology research at Orange, expects that developments in mobile technology will make the 18 year-olds of 2024 ‘a different digital species to anything we know or can conceive of today’, with the potential for a new creativity the realisation of which will require a society ‘more comfortable with experimentation’. Professor Ben Shneiderman of the University of Maryland sees the challenge as ‘fulfilling the promise of a universally used world wide web’, and concludes that ‘The goal for the next decades could be to make more people more creative more of the time’.
Some also see these advances bringing potentially problematic challenges. Professor Donald Browne of the University of Minnesota believes that the advance of individualised technologies could help to create ‘a citizenry that is heavily fractionated in its choice of mediated material’, thus encouraging ‘the continuing growth of “culture wars” ‘. Chris Yapp, head of public sector innovation at Microsoft, argues that progress in information technologies ‘creates new challenges in governance’ by blurring boundaries ‘within organisations, between organisations and between the local, regional, global and national’. Jack Rowley of the GSM Association agrees that ‘As mobile telephony moves into its third and fourth decade of mass consumer use, the key theme will be boundaries… related to privacy, work-life balance, use by children and etiquette, or boundaries imposed by governments concerned about the power of immediate person-to-person communication.’
Meanwhile the writer and commentator Matthew Parris, in a thoughtful contribution that also touches on the prospects for empire, non-carbon fuels and newspapers in the next 18 years, suggests people should ‘stop fighting the advance of science and technology (cloning, organ transplants, life-lengthening, new ways of making babies, cheap air travel etc) and learn to live with and benefit from technical progress’. But he also suggests that ‘Info-tech will be handing autocrats and governments astonishing new possibilities: this is one technological advance which does need to be watched, limited and sometimes resisted.’
While Professor Richard Feachem of the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria sees the challenge facing health professionals as preparing for the ‘great viral pandemics’ of Aids today and flu tomorrow, several other contributors think that the biggest health challenge is likely to be the gap in wealth between the developed and developing world, although there is predictable disagreement about whether the answer should be more free market capitalism or less of it.
One common theme here too is the challenge of reconciling the technological aspects of change with the human.
John Martin, professor of cardiovascular medicine at UCL, foresees a 2024 world of advanced stem cell therapy and the rebuilding of human organs, where a debate will rage about the ethics of stretching the human lifespan to 200 years. He believes smoking will be the big remaining killer in the developing world, having been outlawed in the West as ‘a form of suicide’. Dr Richard Sullivan of Cancer Research UK suggests that the ageing society will dramatically increase the incidence of cancers in the West, while tobacco will continue to spread cancer in the developing world until we learn to treat it as we do asbestos. He says we need a scientific strategy to meet the first challenge, and a socio-political one for the second. He also points out that, however far medicine advances, death will remain inevitable, and ‘our advances over the next 20 years must not be at the expense of a pain-free and dignified death.’
Dr Sophie Petit-Zeman of the Association of Medical Research Charities emphasises that, whatever technological advances are made in health treatment by 2024, and whatever extra demands there are on health provision in a society such as the UK, ‘what matters is people treating each other well. Compassion is the prescription for saving the NHS.’
Alternatively, American author and law professor Jeffery Rosen sees a key challenge as redefining privacy in relation to controversial advances in reproductive health technologies. He calls for the public to begin debating how such technologies should be regulated ‘as soon as possible, rather than wait for judges and technologists to spare us from the need to make hard moral and political choices.’
From another branch of medical practice, veterinary surgeon Fiona McEwen calls on her profession to address a fundamental question: ‘Can we reconcile the principle of animal welfare with the role of animals in providing for the needs of human society – be it food, sport, companionship or research?’ She worries that, as animal welfare becomes seen as ‘paramount’, ‘we risk losing our compassion and respect for the people we deal with’, and holding back medical research in a way that could ‘prolong the suffering of human and domestic animal populations.’
Raising our horizons
Away from science, contributors across a wide range of fields have continued to explore in different ways the challenge of deciding what our humanity might mean by 2024. There is a welcome emphasis on the need to raise our sights, as individuals and collectively, in order to meet the challenges of the next 18 years.
Some contributors, it should be said, believe we need to lower our horizons, particularly where economic growth and consumption are concerned. Peter H Raven, professor of botany at Washington University in St Louis, argues that we need to challenge aspirations that are ‘based on the myth that we can simply go on growing indefinitely without making any tough choices’. At current rates of population and consumption growth, he suggests, we are using 120 per cent more than the earth can produce, and there can be no improvement in the quality of life for the world’s poor ‘without the invention of sustainable technologies, without the rationalising of consumption levels, and without the reaching of a level population.’
On the other hand, a contributor such as the economics author Daniel Ben-Ami suggests that twin challenges in economics are to ‘rehabilitate the idea of progress, and to put economic growth at the centre of that advance’. Such an ambitious outlook, he says, could enable us to ensure that the world’s population has what the West now takes for granted, and ‘increase the power of humanity to control nature’. Ceri Dingle, director of the education charity Worldwrite, argues for conquering our fears of over-population or global warming in order to ‘unleash’ the ‘creative abilities of the 70 per cent of the world currently preoccupied with mere survival’, to the potential benefit of us all. David Ampofo, a CEO from Ghana, injects a rare burst of unqualified optimism: ‘Africa is destined to be great, and our current condition is no pointer to our future.’
Looking at other disciplines and issues, two psychiatrists from KCL, Dr Robert Harland and Dr Gareth Owen, call for psychiatry to ‘regain confidence in its own wondrous philosophical and phenomenological heritage, as a source of insights into what it is to be human – for answers to that classic question, “what is man?”‘ Psychology researcher Dr Boris Kotchoubey of the University of Tubingen sees the problem as the widening gap between ‘hermeneutical and neurobiological approaches’ to his discipline, and wonders ‘how our civilisation as a whole will deal with the problem of co-existence of two different images of Man: humanitarian-responsible, and naturalist-deterministic.’
From a quite different perspective, the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton argues that his discipline also needs to rediscover first principles, ‘to rid itself of phoney French nonsense’ and ‘to engage with the intellectual questions that matter, concerning the nature and destiny of man’.
Professor James Woudhuysen of De Montfort University identifies, among many other ideas, a challenge for our attitude to work: ‘rekindle Western interest in the idea, by making the activity of work intrinsically more exciting’, and cities: ‘Mass manufacture great homes to house the millions still coming off the countryside of China and elsewhere.’
Others also address the challenges of architecture and housing, in an age when the classic philosophical question, ‘How should a man live?’ often seems to carry the rider ‘… and where?’ Nick Hubble of Kingston University warns that the challenge of finding living space and housing for mass population movements is being met with ‘coercive measures of containment and intensification [of the London suburbs] in the name of “urban renaissance”‘, and thinks is could lead to social unrest. Austin Williams, director of Future Cities Project, argues that the key challenge for architecture is to ‘project a positive vision of the future’. It must ‘renounce its all-encompassing obeisance to sustainable development’, and recognise that architects’ ‘raison d’etre has always been to maximise their impact on nature’ through creating a built environment. Architect Ian Abley says that, instead of concentrating so much talent on the search for the better micro-flat, ‘architects must address the harder question of how everyone might afford an upgradeable macro-home, or repeat the architectural tragedy of modernism as farce’.
The writer and broadcaster Jonathan Meades, having identified the architectural challenge of addressing ‘the euphemised notion of “affordable” housing… in a manner that is more than cosmetic if new ghettos are not to appear’, goes on to argue more broadly that ‘The secularisation of society is vital’, which must mean quashing the divisive teaching of faith schools and insisting on ‘the primacy of free expression over the rights of institutionalised superstition’.
What do we believe in?
From different fields and standpoints, many contributors have kept coming back to the challenge of working out what we believe in as a society today, what values or visions of humanity we are prepared to uphold in the coming years. Addressing these broader issues seems likely to be a precondition for resolving many of the specific challenges raised elsewhere.
Victor J Stenger, professor of physics at the University of Hawaii and of philosophy at the University of Colorado, puts the stagnation of progress in theoretical physics over the past quarter century alongside a broader loss of vision for humanity. ‘A century ago the huddled masses saw America as a new frontier that offered them room for dreams and big ideas. Today we live in the Age of Disillusionment, in which those big ideas lie in tatters and any frontiers are out of sight.’
Marc Pachter, US cultural historian and museum director, believes “the chief challenge is to overcome the exhaustion of the Enlightenment project… The hope for the future will come from a reborn and refreshed Enlightenment, unembarrassed in its acceptance of the human need for higher purpose”. However Julian Baggini, writer and editor of the Philosophers’ Magazine counsels that ‘If we want a “second enlightenment” we need to remember just how sceptical thinkers like Hume were about the power of reason.’
American writer and academic, Professor Daphne Patai, agrees that there is a need to ‘recapture a commitment to Enlightenment values which would keep in check ideologues of both the left and the right’ in education, but instead sees ‘universal principles such as a defence of free speech’ being attacked from all sides. She worries that this is leaving Western society vulnerable to ‘the voice of Islamic fundamentalism. If no principles remain from which to combat it, what is the likely outcome?’
From a different perspective Amir Butler, executive director of the Australian Muslim Public Affairs Committee, also calls for society to ‘renew its faith in freedom of speech as one of the most important tools we have in both protecting our societies from extremist ideas, oppressive government, and allowing the peaceful coexistence of different and often competing ideologies and belief systems’. And Munira Mirza, writer and commentator on multiculturalism, argues that, ‘We need to challenge the cautious climate where people are inhibited by speech codes, behavioural guidelines and the fear of causing offence. Our priority in the 21st century has to be the recreation of a public space where everyone can passionately debate the future of our society.’ Peter Kunzmann from the University of Jena in Germany, says globalisation will make ‘cultural gaps’ between people more evident, leading to ethical struggles between different sets of values that can be resolved only through freedom to argue one’s convictions – and counselling.
The security and risk specialist Henrik Kiertzner suggests that the key challenge in defining our values is to rehabilitate the idea of acceptable risks, because today’s culture of ‘risk-aversion prevents us exploring our limits and finding out who we are’. We should celebrate taking informed risks, reward those who fail gloriously and accept that accidents do happen.
Other contributors focus on the need to define our role as adults in relation to children, young people and education. Dennis Hayes, joint president of UCU, the largest tertiary education union in the world, argues that in the rush to promote ‘edutainment and “relevance”‘, we have ‘lost our vision of what education is’. He suggests educationalists ‘need to have confidence in the ability of all children to learn what Matthew Arnold described as “the best that is known and thought in the world”. The educational solution for 2024 is to go back to the future.’ Dr Helene Guldberg, managing editor of spiked and lecturer in child development, suggests that the key challenge is ‘to give children the freedom and experiences they need in order to develop into adults’, or risk creating ‘a generation of toddlers’. For parents to develop the confidence to give children more freedom will require a wider challenge to ‘the corrosive tendency to undermine trust in fellow human beings’. Claire Fox, director of the Institute of Ideas, argues that rather than trying to ‘connect’ with young people through patronising gestures and talking ‘street’, the challenge facing adult society is to ‘behave like grown-ups to give the young role models to aspire to’, and ‘set ourselves the challenge of having a project worth growing up to become involved in’.
Academic and author Mary Evans argues the challenge facing women and men in the 21st century is ‘how to maintain worthwhile personal lives’ in a consumer society ‘in which a lot of what is produced is widely recognised as junk’. She recommends the poet William Wordsworth’s view that ‘Getting and spending we lay waste our lives.’
From the perspective of the arts, writer Patrick Marmion believes that ‘it is time to reflect on more trans-personal issues and consider what kind of society we want to live in before that society chooses us.’ Peter Whittle, creator of the New Culture Forum, argues that the challenge facing the arts is ‘to halt their accelerating decline into a merely self-flattering activity for the urban middle classes’, and to have the courage to produce art that can genuinely shock – ‘as opposed to generating the faux-outrage of the media’ – and can open up debate.
From another corner of the cultural universe, the leading science fiction writer Ken MacLeod says that in sci-fi ‘the key challenge is thinking about questions of the future’, and complains that ‘some of the tools we have for thinking are broken and blunted’, for example through the ‘subversion’ of science by all sides in the climate change debate. He argues that ‘we need to reawaken confidence in what are, with telling disparagement, called “technical fixes”. As well as standing for a new Enlightenment, we should raise again the banner of improvement.’
Professor Raymond Tallis puts the discussion in a wider context still, suggesting that the greatest challenge is to create a clear view of the extraordinary human potential. We need to find a way of thinking about human nature that avoids both ‘a supernaturalism that sees our destiny as predetermined by the essence that has been implanted in us by a Creator; and naturalism that says that we are entirely parts of nature and subject to natural laws’. Both lead to ‘a self-fulfilling sense of helplessness which could be very dangerous’.
Professor Frank Furedi of Kent University, author of The Politics of Fear, contrasts the optimistic view of human progress at the start of the twentieth century with today’s vision of the future as ‘a dangerous place’. In order to ‘engage in a grown-up dialogue about what it is we would like to achieve in the 21st century’, he suggests, we will need to develop a more positive account of human history, and ‘tackle the powerful mood of misanthropy that afflicts cultural and political life’, encouraging us ‘to be cautious, conservative and risk-averse – attitudes that lower expectations rather than help us to make the most of opportunities in the future’.
Mention of raising expectations brings us to the grand ambition expressed by theoretical physicist and author, Professor Michio Kaku: ‘In my field of theoretical physics the challenge is to complete Einstein’s dream, a theory of everything to allow us to “read the mind of God”. Perhaps a young person will be inspired by this discussion to complete the entire theory.’
German journalist and science author Thomas Deichmann suggests that one major challenge in our apathetic, unchallenging age is actually ‘to overcome our intellectual malaise and develop some new key challenges for the future of humanity’. Or as Josie Appleton, convenor of the Manifesto Club, puts it, one basic challenge facing us today is that even ‘thinking about the future is off the agenda’.
In the spirit of closing the survey but opening up the debate, perhaps we might sum up the open-ended character of the project in the words of television producer Paul Marquess’ contribution on new trends in broadcasting: ‘And where will that all lead? Haven’t got a clue. But it could be interesting.’
Mick Hume is editor of spiked. Visit the Enlightening the Future 2024 survey here.