Experts Contemplate The Future of Life on Earth

Experts Contemplate The Future of Life on Earth
On March 1, 2015, the 92nd Street Y in New York City hosted a panel titled The Future of Life on Earth.   The 92Y’s panel discussion on The Future of Life on Earth featured Jeffrey Sachs, Seth Baum, Max Tegmark and Claudia Dreifus. // Source: SIPA By Meixi Gan   O ne snowy Sunday evening on March 1, 2015, the 92nd Street Y (or “92Y”) in New York City became the venue of much philo­sophical contemplation about the future of the human race. As part of its Seven Days of Ge­nius festival, the 92Y hosted a panel titled The Future of Life on Earth featuring Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University, Seth Baum, Executive Director at the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute, and Max Tegmark, Professor of Physics at the Massa­chusetts Institute of Technology. The panel was moderated by New York Times science reporter, Clau­dia Dreifus. The event was conducted as a dis­cussion on positive steps that could be taken to adapt to changing cli­mates, technologies and populations, to build a positive future and prepare the coming generations for the life that awaits them on earth. With such an expansive mandate discus­sion was wide-ranging, covering top­ics from nuclear war and artificial intelligence to climate change – a fitting topic given the March snow­storm pummeling the venue that night . The guests that streamed in seemed to be a mix of students from the Earth Institute, professionals from sustain­ability and policy NGOs, and 92Y members who happened to have a free evening (and probably also lived close by- given the weather). Dr. Sachs kicked off the discussion with his views on climate change and its relation to global development. He noted how crises like violence and war in vulnerable countries like Somalia were exacerbated by climate change. If nothing was done, he pre­dicted that over time, “life would still get better for a lot of people, but a lot worse for a lot more.” Turning the discussion to a more extreme scenario, Ms. Dreifus asked the panelists to consider Naomi Oreskes’ novel, The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future, a portrait of a dystopian future in which only China has man­aged to survive the ravages of cli­mate change because of its command economy. “Were democracies more prone to failure?” she asked. Dr. Baum and Dr. Tegmark had also recently participated in The Dy­namics of Possible Nuclear Extinc­tion, a symposium held at the New York Academy of Medicine from Feb­ruary 28 to March 1. On the topic of nuclear non-proliferation, Dr. Teg­mark urged the audience not to feel hopeless even if the issue seemed to have no resolution in sight. Think of how land mines came to be banned, he said – with a small group of coun­tries getting together to sign an agreement, thereby putting pres­sure on other countries to follow suit. There was hope yet that we might see a treaty banning nuclear weap­ons in the near future. Dr. Tegmark added that technol­ogy held great potential but could become either a boon or a bane. Citing the example of artificial intelligence, he stressed the importance of keep­ing technology beneficial to the hu­man race, and keeping the human race smarter than its technology. It was imperative for humans, as con­scious beings, to figure out the limits of technology and how to exploit it for our benefit. “It’s not the universe giving meaning to us; it’s us giving meaning to the universe,” he said earnestly. After the discussion, the audience directed a number of probing ques­tions at the panelists. One question was about the reason for world lead­ers’ inaction. Why was nothing con­crete being done, if there was broad agreement that countries needed to cooperate to keep global warming be­low the “two degrees Celsius limit” – the de facto target that climate ex­perts have agreed on? Dr. Baum said that lowering green­house gas emissions was not an easy task and that the two-degree target was an arbitrary one. “We should try anyway, because even if we don’t hit two degrees, three degrees would be better than nothing”. Dr. Sachs added that while there were lobby groups holding up the political process on cli­mate change, there were also positive examples, such as the state of Califor­nia’s progressive policies on electric ve­hicles and energy efficiency. “ The US has become a laggard coun­try. We need to stop playing games and start cooperating with other countries. Failure to cooperate will be our big­gest failure, not ISIS,” emphasized Dr. Sachs, eliciting many nods of agree­ment amongst audience members. Amidst the seemingly pervasive pessimism, was there any hope? Dr. Sachs mentioned that the United Nations planned to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in September 2015, which was definitely a positive move. The SDGs would replace the Millennium Development Goals, established in 2000, which would expire in 2015. This would be the largest gathering of world leaders in history. The SDGs would provide “guideposts for our hu­man survival”, he said. Dr. Sachs stressed that the young people of the world needed to be em­powered to take on these challenges. Dr. Tegmark agreed, adding that the choices made today would greatly impact what the future looked like for the human race. The panel dis­cussion ended with him reminding everyone that “This is not the pin­nacle of progress.” “If we get our act together, we have billions of years left. There is plenty of opportunity.” After the conversation, some au­dience members got in line to have their copies of The Age of Sustain­able Development signed by Dr. Sachs, or to have Our Mathematical Universe signed by Dr. Tegmark; but most began filing out quickly. Had they been inspired to do their part for a sustainable future? It was unclear. Meixi Gan is a first-year MIA stu­dent concentrating in Energy & En­vironment.

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