This is the Most Dangerous Time for Our Planet – Stephen Hawking

This is the Most Dangerous Time for Our Planet

Stephen Hawking | The Guardian UK

Opinion - commentary -analysisWe can’t go on ignoring inequality, because we have the means to destroy our world but not to escape it

As a theoretical physicist based in Cambridge, I have lived my life in an extraordinarily privileged bubble. Cambridge is an unusual town, centred around one of the world’s great universities. Within that town, the scientific community that I became part of in my 20s is even more rarefied.

And within that scientific community, the small group of international theoretical physicists with whom I have spent my working life might sometimes be tempted to regard themselves as the pinnacle. In addition to this, with the celebrity that has come with my books, and the isolation imposed by my illness, I feel as though my ivory tower is getting taller.

So the recent apparent rejection of the elites in both America and Britain is surely aimed at me, as much as anyone. Whatever we might think about the decision by the British electorate to reject membership of the European Union and by the American public to embrace Donald Trump as their next president, there is no doubt in the minds of commentators that this was a cry of anger by people who felt they had been abandoned by their leaders.    

It was, everyone seems to agree, the moment when the forgotten spoke, finding their voices to reject the advice and guidance of experts and the elite everywhere.

I am no exception to this rule. I warned before the Brexit vote that it would damage scientific research in Britain, that a vote to leave would be a step backward, and the electorate – or at least a sufficiently significant proportion of it – took no more notice of me than any of the other political leaders, trade unionists, artists, scientists, businessmen and celebrities who all gave the same unheeded advice to the rest of the country.

What matters now, far more than the choices made by these two electorates, is how the elites react. Should we, in turn, reject these votes as outpourings of crude populism that fail to take account of the facts, and attempt to circumvent or circumscribe the choices that they represent? I would argue that this would be a terrible mistake.

The concerns underlying these votes about the economic consequences of globalisation and accelerating technological change are absolutely understandable. The automation of factories has already decimated jobs in traditional manufacturing, and the rise of artificial intelligence is likely to extend this job destruction deep into the middle classes, with only the most caring, creative or supervisory roles remaining.

This in turn will accelerate the already widening economic inequality around the world. The internet and the platforms that it makes possible allow very small groups of individuals to make enormous profits while employing very few people. This is inevitable, it is progress, but it is also socially destructive.

We need to put this alongside the financial crash, which brought home to people that a very few individuals working in the financial sector can accrue huge rewards and that the rest of us underwrite that success and pick up the bill when their greed leads us astray. So taken together we are living in a world of widening, not diminishing, financial inequality, in which many people can see not just their standard of living, but their ability to earn a living at all, disappearing. It is no wonder then that they are searching for a new deal, which Trump and Brexit might have appeared to represent.

It is also the case that another unintended consequence of the global spread of the internet and social media is that the stark nature of these inequalities is far more apparent than it has been in the past. For me, the ability to use technology to communicate has been a liberating and positive experience. Without it, I would not have been able to continue working these many years past.

But it also means that the lives of the richest people in the most prosperous parts of the world are agonisingly visible to anyone, however poor, who has access to a phone. And since there are now more people with a telephone than access to clean water in sub-Saharan Africa, this will shortly mean nearly everyone on our increasingly crowded planet will not be able to escape the inequality.

The consequences of this are plain to see: the rural poor flock to cities, to shanty towns, driven by hope. And then often, finding that the Instagram nirvana is not available there, they seek it overseas, joining the ever greater numbers of economic migrants in search of a better life. These migrants in turn place new demands on the infrastructures and economies of the countries in which they arrive, undermining tolerance and further fuelling political populism.

For me, the really disconcerting aspect of this is that now, more than at any time in our history, our species needs to work together. We face awesome environmental challenges: climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans.

Together, they are a reminder that we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity. We now have the technology to destroy the planet on which we live, but have not yet developed the ability to escape it. Perhaps in a few hundred years, we will have established human colonies amid the stars, but right now we only have one planet, and we need to work together to protect it.

To do that, we need to break down, not build up, barriers within and between nations. If we are to stand a chance of doing that, the world’s leaders need to acknowledge that they have failed and are failing the many. With resources increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few, we are going to have to learn to share far more than at present.

With not only jobs but entire industries disappearing, we must help people to retrain for a new world and support them financially while they do so. If communities and economies cannot cope with current levels of migration, we must do more to encourage global development, as that is the only way that the migratory millions will be persuaded to seek their future at home.

We can do this, I am an enormous optimist for my species; but it will require the elites, from London to Harvard, from Cambridge to Hollywood, to learn the lessons of the past year. To learn above all a measure of humility.

The writer launched http://www.unlimited.world earlier this year

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Comments

  • Clyde Duncan  On December 4, 2016 at 6:12 am

    A Petition to reverse USA election result and Stop Donald Trump being President becomes most popular in history

    It has now been signed by 4.6 million people

    Andrew Griffin | Independent UK

    A petition asking for the result of the USA election to be reversed is now the most popular in the history of Change.org.

    The signatories – who total 4.6 million people – call on the Electoral College to stop Donald Trump from being President, which is a theoretically possible but never-before-attempted way of altering the result of the USA election. Hillary Clinton won millions more votes than Donald Trump, but Mr Trump became President-elect because of the voting system.

    The petition is titled “Make Hillary Clinton President” and argues that because Ms Clinton won the popular vote she should be made President. It also argues that the President-elect is “unfit to serve”.

    With 4.6 million signatures, the petition has over two million more votes than the second largest campaign on the website. That was a campaign asking for the Yulin Dog Meat Festival to be shut down, which was begun three years ago.

    The petition against Mr Trump was begun just after the election on 10 November 2016. It was started by social worker Daniel Brezenoff.

    Donald Trump could still theoretically NOT become president.

    Signatures to the petition are based on the idea that it is still possible for the result of the election to be reversed. The Electoral College system requires that representatives of each state cast ballots to decide who will actually become the new President – those members of the college are supposed to vote for whoever won their state; but could theoretically change their mind.

    “On December 19, the Electors of the Electoral College will cast their ballots,” the petition writes. “If they all vote the way their states voted, Donald Trump will win.

    However, in 14 of the states in Trump’s column, they can vote for Hillary Clinton without any legal penalty if they choose.”

    Since the petition has started, some legal proceedings have been launched to test the legal penalty in those other states. There has never really been any need to enforce them, since faithless electors make up only a tiny number of people, but activists are looking to encourage more people not to vote this year.

    The petition itself argues that the Electoral College should change its mind because of the results of the popular vote.

    “Hillary won the popular vote,” the description reads. “The only reason Trump “won” is because of the Electoral College.

    “But the Electoral College can actually give the White House to either candidate. So why not use this most undemocratic of our institutions to ensure a democratic result?”

    There are another 6,000 petitions related to Mr Trump on the Change.org website.

    I don’t mind adding that the only reason for me posting the foregoing, is that we don’t know who in the world is signing this petition – literally. Anyone – Anywhere may sign up.

    Also, this is only about one-percent of the USA electorate – or something like dat?

    And, I did break into hilarious laughter after I imagined Hillary Clinton turning to Bill and Chelsea and saying to them – this could have been me ….!!

    It really didn’t matter who was elected this time – half the nation hates their guts!!!

    Although, I still trust Hillary’s self-control more than I do …. the Donald!!

    If none of the foregoing scares you — It Should. -clyde

  • Clyde Duncan  On December 4, 2016 at 6:32 am

    After BREXIT and TRUMP – ITALY votes TODAY ….

    Donald J Trump is the best self-promoter since “I am the Greatest” Muhammad Ali – he has this “Thank You Tour” on the road. I think this has more to do with pumping up the violent inclinations of his supporters – and that scares me.

    I wonder how many non-white people are in those crowds – they either dumb or they got a death-wish.

    But, the focus is on I-T-A-L-Y – TODAY Italy Votes!!

  • guyaneseonline  On December 4, 2016 at 7:14 am

    The sneering response to Trump’s victory reveals exactly why he won
    November 11, 2016 – Aussie Conservative

    For mine, the sneering, elitist response towards Trump’s historic victory, will reaffirm future emphasis of Left movements to shift away from the ideas and attitudes of ordinary people. And as I alluded to in an earlier piece, this will be a godsend for conservative movements across the West.

    “The sneering response to Trump’s victory reveals exactly why he won”, The Spectator, November 9 2016:

    If you want to know why Trump won, just look at the response to his winning. The lofty contempt for ‘low information’ Americans. The barely concealed disgust for the rednecks and cretins of ‘flyover’ America who are apparently racist and misogynistic and homophobic. The haughty sneering at the vulgar, moneyed American political system and how it has allowed a wealthy candidate to poison the little people’s mushy, malleable minds. The suggestion that American women, more than 40 per cent of whom are thought to have voted for Trump, suffer from internalised misogyny: that is, they don’t know their own minds, the poor dears. The hysterical, borderline apocalyptic claims that the world is now infernally screwed because ‘our candidate’, the good, pure person, didn’t get in.

    Read more: https://aussieconservativeblog.com/2016/11/11/the-sneering-response-to-trumps-victory-reveals-exactly-why-he-won/

  • Clyde Duncan  On December 5, 2016 at 1:07 am

    Tess Rafferty:
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  • Albert  On December 7, 2016 at 5:00 pm

    Stephen Hawkins is one of the most brilliant physicist of our times. He is right on target with this non-science article. Advancement in digital technology is resulting in a restructuring of the work force so that there is less demand for human labor. It will become more difficult to find jobs in the future.Trump has nothing to do with this but if the republicans privatize medicare and social security, as some promise, many of the elderly will suffer but the stock market will soar

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