The Royal Institution is in Mayfair, on a street packed with jewellery shops. The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth eases his tall frame out of a black limousine and follows me in. Everyone’s in suits. The wine’s courtesy of the high commissions of South Africa and New Zealand. All very fancy.
During the course of this evening’s Commonwealth Lecture, Dr James Martin has twice referred to ‘idiot bloggers’. I think he’s blaming the web for allowing (self)promotion of ‘pseudo-science’. But here goes..
Everyone’s here to see this James Martin chap, who’s funded (and founded, and named, and chosen the staff of) Oxford University’s new 21st Century School. He’s presumably vastly wealthy. But he holds himself quite quietly. He seems unassuming. Mild-mannered.
And then he leads a captive audience (the lecture hall in the Royal Institution is rather small) through a hundred or more powerpoint slides, skipping across disciplines, suddenly changing tack to deal with something else that his wandering mind appears to have remembered, then returning again and again to the starving child photo. From nanotechnology to transhumanism. [shows photo of 500 yr old tree being logged]. Quantum entanglement. [shows photo of Maglev train; photo of starving child].
And it’s fascinating.
Broadly, the gist goes as follows.
“We’re completely screwed“: population growth, climate change (inevitable) –> famine, massive inequality.
“Wow, look at the amazing science on the horizon”: cancer treatments, GM crops, mass produced nuclear power stations, computers that will be ‘a million times more intelligent that we are…but it’s a different kind of intelligence’.
“But remember we’re screwed.
“But remember there’s technology…and hopefully the various institutions I’ve founded at the 21st Century School [he’s provided $50m; Gates, Soros, etc have matched it for Institutes for Future Cities, for Nanotechnology etc] put the pieces together to solve some of the problems.”
He’s aware of how the technology will enable a global elite to live incredibly well: astonishing new laser tech will help us eradicate cancer, we’ll build amazing new cities (in the Arctic Circle and in the very south South America) – but he’s very worried that we’ll remain as callous towards the poor as we are now. He shows pictures of shanty towns next to great architecture, and pictures of Bangladesh and starving kids. He says we’ll see ‘famine on an unimaginable scale, in the late 21st Century’. You get the sense that this is the one he doesn’t know how to solve – technology can’t help him here. Technology can’t save us.
“Is there a sort of meanness in the spirit of mankind?…It costs less to save the forests than the bankers…The most powerful people fail to put together the big picture…Does democracy work?”
Without any science to talk about here, in this question of ethics and inequality, he doesn’t have a lot to suggest. He talks of ‘a higher layer above government’ and speaks of the ’70 scientists in the House of Lords’ and even of ‘world government’, but one that mustn’t interfere with the sovereign.
I manage to grab him at the end to ask more about global governance. He uses a hearing aid and leans in to hear me better. ‘Do you have anything at the School relating to global governance’, I ask, hoping this is the start of a conversation that ends with a scholarship. ‘No; that was the one we couldn’t get matched funding for – we planned on an Institute for Global Governance, but nobody would match the funding.”
So you can get funding for an Institute for Future Cities, but not one for Global Governance? How non-strategic, shortsighted, muppety failish is that? The thread that runs through all of these massive problems, through the organisation and funding of the solutions, is global governance. Maybe they’re all funding Jim ‘Blackberry’ Balsillie’s new school.
We’d better hope so.