Perilous Problems That Lie Ahead

We are approaching a period of perilous geopolitical instability:

  • when weapons of mass destruction will be more varied, more deadly, more available, cheaper to obtain, and easier to hide;
  • when the strength (and the ambitions) of regional powers will increase rapidly while the stabilizing might of the U.S. could be in decline;
  • when new technologies such as genetic engineering, robotics, nanotechnology, and possibly artificial intelligence could enable radical shifts in the balance of power;
  • and when global climatic conditions — including increased frequency and severity of killer storms, droughts, infrastructure damage, crop failures, and even whole ecosystem collapses — will contribute to growing tensions.

The global situation is becoming a vortex, a maelstrom in which multiple risk factors will swirl and combine to create sudden new crises for which we may not have time to prepare. The act of reaching into the vortex to grab hold of and deal with one problem could send others spinning in new, ever more dangerous directions.

It’s a recipe for cataclysmic disaster. How dangerous it actually becomes will depend largely on how fast things happen.

  • Will climate change devolve into sudden catastrophic shifts, with ice caps melting, sea levels rising, and populations drowning? Could it occur, as some experts warn, over a span as short as ten years?
  • Will the looming peak oil crisis arrive within the next decade, or will new discoveries and techniques give us half a century to transition away from fossil fuels?
  • Will nascent world powers like China and India find ways to resolve disputes peacefully, or will growing competition for resources spark into armed conflict?
  • Will molecular manufacturing, perhaps the most transformative of all the emerging technologies, burst onto the scene before 2020 — or even 2015 — and without international agreements for safe and responsible use? Or will it develop more slowly, and therefore less disruptively?

All these questions await answers. My organization, the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, is involved in asking them, and in encouraging others to work together on understanding the issues and seeking solutions.

A major challenge for us is to balance our warnings about the severity of the problems that lie ahead with encouragement for efforts to solve them. It’s not easy to actually overstate the dangers — they are real and they’re really serious — but there’s a fine line between awareness that leads to action, and alarm that leads to despair. The world can’t afford the latter. So, we’re pleased when someone else points out some of the things that concern us.

For example, yesterday Richard Weitz, a Senior Fellow of the Center for Future Security Strategies at the Hudson Institute, posted an excellent article online about “Security Implications of Climate Change.” His analysis illustrates the interconnectedness between apparently unrelated issues, and it reinforces the message delivered above: that numerous destabilizing factors are coming together at the same time. We’re approaching a critical period in the history of humankind. The choices we make — or don’t make — over the next five to fifteen years could have consequences that will be felt for centuries to come.

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