Rome Club Report 2018, Chapter 1.6: "Technological Wild Cards"

Original author: Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, Anders Wijkman
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1.6.1 Technological wild cards and familiar threats

Based in Cambridge (United Kingdom), the Existential Risk Study Center (CSER), in 2012, quickly gained worldwide fame, presenting a number of threats that may even lead to the extinction of humanity. Of course, these could be astronomical disasters, such as a collision of the Earth with a giant meteorite or the appearance of a deadly and highly contagious microorganism, against which no means can be quickly found. But in fact, the group, led by Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh, also explores technological development, fully developed by people. HÉigeartaigh calls them technological wild cards. These include the following:

  • Synthetic biology , creating viral and bacterial organisms with new and deadly characteristics and abilities that can infect people and spread throughout the world; A particularly controversial area of ​​research is the study of "virology", which leads to viruses with completely unknown abilities. More common is the unintended spread of multi-resistant microorganisms, caused by prophylactic abuse of farm animals with antibiotics, or high concentrations of antibiotics in poorly treated wastewater from industries that produce antibiotics.
  • Geo-engineering : a complex of proposed large-scale technological measures aimed at “designing” our climate in order to slow down or even reverse the most serious consequences of climate change. Apparently, President Trump intends to spend a lot of money on geo-engineering.
  • Achievements in the field of artificial intelligence , able to meet or exceed the intellectual abilities of a person in a wide range of areas and tasks (see 1.11.3).

Obviously, humanity must respond to such absolutely terrible prospects. Technology assessment is the least that needs to be done. Consideration should also be given to banning research that could lead to the extinction of the human race (see 3.15.2).

Very different potential disasters that are in a sense familiar. A web search for “economic collapse” will find nearly 35 million sources of information. Overwhelming literature is widely available. Problems are not limited to serious violations of the atmosphere and biosphere. The main social problems have already been discussed in the section. 1.1.

In early 2016, the Chief Geologist of the British Geological Survey stated that man-made changes on Earth are more than changes that marked the end of the last ice age. At present, the problem of chemical perfluorooctanoic acid is found in the tissues of polar bears and all people on earth. Plastics are found in the intestines of 90% of seabirds, and microparticles, the decomposition of millions of tons of plastic waste produced each year, are now omnipresent. Ninety percent of all the oil consumed by mankind happened since 1958 and 50% in 1984; and it left a permanent trace of black carbon in the ice.

In a rather extreme forecast, Walter and Weizman describe the economic turmoil that may arise from climate change. They expect massive disruption in agriculture and, consequently, in nutrition, which can destroy most of the hopes contained in the second SDG (see 1.10).

Much less concrete, but potentially equally catastrophic are the massive losses of biodiversity. Already today, the Earth is in the midst of the "6th event of extinction." The first five were caused by tectonic and volcanic events on a geological time scale; in the case of dinosaurs, astronomical catastrophe is also believed to have played a key role. But the sixth, unfolding very rapidly over the last century, caused exclusively by man. During this period, explosive population growth plus ever-increasing land use (see the Saga “footprints,” section 1.10) destroyed or completely changed most of the habitats of wild plant and animal species. It is not surprising that about a hundred species of animals and plants die every day, most of which were not even scientifically identified before they disappeared. The consequences of this tragedy for people are likely to be very dangerous, but the details are difficult to predict. In his latest book, E. O. Wilson suggests that half of the earth’s surface should be reserved for nature conservation — not entirely realistic in the face of the continued growth of the world's population.

Soil erosion, soil degradation, droughts, floods and invasive species can greatly exacerbate the dangers faced by future generations. Industrial farming using “systemic pesticides”, such as neonicotinoids, is a deadly threat to bees and other pollinators. In addition, there is increasing evidence of pesticide residues in various foods. It is impossible to avoid the question: how long can biological systems be managed in the same way as industrial production? The long-term effects on soils of decades of pesticides distributed to them is a serious problem and is still poorly understood. If bacteria and fungi are lost, the soil is degraded. "Every time the soil is disturbed, or artificial fertilizers and pesticides are applied,

Another troubling and complex issue related to the production of biofuels. When biofuels are produced from residual materials from forestry and agricultural production, the benefits are obvious. However, when fertile soils, as in the United States, or virgin forests, as in Indonesia, turn into large-scale monocultures of maize or palm oil, the negative social or environmental consequences can significantly outweigh the positive ones.

Another new and disturbing technical problem is the “gene drive” developed by man. A successful gene drive is able to intentionally or accidentally change the appearance or cause it to disappear. So far, these artificial gene drives have been developed using a new gene editing system, known as CRISPR-Cas9. Gene drives can be deliberately introduced into invasive species to be eradicated from the wild for conservation or weeds to be removed from farmers ’fields: these are all desirable plans at first glance. But gene drives can be as easily used for military purposes as biological weapons, or for the suppression of food crops. There are unintended consequences; “Since modified organisms caused by gene drivers are widely distributed in the environment; there is a widespread opinion among researchers and commentators that they can have a harmful effect on other species or ecosystems. ” There is no internationally agreed process for effective management of transboundary effects resulting from the release of genes — a huge gap in management. As a result, more than 160 NGOs, mainly from developing countries that were present in Cancun at the 13th Convention of the Parties to the UNCBD (Convention on Biological Diversity) in December 2016, demanded a moratorium on applied research, development and production of engineering gene drives. There is no internationally agreed process for effective management of transboundary effects resulting from the release of genes — a huge gap in management. As a result, more than 160 NGOs, mainly from developing countries that were present in Cancun at the 13th Convention of the Parties to the UNCBD (Convention on Biological Diversity) in December 2016, demanded a moratorium on applied research, development and production of engineering gene drives. There is no internationally agreed process for effective management of transboundary effects resulting from the release of genes — a huge gap in management. As a result, more than 160 NGOs, mainly from developing countries that were present in Cancun at the 13th Convention of the Parties to the UNCBD (Convention on Biological Diversity) in December 2016, demanded a moratorium on applied research, development and production of engineering gene drives.

Then there are political dangers covered in the section. 1.1. Wars and conflicts rage in the Middle East, in some African countries and in Afghanistan and Myanmar. They led to the unprecedented migration of refugees both inside and outside war-affected regions.

Political disasters are often associated with nature. Climate change is partly the cause of conflict over water and fertile soils. And then we will not ignore the fact that wars, as a rule, occur in the regions with the largest population growth. Of course, it was the same in the “Empty World”, but in the “complete world” there is no easy way out, thereby intensifying conflicts over resources. In addition, in earlier times, even the poor were part of a mostly benign, strong and fertile planet. This is not the case.

1.6.2 Nuclear Weapons: The Forgotten Threat

An almost forgotten threat is the specter of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are the deadliest of all means of mass destruction. They put civilization, the human future and the future of life on the planet into grave danger. These are illegal, immoral, and unnecessary resources that could otherwise be used to satisfy human needs. Humanity needs to find a way to abolish nuclear weapons before these weapons destroy us.

And yet, since the end of the Cold War, nuclear weapons, as a rule, are perceived with complacency by world societies. These weapons, which are in the arsenals of nine countries, are mostly out of sight and not taken into account. To the extent that the possession and threat of the use of nuclear force brings it into the public consciousness and discourse, they are justified on the basis of nuclear deterrence, that is, the threat of nuclear retribution. But this remains an unproven hypothesis about human behavior and potentially destabilizing.

Society begins to forget that a complete nuclear war can lead to a nuclear winter, potentially turning the temperature to the lowest level in 18,000 years, causing an ice age and destroying most of life on Earth.

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1970 divided the world into nuclear “having” and “not having”. According to the NPT, nuclear countries are those countries that manufactured and detonated nuclear weapons before January 1, 1967. France and China were added to nuclear "having" when they later joined the treaty. Three countries never joined the treaty - Israel, India and Pakistan - and continued to develop nuclear arsenals; and one country, North Korea, withdrew from the treaty in 2003 and plays the evil poker game, creating an arsenal of nuclear weapons.

All nine countries that possess nuclear weapons are now engaged in the modernization of their nuclear arsenals. The United States plans to spend $ 1 trillion on this over the next three decades. Other nuclear weapon states also have ambitious modernization plans. Increasing waste of resources and missed opportunities. However, in addition, the modernization of nuclear arsenals makes weapons more compact, accurate and effective. All this leads to the fact that the weapon becomes more useful for military commanders and, therefore, more likely to be used. Modernization of nuclear arsenals is a clear violation of the NPT (Fig. 1.7).

Jonathan Granoff of the Global Security Institute adds: If less than 1% of the 14,000 nuclear weapons in the arsenals of nine possessor states in the world explode, tons of debris will fall into the stratosphere, lower the temperature of the Earth, destroy the stability of the ozone layer, cause the spread of cancer and other terrible diseases and stop farming, as we know it. In general, the nuclear exchange of arsenals of only two nuclear powers, say, India and Pakistan, can put an end to civilization throughout the world, as well as a powerful first strike from the arsenals of Russia or the United States.


Picture. 1.7 World Nuclear Arsenals, 2017

A quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War, about 2,000 nuclear weapons are still on high alert and ready to fire within a few minutes after the respective order, which means that civilization can be destroyed in one day of nuclear exchange. In July 2016, the International People’s Tribunal for Nuclear Weapons and the Destruction of Human Civilization was held in Sydney, Australia, which condemned politicians and the nuclear weapons industry for violating human rights, while still “modernizing” nuclear arsenals and seriously considering the use of these weapons.

The threat is global, and the solution must also be global. This will require negotiations to genuinely prohibit and eliminate nuclear weapons. This will not be easy, since there will be many interests at the negotiating table. This will require a phased, verifiable and irreversible elimination of nuclear weapons. It should lead to the conclusion of a treaty that will ensure the elimination of nuclear weapons, without leaving the world under the control of conventional armed forces. In the end, it should be a contract that changes the dynamics of the planet from the madness of mutual assured destruction (MAD) to the necessary new reality of planetary guaranteed security and survival (PASS).

To be continued...

For the translation, thanks to Jonas Stankevichus. If you are interested, I invite you to join the "flashmob" to translate a 220-page report. Write in a personal or email

More translations of the report of the Club of Rome 2018


Chapter 1.1.1 “Various types of crises and feelings of helplessness”
Chapter 1.1.2: “Financing”
Chapter 1.1.3: “An Empty World Against Full Peace”

Chapter 2.6: “Philosophical Market Doctrine Errors”

Chapter 3.1: “Regenerative Economics”
Chapter 3.2 : “Development Alternatives”
Chapter 3.3: “Blue Economy”
Chapter 3.4: “Decentralized Energy”
Chapter 3.5: “Some Success Stories in Agriculture”
Chapter 3.6: “Regenerative Urbanism: Ecopolis”
Chapter 3.7: “Climate: Good News, but Big problems "
Chapter 3.8:" The economy of a closed cycle requires a different logic "
Gla Va 3.9: “Fivefold Resource Performance”
Chapter 3.10: “Bit Tax”
Chapter 3.11: “Financial Sector Reforms”
Chapter 3.12: “Economic System Reforms”
Chapter 3.13: “Philanthropy, Investment, Crowdsors and the Blockchain”
Chapter 3.14: “Not a single GDP ...”
Chapter 3.15: “Collective Leadership”
Chapter 3.16: “ Global Government "
Chapter 3.17:" Actions at the National Level: China and Bhutan "
Chapter 3.18:" Literacy for the Future "


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