This is the most dangerous time for our planet | Stephen Hawking
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
What matters now, far more than the victories by Brexit and Trump, is how the
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.
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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.
‘In sub-Saharan Africa there are more people with a telephone than access to
clean water.’ Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer
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
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
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
For me, the really concerning 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
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 www.unlimited.world earlier this year
It's better to burn out than fade away.
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