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Weapons of mass destruction

In addition to natural events, there are possibilities of our destruction from human activities. These include the use of weaponry, and acts of terrorism, that fall under the cloak of ‘weapons of mass destruction’. To mention them in this chapter may variously be viewed as despondency or realism.

There are known dangers from the great technological progress in weapons of war, from nuclear to biological weapons, and the power and stocks of such material are immense. If used, they could destroy all of us. This is not a new danger, and most rational governments are aware of the hazards and try to retain control of such weaponry. Unfortunately, the real danger is that, once invented and developed, there is no way back. Therefore acts of an irrational leadership, or even an individual terrorist or psychopath, could unleash global devastation. Many people have considered the outcomes of such weapons with very pessimistic predictions. The views are not limited to cranks or scaremongers, but are often carefully balanced and well considered, as in the book from 2002 by Martin Rees entitled Our Final Century—Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-First Century? (Lord Rees is the Astronomer Royal.)

The viewpoints of how such disasters could be driven vary with current events, with small-scale acts using conventional weaponry or suicide bombs. Far greater damage will ensue if terrorists use nuclear weapons. Such bombs can be delivered fairly easily into densely populated areas. In reality, many people have sufficient knowledge to build nuclear weapons. Delivery does not need to be via a sophisticated missile—it could equally be via ship, train, or large freight truck. The immediate effects would not be global, although radioactive and political fallout from such an explosion would be immense.

Far more difficult to predict are the consequences of biological weapons. Most authors so far have taken a fairly narrow view and considered chemical or biological attacks using familiar items such as sarin, smallpox, Ebola, or other disease vectors that we have experienced in the past. This is a weakness, as within the last decade the knowledge and engineering of biological compounds has made considerable strides forward (normally with worthwhile objectives). But the dark side of this knowledge is that it is equally feasible to develop biological weapons for which we have minimal countermeasures—no vaccines, no treatments.

The restraint from using them at present is that a truly successful attack could spread around the entire globe before the symptoms were recognized, but an uncontrolled spread would equally reach the country of the perpetrators. Therefore, at least in terms of government- driven aggression or religious fanaticism, because destruction would fall everywhere, the lack of control might inhibit more rational users. Our problem is if the same biological vector were dispersed by a fanatical individual, or sect, that wished to destroy as many people as possible.

Whilst we may try to be vigilant against such events, the reality is that if they occur, they are in the same category as major natural disasters. Open discussion may even be counterproductive, as it will offer suggestions for the very events we wish to avoid.

The good news

In the following chapters, I will deliberately try to pinpoint ideas and situations where technology has, or could, cause us problems, but which, if we recognize them, may be manageable. So although this chapter may appear to have had an element of hopelessness and despair (especially in our attitude to slavery), all else in the book will be presented with a brush of hope.

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