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RICHARD FERNANDEZ: How Will Humanity Respond to Threats to Its Survival and Freedom?

AP Photo/Luca Bruno

Suddenly the old Earth looks fragile. Some experts say the next pandemic could kill a billion people. Recent research suggests Covid-19 may have been lurking in Chinese caves from as early as 2012, hinting at horrors of nature still waiting to spring out at mankind from the bowels of the earth. Certainly an event on the scale of the current pandemic had been foreseen as far back as 2006 by epidemiologists in the George W. Bush administration as inevitable. Significantly, they warned that with a politicized reaction a “manageable epidemic could move toward catastrophe”.

Not just a medical catastrophe but one of governance. Crisis creates irresistible opportunities for ambitious bureaucrats to build empires. All across the world politicians are now using the virus to radically expand their authority, as they have done in the past.

The campaign against plague in the Middle Ages “marked a moment in the emergence of absolutism,” writes Yale University historian Frank M. Snowden … Covid-19 represents a new moment in this march of state power. In an era of Artificial Intelligence-enabled digital surveillance, governments around the world have been unable to resist the temptation to intrude more deeply into the lives of their citizens, as always justifying their draconian actions in the name of conquering a mortal threat.

The deal is if you want to live, submit to the prince. Angelo Codevilla argues that American politicians are not exempt from the authoritarian temptation.

COVID-19 was the perfect chance to produce, stoke, and maintain fear in pursuit of power. In short, the ruling class used the coronavirus to collapse American life. We are living through a coup d’état based on the oldest of ploys: declaring emergencies, suspending law and rights, and issuing arbitrary rules of behavior to excuse taking “full powers.”

As Rahm Emanuel famously said, “never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” What would leaders do with such enormous powers but use them to extort more power. Technology has made the 21st-century world full of lurking terror and therefore potential power opportunities.

Regardless of the source of the coronavirus, it is now a roadmap for future bioterrorism. The damage has been quick and enormous — much greater than 9/11 — and worldwide. The responses have been predictable and ineffective. And the cost of a potential weapon such as this is close to zero. It represents the perfect asymmetric warfare strategy, and there should be little doubt these lessons are being studied carefully by military planners in North Korea, Tehran, Moscow, Beijing and desert caves throughout the Middle East.

According to the Council of Europe, in order to counter future bioterror threats, states will need even more powers. It’s a runaway chain reaction of authoritarianism—a meltdown of political and economic freedom.

Security experts from the Council of Europe have warned that the global coronavirus outbreak may increase the use of biological weapons by terrorists in the future.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how vulnerable modern society is to viral infections and their potential for disuption,” the council’s Committee on Counter-Terrorism said in a statement.

The deliberate use of disease-causing agents — like viruses or bacterias — as an act of terrorism “could prove to be extremely effective.” …

The council’s security experts called on the 47 Council of Europe member states to prepare to fight a biological weapons attack by engaging in training exercises.

As bioterror cells or “environmental threats” replace nuclear arsenals and armies as the greatest threat to human survival, with politicians demanding increasing authority, the search for a way out of the trap will grow by the year. Even before the pandemic, archivists sought safety in Earth’s remote places from the approaching storm.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a secure seed bank on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago … to preserve a wide variety of plant seeds that are duplicate samples, or “spare” copies, of seeds held in gene banks worldwide. The seed vault is an attempt to ensure against the loss of seeds in other genebanks during large-scale regional or global crises.

Martin Kuntz proposed a similar effort called the Memory of Mankind project. “Memory of Mankind (MOM) is a preservation project funded in 2012 by Martin Kunze. The main goal is to preserve the knowledge about present human civilization from oblivion and collective amnesia. Information is printed on ceramic tablets, then stored in the salt mine of Hallstatt, Austria.” But the earth’s remote places are no longer physically far enough to guarantee safety against library burners, nor out of reach of perhaps the greatest threat of all: political censorship.

As to the question of what information goes into the vault, Kunze is planning a seminal conference this year entitled “Zero footprint: What shall we leave behind?” Here, he hopes to gather researchers from various fields across science and humanities to devise a framework to decide how to choose. Popularity doesn’t necessarily mean value, he asserts: “The most read articles on Wikipedia aren’t about scientific research, but about Justin Bieber.”

Would the custodians choose to preserve Blazing Saddles and other politically incorrect information when even HBO is starting to disclaim it? They might or they might not. Possible havens from censorship are the dark networks defended by encryption. “The dark web is the World Wide Web content that exists on darknets, overlay networks that use the Internet but require specific software, configurations, or authorization to access.” This is the universe that dissidents in China and some activists in the West already inhabit. But since the darknet is also likely to become the abode of terrorist conspirators, that domain is likely to remain under perpetual siege. You cannot hide there indefinitely.

The only sure haven for ordinary people is that provided by interplanetary distance. “Space and survival is the idea that the long-term survival of the human species and technological civilization requires the building of a spacefaring civilization that utilizes the resources of outer space, and that not doing this could lead to human extinction.”

The earliest appearance of a connection between space exploration and human survival appears in Louis J. Halle, Jr.’s 1980 article in Foreign Affairs, in which he stated colonization of space will keep humanity safe should global nuclear warfare occur. This idea has received more attention in recent years as advancing technology in the form of reusable launch vehicles and combination launch systems make affordable space travel more feasible.

National rivalry may move off-world for the balance of the 21st century in a Race for the Solar System rivaling, then eclipsing, the earlier Age of Exploration. Different cultural and religious traditions, even civilizations, could back up their heritage to off-world outposts, maybe to as little as a data server on an asteroid, preserved and hidden from their foes. Humanity will differentiate once more as communications latency ensures that no institution can implement real-time dominion over everything. It’s an idea that is slowly acquiring mainstream political legitimacy. The White House National Space Council published a set of recommendations on July 23, 2020, calling for Americans not to “go West” but to Infinity and Beyond.

The strategy delineated in this paper supports an ambitious vision for human space exploration and development. This vision is one in which there is a sustainable human and robotic presence across the solar system — an expanding sphere of commercial, non-governmental activities in which increasing numbers of Americans live and work in space. This vision begins with a campaign to utilize Earth’s orbital environment, the surface and resources of the Moon, and cis-lunar space to develop the critical technologies, operational capabilities, and commercial space economy necessary for a sustainable human presence on the Moon, Mars, and beyond. …

Space development, including industrial-scale commercial activities, cannot be accomplished by the government alone. An internationally competitive U.S. commercial space sector is a foundational requirement for U.S. space leadership. Although government resources are necessary to establish space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit, its long-term sustainability is unlikely without the efficiencies and innovation of the private sector. As a result, the government will continue efforts to reform, streamline, and eliminate unnecessary regulatory burdens that may hinder U.S. space commerce in order to ensure that American companies can effectively compete in the global marketplace.

Although NASA and the private sector have long been building tools for deep-space exploration, it is far from clear whether the enterprise can ever succeed. But events on Earth might tempt us to try, and like fugitives from some latter-day Troy, to bolt our burning city and chance uncertain freedom over guaranteed bondage.

The gates of hell are open night and day;
Smooth the descent, and easy is the way:
But to return, and view the cheerful skies,
In this the task and mighty labor lies.

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Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic
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Open Curtains by George Spix and Richard Fernandez. Technology represents both unlimited promise and menace. Which transpires depends on whether people can claim ownership over their knowledge or whether human informational capital continues to suffer the Tragedy of the Commons.

The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres

Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free

The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age

Storming the Castle, why government should get small

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Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific.