Masters of Disaster was billed as an immersive, "audience-led" event designed to engage people with science by making them part of the discussion. The premise was built on the idea that three scientists (from disciplines of flooding, energy and food supply), fifty years in the future, had to persuade us to invest in their technologies to save humankind. The audience then had the opportunity to vote for the most convincing cause using little voting pads which were handed out at the beginning of the show. This process was repeated three times, each time fifty years further into the future, taking the results of the previous vote into account with regards to how each issue had advanced.
On walking into the room, ready for immersion, it was slightly surprising to find it set up in the manner of a normal lecture or seminar; three chairs behind a table which was set with glasses of water. Indeed, as the event went on it became clear that the basic background of the event was relatively dry; it was really just three academics talking about their disciplines. They were good speakers with engaging tone and well-formulated prose, but the event was not as ground-breakingly exciting as I imagined it might have been. I'm not sure that it would appeal to someone who was not already accustomed to academic discourse.
This is not to say that the discussion was not interesting. Caspar Hewett was the first to speak, exploring the problems associated with rising sea levels and what technologies could be employed to tackle the effects of these. He spoke about leaky dams (dams which allow some water to pass through until the flow is too heavy, when the water builds up behind the dam and spills out onto the flood plains around), temporary storage ponds, artificial trees and cloudseeding among other things. He was keen to remind us that these measures would not be cheap. We had to be willing to invest in a long-term way to see them be successful - one leaky dam won't save Cornwall from the sea. Next Miles Allen talked about how to combat the world's energy issues. He suggested that the problem of global warming must be tackled in a similar way to CFCs in the 90s. He reminded us that CFCs weren't dealt with through a tax on spray deodorants or fridges: they were banned. His gambit for our votes was to harness support for a similar campaign with global warming. Finally, Marco Springmann stood up and told us fervently that we should support him and his idea of a food tax system where tax was calculated by greenhouse gas emissions meaning that red meat became highly taxed and vegetables less so.
When the audience had their chance to speak with their voting buttons, global warming and food issues got the most attention with roughly equal percentages of the vote, and flooding prevention came out bottom with only 6% of us choosing to put funds there. It was an interesting social experiment since people chose to provide their imaginary support to the two campaigns which did not require actual funding; the flooding prevention was the only option which would be very expensive. It was later interesting to see that voting swayed from one category to the next, particularly because it seemed that the human element to the event influenced people's choices; I think we all felt sorry for Caspar Hewett and his lack of support in the first round and this was why he received the majority of the votes the second time. It was yet another reinforcement of the fact that democracy is underpinned but also (debatably) undermined by the nature of human relations.
The take-home message was that we can talk about how and when as much as we like, but the truth is that these issues need to be tackled somehow. There was something strangely reassuring about the event; of course, nothing can be done to reverse the effect of humans and industrialisation on the planet, but things can be done to alleviate the damage. It was nice to hear experts talk about the future of humans in the world as if there is going to be one, and to talk about the problems humans will be faced with in 200 years as continuations of those we see now. It puts it all into perspective. Perhaps this event was not perfect in its format, which verged on the gimmicky, but at least it started a discussion. Events like this allow non-scientists to engage with the environmental changes which are and should be being happening in the world, and for this Science Oxford's work can only be a good thing.