But as the moral philosopher Toby Ord argues in his new book, The precipice, we are much less able to anticipate potential disasters that have no precedent in living memory. “Even when experts estimate a significant likelihood of an unprecedented event,” he writes, “we have a hard time believing it until we see it. “
This was precisely the problem with the coronavirus. Many informed scientists have predicted that a global epidemic would almost certainly break out at some point in the near future. In addition to warnings from legions of virologists and epidemiologists, Microsoft founder Bill Gates gave a widely distributed Ted Talk in 2015 detailing the threat of a deadly virus. For some time now, a pandemic has been one of the two most significant catastrophic threats in the government’s risk register (the other is a massive cyber attack).
But if something has not happened yet, there is a deep temptation to act as if it will not happen. If this is true of an event like this pandemic that will kill only a tiny fraction of the world’s population, this is even more so for what are called existential threats. There are two definitions of existential threat, although they often amount to the same thing. One is something that will end humanity altogether, take us away as a species from this planet or any other. The other, somewhat less disturbing, is something that leads to an irrevocable collapse of civilization, reducing surviving humanity to a prehistoric state of existence.
An Australian based at the Future of Humanity Institute in Oxford, Ord is one of a small number of academics working in the field of existential risk assessment. It’s a discipline that encompasses everything from stellar explosions to rogue microbes, from supervolcanoes to artificial superintelligence.
Ord studies each potential threat and examines the likelihood of it occurring in the next century. For example, he estimates that the probability of a supernova causing a catastrophe on Earth is less than one in 50 m. Even by adding all natural hazards together (which includes natural viruses), Ord maintains that they do not constitute the existential risk presented individually by nuclear war or global warming.
Most of the time, the general public, governments and other academics are largely content to overlook most of these risks. After all, few of us like to contemplate the apocalypse.
In any case, governments, as former Conservative Minister Oliver Letwin reminds us in his recent book apocalypse How? ‘Or’ What?, are generally concerned with more pressing issues than the disappearance of humanity. Everyday problems such as trade deals require urgent attention, while hypothetical futures such as machine take-over may still be left for tomorrow.
But given that we are experiencing a global pandemic, the time may have come to think about what can be done to avoid a future cataclysm. According to Ord, the period we live in is a critical moment in the history of mankind. Not only are there potentially disastrous effects of global warming, but in the nuclear age we also have the power to destroy ourselves in the blink of an eye – or at least leave the question of the survival of civilization in the balanced.
So Ord believes the next century will be dangerously precarious. If we make the right decisions, he foresees an unimaginable flourishing future. If we do the wrong ones, he maintains that we may well follow the path of the dodo and the dinosaurs, leaving the planet for good.
When I speak to Ord via Skype, I remind him of the troubling chances he gives to humanity in this life and death struggle between our power and our wisdom. “Given all I know,” he writes, “I put the existential risk of this century at about one in six.”
In other words, the 21st century is indeed a giant game of Russian roulette. Many people will back off from such a grim prediction, while for others it will fuel the anxiety that is already plaguing society.
He agrees, but says that he tried to present his modeling in the most calm and rational way possible, taking care to take into account all the evidence suggesting that the risks are not significant. One in six is his best estimate, taking into account the fact that we are making a “decent stab” to deal with the threat of our destruction.
If we really put our minds into it and mount an equal response to the threat, the chances, he says, come down to something like 100-1 for our extinction. But, also, if we continue to ignore the threat posed by advances in areas like biotechnology and artificial intelligence, then the risk, he says, “would be more like one in three.”
Martin Rees, the cosmologist and former president of the Royal Society, co-founded the Center for the Study of Existential Risk in Cambridge. He has long been involved in raising awareness of impending disasters and echoes Ord’s concern.
“I am worried,” he said, “just because our world is so interconnected, that the scale of the worst potential disasters has increased unprecedented, and too many people deny them. We ignore the wise maxim “the unknown is not the same as the improbable”. “
Letwin cautions against excessive dependence on the Internet and satellite systems, coupled with limited stocks of goods and long supply chains. These are ideal conditions for sabotage and global breakdown. As he worryingly writes: “The time has come to recognize that more and more parts of our lives – of society itself – are less and less dependent on more integrated networks.
Complex global networks certainly increase our vulnerability to viral pandemics and cyber attacks, but none of these results can be considered a serious existential risk in the Ord book. The pandemics that concern him are not those that break out in the wet markets of Wuhan, but rather those conceived in biological laboratories.
Although Ord makes a distinction between natural and anthropogenic risks (of human origin), he maintains that this line is rather blurred with regard to pathogens, since their proliferation has been considerably increased by human activity as the agriculture, transportation, complex trade ties and our congregation in dense cities.
Yet, like so many aspects of the existential threat, the idea of an artificial pathogen seems too scientific, too far-fetched to attract our attention for a long time. The international body responsible for controlling biological weapons is the Biological Weapons Convention. Its annual budget is only 1.4 million euros (1.2 million pounds sterling). As Ord jokes, this is less than the average McDonald’s restaurant turnover.
If this is food for thought, Ord has another gastronomic comparison that is even more difficult to swallow. Although he doesn’t know exactly how much the world is investing in measuring existential risk, he is confident, he writes, that we are spending “more ice cream each year than to make sure that the technologies we develop don’t destroy us “
Ord insists that he is not pessimistic. There are constructive steps to take. Humanity, he says, is in his teens, and as a teenager who has the physical strength of an adult but lacks foresight and patience, we are a danger to ourselves until we mature. He recommends that, in the meantime, we slow down the pace of technological development to allow our understanding of its implications to catch up and build a more advanced moral appreciation of our lot.
He is, after all, a moral philosopher. This is why he argues that it is vital that, for humanity to survive, we need a much broader frame of reference for what is right and good. At the moment, we are grossly underestimating the future and have little moral understanding of how our actions can affect the thousands of generations who may – or, in turn, not – come after us.
Our descendants, he says, are in the position of the colonized peoples: they are politically deprived of their rights, without being able to take part in decisions that will directly affect them or prevent them from existing.
“It is not because they cannot vote,” he said, “that they cannot be represented.”
Of course, there are also concrete problems to be solved, such as global warming and environmental degradation. Ord recognizes that climate change can lead to “global calamity on an unprecedented scale,” but he is not convinced that it poses a real existential risk to humanity (or civilization). This is not to say that it is not an urgent concern: only that our survival is not yet at stake.
Perhaps the greatest immediate threat is the continued abundance of nuclear weapons. Since the end of the Cold War, the arms race has reversed and the number of active warheads has grown from over 70,000 in the 1980s to around 3,750 today. Start (the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty), which was instrumental in the decline, is set to expire next year. “From what I hear right now,” says Ord, “the Russians and the Americans have no plans to renew it, which is crazy. “
Sooner or later, all questions of existential risk boil down to global understanding and agreements. This is problematic because if our economic systems are international, our political systems remain almost entirely national or federal. The problems that affect everyone therefore belong to no one in particular. If humanity is to step back, it will have to learn to recognize its common bonds as superior to its differences.
There are currently many predictions about how the world could be changed by the coronavirus. Philosopher John Gray recently stated that this meant the end of hyper-globalization and the reaffirmation of the importance of the nation state.
“Unlike the progressive mantra,” writes Gray in an essay, “global problems do not always have global solutions … the belief that this crisis can be resolved by an unprecedented surge in international cooperation is a magical thought in its form. purer. “
But countries also cannot afford to turn their backs on the world, at least not for long. The pandemic may not lead to deeper international cooperation and a keen appreciation of the fact that we are, so to speak, all involved together. Ultimately, however, we will have to achieve this type of unity if we are to avoid much greater afflictions in the future.