Odds of just one in six do not sound great, even in a simple game of chance. But if this were the probability that humanity itself could be wiped out, you might say we were in a fix. Yet here we are, argues philosopher Toby Ord in The Precipice, a new book about the bleak survival chances we now face as a species.
Those with a penchant for worrying about catastrophe already have plenty to be going on with, as the coronavirus continues its grim global march, setting off an array of scary thoughts about what the coming months might bring. Churches in the US are now closed, but newspapers last weekend pictured long lines outside gun shops, a sign that many are preparing in their own way for broader social disruption to come.
Visions of post-apocalyptic collapse are familiar from disaster movies, or novels such as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Ord’s concern is more with what he calls “existential” risk: an apocalypse in which there is no “post”; just the end of all of us. Hence his calculations of the chance of human life ending entirely during this century: one in six. “This is not a small statistical probability that we must diligently bear in mind, like the chance of dying in a car crash, but something that could readily occur, like the roll of a die, or Russian roulette.”
A leading light in a movement known as “effective altruism”, Ord is also a researcher at the University of Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, which (given his own odds-making) must be a pretty bleak place to work. His book tallies up various apocalyptic scenarios, from asteroid strikes to the one in 1,000m chance of a “stellar explosion” in space taking the Earth with it. More alarming are the man-made “anthropogenic” threats, specifically climate change, broader environmental collapse, nuclear war, biotechnology and artificial intelligence.
These risks are new, coming together in the latter 20th century to create an era that Ord dubs “the precipice”, meaning one in which total human collapse remains alarmingly likely. “If I’m even roughly right about their scale, then we cannot survive many centuries with risk like this,” he writes. “Either humanity takes control of its destiny and reduces the risk to a sustainable level, or we destroy ourselves.”
Many might quibble with the exactitude of Ord’s probabilities, but his message about the rising likelihood of civilisational disruption is grimly convincing — all the more so for being delivered in admirably clear prose. Of his various apocalyptic horsemen, he worries most of all about “unaligned artificial intelligence”, giving odds of one in 10 to the notion that future intelligent machines might wipe out their human underlings — a scenario that has also alarmed the likes of the late scientist Stephen Hawking and entrepreneur Elon Musk.
Pandemics are his second-biggest fear, and he recalls how the Black Death wiped out as many as half of all Europeans during the 14th century — or the earlier Plague of Justinian that swept through the Byzantine Empire in 541CE, reducing humanity’s headcount by 3 per cent. By comparison, today’s coronavirus outbreak is mild, although it provides a taste of the massive disruption a more lethal strain might bring.
The real risk here, however, is man-made, specifically a bioweapon or lab-mutated virus. Back in 2012, Dutch virologist Ron Fouchier ran an experiment with H5N1, an especially deadly strain of bird flu that kills more than half of the humans it infects, albeit one that so far has not been transmissible between humans. “He passed the disease through a series of ten ferrets,” Ord writes. “By the time it passed to the final ferret, his strain of H5N1 had become directly transmissible between mammals.” Even putting the risk of military bioweapons to one side, Fouchier’s experiment caused an outcry, underlining the potential for disaster.
Chaotic hospital scenes in Wuhan and Lombardy make such risks easier to imagine. Yet they do not solve the wider problem: namely that most of us find it all too easy to ignore those that might bring about a temporary social collapse, let alone a humanity-ending disaster.
Oliver Letwin’s Apocalypse How? sketches out just one scenario, in which a fictional freak “space weather” magnetic pulse knocks out Britain’s internet, electricity and other vital networks on New Year’s Eve 2037, causing chaos and tens of thousands of deaths. A brainy former minister during David Cameron’s premiership, Letwin was once in charge of Britain’s disaster preparedness, thinking through everything from natural catastrophes to malign outside interference, similar to Russian cyber attacks that knocked out Ukraine’s power supplies in 2015 and 2016.
His bigger argument concerns the rising vulnerability of sophisticated industrialised societies, given the complex interlocking technological networks that already underpin almost all of our social systems. In the near future, when everything from telemedicine to self-driving vehicles will be hitched up online, the risks of a cascading network collapse will be greater still. “If the electricity grid and the internet go down in the late 2030s, and if we have not taken very particular precautions, it is likely that life as we know it will close down too,” Letwin writes.
Similar worries vex Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens — albeit on a grander scale — in How Everything Can Collapse. First published in 2015 and only now translated from French, the duo are leftwing activists and researchers in a developing field they describe half-jokingly as “collapsology”. This covers plenty of ground, from the risks of fossil fuel-dependent energy systems to instability in international finance. But their concern is primarily ecological, namely the overburdening of the Earth’s natural systems, from the climate crisis to the collapse in biodiversity that now forces some farm workers in China to manually pollinate plants, given declining numbers of bees.
Five mass extinctions have scarred our planet’s 4.5bn-year history, the most recent wiping out the dinosaurs 65m years ago. Some scientists believe extensive habit and species destruction is now causing a sixth “Holocene extinction”, meaning one in which three quarters of species disappear. “We are not there yet but we are rapidly getting closer to this figure,” the authors write.
All these more contemporary potential disasters share a common feature — namely that they result at some level from the intersection of globalisation and technology. This is true for the coronavirus outbreak, given that its rapid global spread was largely a function of greater global transport integration, even since the outbreak of Sars earlier this century. Globalisation has brought huge benefits, but also levels of human interconnection and environmental strain that make now truly global catastrophes much easier to imagine.
The word apocalypse derives from the Greek apokalyptein, meaning to uncover or to reveal — a well-chosen root, given the way thinking about disaster so often reflects anxieties about the present. Religious apocalyptic visions focus on blinding flashes from vengeful deities, something replaced in the last century by the potential wipeout of a nuclear strike. Today’s visions of collapse are more gradual, be that a spreading pandemic or the remorseless warming of our planet. “Today, climatic and environmental catastrophes are less spectacular, but they have actually started,” Servigne and Stevens suggest.
How should we prepare for such a possibility? Some take matters into their own hands, the subject of Mark O’Connell’s Notes from an Apocalypse, a delightful peek inside the world of “preppers” gearing up for imminent disruptions to our social or political order. From renovated nuclear bunkers being sold to well-heeled survivalists in North Dakota, to nuclear disaster tourists in Chernobyl, O’Connell’s book, published next month, is a wryly amusing tour of the end of the world.
Four books on humanity at a crossroads
Toby Ord’s bleak work calculates the prospects of the end of the human race this century at one in six and is grimly convincing in its argument
Oliver Letwin, who helped Britain prepare for disaster, looks at the terrifying prospects of a cascading technological network collapse
Mark O’Connell takes a delightful peek into the world of survivalists in this wryly amusing tour of the end of the world
Activists examine the overburdening of the planet’s natural systems, from the climate crisis to collapse in biodiversity
Over recent weeks a handful of Asian nations such as Taiwan and Singapore have seemed like sanctuary states, holding out against the virus’s spread. But for those truly anxious about looming catastrophe, there is always New Zealand. PayPal founder Peter Thiel is just one of a bunch of libertarian billionaires and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs to buy land and houses in New Zealand, which O’Connell describes as “the ark of nation-states, an island haven amid a rising tide of apocalyptic unease”.
He is especially good on the oddities of American survivalists: an almost exclusively male subculture that revels in packing meticulous “bug out bags” filled with survival gear, and hangs out on internet discussion boards chatting about “TEOTWAWKI” [the end of the world as we know it], or the correct course of action when “TSHTF” [You probably can guess that one].
All this reflects a deep anxiety about the direction of complex liberal urban societies. “Preppers are not preparing for their fears: they are preparing for their fantasies”, he writes. “The collapse of civilisation means a return to modes of masculinity our culture no longer has much use for, to a world in which a man . . . can build a toilet from scratch — or protect his wife and children from intruders using a crossbow.”
This might seem ridiculous, and O’Connell has plenty of fun treating it as such. But it merely begs the question of what sensible measures should be taken to prepare instead, especially when politicians find it so hard to focus on risks that are low-probability and complex, or those, such as climate change, whose full effects will not be felt for decades.
Servigne and Stevens glimpse hope in the “transition town” movement, a low-carbon community effort to build local self-sufficiency in advance of future disaster. They would almost certainly find much to admire in Extinction Rebellion, whose calls for radical travel limits and sharply reduced consumption look remarkably like the results of the current coronavirus lockdown.
More alarmingly, the duo flirt with the ideas of “collapsniks”: thinkers who want deliberately to engineer economic collapse now in a perverse attempt to forestall even worse environmental catastrophes later. The dangers of this approach should be clear enough from the genuine crisis spreading around the world over recent weeks, not least in terms of the extreme political backlash it would create. As Letwin argues: “Liberal democracies are fragile, demagoguery is latent, and there is every reason not to test whether the liberal democratic system would prove robust in the face of calamity on this scale.”
Letwin himself is more practical, suggesting greater international co-operation, in particular a new UN convention on global network protection. His other big idea is more old-fashioned, specifically that governments should invest in basic back-up networks from ham radios to old-fashioned 2G telecom networks that could kick in during a temporary period of crisis — “‘make-do-and-mend’ systems that will just about get us by when the all-singing, all-dancing first-best technology fails”.
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Ord’s ideas are mostly practical too, involving new international efforts to handle existential risks, as well as policies to slow down and manage the development of risky technologies, not least AI. Much of this boils down to money. The global body overseeing prohibition of bioweapons has an annual budget of just over $1m. He notes: “Humanity spends more on ice cream every year than on ensuring that the technologies we develop do not destroy us.”
Changing this requires far more investment for expert-led global bodies such as the World Health Organisation, which in any case should emerge in the coming years with many more resources, as well as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Amid the horrendous human cost, one welcome result of the pandemic should be that some of the feverish scenarios imagined by survivalists should be a little easier for the rest of us to imagine too. Just as important, though, is the realisation that actions from lone individuals are hopeless replacements for preparation that is well-resourced, collective and global.
Existential destruction would, by definition, be unprecedented. Yet our world is still littered with the ruins of once-thriving civilisations that did at some point come to an end, mostly for reasons that modern societies are in a position to prevent. Our own chances of survival may well prove to be much greater than one in six. But the odds of serious disaster are also far higher than most of us would like to think.
The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, by Toby Ord, Bloomsbury, RRP£25, 480 pages
Apocalypse How? Technology and the Threat of Disaster, by Oliver Letwin, Atlantic, RRP£14.99, 256 pages
Notes from an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back, by Mark O’Connell, Granta, RRP£14.99, 258 pages
How Everything Can Collapse, by Pablo Servigne and Raphaël Stevens (translated by Andrew Brown), Polity, RRP£14.99, 250 pages
James Crabtree is associate professor in practice at Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, and author of ‘The Billionaire Raj’
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