//The 11th Existential Risk

The 11th Existential Risk

A nuclear exchange between Pakistan and India leads in some still undetermined but plausible future to the deaths of 20 million people in both countries. In its aftermath, five million tonnes of soot lifts high into the atmosphere, and shrouds the sunlight. Surface temperatures drop to minus 1.3 centigrade. Corn production in the US falls significantly as does rice production in China. And the result, according to ICAN’s Ira Helford, in her 4 March presentation at the Norwegian Government’s conference on nuclear threats, is one billion dead.1

In a parallel event on 5 March a group of journalists met with HFP to discuss the roles and responsibilities of the media to deal with longer-term threats. This conclave resulted in the proposal that if HFP would be willing to describe what might be seen as the ten most existential threats that the world faced, then they would consider writing about them. HFP accepted the challenge, but with one abiding warning, namely, that ‘crystal-ball gazing’ reflects an intellectually hazardous and uncertain undertaking. In that regard, the Cambridge University cosmologist, Professor Sir Martin Rees, noted that in 1937 the US National Academy of Sciences organised a study aimed at predicting breakthroughs. ‘Its report,’ he goes on to say, ‘makes salutary reading for technological forecasters today.

It came up with some wise assessments about agriculture, about synthetic gasoline, and synthetic rubber. But what is more remarkable is [sic] the things it missed. No nuclear energy, no antibiotics…, no jet aircraft, no rocketry nor any use of space, no computers; certainly no transistors. The committee overlooked the technologies that actually dominated the second half of the twentieth century. Still less could they predict the social and political transformations that occurred during that time.’2

The world abounds with compelling predictions – predictions indeed from very well qualified analysts. Martin Rees, for example, feels that uncontrolled science is opening up doors that should remain firmly shut. He for one has a $1000 bet that ‘by the year 2020 an instance of bioerror or bioterror will have killed a million people.’
3
According to the World Bank’s J.F. Rischard, there are clearly at least twenty global issues that have to be resolved – ranging from issues of global commons [eg, global warming] to those of global regulation [eg, biotechnology] – if the world is to survive. And yet, there is ‘no pilot in the cockpit.’ The current ways that global problems are handled just ‘aren’t up to the job.’4

Nevertheless, challenged to come up with its top ten existential risks, HFP has identified a series of potential threats and crisis drivers that in terms of sheer complexity and consequences should unnerve responsible policy planners and decision-makers. Yet, those ten are followed by an eleventh – seen by a growing number of professional bodies as the most disconcerting of all.

Ten plausible existential risks

In no particular order, ten risks are noted below, all deemed to be existential. In other words, the criteria for selection includes the possibility that each of these crisis drivers could leave in their wake deaths in their millions and debilitating destruction of livelihoods. In so saying, what needs to be mindful that ‘existential risks’ are distinct from ‘global endurable risks,’ for the former is where humankind as a whole is imperilled.5

solar super storms. In March 1989, a solar storm, or an enormous electromagnetic outburst from the sun that sent billions of tonnes of charged particles hurtling towards the earth, knocked out power grids serving more than six million customers in Canada in less than two minutes’ time. This event was relatively small. A larger event would have left untold millions without light, potable water, sewage treatment, fuel, telephone and internet services, food and medication. It would take months if not years to manufacture and install new transformers;

viruses. All too used to the positive effects of antibiotics, the potential threats of what are labelled ‘untreatable superbugs’ are increasingly recognised by a growing number of virologists. According to one analysis, ‘antibiotic resistance poses an ‘apocalyptic’ threat to human health. [The world] is facing ‘nightmare bacteria’ and are losing a ‘war’ against them.’ And, while some effective new drugs even may exist, they ‘are stuck in the final stages of development because they cannot overcome economic and regulatory hurdles;’6

artificial intelligence. It is not implausible that within the foreseeable future machines will outsmart human-beings. According to philosophy professor Huw Price of Cambridge University and Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn, ‘It seems a reasonable prediction that some time in this or the next century intelligence will escape from the constraints of biology.’ Price added that as robots and computers become smarter than humans, we could find ourselves at the mercy of ‘machines that are not malicious, but machines whose interests don’t include us;’

nanotechnology. According to Oxford University’s Professor Nick Bostrom, ‘In a mature form, molecular nanotechnology will enable the construction of bacterium-scale self-replicating mechanical robots that can feed on dirt or other organic matter. Such replicators could eat up the biosphere or destroy it by other means such as by poisoning it, burning it or blocking out sunlight.’ Someone of malicious intent in possession of this technology could cause irreparable harm to a significant portion of intelligent life on earth;7

climate change. The controversies that have arisen around the subject of ‘climate change’ have been intense, but those who have resisted acknowledging its existence appear to be fewer and fewer. Controversies seem now to centre around such critical factors as the extent to which temperature levels will rise, melt-ice, sea levels, intense weather variability and consequent impacts upon water access and agricultural production will become evident and by when. Few deny the plausibility that climate change could become an existential risk;

cybernetic failure. Cybernetic terrorism has become an increasing security focus. There is no doubt that such targeted threats could do considerable damage to those countries and institutions that are the subject of attacks. A cybernetic event possibly more unpredictable and potentially wider in its impact could result from the destruction of key satellites upon which much of the Internet and consequent services depend. These would include almost all services throughout most of the world. The cause of such cybernetic failures might be the result of a collision between particles of space debris and satellites;

nuclear weapons. When considering the wide range of options in the world of nuclear, biological and chemical threats, it is the nuclear threat in its various guises that would appear to be the most existential. This in no sense is to suggest that biological and chemical threats could not have devastating and often enduring effects upon millions, but rather that the escalatory consequences of a nuclear exchange would seem difficult to constrain, and its impacts upon the economy, governance structures, health, food security and water would possibly endure for decades;

water stress. While some official data from both India and China present an optimistic picture of future food security, the international consensus predicts a major slow-down in agricultural growth.The Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that crop yields could decrease by up to 30% in central and south Asia by the mid-21st century due to water stress. Agriculture, however, is but one sector that will feel the impact of changing water patterns. Disease will flourish as the sources of water reduce or become less predictable, and eventually water will be an increasing conflict driver;

mega-tsunamis – Scattered across the world’s oceans are a handful of rare geological time-bombs, such as the prospect of a major landslide in the Canary Islands. Once unleashed, these sorts of phenomena can create a gigantic tidal wave far bigger than any normal tsunami. Crossing at speeds of up to 500 miles per hour and in many places at heights equivalent to at least two Empire State buildings, scientists predict that over a period of 8 hours these mega-tsunamis will devastate cities in the United States such as New York as well as on the West African coastline and the coastal regions of Western Europe.

crisis dimensions and dynamics. If one looks at the patterns of humanitarian crises, it is increasingly evident that the types of crisis drivers, their dimensions and dynamics are increasing, in various ways, exponentially. It is increasingly evident that when it comes to dealing with large scale threats that could occur simultaneously, the humanitarian sector as presently configured would not be able to respond adequately to probable needs. A major Tsunami hits the heavily populated coast lines of the Far East at the same time, a drought-led famine devastates the lives and livelihoods of east and southern Africa – all at the same time that the West coast of the United States experiences a devastating earthquake….

The eleventh existential risk

While the hazards of speculation are all too obvious, there is one hazard – the eleventh hazard – that is all too plausible, namely the continued failure of those who have the responsibility to anticipate and mitigate the impact of risks to prepare adequately. Over the past nine years, HFP has been exploring the measures that international, national and non-governmental institutions undertake to anticipate future types of threats and opportunities to deal with them. All too often, the general conclusion is that anticipating potential threats and preparing for them runs up against at least four challenges:

  • cognitive availability. There is a general disinclination to explore what is not in the forefront of one’s available experience. If people have recently suffered damage from a hurricane, they might well overestimate the risk. If they can recall few or no examples of harm, they might well underestimate or ignore the risk;
  • political calculus. As one leading British politician noted in November 2012 after the launch of the UK’s study on science and humanitarian emergencies, it is difficult to convince an electorate that plausible or future humanitarian risks are of greater concern than the consequences of an immediate economic downturn;
  • measurable consequences. In bureaucratic contexts where evidence-based criteria dominates so much of the thinking and subsequent action, anticipation is all too often intentionally short-term in order to avoid the risk of being wrong, too academic and impractical;
  • inciting anxieties. Governments are generally concerned that by suggesting plausible, longer-term risks and the need to prepare, the public will panic and overreact. While a growing body of evidence suggests the contrary, the norm is to avoid creating possible anxieties.

1 Ira Helford, ‘Wider Impact: Long-term effects on health, environment and development,’ Oslo Conference, 4 March 2013

2 Rees, M., Our Final Century: Will the human race survive the 21st century?, London – W. Heinemann, 2003, p.13

3 Op cit., Rees, M., Our Final Century: Will the human race survive the 21st century?,p.74

4 Rischard, J.F., High Noon: 20 global problems, 20 years to solve them, New York – Basic Books, 2002, p.155

5 Nick Bostrom, ‘Existential Risks: Analysing human extinction scenarios and related hazards,’ Journal of Evolution and Technology, Vol.9, No.1, 2002, p.3

6 Debora MacKenzie, ‘The Bacterial Apocalypse,’ New Scientist, Vol.217, #2908, 16 March 2013, pp 6ff,

7 Op cit. #5, Nick Bostrom, p.6

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