We are denying catastrophic risks
A few weeks ago, the movie "Don't Look up" came on Netflix. Personally, I found it inappropriate and very exaggerated. It could also be that this was the goal of the film. Many of my thoughts revolve around the evolution of our culture, society and how it will evolve in the future. Those of us fortunate enough to live in the developed world worry excessively about the small dangers of daily life: unlikely plane crashes, carcinogens in food, and so on. However, we are less truly safe on this planet than we think. We should be much more concerned about scenarios that fortunately have not yet occurred, but which, if they did, could wreak such widespread havoc that just one would be too many.
Much has been written about the potential ecological shocks caused by the collective impact of a growing and more demanding world population on the biosphere, as well as the social, health, and political tensions caused by resource scarcity or climate change. There is no question that these are also problems with which we should be intensely concerned. Even more worrisome, however, are the downsides of powerful new technologies such as cyber, bio, and nanotechnology. We are entering an era in which a few individuals could, through error or terror, bring about a societal collapse with such ferocity that placating state measures would be overwhelmed. If, at that point, the state as such has not already imploded.
Some may dismiss these concerns as hysterical rantings: after all, human societies have survived for millennia despite storms, earthquakes, and plagues. Just last year, we witnessed for ourselves how heat waves, hurricanes, and floods (+covid) have challenged us. These man-made threats, however, are different: because they are new, we have only a limited period of exposure to them and cannot trust that we will survive them for long, nor can we trust that governments will be able to cope with a disaster. And, of course, we have no reason to believe that we will be able to withstand the worst that even more powerful future technologies can wreak.
The age of the "Anthropocene," in which man, not nature, is the primary global threat, began with the widespread use of thermonuclear weapons. Several times during the Cold War, the superpowers could have stumbled into nuclear Armageddon because of mistakes or miscalculations. Those who witnessed the Cuban Missile Crisis would have been paralyzed with fear if they had known how close the world was to disaster at that time. I think we came within a hair's breadth of nuclear war without realizing it. Similar flashpoints are emerging all over the world right now (Ukraine, Africa, Turkey, Europe, America, etc.).
Nuclear deterrence was widely believed to have worked well at the time. In some ways, it did. But that is not to say that it was a wise policy. You are more likely to survive if you play Russian roulette with one or two bullets in the barrel, but the stakes would have to be astonishingly high or the value you place on your life unreasonably low for this to seem like a smart play.
Throughout the Cold War, however, we were forced to take such a risk. It would be interesting to know what risk other heads of state thought was possible and what odds most European citizens would have accepted had they been asked for informed consent. For my part, even if the alternative had been a safe Soviet invasion of Western Europe, I would not have chosen to take the risk of a catastrophe that would have had a one-in-three or even one-in-six chance of killing hundreds of millions of people and destroying the fabric of all our cities. Of course, the devastation caused by a thermonuclear war would have spread far beyond the countries immediately threatened.
Fortunately, the threat of global annihilation with tens of thousands of H-bombs no longer exists - although today there is more reason to worry that smaller nuclear arsenals could be used in a regional context or even by terrorists. If they are not bombs, they could be armed drones flying through cities. Produced in some industrial area or manipulating and controlling opinions on political issue. Oh there was something, it's already happening. Given the geopolitical upheavals of the last century - two world wars, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union, etc. - we cannot, however, rule out a drastic global realignment that could lead to a standoff between new superpowers later this century. As a result, a new generation may be faced with its own "Cuba"-which may be handled less well or happily than the Cuban missile crisis.
We will always have to worry about thermonuclear weapons. Environmental stresses caused by climate change, on the other hand, will be a new source of societal breakdown. Many people still believe that our civilization can transition to a low-carbon future without trauma and disaster. My pessimistic prediction is that global annual CO2 emissions will not be reduced in the next twenty years and we will need more and more energy to fuel our growth. But by then we will know that what we have done has really had an effect (My last article is recommended there).
If these feedbacks are significant and the world is on a rapid warming path due to the failure of international efforts to reduce emissions, there could be a push for "panic measures". These would have to include a "Plan B" - to be fatalistic about continued dependence on fossil fuels while combating their effects through some form of geoengineering.
This would be a political nightmare: Not all countries would want to adjust the thermostat in the same way, and the science would still be inadequate to predict what would happen. Worse, techniques like injecting dust into the stratosphere or "seeding" the oceans could become affordable enough for plutocratic individuals to fund and implement. This is a recipe for potentially catastrophic unintended consequences, especially if some want a warmer Arctic while others want to avoid further land warming at lower latitudes.
Nuclear weapons are the greatest drawback of twentieth-century science. However, there are new concerns arising from the impact of the rapidly evolving technologies of the twenty-first century. Our interconnected world depends on complex networks, such as power grids, air traffic control, international finance, and just-in-time delivery. If these are not highly resilient, their obvious benefits can be negated by catastrophic (albeit rare) system failures.
Moreover, social and economic collapse would spread globally via computer networks and "digital wildfire" - literally at the speed of light. Both terror and error pose a threat. Concerns about cyberattacks, whether by criminals or hostile nations, are rapidly increasing. Synthetic biology (CRISPR CAS9...) also holds enormous potential for medicine and agriculture - but it could also facilitate bioterrorism. If you just look at which countries have the most ambitions in the field of bioweapons it is scary to see that billions are invested there.
It is difficult to secretly build a huge new bomb, but millions of people will have the ability and the means to abuse these decentralized "dual use" technologies. Imagine a future where children can design and make new organisms as easily as we did as a child with a chemistry set. If this were to happen, our ecology (and even our species) would certainly not survive for long. Should we be worried about another science fiction scenario in which an Artificial Intelligence develops its own mind and threatens us all?
In a media landscape saturated with sensational science stories, "end of the world" Hollywood productions, and warnings of the Mayan apocalypse, it may be difficult to convince the public that there are indeed things that could occur as unexpectedly as the 2008 financial crisis and the coming crisis and have far greater consequences. I fear that by 2050, desperate efforts to contain or manage a range of low-probability but catastrophic risks will dominate the political agenda.
Ask yourself how prepared you are for such a situation. Do you have the people you love around you? Can you live independently?