Biotechnology

Will Humanity Survive the 21st Century?

Second dispatch from the Oxford Global Catastrophic Risks conference

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Oxford, England—"The good news is that no existential catastrophe has happened," declared Nick Bostrom. "Not one. Yet." Bostrom, director of Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute opened what he thinks might be the first ever conference to comprehensively consider the gamut of Global Catastrophic Risks. By existential catastrophes Bostrom means that humanity has survived extinction so far. However, he quickly pointed out 99.9 percent of all species are extinct. Bostrom cited the Toba super-eruption 73,000 years ago which may have produced a global winter that reduced the population of human ancestors to fewer than 500 fertile women (though some disagree). Our Neanderthal relatives died out between 33,000 and 24,000 years ago. In Our Final Hour, Lord Martin Rees predicted that there was only a 50 percent chance that our civilization would survive to 2100.

Bostrom justified the broad topic of global catastrophic risks by pointing to common causal links, e.g., super-volcanoes, asteroid strikes, and nuclear wars all have the potential to produce disastrous global cooling. Catastrophic scenarios also present common methodological, analytical, and cultural challenges. And, argues Bostrom, a wider view of potential catastrophes is necessary for the adoption of proper policies and informed prioritization. To assist in this effort, the conference is launching the eponymous volume, Global Catastrophic Risks.

Bostrom did note that people today are safer from small to medium threats than ever before. As evidence he cites increased life expectancy from 18 years in the Bronze Age to 64 years today (the World Health Organizations thinks it's 66 years). And he urged the audience not to let future existential risks occlude our view of current disasters, such as 15 million people dying of infectious diseases every year, 3 million from HIV/AIDS, 18 million from cardiovascular diseases, and 8 million per year from cancer. Bostrom did note that, "All of the biggest risks, the existential risks are seen to be anthropogenic, that is, they originate from human beings." The biggest risks include nuclear war, biotech plagues, and nanotechnology arms races. The good news is that the biggest existential risks are probably decades away, which means we have time to analyze them and develop countermeasures.

A small, and rather dapper audience gathered in the Rhodes Trust Lecture theatre at the Said Business School in Oxford to listen to Bostrom and keynote speaker, Sir Crispin Tickell, expound on the end of the world. Tickell, it turns out, is mostly an old-fashioned Green catastrophist. The main problems he sees are overpopulation and dwindling resources, with climate change thrown in for good measure. As far as I could tell, Tickell thinks that everything started going downhill with the invention of farming, and forget about the horror of the Industrial Revolution! Doom lurks in six big issues for Tickell: overpopulation, land degradation, freshwater shortages, climate change, fossil fuel energy generation, and biodevastation of species. He later mentioned a seventh factor, the curse of dangerous new technologies.

I won't deal here with all of Tickell's challenges, but it is interesting that he did admit that fertility rates are falling around the world. In addition, he claimed that since we are "close to running out of freshwater," that water wars could dominate the 21st century. Thus Tickell propagated the stale water wars meme that most empirical evidence has shown to be false. Transboundary water cooperation rather than conflict is the norm. "The simple explanation is that water is simply too important to fight over," Aaron Wolf, the Oregon State University professor who heads up the Program in Water Conflict Management, told Reuters.

While a massive reduction in biodiversity would be a tragedy, at least some researchers don't believe that biodiversity losses pose an existential threat to humanity. For example, Martin Jenkins from the United Nations Environment Program argues that even if the dire projections of extinction rates being made by conservation advocates are correct, they "will not, in themselves, threaten the survival of humans as a species." He adds, "In truth, ecologists and conservationists have struggled to demonstrate the increased material benefits to humans of 'intact' wild systems over largely anthropogenic ones [like farms]…. Where increased benefits of natural systems have been shown, they are usually marginal and local."

Tickell indulged in the conceit of looking back 100 years to see how the world got to its happy state in 2100. By then, he foresees a more globalized world linked by instantaneous communications networks, where human numbers in cities will be reduced, not least because human population will have fallen to 2.5 billion. Communities will be more dispersed, agriculture will be more local, energy and transport will be decentralized. Quite idyllic. Except for the communications networks, Tickell's world in 2100 sounds a lot like 1950 when world population was 2.5 billion and Sir Crispin was a green youth of twenty. Nostalgia?

During the question period, Tickell owned up to being something of a neo-Malthusian and was eagerly looking forward to reading Paul and Anne Ehrlich's new book, The Dominant Animal. Tickell reported that he had heard that Ehrlich writes in this new book that he got his timing wrong on when the "population bomb" would finally explode. Later over a glass of wine, I pointed out to Tickell that this is exactly what Ehrlich told me when I interviewed for him for an article in Forbes magazine back 1990. I'm sure that he was sincere when he said that he was sorry, but he had suddenly remembered that he had an urgent appointment elsewhere. About Ehrlich's new book, Crispin admitted, "I thought to myself, 'Ho, ho, the Neo-Malthusians rise again.'" Alas, they always do.

Tomorrow, the Oxford conference on Global Catastrophic Risks will have more edifying (and frightening?) presentations on proposals for recovering from social collapses occasioned by catastrophes; how to rationally consider the end of the world; how to avoid Millennialist cognitive biases; how to insure against catastrophes; how ecological diversity could affect human prospects; and the tragedy of the uncommons.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

Disclosure: The Future of Humanity Institute is covering my travel expenses for the conference; no restrictions or conditions were placed on my reporting.

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42 responses to “Will Humanity Survive the 21st Century?

  1. I wonder if they are ever going to get to the most serious question: Who is at more risk, humans of polar bears?

  2. We shall be defeated by sand fleas.

    I have spoken!

  3. However, he quickly pointed out 99.9 percent of all species are extinct.

    Wow, those humans must be stopped! Wait, evolution will make more species. Never mind.

    Seriously, Ron, from your article it sounds like you are trapped at a strange combination of Trekkie and Anime convention, but you did not describe the crazy costumes much.

  4. Seriously, Ron, from your article it sounds like you are trapped at a strange combination of Trekkie and Anime convention, but you did not describe the crazy costumes much.

    Me, I call ’em “Sci-fi Writer’s Block” conventions.

  5. Humanity must survive. Otherwise, Ron would have no cool conferences to go to. Re the “rather dapper crowd”: does that simply mean “better dressed than Ron Bailey?”*

    *Ha, ha.

  6. AV,

    It is difficult to dress better than Ron Bailey at any event that he attends.

  7. Perhaps it is time that we begin construction of a deep-space probe to carry the life memories of a single average human so that some future space faring captain can find the probe and learn of our long-extinct culture.

    Oh, and also, pack a flute. Because, you know, it’s important that future civilizations have a flute.

  8. It’s important to keep in mind that any catastrophic risk myth is a statist’s dream come true. He can do anything claiming to combat it, and when we don’t all die, claim success.

  9. It’s important to keep in mind that any catastrophic risk myth is a statist’s dream come true.

    See also: USSR, Drugs, Terror.

  10. It’s important to keep in mind that any catastrophic risk myth is a statist’s dream come true.

    See also: G.W. Bush, Homeland Security

    BTW, Do you know why Bush calls his program against liberty, Homeland Security?

    Because his first two choices, Fatherland and Motherland were taken.

  11. The common thread among all the visions of future catastrophes is that they will occur if people are left to free to make their own choices in their own lives. All these catastrophic visions depend on the assumption that all but a small majority of humans are mindless, greedy idiots who must be actively controlled by their intellectual and moral betters of they will destroy themselves.

    Catastrophe mongering is ultimately about power and control. People flock to these ideas because it feeds their need to feel part of a superior elite. It gives the unproductive the excuse to dominate and control the productive.

  12. Man with flute seeks lemmings.
    No experience required.

  13. Paul and Anne Ehrlich! Jesus, does anyone still give these two any credibility. How many times do you get to predict disasters that never happen before everyone stops lisening to you.

  14. “In Our Final Hour, Lord Martin Rees predicted that there was only a 50 percent chance that our civilization would survive to 2100.”

    This is an assessment, not a prediction. That’s like saying “I predict Obama might win”.

  15. We are all interested in the future, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives. And remember my friend, future events such as these will affect you in the future. … All of us on this earth know that there is a time to live, and that there is a time to die. … With your ancient, juvenile minds you have developed explosives too fast for your minds to conceive what you are doing. You are on the verge of destroying the entire universe!

  16. I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy – but that could change.

    We are ready for any unforeseen event that may or may not occur.

    We don’t want to go back to tomorrow, we want to go forward.

    The future will be better tomorrow.

  17. Nothing like a bunch of “expertss” sitting around trying to predict the black swan event that will wipe the human race off the face of the Earth. If I could be around to collect on it, I would wager everything I own to earn a penny that if a black swan event occurs wiping humans off the face of the Earth, such an event will not be described by a single one of these “experts” at this conference.

  18. All these catastrophic visions depend on the assumption that all but a small majority of humans are mindless, greedy idiots who must be actively controlled by their intellectual and moral betters of they will destroy themselves.

    Yeah, but the best scenarios only assume that there will be *one* mindless, greedy idiot whose power to affect the world greatly amplified by powerful technologies.

    You telling me you haven’t met *one* of those? Like the guy who gets drunk and sets the local Universal Constructor to make Grey Goo, ’cause it would be funny? Shit, we have people today that get drunk and then light their friends’ pants on fire, ’cause it would be funny.

  19. If it is actually true that past catastrophies have cut back the human population without making the human race extinct altogether, then such events are possible again.

    There is one difference between then and now, in that in the past, we did not have these huge urban centers such as Los Angeles, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, etc. with 10-20 million people packed into a small area. Even the big cities were much smaller.

    The web that holds these places together is fragile and delicate. If something were to happen which caused a number of them to be broken at once, it could be very messy.

    Imagine L.A. with broken water mains and no food trucks coming in.

  20. Imagine L.A. with broken water mains and no food trucks coming in.

    That’s a terrible–but wonderful–dream.

    Flat cities in deserts ain’t got no reason to exist.

  21. There is one difference between then and now, in that in the past, we did not have these huge urban centers such as Los Angeles, Sao Paulo, Mexico City, etc. with 10-20 million people packed into a small area. Even the big cities were much smaller.

    The web that holds these places together is fragile and delicate. If something were to happen which caused a number of them to be broken at once, it could be very messy.

    True enough, but “lots of people will die” and “the human race will become extinct” are not the same thing. If a long-ago comet strike or supervolcano reduced the human population from (say) 50,000 to 1,000 before we rebounded, then one happening today would kill off 6.6+ billion of us before we bottomed out at 1,000 or so, assuming it was a simple matter of a sudden, catastrophic reduction in the Earth’s carrying capacity. Enormously more dead people, to be sure, but not lower odds of the human species pulling through it.

    And actually, given that humans are spread much more widely than they were back then, the odds are probably better.

  22. David Emami —

    Well, it could be a one-two punch scenario. There are many things that could be an existential threat *but for* the technological and manufacturing capabilities of a functioning modern society (medium sized asteroid, nasty airborne virus).

    So, a nasty but not complete hit could destroy society’s ability to respond, and then one of those other scenarios could finish it off.

    Of course, there are other hilariously ironic disaster scenarios require a functioning technological society to exist in order to occur. So, there’s that.

  23. Yeah, but the best scenarios only assume that there will be *one* mindless, greedy idiot whose power to affect the world greatly amplified by powerful technologies.

    You telling me you haven’t met *one* of those? Like the guy who gets drunk and sets the local Universal Constructor to make Grey Goo, ’cause it would be funny? Shit, we have people today that get drunk and then light their friends’ pants on fire, ’cause it would be funny.

    For something like that to cause any significant damage civilization one has to assume that society would not have significantly advanced except getting universal constructors. I imagine if something like that happens in 2050 the local emergency services will just come and spray anti-nanite nanites on the growing puddle or something.

  24. For something like that to cause any significant damage civilization one has to assume that society would not have significantly advanced except getting universal constructors. I imagine if something like that happens in 2050 the local emergency services will just come and spray anti-nanite nanites on the growing puddle or something.

    And just hope they aren’t self-evolving “I laugh in your very tiny faces” anti-anti-nanites.

    Of course, I thing Grey Goo scenarios are silly because they run up against resource availability limits so quickly. If it were a reasonable scenario, it would have already happened; just replace nanites with bacteria.

    Of course, problems that techs cause and problems that they solve are rarely far apart. I still shudder to think about what twenty-odd synthetic nanite species being released into the wild to compete would do, but grey goo is unlikely, and we’d be likely at that point to have at least partially effective countermeasures.

  25. Freedom Geek – “I imagine if something like that happens in 2050 the local emergency services will just come and spray anti-nanite nanites on the growing puddle or something.”

    Lots of stories out there about firemen who set fires in order to play hero.

    And then there will be the nanitemen who will be bored and start playing around with the antinanites in the back room of the nanitehouse.

    Who will watch over the watchmen is an old question.

  26. The comments above about the sizes of city populations and of the whole human population also hint at another reason we’d be so darned difficult to wipe out. 6 billion people leaves room for a lot of crazy or semi-crazy variants of life style and such.

    I don’t know any of them, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there are tens of thousands of over the top serious survivalist types out there with supply caches calculated to last years or even decades. And we’re spread across the whole planet in surprisingly large numbers in every sort of ecological and physical niche. It would take one hell of a wham or one hell of an adaptable nanite to get us all.

  27. I don’t know any of them, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there are tens of thousands of over the top serious survivalist types out there with supply caches calculated to last years or even decades.

    Yeah, but they can’t get laid.

    So, species fail.

  28. Do the Ehrlichs have a book about how to make a career out of making crap up, or did they just let Al Gore have a franchise?

  29. What tripe and nonsense they’re putting out that this conference!

    “…99% of all species are extinct.” And just how does this precious bit of knowledge come to us? Divine revelation, perhaps? The Goracle?

    “15 million people dying of infectious diseases every year, 3 million from HIV/AIDS, 18 million from cardiovascular diseases, and 8 million per year from cancer.” Please note note that poverty produces the lion’s share of the infectitious disease deaths, 3 million AIDS deaths are likely greatly exaggerated for purposes of getting funds from the West – just a few years ago the one-millionth death was counted in the US – and the vast majority of the cardio- and cancer deaths are in people over the announced life expectancy of 64.

    How do we know how many species exist now or at any time? At what rate are they “dying off”? How do we know that?

    Paul and Anne Ehrlich haven’t gotten anything right at any time in anything they’ve published. Just more nonsensical hysteria from long-discredited racists, “oooh, look at all the dark people! Quick, kill them; ban DDT! Support socialist governments over there in those dreadful places!!” Quackery, foolishness and bigotry masquerading as “social science”, propped up with pseudo-math as the infamous “Hockey Stick” of Mann & Company was used for Global Warming.

    What is the answer to this question: why is the solution to impending doom and catastrophe always more laws, more rules, less freedom, more misery, less wealth – for most of us at least – and fewer people?? People who hate people, regularly denounce as vile and evil their own productive and free societies ought to be stripped of their citizenship and deported to live in one of the societies they evidently would consider to be Utopia; for instance, say, North Korea. Club of Rome meets Al “I invented the Internet” Gore crossed with Rachel “My cancer was caused by DDT” Carlson. Bah!

  30. I may have missed mention of the obvious answer to surviving catastrophies: the free market.

  31. All these catastrophic visions depend on the assumption that all but a small majority of humans are mindless, greedy idiots who must be actively controlled by their intellectual and moral betters of they will destroy themselves.

    Catastrophe mongering is ultimately about power and control. People flock to these ideas because it feeds their need to feel part of a superior elite. It gives the unproductive the excuse to dominate and control the productive.

    Shannon Love has it exactly half right. The people who are so “productive” are also about control. Think about it. America has a twentieth of the population and uses half the electricity, mostly in order to be productive. Do you really think China, India and the exComs are going to be any more enlightened? As long as freedom equals things and not ideas the humans are in for it.

  32. Facing the sea…

    A delicate and
    soft wind is
    blowing near an
    empty space,
    while the curtain
    covers a silky
    notepaper describing
    a picture and the
    love for the youth;
    I call you my
    darkness, I wait
    for a dream……

    Francesco Sinibaldi

  33. I’m not sure I agree that water won’t present a major problem in the near future. Here in the Southwest riparian rights are a serious issue. Los Angeles exists because it draws water from distant states. In Texas, folx along the upper Colorado River (no not the BIG Colorado River to the west) start siphoning off water (esp farmers) so by the time it reaches south Texas there’s little left and you run into desert. Same with the Rio Grande.

    The demand for water is increasing across the U.S., especially on the east and west coasts. Clean water is a continuing issue. Building over aquifers is problematic. Desalination is going nowhere fast. We’re currently seeing food riots in developing countries. Perhaps water riots will be next.

  34. Do the Ehrlichs have a book about how to make a career out of making crap up, or did they just let Al Gore have a franchise?

    Hey, no way dude, they’re not even in the same class. Ehrlich may have been an earlier doomsayer, but he wasn’t able to make $100M+ on the basis of his scaremongering.

    No, the Goracle stands alone at the top of Mount Doom, dancing in a huge pile of money.

  35. America has a twentieth of the population and uses produces half the electricity

    Fixed that for ya.

    Do you really think China, India and the exComs are going to be any more enlightened?

    Apparently “enlightened” is now a synonym for sitting in the dark because you don’t use electricity.

    As long as freedom equals things and not ideas the humans are in for it.

    You mean, as long as people want to have enough to eat and not be cold and have nice things? That’s forever. And harnessing that desire via capitalism has done more good for more people than could have been imagined a century or two ago.

  36. Desalination is going nowhere fast.

    That’s because there’s no demand for it. It’s still cheaper to pump it out of the ground. When that stops being the case, countries start massive desalinization plants. Most of it, amusingly, is in Saudi Arabia.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Desalination

  37. So, lemmie get this straight. The global disaster crowd is talking about crap that may never happen, but their legions of Romance Language Majors and City Managers (sorry, redundant) are the best people to run things and need to be in charge before something bad happens?

    How is this different from Communism?

    How is this different from the enviro-fundies* and Global Climate Change promoting Communism as the solution?

    I fail to see a difference, or even a distinction.

    *I can not claim credit for the phrase. Pretty sure someone else wrote it online before me, but I do not remember who.

  38. While a massive reduction in biodiversity would be a tragedy, at least some researchers don’t believe that biodiversity losses pose an existential threat to humanity.

    Great news! Finally we found a reason not to save biodiversity. Hurray!

  39. NewStreetFashion
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  40. What is really behind any other risks:

    If one understands the ecological principles of food web tropic levels, then one should understand that a consequence of our ever increasing population, relative to the essential biodiversity of higher life form conducive natural ecosystems, is that we’re causing the extinction of an alarming number of other life forms daily just to support our own biomass. We’re systematically shifting the biomass of the many life forms we’re not smart enough to care about, into the biomass of a lesser number of life forms we use to maintain our own biomass (e.g. cows, chickens, corn, beans, tomatoes, …). That is, we’re systematically diminishing the biodiversity of the natural biological communities, and in so doing are destabilizing nature’s infrastructure that is keeping us alive.

    The key factors of healthy ecosystems (in the sense of being conducive to human existence) are sustainable long term productivity through extensive biodiversity to exploit all the ecological niches (in time, space, and kind), and relative stability through the overall balance of ecological processes in minimizing ecosystem state shifts. This more complete utilization of limiting resources at higher diversity increases resource retention through more thorough and efficient recycling increasing productivity, and the balance of inherently more intricate ecological processes promote stabilization.

    For a better understanding of how we are jeopardizing the shorter term state of human existence on Earth, see the article Natural World Consciousness at achinook.com

    Will objective understanding or subjective beliefs prevail?

    Lee C

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