Will Humanity Survive the 21st Century?

Second dispatch from the Oxford Global Catastrophic Risks conference


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.