Risk and Survival

Survival isn’t everything

The risk-based framework I’ve mentioned elsewhere might appear to leave some things out. Climate change (of a sort) happened once already, and our species did survive it. The end of the Ice Age and the arrival of the Holocene was something that Australian Indigenous peoples, for example, managed to overcome. It even afforded them opportunities to settle in previously uninhabitable areas once covered by ice.

The onset of the Holocene climatic optimum … coincides with rapid expansion, growth and establishment of regional populations across ~75% of Australia, including much of the arid zone.[1]

In a similar theme, birds are dinosaurs. Importantly, they’re not related to dinosaurs, but actual modern-day dinosaurs; the survivors of the mass-extinction event that was a terminal event for most of their kin.

That previous climate change event, and that mass extinction event, might both therefore be examples of endurable risks, using Bostrom’s terminology. The groups at risk (humans, and dinosaurs) were not entirely wiped out. However, in at least the case of dinosaurs, their time as the dominant lifeform on Earth was arguably over once we got a foothold.

Recall Bostrom’s definition of existential risk:

One where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.

Existential risk doesn’t just require the annihilation of life. It’s enough that the potential for that life is ‘drastically curtailed’ for it to be considered an existential threat. This isn’t the case for Indigenous Australians, of course, who may have even thrived thanks to the effects of the last great changes in climate. For them, the greatest existential risk would sadly come later, in the form of European Colonization. For the dinosaurs though, their future potential was drastically curtailed. Despite this, some still live on as birds (endure, in Bostrom’s terms).

The case of the birds could seem to pose a problem for a framework like the one I’ve built from Bostrom’s ideas, or at least demonstrates that rigid categorization on paper won’t always translate perfectly to the real world. This is because it doesn’t seem to allow for there to be endurable risks that are also terminal, or at least requires some further thinking when we have a risk that can be either terminal or endurable depending on perspective (endurable for the birds, but not the dinosaurs?). Bostrom’s own table, interestingly, only includes examples of terminal risks that involve annihilation, and not “drastic curtailing of potential”. It’s a trickier idea to pin down. How hard is that line between them?

RiskModelBostromR
Adapted from Bostrom’s 2002 paper[2]

We can explore this idea further using the earlier example of transhumanism, which represents another “grey area”. What happens when our species (humans) no longer exists but is replaced by something that is still in some way “human”?

To the same extent that modern birds still “carry the torch” for the dinosaurs, what if some future version of us ends up doing the same for our species? What we define as “terminal” might actually vary according to personal beliefs and preferences, and that reveals the immensely sticky link between risks and threats, and people’s closely held beliefs, values, and norms.

For example, imagine we can upload our brains to machine bodies. This could present a vast new realm of possibilities for us in terms of sustainability. Why terraform Mars when we’ve already seen how well robots can do there?!

MarsRoverCuriosity
Self-portrait of Curiosity located at the foothill of Mount Sharp (October 6, 2015).

If robots can thrive there, maybe we should be more like them?

But then, to some people, the moment we do that, we lose something important about our humanity. The era of the human is effectively over, they say. The point is deeply debatable, and has been debated many times: If we replace enough of ourselves with machines, computers, and technology – to the point we are arguably no longer human – does that mean our species no longer exists? Is it a terminal or endurable event for the human species?

Timothy Morton’s ideas are relevant here too. If we are a kind of cyborg, as he says, then this question isn’t even a theoretical. The same applies to his claim that industrial capitalism is a primitive AI ruling us – a claim that in some senses is quite hard to refute. Are these terminal or endurable events?

A related thought, perhaps another way to think about this, is speciation. This is a term from biology referring to the formation of new and distinct species in the course of evolution. Speciation has happened with humans before; other species like Neanderthals all share a common ancestor with us – one that speciated at various points. Humans themselves have driven artificial speciation in other species, from dogs to domestic livestock to produce – and we’ve been doing it for tens of thousands of years. Technology has often played a key role too, in creating new species of flora and fauna (often to our own benefit). From this perspective, the idea of further technology-driven speciation of humans themselves may be possible, especially if it benefits us – or appears to.

From Corgis to Corn: A Brief Look at the Long History of GMO Technology[3] does a great job at providing some specific examples of speciation over time, stretching back millennia: 

GMHarvard
Image from Harvard’s paper[4].

Bringing it all back to Bostrom’s framework, are outcomes where our humanity fades away a terminal event for our species? Or because something else persists, are they endurable in some way?

Transhumans are to humans what birds are to dinosaurs. They may carry the torch of the species forward, but they do leave many things behind in the process. The potential of a flesh-and-bone species to fully flourish may very well be curtailed in a future where we shed our biological limitations and transition to new forms. It might seem a distant possibility relegated to the realm of thought experiment, but it nonetheless presents moments for reflection when it comes to ideas of risk, and especially, the risk of species annihilation. This shows, hopefully, that annihilation can mean quite a few things, and not all are as bad as the word itself might imply.


Footnotes

[1] Williams, A. N., Ulm, S., Turney, C. S., Rohde, D., & White, G. (2015). Holocene Demographic Changes and the Emergence of Complex Societies in Prehistoric Australia. PLoS ONE, 10(6).

[2] Bostrom, N. (2002). Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards. Journal of Evolution and Technology, 9(1).

[3] Gabriel Rangel, figures by Anna Maurer. (2015, August 9). From Corgis to Corn: A Brief Look at the Long History of GMO Technology. Harvard University Blog. Retrieved from: http://sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2015/from-corgis-to-corn-a-brief-look-at-the-long-history-of-gmo-technology/

[4] As above.

Risk and the Hyperobject

A similar way of understanding risk

In making podcasts for this project, we had the pleasure of talking with Elizabeth Boulton, a PhD researcher studying the work of Timothy Morton, who developed the concept of a hyperobject in attempting to better account for how exactly existential risks like climate change are a ‘different beast’, as Bostrom describes.

Having set global warming in irreversible motion, we are facing the possibility of ecological catastrophe. But the environmental emergency is also a crisis for our philosophical habits of thought, confronting us with a problem that seems to defy not only our control but also our understanding. Global warming is perhaps the most dramatic example of what Timothy Morton calls “hyperobjects”—entities of such vast temporal and spatial dimensions that they defeat traditional ideas about what a thing is in the first place[1].

The idea of a hyperobject can be confusing, but echoes concepts from Bostrom. Global warming, for example, is a process that occurs over geological timescales. This is not our default mode of thinking due to our biology limiting us to far shorter lifespans. When Bostrom says ‘we have not evolved mechanisms, either biologically or culturally, for managing such risks’[2] he ultimately alludes to a very basic, truth about our biology and the kind of mindset it locks us into. An argument like Morton’s is essentially building upon this idea in greater detail, arguing that climate change is an example of something so vast in time and space that it defies the ability of biologically-evolved human minds to comprehend (See also: Building a Map, about how AI and other technological progress might help us meet sustainability challenges beyond the human mind’s ability to solve).

Natural selection did not equip us for problems like this, for the simple reason that natural selection only works with endurable threats: there must be something alive left with favourable traits to select for. Since these are terminal risks, there is no room for natural selection, and therefore, no (or exceedingly little) room for our biology to help us.

One obvious point here is that technology may help us overcome that complexity. Climate models, for example, already employ tremendously advanced AI and other technological innovations that allow us to reduce informational complexity to levels a human mind can understand and respond to[3].

Going further, this idea of technology-driven innovation can be a key argument in transhuman or posthuman interpretation of sustainability. In short: smarter, more capable humans can solve bigger, more challenging problems. Bostrom suggests we need new societal institutions, new priorities, new policies, and new norms – all to face new threats. Similarly, if human minds cannot comprehend these new threats, then perhaps we need new minds and maybe even new bodies, too?


‘A reckoning for our species’: the philosopher prophet of the Anthropocene

Published by The Guardian as part of their Long Reads in 2017. Read the full article here.

Part of what makes Morton popular are his attacks on settled ways of thinking.

His most frequently cited book, Ecology Without Nature, says we need to scrap the whole concept of “nature”. He argues that a distinctive feature of our world is the presence of ginormous things he calls “hyperobjects” – such as global warming or the internet – that we tend to think of as abstract ideas because we can’t get our heads around them, but that are nevertheless as real as hammers.

He believes all beings are interdependent, and speculates that everything in the universe has a kind of consciousness, from algae and boulders to knives and forks. He asserts that human beings are cyborgs of a kind, since we are made up of all sorts of non-human components; he likes to point out that the very stuff that supposedly makes us us – our DNA – contains a significant amount of genetic material from viruses. He says that we’re already ruled by a primitive artificial intelligence: industrial capitalism. At the same time, he believes that there are some “weird experiential chemicals” in consumerism that will help humanity prevent a full-blown ecological crisis.


Check out Ecology without Nature


Footnotes

[1] University of Minnesota Press. (2019). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Retrieved from University of Minnesota Press: https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/hyperobjects

[2] Bostrom, N. (2002). Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards. Journal of Evolution and Technology, 9(1).

[3] Cho, R. (2018, June 5). Artificial Intelligence – A Game Changer for Climate Change and the Environment. State of the Planet – Earth Institute, Columbia University.

Defining Risk

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

 –  Carl Sagan, Cosmos, Episode 1.

The wonderful Sagan quote above demonstrates a way of thinking that embraces the complexity we can find in even the simplest thing. In this case, we’re looking at an apple pie, because Sagan was a good American patriot.

He re-frames the pie as something that exists in a broader context – inside a physical universe. He then redefines “from scratch” to mean “from the very beginning of that universe”. This perspective, he suggests, shows us the real recipe for making a pie. And it’s a lot more complicated than just slapping it in the oven for 30 minutes.

In that same spirit, we must consider very carefully how we go about defining the word “risk”. Like Sagan, we must see that this word exists in a broader context, and that coming up with a good definition might take us a little longer than we first thought.

Returning once again to that high-level framework for building a triage-focused, risk-based model of sustainability, the Global Challenges Foundation (GCF) report illustrates an important feature, not fully expressed in Step 1.

  1. Identify candidate issues for consideration.
  2. Develop criteria to rank them.
  3. Apply criteria and develop a ranked list.

If you wish to build a list of risks, you must first define what you mean by “risk”.

Before we can identify candidate issues for consideration (Step 1) we first need a comprehensive definition of risk that ensures we do not forget anything important. I’ve complained at length that sustainability risk discourse focuses too much on environmentalism, which implies there must be other areas being left out of the discussion. In the GCF report, they’ve broadened the definition of risk to include a new category – infinite risks – and demonstrated the importance of areas previously under-explored. This all suggests that defining risk is itself a necessary and important part of building a risk-based model of sustainability. It sounds blindingly obvious, I know, but this pedantic stating of the fact is important!

This first of steps is a deceptively complex and important one: If we don’t define “risk” well enough, we will leave blind spots, some of which could be fatal. In other words, how well we define “risk” will determine our ability to manage it.

Getting strung out over the importance of definitions is often the work of philosophers. Usually that word invokes Ancient Greeks, or some idea of heady thoughts that make you say, “deep stuff dude”. But philosophy can be something more basic too; like thinking hard about what “risk” means – because there are a number of ways we can frame it, and more pragmatically, because if we don’t, we could all die.

Meet Nick Bostrom

There are few better to call in for this job than the philosopher Nick Bostrom, who has written at length on existential risk and is influential in this space. As an example of this, we can see a body of work on infinite risk going all the way back to 2002[1] that eventually culminates in a number of important think tanks using that same framework.

Bostrom’s approach to sustainability and risk is brilliant, and a little bit disturbing. That’s a theme with him and a reason I like his work. That darker underbelly translates into some compelling stories and visions. Sometimes his work feel less like a journal article, and more like science fiction (he has written a paper arguing that we are living inside a simulation, for example). He represents well, I think, the kind of philosophers we’ll need in the Apeilicene.

It’s no accident that his thoughts are echoed in some of the most prominent stories today, such as the film The Matrix or Netflix’s TV series Black Mirror. He very much grounded in our

He’s also quite prolific in this space. The GCF report was co-steered by him, and its ideas about infinite risk in 2015 echo earlier work on “infinite value” from a 2011 paper:

As a piece of pragmatic advice, the notion that we should ignore small probabilities is often sensible. Being creatures of limited cognitive capacities, we do well by focusing our attention on the most likely outcomes. Yet even common sense recognizes that whether a possible outcome can be ignored for the sake of simplifying our deliberations depends not only on its probability but also on the magnitude of the values at stake. The ignorable contingencies are those for which the product of likelihood and value is small. If the value in question is infinite, even improbable contingencies become significant according to common sense criteria.[2]

In other words: infinite risk completely changes with the importance of probability. It doesn’t matter much how unlikely something is, if that something can wipe us out.

Bostrom’s model of risk

Thinking about the GCF report’s formula: Risk = Probability x Impact, their formula can essentially be interpreted out of Bostrom’s passage above.

It’s worth looking in some detail at this model of risk, starting with his 2002 paper[3]. The image below outlines Bostrom’s attempt to distinguish between six ‘qualitatively different’ types of risk.

RiskModelBostrom
Image adapted from Bostrom’s 2002 paper.

The grid is relatively simple. Bostrom uses scope and intensity to differentiate different types of risk[4]. Scope is essentially the same as “scale”. Intensity describes how severe the outcome is; how survivable, or reversible. A personal risk that is endurable is something like your car getting stolen, while a personal risk that is terminal is that stolen car driving into your face at 100km. Local essentially means large-scale, but not global. A genocide in a single country is a local terminal risk.

Importantly, these are all well-known and familiar risks – things that we have dealt with before. That is not to say we are prepared for them necessarily, but that they are known risks. What’s new is the global, terminal risk. The spot marked X. A global-scale, terminal risk (sometimes called an “X-Risk”) is a special type; one Bostrom labels as “existential”. He defines them in the following way:

Existential Risks – One where an adverse outcome would either annihilate Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.[5]

As Bostrom argues: ‘risks in this sixth category are a recent phenomenon. This is part of the reason why it is useful to distinguish them from other risks. We have not evolved mechanisms, either biologically or culturally, for managing such risks’[6]. Evolving and developing these mechanisms is no easy task. Why? Because there is no place for the trial and error approach we typically use. We cannot learn from a mistake when its consequences are fatal. Nobody will be left to draw any lessons from it, nor have a world to apply that lesson to.

Our approach is therefore inherently and unavoidably speculative. We are trying to build our capacities for accurate foresight. We are trying to cultivate and encourage the imagination of strange futures. We do this so that we can better anticipate an unknowable future.

Bostrom makes this point in a broader sense too, arguing that the ‘institutions, moral norms, social attitudes or national security policies that developed from our experience with managing other sorts of risks’ may be less useful in dealing with existential risks which Bostrom describes as a ‘different type of beast’[7]. Arguably, some of the best work on existential risk comes from non-traditional institutions and think tanks – groups outside the mainstream. In a somewhat paradoxical sense, they must remain on that fringe; it’s easier to think outside the box when you already live outside of it. In another sense, I do feel that we need to begin paying closer attention to these kinds of institutions and their bodies of work, even if they may seem esoteric or alarmist at times.

Illustrating this forward-looking approach are outfits like the previously mentioned Global Challenges Foundation, as well as their collaborators the Future of Humanity Institute, which focuses on AI development and other so-called “exotic” threats like the risks of molecular nanotechnology. The similarly named Future of Life Institute is yet another think tank devoted to existential risks that focuses (again) on the dangers of unchecked AI development. There are many such groups in existence, and while well-funded and influential, in comparison to the UN’s own stature they are not yet mainstream.

These kinds of groups are newer, and sometimes explore areas well outside of the typical fare of the UN and the frameworks it develops. They exemplify what Bostrom means when he says that institutions experienced with past threats may be less useful in dealing with future ones.

In the future, I hope to look more closely at groups like these; to reflect on the threats they identify as important, to investigate what kinds of thoughts drove them to these conclusions, and to look more pragmatically at anything resembling a “triaged list” they might have developed. A meta-analysis and synthesis of their work would be a good step in building a risk-based model that can enjoy some consensus and attention.

I’ve offered glimpses of this landscape, but honestly only that – glimpses. There is a wealth of work and good ideas here that deserve greater attention from the media, from academia, from policymakers, and from the public. It might be helpful to consider their methodologies too – what frameworks and approaches they use that might be of value in the broader project of creating a triaged list of existential risks. For now, I’ve highlighted just a few notable outfits and thinkers and some of their most important ideas. 


Footnotes

[1] Bostrom, N. (2002). Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards. Journal of Evolution and Technology, 9(1).

[2] Bostrom, N. (2011). Infinite Ethics. Analysis and Metaphysics, 10, 9-59.

[3] Bostrom, N. (2002). Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards. Journal of Evolution and Technology, 9(1).

[4] A third dimension, probability is also important – especially for any kind of triage to occur. This was evident in the GCF report’s own model. Bostrom points out that probability can be “superimposed” on to the matrix he’s developed. So again, this earlier work seems to align with the later reports coming out of collaborations, like the one with GCF.

[5] You might recall an earlier critique of our definition of sustainability using the word “persist” in “persist over time”– since it doesn’t capture the idea of human “flourishing”. Here, I think, Bostrom captures that idea better! A drastic curtailing of our potential is essentially the antithesis to human flourishing, so its avoidance makes flourishing possible, even more probable. This section not only latches on to Bostrom’s idea of going beyond annihilation as a concern, but tries to address this idea of flourishing, and of maximizing human potential.

[6] Bostrom, N. (2002). Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards. Journal of Evolution and Technology, 9(1).

[7] As above.

Infinite risk

A new category of risk.

The Global Challenges Foundation (GCF) is a good example of a sustainability-focused think tank that also focuses on risk. Board members include Johan Rockström, whose pioneering work on the concept of “planetary boundaries” has been influential in sustainability. For this report, GCF worked closely alongside a similar outfit, the Future of Humanity Institute, based out of Oxford University and led by philosopher Nick Bostrom whose ideas continually reappear in these spaces.

As the report’s title suggests, they’ve focused on developing definitions of risk that include a new category; infinite risks. The term “infinite” here refers to their potential impact. As the formula below demonstrates, impact is part of how they are essentially “calculating” risk. This simple formula drives their approach, and it’s the kind of criteria-driven classification system we need for triage to occur.

Their argument is, at least partly, that impacts and probabilities are often “masked” by government and business policies, which typically under-report both parameters. Their more cold-blooded assertion is that:

RiskFormulaGCF
“A scientific approach requires us to base our decisions on the whole probability distribution.”[1]

This formula captures what is probably common sense thinking to most: A high probability event with low impact isn’t as risky as a low probability event with high impact. A 90% chance of a common cold isn’t a serious as a 1% chance of terminal cancer, right?

Yet, as the opening examinations of risk and sustainability highlighted, factors like probability rarely weigh into our everyday calculations of risk – we fear terrorists more than we do cheeseburgers, even though cheeseburgers are more likely to cause us harm.

If it seems odd for a bunch of serious thinkers, in a serious report, to be stating something so simple as the above formula, it’s because despite being both simple and true, this idea doesn’t get much traction in the real world.

Using the formula above it might occur to us that some “calculations” don’t quite boil down to numbers: the impact of some risks are essentially infinite. To illustrate this, the report starts with some history, and shows how that guides them today. It’s an interesting story, worth quoting in full:

It is only 70 years ago that Edward Teller, one of the greatest physicists of his time, with his back-of-the-envelope calculations, produced results that differed drastically from all that had gone before. His calculations showed that the explosion of a nuclear bomb – a creation of some of the brightest minds on the planet, including Teller himself – could result in a chain reaction so powerful that it would ignite the world’s atmosphere, thereby ending human life on Earth.

Robert Oppenheimer, who led the Manhattan Project to develop the nuclear bomb, halted the project to see whether Teller’s calculations were correct. The resulting document, LA-602: Ignition of the Atmosphere with Nuclear Bombs, concluded that Teller was wrong. But the sheer complexity drove the assessors to end their study by writing that “further work on the subject [is] highly desirable”. The LA-602 document can be seen as the first global challenge report addressing a category of risks where the worst possible impact in all practical senses is infinite.[2]

The idea from this opening scenario of us igniting the atmosphere is a great example of a risk where the impacts would be so far-reaching and devastating, they are effectively infinite. The end of Earth is not something we can quantify with a number[3], it is an impact with no upper limits – and therefore infinite, in the author’s minds.

This idea of infinite risk is useful to a triage model of sustainability because it is inherently focused on severity of impacts as a determinant of a risk’s importance. In this model, a broad range of threats is assessed using a new definition of risk, and then, using a criteria  (probability and impact) we determine what to prioritize. This is essentially that three-steps model of triage mentioned earlier at work, and the list of threats this model identified as important is notably different from something like the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Communications challenges.

Another notable point in the report is the way it approaches communicating sustainability and risk specifically. As mentioned elsewhere a risk-based model presents challenges to communicating sustainability, since it can often veer into negative messaging, which in turn can cause disengagement and other undesirable outcomes.

The authors clearly recognize this, and the report has a stated focus on turning challenges into opportunities:

The idea that we face a number of global challenges threatening the very basis of our civilisation at the beginning of the 21st century is well accepted in the scientific community and is studied at a number of leading universities. However, there is still no coordinated approach to address this group of challenges and turn them into opportunities.

The interrelationship between danger and opportunity is worth identifying and targeting, because it is arguably present in many sustainability challenges. The idea here echoes an old truism, famously stated by US President John F. Kennedy: ‘In the Chinese language, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity’[4].

Even though he’s not quite correct, the point here is that if it’s good enough for JFK, it’s good enough for me. A focus on positive messaging and finding opportunities from the crises ahead seems to me a better starting mindset than one focused on impending doom.

Of course, as a final note, this assumes we want to change people’s minds, or that we even have an ethical right to. This is a far stickier issue and gets its own examination at the end of this section on risk.


Footnotes

[1] Global Challenges Foundation. (2015). 12 risks that threaten human civilization – The case for a new risk category. Stockholm: Global Challenges Foundation.

[2] As above.

[3] As an aside: We see this argument echoed elsewhere, perhaps. Economic costings of environmental degradation are criticised at times under the notion that nature is “priceless”, effectively of infinite value and not reducible, once again, to numbers. This resembles arguments that some risks to the environment, such as igniting the atmosphere, are infinite and unquantifiable too.

[4] FK Library. (2019). John F. Kennedy Quotations. Retrieved from John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum: https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/life-of-john-f-kennedy/john-f-kennedy-quotations#C

Risk-based sustainability models

The model used by Drawdown represents a solid high-level framework for how to begin developing a risk-based model:


  1. Identify candidate issues for consideration.
  2. Develop criteria to rank them.
  3. Apply criteria and develop a ranked list.

Although it enjoys less mainstream attention it is important to note that much work has been done already on steps 1 and 2 above, and some groups have even attempted to create ranked lists. Below is a list of such threats, from a report created in 2015.

The list is a mixed bag featuring the familiar (nuclear war, meteors, climate change) and the lesser-known, such as AI development, synthetic biology, and nanotechnology – the bad fruits of unchecked modernization.

Notably, publishing this article in 2020, after it was written in 2018-2019, we can it was spot on to include Global Pandemic as an existential risk:

There are grounds for suspecting that such a high impact epidemic is more probable than usually assumed…The world has changed considerably, making comparisons with the past problematic. Today it has better sanitation and medical research, as well as national and supra-national institutions dedicated to combating diseases. But modern transport and dense human population allow infections to spread much more rapidly.

…and alongside it, Global System Collapse.

An economic or societal collapse on the global scale…Such intricate, interconnected systems are subject to unexpected system-wide failures caused by the structure of the network – even if each component of the network is reliable. This gives rise to systemic risk, when parts that individually may function well become vulnerable when connected as a system to a self-reinforcing joint risk that can spread from part to part, potentially affecting the entire system and possibly spilling over to related outside systems.

RiskReportGCF
From: Global Challenges Foundation[1]

[At some point I hope to update this with analysis of a comparable model seen in this more recent report, linked below.]

Surviving and thriving in the 21st century: A discussion and call to action on global catastrophic risks.

RiskReportAU
The new report’s list of doom. Similar in places, but also notably different.

Each report uses different definitions of “risk” and thus offers different perspectives on risks as a result. This is an excellent example of the importance of defining risk.


Footnotes

[1] Global Challenges Foundation. (2015). 12 risks that threaten human civilization – The case for a new risk category. Stockholm: Global Challenges Foundation.

Risk and triage in reality

Drawdown – A case study in prioritization

The Drawdown[1] project spearheaded by Paul Hawken, identified a range of potential methods to reverse climate change, and then prioritized them according to certain criteria. Specifically, they were ranked according to emissions reductions and cost. Emissions reductions is the key component of reversing climate change, and so this was considered the critical indicator of a given solution’s potential impact.

The inclusion of costs is intended to act as a proxy for feasibility in general, suggesting that projects with economic gains are arguably more feasible – although ascertaining costs in some areas was too difficult for this first version of the project. Project leader Paul Hawken also stressed that various co-benefits existed with these solutions that went far beyond economic considerations. Empowering women, delivering rooftop solar, and regenerating our natural environments are all examples of ways to achieve emissions reductions that come with other profound benefits. The image below illustrates this idea beautifully:

ComicCoBenefits
‘The cartoon seen around the world’.

This famous cartoon by artist Joel Pett went viral before the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009, helping promote the simple yet powerful idea of “co-benefits”.[2]

Drawdown demonstrates prioritization, but not triage: The focus is on prioritizing solutions by their effectiveness, rather than ranking threats by level of severity. This isn’t to say Drawdown is bad, however. This is not lazy thinking, simply different. Different approaches should be encouraged because each framework lends different strengths. A drawdown-type approach can be good for identifying lesser-known issues, for example, refrigeration management (a surprising #1 on the list, as shown below) and aligning our capacity for solutions with problems we can solve in a way that maximizes our potential positive impacts. That part is commendable.

More so than the results of Drawdown, their prioritization methodology might end up ultimately as their greatest achievement. One key point here is to examine what the Drawdown project does at this higher level, because it is an instructive example in highlighting a process resembling triage.

  1. Identify candidate issues for consideration.
  2. Develop criteria to rank them.
  3. Apply criteria and develop a ranked list.

Drawdown2017Ranks
Drawdown’s “Top 20” list of most effective ways to reverse climate change. Updated in 2020. [3]

As Turner’s previous lamentations would highlight, however, the focus with Drawdown is still problematically on just one domain – the environmental, and even more specifically, on reversing climate change (just one environmental challenge of many).

What if, instead, there was a work comparable to Drawdown that identified existential risks, developed a criteria for prioritization, and produced a ranked list like the one above? Something like the list below?

RankThreat
1Unintended consequences of AI development
2Economic inequality
3Climate change
4Global nuclear war
etc…

What if we had something like this to help guide us?

Perhaps more humbly, I should ask: What if we already do, but it just doesn’t get the attention it deserves?


Footnotes

[1] I attended a talk on this report delivered by the editor Paul Hawken, which is where some of the information here is drawn from.

[2] Pett, J. (2012, March 18). Joel Pett: The cartoon seen ’round the world’. Lexington Herald Leader.

[3] Drawdown.org. (2017). Summary of Solutions by Overall Rank. Retrieved from Drawdown.org: https://www.drawdown.org/solutions-summary-by-rank Taken from their website in 2017. Notably, much has changed in the years since writing this. The 2020 review of Drawdown appears to have changed things considerably. The extent this undermines arguments here won’t be clear until I get a chance to take a closer look.

Terror, black mirrors, and the era of threats

What do we really fear most? Death or eternal life? The answer seems obvious, but looking at modern, popular culture suggests we have new fears in this STEM-driven era. This discussion was largely inspired as as a response to a paper by Bendell[1], which suggests that sustainability’s first premise – at this point – should be one of imminent collapse.

The paper is worth quoting at length:

“Deep Adaptation: A map for navigating climate tragedy

The purpose of this conceptual paper is to provide readers with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of an inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change. The approach of the paper is to analyse recent studies on climate change and its implications for our ecosystems, economies and societies, as provided by academic journals and publications direct from research institutes.

That synthesis leads to a conclusion there will be a near-term collapse in society with serious ramifications for the lives of readers.

The paper reviews some of the reasons why collapse-denial may exist, in particular, in the professions of sustainability research and practice, therefore leading to these arguments having been absent from these fields until now.”

Jem Bendell

Terror Management Theory

The Great Explainer everyone’s sleeping on?

There’s a school of thought in sociology called Terror Management Theory (TMT) which offers interesting explanations of human behaviour. TMT argues that awareness of our own mortality induces terror in us, and we respond to that terror by managing it in different ways – hence the name! How we manage that terror has profound and far-reaching social consequences, even to the point we erect entire social institutions to mediate and manage our fears. This “management” varies, but the theme doesn’t – immortality is the goal.

This might manifest as a literal belief in immortality (religious beliefs about the afterlife, for example, and the institutions that maintain them) or as figurative expressions of it: infamy, posterity, legacy – some aspect of your memory or ‘self’ living on. This is Marilyn Monroe stuff: “The legend ever lives”. Although they don’t offer a literal afterlife, culture and cultural institutions can offer a different kind of permanence that’s real enough for people to enshrine and revere; a figurative immortality –another way we can find peace despite knowing this will all end someday.

What’s always struck me about TMT is that sustainability can promise immortality too. The notion of sustaining over time – and in one especially optimistic conception, of sustaining indefinitely – is essentially the idea of literal immortality at the species level. That thought makes my head spin, because if TMT were true then surely, we’d be embracing sustainability wholeheartedly! Instead of a religious afterlife that requires faith, or an imperfect approximation of permanence through culture and legacy, here we have the science and technology-based version of immortality for our new STEM-based era.

ModernMeme
This meme seems appropriate here. Confused? Know Your Meme

So why are we not embracing it? Why are we moving so slowly on any number of sustainability-related issues? Why are we managing our terror so sub-optimally, according to the theory?

Maybe it’s because sustainability, in the context of TMT, subverts the very concept of “management” itself. Instead of managing our terror by reaching for a faith-based afterlife or an imperfect cultural approximation, this time we can “manage” that fear by eliminating the source of it – and once we do that, there’s nothing left to “manage”. TMT becomes a ladder we would throw away after ascending to new heights. It’s a whole different conceptualization of management to suggest that we can alleviate our fears by removing the source – a kind of TMT 2.0.

It comes down to starting assumptions, ultimately. TMT as we know it assumes that annihilation is inevitable and maps out our responses accordingly. TMT 2.0 assumes that “with strange aeons even death may die”[2] and maps out a different set of responses.

I’m mentioning all this because the same thing is happening in the article I’m responding to (Bendell, 2018). The context has changed from a kind of social management towards the narrower discipline of organisational management, but the same “subversion” of what management means is being driven by starting assumptions. Essentially, this article isn’t that novel. It’s just the original TMT assumption – collapse is inevitable.

Earlier I talked about the existentialists, and they’re another group of many within the discipline of philosophy that could inform this research, too. The concept of collapse and annihilation may be depressing, but philosophy and many other fields have offered up some very good options on how to manage that – different kinds of peace we can arrive at; ones that don’t resemble the options that TMT lays out.

Culture, too, can offer more than what TMT describes. Take this beautifully simple exchange from the show Six Feet Under

“Why do we have to die?”

“To make life important.”

Maybe it’s as simple – and stupid – as that? There’s peace in that idea.

It is the final episode of the first season of HBO’s Six Feet Under, and no sequence could better sum up the series’ central theme – or its legacy. One minute, it’s funny – refreshingly cold and darkly humorous – and the next it’s deadly serious. Neither element would be as strong without the other: the humour would be too morbid without the occasional touching moment, and the touching moments would be too saccharine without the bite. Just as people have to die to make life important, people on Six Feet Under joke to make the serious moments matter. Death can be just as funny as life.[3]

NateSFU
A scene from the TV Series Six Feet Under. Image courtesy of HBO.

Protect me from what I want?

Annihilation may be depressing, but immortality can be terrifying.

Protect me from what I want, Jenny Holzer, 1982

Perhaps something else is going on too. Maybe, in this STEM-driven era of alarmingly rapid technological progress, our reluctance to embrace sustainability is driven by an even deeper fear than annihilation – in fact, the inversion of it – a fear of immortality.

If you’ve watched Black Mirror, particularly the most recent season, you might still be shuddering at the thought of having your consciousness uploaded to an inanimate object and being trapped for an eternity inside a prison designed by someone who wanted to torture you. Notably, if you know the show well, you’ll realize I could be talking about many episodes there – it’s a recurring theme that creator Charlie Booker is really trying to drive home, and I don’t think it’s an accident he wants to push this concept so hard.

It’s a genuinely heinous concept: eternal torture. Watching it unfold in the show can be deeply, existentially unsettling. Interestingly, this is pretty much the idea of “hell” in religions – the same institutions that offer heaven up as an alternative afterlife.

Returning to the earlier comparisons of TMT 1 and 2: If it’s true that modern sustainability, driven by science and technological progress, can offer us a literal heaven, then it’s also true it could bring us a literal hell! More simply, if there is a STEM heaven, then there is a STEM hell, and Black Mirror shows us many visions of what that could look like. I think Booker’s point, in at least some cases, is that complete annihilation isn’t such a terrible outcome. A mercy kill, of sorts. If someone was trapped inside a machine designed to torture them and was effectively stuck there for an eternity, you would turn it off, wouldn’t you?

Or maybe Booker’s point is a simpler one: we are losing control of technology, and the consequences are going to be dire beyond imagining.

MonkeyHug
In the Netflix series Black Mirror, someone’s consciousness is capture and effectively imprisoned in this stuffed monkey toy. The toy is only capable of a few basic phrases, including – most horrifically – the catchcry that “Monkey needs a hug”. The “literal hell” Black Mirror captures is deeply disturbing. Image courtesy of Netflix.

welcome to the Apeilicene

The closing section of Graham Turner’s[4] revisitation of the Limits to Growth is interesting because he doesn’t just conclude that collapse may be underway but lays some of the blame for that on our preoccupation with climate change. Other threats like resource constraints could end up being even more serious, he argues, even more so since we have not given them enough attention.

Unfortunately, scientific evidence of severe environmental or natural resource problems has been met with considerable resistance from powerful societal forces...Somewhat ironically…the scientific and public attention given to climate change, whilst tremendously important in its own right, may have deleteriously distracted from the issue of resource constraints, particularly that of oil supply

… A challenging lesson … is that global environmental issues are typically intertwined and should not be treated as isolated problems. Another lesson is the importance of taking pre-emptive action well ahead of problems becoming entrenched.

Regrettably, the alignment of data trends … indicates that the early stages of collapse could occur within a decade or might even be underway. This suggests, from a rational risk-based perspective, that we have squandered the past decades, and that preparing for a collapsing global system could be even more important than trying to avoid collapse.

Graham Turner, Is global collapse imminent?

Turner’s point can be applied even more broadly. Technological progress is advancing in ways we are struggling to control, and that could pose severe, even existential threats to us. AI, automation, big data, surveillance, genetic engineering, biohazards, nuclear warfare, cyber warfare – the list of potential threats we face of an existential kind are perhaps an even more worrying acceleration than rising global temperatures? Or are they also perhaps in a sense the same threat, as Morton suggests, just differently understood?

The concept of the “Anthropocene” only captures the idea of climate change and human-driven ecological impact, perhaps another term like Apeilicene – the era of threats – better captures the trajectory we are on, and how we should respond. Naturally, a focus on threats alone may deprioritize focusing on assets and opportunities, but that doesn’t mean innovation isn’t possible, or that framing our situation as a terrible and looming crisis can’t still yield positive results. Consider how much innovation past wars and crises have driven, and the advanced nature of military technology and other inventions birthed from a profound necessity. Then again, consider that a “War against Nature” is exactly the thinking that drove us to this perilous place (as the idea of a metabolic rift suggests). Our situation is so complex and bewildering, it’s not even clear how we should think about it at a fundamental level.

Surviving the Apeilicene will require thinking about sustainability in many ways all at once. It will require a combative focus, a defensive, resilience-based mentality. Yet it will also require adaptability, and the ability to recognize not just problems and weaknesses but also opportunities and strengths.

We must rethink what an existential threat can be, too. Annihilation is just one negative outcome. Eternal torture, as discussed, is an infinitely more dire existential threat. Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s paper on “existential risk prevention” provides a fantastic matrix of different types of existential threat – capturing perfectly the kinds of outcomes that Booker’s Black Mirror describes and so many more. Creating a rigorous map of outcomes according to varied types of existential threats allows us to see that yes, perhaps we’re living in the Apeilicene after all. Will Steffen’s famous ‘Great Acceleration’ graph paints a trend towards exponential changes across a range of areas. It would be interesting to consider if the threats (and types of threats) against us are multiplying at similar rates, and what the implications of a trend – if one exists – might be.

GreatAccelSteffen
Will Steffen, an ANU academic, has famously charted the “Great Acceleration” – a series of simultaneous and exponential increases in human productivity and consumption[5].

Praxis and epistemology

An era of renewed interest in the truth

Kellyanne Conway once famously stated she was giving “alternative facts” to a journalist. Although in this case, she was demonstrably lying, the statement (and other developments from the Trump Administration) have since reignited public interest in the concept of truth and verifiability – and perhaps more broadly, remembering the problem of Australia’s infinite coastline, the idea of the paradox. The phrase “alternative facts” has its own Wikipedia page[7] and “post-truth” was declared 2016’s Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries[8].  Despite the often-negative nature of these incidents, what they represent may be a positive development. Perhaps, with rationality now threatened, we will see a reassertion of its value? The media, for example, now increasingly stresses the importance of one of its core purposes – to state the truth.

KACad2
(Left) U.S. Counsellor to the President Kellyanne Conway and (Right) A New York Times ad playing on the phrase “alternative facts”.

Our era represents a renewed interest in the debates around epistemology – what is true, what can be verified. Alternative facts, fake news, and the gaslighting[9] of the public by powerful figures are all driving forces behind a rising anti-intellectualism, a distrust of experts, and a fragmentation of our shared reality. Are we in a post-Enlightenment crisis? And if so, what are the opportunities that will bring with it?


Footnotes

[1] Bendell, J. (2018). Deep Adaptation: A map for navigating climate tragedy. Carlise, UK: Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS).

[2] Lovecraft, H. (1928). The Call of Cthulu. 11(2). New York: Popular Fiction Publishing Company.

[3] Armstrong, J. K. (2015, August 21). Six Feet Under: ‘It made it okay to laugh at death’. BBC Culture.

[4] Turner, G. (2014). ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?’. Melbourne: Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne.

[5] Steffen, W., Broadgate, W., Deutsch, L., Gaffney, O., & Ludwig, C. (2015). The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. The Anthropocene Review, 2(1), 81-98.

[6] For all the facts and alternative facts, see what Wikipedia has to say, for the moment. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alternative_facts

[7] BBC News. (2016, November 16). ‘Post-truth’ declared word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries. BBC.

[9] “…[the] tactic of getting people to question their direct experience is a type of psychological manipulation scientists call “gaslighting”. A person who is gaslighting an individual or group that they have chosen to target does so by getting them to doubt their own memory, perception, and reality. Through persistent lying, misdirection, and contradiction, the gaslighter attempts to delegitimize the victim’s beliefs by confusing and destabilizing them.” From: Azarian, B. (2018, August 31). Trump Is Gaslighting America Again — Here’s How to Fight It. Psychology Today.