Like most people, I’m a compartmentalizer. For years I happily went about my business—going about my job, watching movies, celebrating birthdays—and rarely thinking about the end of the world.
But the older I get and the more serious and threatening the threats to people and planet become, the harder it is for me to go on for too long without panic attacks.
It didn’t help that I recently read a paper from the US National Intelligence Council that talked about “existential threats” to humanity. These included “runaway artificial intelligence, engineered pandemics, nanotechnology weapons [and] nuclear war.”
Nicholas Goldberg was the editorial page editor for 11 years and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and the Sunday Opinion column.
These threats, the report says, “could harm lives on a global scale.” They could mean the extinction of humanity in the relatively short term. And they are all dangers to us, created through us.
Once I might have dismissed that realization and set out for lunch. This time I mentally added climate change to the list of possible catastrophes and worried.
William MacAskill, a philosophy professor at Oxford University, recently put threats like these into their proper historical context, noting that for most of human history we humans have not had the ability to destroy ourselves, at least not entirely. Of course, we were often vicious and violent, and we killed each other to the best of our ability. But until the mid-20th century, we didn’t have the technological means to wipe ourselves out.
But then, thanks to the brilliance of our species — the same brilliance that cures disease, builds skyscrapers, and launches moon rockets — we developed the atomic bomb.
I was born in the early years of the nuclear age, just a decade after Hiroshima, when the idea of the impending Armageddon was still relatively new. When I was a kid, we hid under our school desks. Bob Dylan released Talkin’ World War III Blues. During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, even President Kennedy believed the odds of nuclear war were “between one in three and even.”
But these days now seem almost rustic and calming. The apocalyptic dangers have multiplied.
“A worrying array of risks are conspiring to threaten the end of mankind…” writes MacAskill in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, a reputable magazine not known for sensationalism. “Advances in weapons, biology and computers could mean the end of the species, either through deliberate abuse or through a large-scale accident.”
“There are deadly risks on the horizon that we are not prepared for,” Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said recently as he and a Democratic colleague introduced the Global Catastrophic Risk Mitigation Act to ensure the U.S. is better prepared are “events of high consequence, regardless of their low probability.”
I started reading, shocked. I hadn’t focused on the dangers of runaway artificial intelligence or been overly concerned when Elon Musk (a well-known outlier) said machines would overtake humans by 2025 and posed a “fundamental existential risk.” But it seems many other scientists, CEOs, and government officials, including Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking (before his death), were also concerned about whether we have full control over the technology we develop. The nightmare scenario seems to be that machine intelligence could surpass human intelligence and become either malicious or inadvertently destructive. It doesn’t seem imminent, and the danger of AI is often hyped or equated with sci-fi, but the danger isn’t absent either.
Of more immediate concern is climate change. It may be less dramatic, but it’s also more unstoppable because we’ve been shaking for so long. The parade of climate horrors extends well beyond hot days, power outages and lawn watering bans as emissions continue to rise. Ultimately, water scarcity and increased heat could lead to food shortages and malnutrition, mass migrations of tens of millions of people, conflict and wars due to increased competition for minerals and water, and the collapse of economies.
As for pandemics, we’ve been warned for years – and COVID-19 should have been our wake-up call. It has claimed 6.5 million lives so far and cost the global economy trillions of dollars. However, future pandemics will be more frequent, spread faster and kill more people without fundamentally changing the way we approach infectious diseases, experts say. And do you really think we’re better prepared now for a worst-case pandemic – or are we about to be plunged back into the world of anti-maskers, anti-vaccinators, and science deniers?
In addition, a biotech pandemic seems possible and potentially more deadly.
After all, the dangers of nuclear war have not gone away. The US still has about 5,425 nuclear warheads in its arsenal and Russia has 5,977 – at a moment when relations between the two are increasingly hostile. Seven other countries have nuclear weapons and others hope to acquire them.
Many sensible people have suggestions for addressing these challenges. These include increased global collaboration, better risk assessment, developing proactive mitigation strategies, and adopting multinational rules to restrict work that could lead to dangerous outcomes.
I’m all for it, but it’s going to be tough. We live in a time of renewed hostility between great powers, new territorial and imperial ambitions. Russia is angry and China is rising. The United Nations is on the defensive; the US, for its part, is politically polarized and divided.
The risks are so pervasive that, as the National Intelligence Council put it, they “challenge our ability to envision and understand their potential scale and scope.”
We are not wired – biologically as individuals or politically as a society – to respond to long-term threats. We don’t worry too much about the future or consider their needs. As individuals we feel powerless; Compartmentalization is a natural defense mechanism.
But as much as I want to enjoy myself and ignore the threats that loom, that’s an increasingly irresponsible attitude. I will continue to watch movies and celebrate birthdays, but we all need to focus on the future and making the world a safer place for our children’s children.
https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-09-12/national-intelligence-council-global-threat-climate-change Column: We can’t compartmentalize away our apocalyptic future