We need to talk about existential risk

I am the Lib Dem PPC for Dartford in the upcoming general election, and, like candidates up and down the country, my campaign is being dominated by local issues. This is right and proper, a good MP can make their constituents’ lives better in so many ways, and for most voters, the key issues are always going to be the things that affect them directly.

However, in my day job, I am also a researcher at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, an academic institute that studies, and tries to prevent, human extinction level threats. As academic institutes go, we are naturally very keen to produce work that is relevant to policy makers and to communicate what we do as widely as possible, and not just to other academics. However, standing for election makes me acutely aware of just how narrow the circle of people who we communicate with actually is.

Threats to the survival of humanity are real and present, and should any of them come to pass the loss would be incalculably great. We face challenges from dangers that are well known, such as climate change and nuclear war, and others that can appear more speculative, such as global pandemics and Artificial Intelligence. Most importantly, there are things that we can do right now to substantially reduce these risks, if only we could motivate politicians and others to take them into account when making policy.

Many of these are obvious. We need to implement ambitious targets for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. We need to work with international organisations to solve global problems. We need to achieve global nuclear disarmament as quickly as possible.

We also need to protect ourselves from pandemics and achieve global health security by investing in the healthcare systems of countries that are most likely to be the source of new killer pathogens and least able to cope with any new outbreak. And we should be working to improve humanity’s ability to respond to all manner of global challenges by ending child malnutrition and malaria, which together do so much to hold back the creative potential of our species.

The truth is that none of these policies is that costly, especially when compared to the cost of leaving these kinds of threat unchecked, and many are beneficial in other ways as well. A mere 2-3% of developed countries GDP* – equivalent to the amounts that people were willing to risk through leaving the EU – could secure humanity’s survival for many generations, and help us to reach a point of technological development where these things no longer threaten us.

We don’t do enough to implement such policies, in part, because spending such sums on long-term protection from intangible threats can seem like an electoral liability when there are so many immediate concerns that dominate our lives and when our sights seldom go beyond the next election cycle. It’s hard to win an election by making pessimistic predictions about the future. However, governments will not take these risks seriously until they feel that they can respond to them without risking electoral failure as a result. We need to raise our sights and work together to ensure a safer, fairer world for our descendants.

So, while my campaign this time will feature all the potholes and library closures that one would expect from any honest Lib Dem, I am determined to begin talking about these issues as well – we have to!

* Naturally this figure is a rough estimate. It includes: 1% of GDP to mitigate extreme climate change, as recommended by the Stern review, 0.7% GDP to tackle global poverty, channelled towards the most effective methods of improving public health and alleviating extreme poverty as recommended by effective altruists such as GiveWell, 0.3% GDP to prepare for, and prevent, natural disasters, including global catastrophes and additional funds to support international organisations that coordinate action on global challenges, such as the IPCC, IAEA, WHO and UNFPA, and further research into the identification and mitigation of existential risks and global catastrophes.

For more about existential risks, and how to avoid them, see the 2016 Global Catastrophic Risk report .

* Simon Beard is Academic Programmes Manager at the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk and a two time PPC for Dartford. He lives in Cambridgeshire.

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  • Lorenzo Cherin 10th May '17 - 1:22pm

    Can I say that while the heading made me think it was about Brexit and another overeaction about something unnecessary and daft, but not terrifying and hideous as some fear , I am not relieved at all because it is about such wretched things!

    I echo George herein, well done Simon, particuarly in focussing on such necessarily depressingly important matters.

  • Sue Sutherland 10th May '17 - 2:23pm

    Thank you Simon especially for putting forward policies that will help. I must confess I thought the existential risk was going to be to our party!

  • “We need to implement ambitious targets …”

    I agree with the article except about targets.

    UK governments have used targets this way since Thatcher; it became the preferred way for her and later politicians to ensure (as they imagined) that outcome ‘X’ was achieved by by-passing resistance from the civil service or the education ‘blob’ etc.

    It an appealingly simple solution but it doesn’t work.

    In the former Soviet Union tomatoes rarely reached the shops so the government passed a law saying they must be in the shops – a legislated target. Tomatoes still didn’t reach the shops.

    That’s because the economy is a complex system which, if it’s not delivering some desired output, won’t magically start working just because politicians demand (by law or otherwise) that it does. If it does start delivering it’s almost certainly at the expense of a disproportionate cost elsewhere.

    The right answer is to plot a strategy towards the desired result accepting that there are awkward constraints and that it may take years to reach the goal. In other words, to increase the capacity of the complex system to deliver. My experience is that’s it’s surprisingly easy to do that once that intellectual framework is adopted.

  • Simon Beard 10th May '17 - 9:06pm

    Thanks for the comments everyone, and sorry for anyone who found my title rather alarming. People who work on Existential Risk get so used to our own terminology that we sometimes forget how odd it can sound to outsider.

    Gordon – dammit you are spot on! We shouldn’t talk like that. What we need is action informed by the best evidence and a clear strategy. Targits are so substitute, I could not agree more.

    As for being in favour with the electorate – well I’m working on it.

  • What an interesting post Simon, and your work sounds fascinating.

    I used to do some work in emergency planning, and we mainly considered the more tangible threats, but did give thought to things like pandemic flu, and the impact on how to provide basic services and our utilities if a large chunk of the population was unable to turn up for work.

    My feeling is that there should be more consideration given to these threats, and it should come from our defence budget. Sadly, long-term planning, whether it’s health, education or intangible threats, are often casualties of the short-term nature of electioneering. I hope we can find a way to create targets that are both meaningful, and capable of being useful to politicians.

    The inevitable problem with good contingency planning is that if you do it well, most people will never notice. A large chunk of those that do notice will think you just wasted a load of money on scare stories. How many people talk now about how the Y2K bug turned out to be nothing?

  • An excellent book on targets and related matters is Prof John Seddon’s ‘Systems Thinking in the Public Sector’. He has a newer book out, ‘The Whitehall Effect’, that looks to cover similar ground but I haven’t read it yet.

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