An existential catastrophe would obliterate or severely limit the existence of all future humanity.
An existential catastrophe is one which extinguishes Earth-originating intelligent life or permanently destroys a substantial part of its potential. As such it must be considered a harm of unfathomable magnitude, far beyond tragedy affecting those alive at the time. Because such risks jeopardize the entire future of humankind and conscious life, even relatively small probabilities, especially when seen statistically over a long period of time, may become significant in the extreme. It would follow that if such risks are non-trivial, the importance of existential catastrophes dramatically eclipse most of the social and political issues that commonly ignite our passions and tend to get our blood boiling today. How is insensible to the Palestine and Israel war? Who is unaware of the rift between EU, NATO and Russia? What is the real issue behind airplanes lost MH17 and MH370?
Ignoring global risks makes sense in some situations. If there is good evidence that the risks are just too remote to worry about, for example. Or if the costs of prevention were just too absurd. But too often denial is based on ideological blinders (God will provide, the free market will provide, nature will provide), fatalism – “what will be will be”, apathy or narrow-minded ignorance of the history of life on our planet. With such an attitude and trend the Earth for sure will encounter repeated mass extinctions. We cannot extrapolate from our very narrow time frame perspective and conclude that future risks are negligible.
One would think that if we are mobilized to fight for issues that affect a relatively small number of people, we would have an even stronger moral and social emotional motivation to prevent potential catastrophes that could kill or incapacitate the entire human population. The challenge of existential risks to rationality is that, the catastrophes being so huge, people snap into a different mode of thinking.
There are psychological barrier of perceived powerlessness. Avoidance of difficult issues may be an understandable psychological defense mechanism. But the results can be maladaptive and catastrophic. There are also significant ideological barriers to overcome. For some, a belief in an afterlife of any sort may provide false reassurance. Millennialism — the belief that the world as we know it will be destroyed and replaced with a perfect world — takes various forms, from Christian movements based on the Book of Revelations to Al Qaeda beliefs rooted in Islamic thought involving Jihad. From certain theological perspectives global catastrophes are brought about by divine agency as just punishment for our sins. A believer of apocalyptic visions might judge such an event as, on balance, good.
On the whole, our evolved minds do not appear naturally predisposed to think long-term about risks on a global scale. From what we know about evolutionary history and mechanisms, this is completely understandable. The fact that sustained global planning and action might not come naturally does not, by itself, make ignoring global risks the right thing to do. Perhaps ironically (since after all survival is biologically adaptive) it will take more than our evolved behavioral inclinations to confront potential catastrophic risks and make informed decisions. Obviously we need objective factual information and analyses. But to do the job, to overcome maladaptive cognitive biases and blinders, we’ll need much more. We’ll need a motivating deep-felt sense of connection, value and responsibility toward other conscious beings and the future of life.
The prevention of existential catastrophe may not be receiving enough attention and should be one of human civilizations highest priorities.
We’re all human, aren’t we? Every human life is worth the same and worth saving.
In this miasma of forgotten wars, torture and the war on terror, there are no easy answers, especially in the face of a very real terrorism. But I can live my questions. As a humanitarian, I can act from a feeling of shared vulnerability with the victims of preventable suffering. I have a responsibility to bear witness publicly to the plight of those I seek to assist and to insist on independent humanitarian action and respect for international humanitarian law. As a citizen, I can assume my responsibility for the public world – the world of politics – not as a spectator, but as a participant who engages and shapes it. The larger force that can push back against the wrong use of power can be the force of a citizen’s politics that openly debates the right use of power and the reasoned pursuit of justice. Once a close friend, described justice as a boundary over which we must not go, a bond of common humanity between us, a balance among people of equal worth and dignity. I fight not for a utopian ideal but each day I make a choice, against nihilism and towards justice.