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Existential risk and democratic peace

15 November 07 09:57 GMT
By Benny Peiser
Liverpool John Moores University, UK

Has climate change become a stark catastrophist vision of global doom? Here, a social anthropologist argues that it is something to be managed, not scared of.

"In recent years, humankind has become aware of a number of global and existential risks that potentially threaten our survival.

These natural and man-made risks comprise cosmic disasters, volcanic super-eruptions and climatic disruption on the one hand, and nuclear warfare, technological catastrophes and fully-fledged bioterrorism on the other.

In order to secure the future of civilisation, we are challenged to recognise and ward off these low-probability, but potentially destructive hazards.

A new debate is gaining momentum about how best to achieve a secure future for our planetary civilisation.

The rise of neo-catastrophism

The perception that disorder rather than harmony held sway in the solar system gradually began to emerge during the 20th Century.

The traditional concept of an essentially benign universe was replaced by that of an unpredictable cosmos punctuated by global catastrophes.

The emergence of scientific neo-catastrophism surfaced as a corollary of the space age.

Images of impact craters sent back by space missions in the 1960s and 1970s exposed the pock-marked, impact-covered surface of many planets.

At the same time, the identification of hyper-velocity impact craters on the Earth and empirical evidence of half a dozen mass extinction events generated a new view of our planet as a fundamentally hazardous and catastrophic place in space.

More recently, predictions of large-scale disasters and societal upheaval as a result of catastrophic climate change, as well as growing apprehension about impending bioterrorism and nuclear warfare, have become almost routine issues of international concern.

There can be little doubt that we are living in an age of apocalyptic angst and alarm.

The existential risk paradox

At the core of today's collective anxieties lies what I call the existential risk paradox.

As advances in science, medical research, genetics and technology are accelerating, human vulnerability to global hazards such as cosmic impacts, natural disasters, famine and pandemics has significantly decreased.

Simultaneously, the proliferation of democratic liberalism and free market economies around the world has dramatically curtailed the death toll associated with natural disasters and diseases.

A recent study confirms that the annual percentage of people killed by natural disasters has decreased tenfold in the last 40 years, in spite of the fact that the average annual number of recorded disasters increased fivefold. Evidently, open and technological societies are becoming increasingly resilient to the effects of natural disasters.

Yet the very same technologies that are serving us to analyse, predict and prevent potential disasters have reached such a level of sophistication and potency that their misuse can transform vital survival tools into destructive forces, thus becoming existential risks in their own right.

The nuclear device that may protect us from a devastating asteroid impact can also be employed for belligerent purposes.

Genetic engineering that offers the prospect of infinite food supplies for the world's growing population can be turned into weapons of bioterrorism.

And without the global utilisation of fossil fuels we would lack all trappings of modern civilisation and social progress. Yet, fossil fuels are regarded as dangerous resources that are widely blamed for economic tensions, wars and catastrophic climate change.

Existential risk perception

There seems to be some correlation between media exposure and existential risk perception.

The more people see, hear or read about the risks of Near Earth Object (NEO) impacts, nuclear terrorism or global climate catastrophes, the more concerned they have become. The mere mention of catastrophic risks, regardless of its low probability, is enough to make the danger more urgent, thus increasing public estimates of danger.

Scientists who evaluate risks are often torn between employing level-headed risk communication and the temptation to overstate potential danger.

The inclination to amplify a possible risk is only too understandable. Personal biases, as well as grants and funding pressures, are considerable motivating factors to hype a probable hazard; ;n many cases, funding is allocated on the basis of intense lobbying.

This, in turn, can tempt researchers to aggressively promote their specific "danger warning" via the mass media.

Behind many alarms lurk vested interests of research institutions, campaign groups, political parties, charities, businesses or the news media, all of whom vie for attention, influence and funding in a relentless war of words.

Professional risk analysts disapprove of such scare tactics, and point out that the detrimental affects of apocalyptic-sounding alarms and the rise of collective anxieties are much costlier than generally presumed.

Whether individuals regard existential risks as a serious and pressing threat, or a remote and long-term risk, often depends on their psychological traits. Nobody has appreciated this conundrum perhaps better than Sir Winston Churchill who famously said: "An optimist sees an opportunity in every calamity; a pessimist sees a calamity in every opportunity."

Doomsday argument

In recent years, leading scientists in the UK, such as Brandon Carter, Stephen Hawking and Sir Martin Rees, have advanced the so-called Doomsday Argument, a cosmological theory in which global catastrophes due to low-probability mega-disasters play a considerable role.

This speculative theory maintains that scientific risk assessments have systematically underestimated existential hazards. Hence the probability is growing that humankind will be wiped out in the near future.

Nevertheless, there are many good and compelling reasons why human extinction is not predetermined or unavoidable.

According to a more optimistic view of the future, all existential risks can be tackled, eliminated or significantly reduced through the application of human ingenuity, hyper-technologies and global democratisation.

From this confident perspective of emergent risk reduction, the resilience of civilisation is no longer restricted by the constraints of human biology.

Instead, it is progressively shielded against natural and man-made disasters by hyper-complex devices and information-crunching technologies that potentially comprise boundless technological solutions to existential risks.

Current advances in developing an effective planetary defence system, for example, will eventually lead to a protective shield that can safeguard life on the Earth from disastrous NEO impacts.

The societal response to the cosmic impact hazard is a prime example of how technology can ultimately eliminate an existential risk from the list of contemporary concerns.

A technology-based response to climate change impacts is equally feasible, and equally capable of solving the problem.

Global democracy as a solution

But while most natural extinction risks can be entirely eliminated by technological fixes, no such clean-cut solutions are available for the inherent potential threats posed by super-technologies.

After all, the principal threat to our long-term survival is the destabilising and destructive violence committed by extremist groups and authoritarian regimes. Here, the solution can only be political and cultural.

Fortunately, there is compelling evidence that the global ascent of democratic liberalism is directly correlated with a steep reduction of armed conflicts.

A recent UN report found that the total number of wars and civil conflicts has declined by 40% since the end of the Cold War, while the average number of deaths per conflict has dropped dramatically, from 37,000 in 1950 to 600 in 2002.

According to the field of democratic peace research, the growing number of democracies is the foremost reason for the pacification of many international conflicts. Democracies have never gone to war against each other, as democratic states adopt compromise solutions to both internal and external problems.

As Rudolph J Rummel, one of the world's most eminent peace researchers, has stated: "In democracy we have a cure for war and a way of minimising political violence, genocide, and mass murder."

On balance, therefore, I believe that the prophets of doom, including those predicting climate doom, are wrong.

Admittedly, there is no guarantee that we can avoid major mayhem and disruption during our risky transition to become a hyper-technological, type 1 civilisation.

Even so, societal evolution has now reached a level of complexity that renders the probability of human survival much higher than at any hitherto stage of history.


Dr Benny Peiser is a social anthropologist at Liverpool John Moores University, UK

He is the editor of CCNet and a scientific advisor to the Lifeboat Foundation

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