As I approach my next birthday, which will officially make me a senior citizen, I am reminded of a comment by a famous author shortly before his death as he approached the age of 90.
At the time, I was on the cusp of my 40th birthday and feeling rather anxious about the milestone when the author said, “after I turned 40, the passage of time was like a blur,’ or something to that effect. If my experience is any guide, although I am still far from 90, he was spot on.
This notion of the passage of time has relevance to our present plight. There’s no need to recount the challenges on many apparent fronts: health, the economy and politics, to name just three. But all three are very temporal. Within a year or two, Covid-19 will probably be history, the economy will recover and the present political storms occupying the news will be replaced by yet other ones.
Still, the present pandemic has changed the behaviour of the vast majority of the world’s people like nothing else ever has. And although it appears that Covid-19 will eventually die out, it brings pause for thought about the type of events that can create an existential crisis, if not a catastrophe for humankind.
A recently published book describes the threats to our very existence on Earth, putting our recent troubles into perspective. In The Precipice, philosopher Toby Ord recounts the many existential risks facing humans, both natural and man-made. Among the natural ones, he reminds us that great natural extinctions have occurred in our planet’s distant past, the mass extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago after an asteroid struck the Earth being the most recent.
Of course, this occurred long before our species, Homo Sapiens, appeared over 200,000 years ago. And it even long predates the rise of our homo genus a couple million years ago. However, the growing popularity of the expression, “the sixth extinction,” a period that we supposedly now occupy, reminds us that several other extinctions took place before the dinosaurs were wiped out.
Ord tallies up a long list of potential natural extinction threats and gives each numerical odds. For example, he rates the chances of a supernova, the explosion of a neighboring star that comes to envelop the Earth in deadly radiation, at one in 2.5 million in the next 100 years, in other words, too unlikely to worry about.
On the other hand, the odds of a volcanic eruption which fills the atmosphere with smoke, dust and ash and causes massive crop failure and starvation are one in 800 in the next century, according to Ord.
Volcanic eruptions producing devastation on a global scale have even occurred since the advent of our written history, which suggests they are remarkably frequent relative to other natural disasters. Should we experience such a volcanic eruption, the hazards of our current pandemic would be laughably mild in comparison.
As for human-caused existential catastrophes, or what Ord refers to as anthropogenic risks, climate change and environmental destruction are each given a risk rating of one in a thousand over the next century, as is nuclear war.
However, Ord envisions our greatest risks as coming from new technologies. He gives ArtificiaI Intelligence a staggering 10 per cent chance of creating an existential catastrophe within the next century. Unlike the popularised notion of robots taking over, smart computers need only manipulate us using a combination of words and control of the internet.
If this seems unlikely, tyrants like Hitler and Stalin were able to control the minds of millions and eventually attain absolute power over their people. Even today, leaders such as Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro have large followings despite espousing extraordinary untruths, which reveals the vulnerability of the human mind towards authority and confirmation bias.
Overall, adding all the risks to humanity together, Ord gives the chances of an existential catastrophe occurring in the next century at one in six.
And yet, among all the risks we face as a species, we appear alarmingly nonchalant about the big-picture events. Among the risks here that have probably received the greatest attention in recent years is climate change. However, few people have made any real sacrifices to lower their carbon footprint.
It is because our lives are so short that we focus on the here and now. No one reading this will be alive a century from now. So we intuitively play the odds regarding our own existence with little regard for our distant descendants.
In the end, the pandemic may actually be a good thing. It triggers existential thoughts and provides a very mild dress rehearsal for the many threats to come.
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