CSER researchers and collaborators sign statement on the goals and values of our community

11 March 2024

Catastrophic and Existential Risk Studies

Essential Principles for Long-Term Survival

We live in a new era of global risk, including an array of modern threats engineered by human beings. Some are truly existential for humanity, and our collective impact on the planet has already brought about the demise of many other species. Covid-19 – far from the worst possible pandemic –nevertheless showed that catastrophic events have cascading effects that can make us less able to contend with all the other challenges we face, from deepening social inequality to political polarisation.

It is therefore all the more important that those of us who share a determination to reduce these risks are thoughtful and discriminating in how we evaluate future dangers. An unnecessary or misguided response to something that does not actually threaten humanity, but might just worry those most invested in the status quo, can also reduce our ability to act when and how we need to most. For instance, eminent academics once helped to mobilise social movements based on the mistaken view that hundreds of millions were doomed to die in global famines. Others insisted that humanity as a whole risked “degeneration.” The resulting campaigns did tremendous harm to those deemed incompetent to make their own reproductive choices, while making many rightfully suspicious of all claims to scientific expertise and humanitarian intent.

Many drivers of risk are deeply rooted in our social, cultural and political practices and the dominant narratives we tell ourselves. Radical change, applied patiently and inclusively, may be required to meet the challenges we collectively face. It is likely that there will be conflicting and diverse approaches to achieve necessary transformation, requiring of us a high level of epistemic humility.

Those who would lead efforts to combat real threats must therefore maintain high standards of openness and accountability in process, evidence, and reasoning, above all when we speak under the imprimatur of science and academic scholarship. This is the only way we can win a place for existential and catastrophic risk studies as vital fields of research and policy engagement, deserving of broad public support. Taking a long-term perspective – not just toward the future, but the long history of experts’ mixed success in predicting even near-term threats – shows that we must acknowledge and truly learn from earlier mistakes if anyone is to believe we can foresee future dangers.

We cannot do better than we have to date without including everyone affected by global risks, which is to say everyone. We make better decisions when we draw from an array of different perspectives and seek out contrasting views. While scientific methods and peer review are essential for identifying and measuring a novel threat, everyone must have a say in how society responds, taking into account all other dangers – some of which are clear and present. Those who have already paid a price for misguided efforts of the past, or are most likely to be harmed by new threats like runaway climate change and autonomous weapons systems, have special expertise and the most at stake in devising an effective response.

An insistence that we address longer-term threats, some of which may come sooner than we think, must not mean neglecting immediate and obvious social problems – far from it. For all too many who once lived lives of dignity, recent crises and catastrophes have already ended their world. Combating injustice here and now, and working to ensure every living being can thrive going forward, makes all of us more resilient. More than that, it is what makes humanity worth defending.

Names in Support

Matthew Connelly

Haydn Belfield

Paul Ingram

S J Beard

Sean O hEigeartaigh

Martin Rees

Shahar Avin

Thomas Homer-Dixon

Sawyer Bernath

Paul Edwards

Luke Kemp

Elizabeth Cooper

Freya Jephcott

Jess Bland

Lalitha Sundaram

Rob Doubleday

Beatrice Crona

Susan Owens

Jaan Tallinn

Madhulika Srikumar

Toby Ord

Thomas Moynihan

Ankit Panda

Christian Ruhl

Huw Price

Zak Kallenborn

Yuval Noah Harari

In order of the date the person signed the letter. Individuals are not signing on behalf of their organisation.

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