In 2003, the co-founder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER), Lord Martin Rees, declared it his opinion that humanity’s chances of making it through the 21st century were 50:50. At the time this was considered a remarkably pessimistic claim. Now, 20 years in, it seems increasingly optimistic. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, who have been assessing humanity’s level of existential risk for the past 75 years via their Doomsday Clock have declared that we are now closer to our doom than ever before; in their terms we now have 100 seconds until midnight. They are calling for an emergency response.
As the Bulletin notes, the existential risk landscape of the 2020s is unique not only in the size of hazards facing humanity, from nuclear tensions to runaway climate change, but also their range. Yet they also stress that it is not only the presence of these threats that is the source of this risk, but the erosion, and in some cases outright destruction, of the international governance frameworks that have been painstakingly built up to assess and address them. We are making ourselves vulnerable to the threats we are creating for ourselves. Drawing attention to future catastrophes is now not only bleak it is extremely complex.
To be a scholar of existential risk in the 2020s is not to be a ‘Prophet of Doom’ as President Donald Trump suggests: It now means to be a scientist working on one of the most wide-ranging and fascinating emerging fields of study. Both thinking about the future and thinking about risk have long presented scientists and artists with the opportunity to develop truly remarkable tools and concepts, from superforecasting to chaos theory. The fact that these two fields of study have now converged opens up even more potential for innovation..
In the coming year, decade and (we hope) century, the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk will be developing this sorely needed field of study, addressing the complexity of our existential predicaments head-on and working with the widest possible range of people to rebuild, and strengthen the international governance frameworks needed to manage and redress them. Lord Rees may have predicted the significant risks that humanity would face in the 21st century. He did what any good scientist would do, and set up CSER to do whatever he could to prove himself wrong.