11 Recent Publications on Existential Risk (June 2020 update)

02 July 2020

Each month, The Existential Risk Research Assessment (TERRA) uses a unique machine-learning model to predict those publications most relevant to existential risk or global catastrophic risk. All previous updates can be found here. The following are a selection of those papers identified this month.

Please note that we provide these citations and abstracts as a service to aid other researchers in paper discovery and that inclusion does not represent any kind of endorsement of this research by the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk or our researchers.

1. Kaczmarek P., Beard S. (2020) Human Extinction and Our Obligations to the Past, in Utilitas 32, 199-208. 

On certain plausible views, if humanity were to unanimously decide to cause its own extinction, this would not be wrong, since there is no one whom this act would wrong. We argue this is incorrect. Causing human extinction would still wrong someone; namely, our forebears who sacrificed life, limb and livelihood for the good of posterity, and whose sacrifices would be made less morally worthwhile by this heinous act.

2. Mordechai L., White S., Izdebski A., Eisenberg M., Haldon J. (2020) Lessons from the past, policies for the future: resilience and sustainability in past crises, in Environment Systems and Decisions.  

This article surveys some examples of the ways past societies have responded to environmental stressors such as famine, war, and pandemic. We show that people in the past did think about system recovery, but only on a sectoral scale. They did perceive challenges and respond appropriately, but within cultural constraints and resource limitations. Risk mitigation was generally limited in scope, localized, and again determined by cultural logic that may not necessarily have been aware of more than symptoms, rather than actual causes. We also show that risk-managing and risk-mitigating arrangements often favored the vested interests of elites rather than the population more widely, an issue policy makers today still face.

3. Nkuiya B. (2020) Tradeoffs between costly capacity investment and risk of regime shift, in Economic Modelling91, 117-127. 

There is mounting evidence that increasing natural resource exploitation (e.g., fossil fuel extraction and consumption) could trigger irreversible dramatic ecological events like global warming. While capacity investment costs and the possibility to produce at full capacity are two factors that critically affect the exploitation rate, little is known about their effect on management. I generalize standard models of pollution control under the threat of dramatic regime shifts to investigate how optimal management changes with both factors. My analysis reveals that accounting for such factors gives rise to investment and emissions policies that challenge conventional wisdom. For instance, I find that under reasonable conditions, an exogenous threat of a doomsday event induces a cautious management strategy. Using parameters estimated from climatic data, my analysis shows that raising the discount rate can induce lower emissions, highlighting the complex interplay between the threat and both factors.

4. Cheong K.H., Jones M.C. (2020) Introducing the 21st Century's New Four Horsemen of the Coronapocalypse, in BioEssays. 

As the world struggles through the COVID-19 pandemic, we should also be asking what systems-level measures will be needed to prevent this or even worse disasters from happening in the future. We argue that the pandemic is merely one of potentially myriad and pleiomorphic future global disasters generated by the same underlying dynamical system. We explain that there are four broad but easily identifiable systemic, pathologically networked conditions that are hurtling civilization toward potential self-destruction. As long as these conditions are not resolved, we should consider catastrophe as an inevitable emergent endpoint from the dynamics. All four conditions can be reversed with collective action to begin creating an enduring and thriving post- COVID-19 world. This will require maximal application of the precautionary principle.

5. Slaughter R.A. (2020) Farewell Alternative Futures?, in Futures. 

The notion of 'alternative futures' played a significant role in the early development of futures studies and applied foresight (FSAF) and remains in wide use, But the optimism it signified, the sense of unqualified agency, no longer rings true. The paper explores the grounds of this shift and considers some implications. It concentrates on four of many possible factors, each of which may help to account for this underlying shift: global system change and the Anthropocene; denialism and the unreality industry; the role of repressed aspects of history and qualitative changes within futures studies and applied foresight (FSAF). Two broad types of human and cultural response are evident. First, those that broadly accept the evidence and support constructive actions and second, those that seek to deny the evidence and inhibit or undermine such actions. Despite such concerns, however, the paper ends on a note of qualified optimism. While alternative macro-futures at the global level may have lost credibility and salience, human agency has not been nullified since multiple alternatives clearly exist at nearly every other level.

6. Manheim D. (2020) The Fragile World Hypothesis: Complexity, Fragility, and Systemic Existential Risk, in Futures 122. 

The possibility of social and technological collapse has been the focus of science fiction tropes for decades, but more recent focus has been on specific sources of existential and global catastrophic risk. Because these scenarios are simple to understand and envision, they receive more attention than risks due to complex interplay of failures, or risks that cannot be clearly specified. In this paper, we discuss the possibility that complexity of a certain type leads to fragility which can function as a source of catastrophic or even existential risk. The paper first reviews a hypothesis by Bostrom about inevitable technological risks, named the vulnerable world hypothesis. This paper next hypothesizes that fragility may not only be a possible risk, but could be inevitable, and would therefore be a subclass or example of Bostrom's vulnerable worlds. After introducing the titular fragile world hypothesis, the paper details the conditions under which it would be correct, and presents arguments for why the conditions may in fact may apply. Finally, the assumptions and potential mitigations of the new hypothesis are contrasted with those Bostrom suggests.

7. Shen S., Zhong P., Wei S.J., Zhang X., Wang H., Wang J.D., Fan J.L. (2020) Scientific and technological power and international cooperation in the field of natural hazards: a bibliometric analysis, in Natural Hazards 102, 807-827. 

Research on natural hazards has become a focus due to the serious threat to human life and property. Based on the Science Citation Index Expanded and the Social Sciences Citation Index in the Web of Science spanning 2000–2017, we analyze the characteristics, cooperating countries and research trends of existing articles in the field of natural hazards using a bibliometric method. And the findings provide meaningful data and references for the allocation of science and technology inputs in the fields of natural hazards research. The results show the following: The USA has made the largest contribution to the natural hazards literature and has been in the leading position during the period of research; three of the ten most influential institutions are American institutions, and six out of ten of the most-cited articles are American articles; furthermore, the USA is the country that has the highest degree of cooperation with other countries; Chinese publications rank in second place, and China is the country with the highest average annual growth rate (22.63%), and the Chinese Academy of Sciences is one of the most productive research institutions (2098) but with a low international influence. We also analyze the changes in the research on natural hazards in two time periods as well as the similarities and differences between disaster occurrences and research hotspots. We found that “earthquakes,” “landslides,” and “climate change” are frequently used keywords in natural disaster science. The frequency of the keywords “climate change,” “vulnerability,” and “adaptability” has significantly increased. In addition, the frequency of the keywords used in various countries is significantly affected by the geographical location and there is a discrepancy between the research hotspots and the actual disaster occurrences. It is recommended that countries need to adjust their research directions in natural hazards research, strengthen international cooperation and exchange, and promote the establishment and improvement of a global disaster prevention and reduction system.

8. Robertson L.J. (2020) The technological ‘exposure’ of populations; characterisation and future reduction, in Futures 121. 

The nature and level of individuals' exposure to technological systems has been explored previously and is briefly restated here. This paper demonstrates how the concept of technological exposure can be extended to generic needs of individuals, and further to the needs of populations of individuals and even as far as “existential threats” to humanity. Technological categories that incur high levels of population exposure are explored, and categories are described. A theoretical basis for reducing population exposure is developed from the basic concepts of technological exposure. Technological developments that potentially enable less centralised societies having lower levels of population exposure, are considered for practicality and effectiveness as are the factors that could allow and cause transition to a less technologically centralised model. Some conclusions regarding practicality, triggers, and issues arising from a decentralised society are considered and include the key conclusion that a higher level of decentralisation and exposure reduction is both desirable and possible.

9. Rulli T. (2020) On value dependence and meliorative projects: Inquiry Symposium: Samuel Scheffler’s Why Worry About Future Generations, in Inquiry. 

In his innovative and thought-provoking Why Worry About Future Generations? Samuel Scheffler argues that the value of many of our present-day projects depends upon the existence of future generations, and this gives us one major reason to care about their fate. I raise questions about this ‘Value Dependence Thesis’ by comparing an imminent human extinction scenario to the case of imminent individual death. If an imminently dying individual can still find much value in their remaining life, then why should it be any different for humanity facing imminent extinction? Scheffler anticipates this kind of argument; I respond to his objection to this analogy. I also raise a concern about the value of meliorative projects as providing reason in favor of continued human existence. While meliorative projects have instrumental value contingent on the existence of future generations, this value does not count in favor of their existing. Despite raising these concerns, I agree with Scheffler that many of our actual activities presuppose the survival of humanity and that we are antecedently interested in and committed to their survival. Moreover, Scheffler’s novel approach offers us a creative, sophisticated, and rich resource for developing the ethics of future generations.

10. Salotti J.M. (2020) Minimum Number of Settlers for Survival on Another Planet.

We address the difficult problem of determining the minimum number of settlers and resources for survival on another planet. A mathematical model is proposed and its parameters are discussed. It is based on an estimation of the average annual time needed for a settler to produce all objects. The main parameters are the number of technologies that have to be mastered, the number of settlers and the sharing factor, which depends on the number of shared objects among the settlers.

11. Hammer D.E. (2020) The lived experience of a psychologist activist, in Psychotherapy and Politics International. 

This essay reflects upon the role of activism for psychologists in these times and future decades. The author's lived experience as a transgenerational Holocaust survivor, prisoner of conscience, and clinical psychologist serve as the springboard to explore how psychologists can help to address the current threats to human survival. The article highlights the interface between the healing of individual and collective trauma. The transparency demonstrated in the exploration of the author's lived experience aims to encourage a parallel openness and vulnerability in attending to the collective trauma sustained in the twentieth century, the age of genocide. The article concludes with a proposal for a conspiracy of hope, in which psychologists can play a unique role as advocates for human survival.

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