In recent years, the study of existential risks has explored a range of natural and man-made catastrophes, from supervolcano eruption to nuclear war, and from global pandemics to potential risks from misaligned AI. These risks share the prospect of causing outright human extinction were they to occur. In this approach, such identified existential risks are frequently characterised by relatively singular origin events and concrete pathways of harm which directly jeopardise the survival of humanity, or undercut its potential for long-term technological progress. While this approach aptly identifies the most cataclysmic fates which may befall humanity, we argue that catastrophic ‘existential outcomes’ may likely arise from a broader range of sources and societal vulnerabilities, and through the complex interactions of disparate social, cultural, and natural processes—many of which, taken in isolation, might not be seen to merit attention as a global catastrophic, let alone existential, risk.
This article argues that an emphasis on mitigating the hazards (discrete causes) of existential risks is an unnecessarily narrow framing of the challenge facing humanity, one which risks prematurely curtailing the spectrum of policy responses considered. Instead, it argues existential risks constitute but a subset in a broader set of challenges which could directly or indirectly contribute to existential consequences for humanity. To illustrate, we introduce and examine a set of existential risks that often fall outside the scope of, or remain understudied within, the field. By focusing on vulnerability and exposure rather than existential hazards, we develop a new taxonomy which captures factors contributing to these existential risks. Latent structural vulnerabilities in our technological systems and in our societal arrangements may increase our susceptibility to existential hazards. Finally, different types of exposure of our society or its natural base determine if or how a given hazard can interface with pre-existing vulnerabilities, to trigger emergent existential risks.
We argue that far from being peripheral footnotes to their more direct and immediately terminal counterparts, these “Boring Apocalypses” may well prove to be the more endemic and problematic, dragging down and undercutting short-term successes in mitigating more spectacular risks. If the cardinal concern is humanity’s continued survival and prosperity, then focussing academic and public advocacy efforts on reducing direct existential hazards may have the paradoxical potential of exacerbating humanity’s indirect susceptibility to such outcomes. Adopting law and policy perspectives allow us to foreground societal dimensions that complement and reinforce the discourse on existential risks.
This paper was published in a Special Issue of Futures edited by Dr Adrian Currie, which collected many papers which were originally presented at our first 2016 Cambridge Conference on Catastrophic Risk in 2016.