Human Extinction Isn't That Unlikely
“A typical person is more than five times as likely to die in an extinction event as in a car crash,” says a new report.
These are the most viable threats to globally organized civilization. They’re the stuff of nightmares and blockbusters—but unlike sea monsters or zombie viruses, they’re real, part of the calculus that political leaders consider everyday. And according to a new report from the U.K.-based Global Challenges Foundation, they’re much more likely than we might think.
In its annual report on “global catastrophic risk,” the nonprofit debuted a startling statistic: Across the span of their lives, the average American is more than five times likelier to die during a human-extinction event than in a car crash.
Partly that’s because the average person will probably not die in an automobile accident. Every year, one in 9,395 people die in a crash; that translates to about a 0.01 percent chance per year. But that chance compounds over the course of a lifetime. At life-long scales, one in 120 Americans die in an accident.
And that number probably underestimates the risk of dying in any global cataclysm. The Stern Review, whose math suggests the 9.5-percent number, only calculated the danger of species-wide extinction. The Global Challenges Foundation’s report is concerned with all events that would wipe out more than 10 percent of Earth’s human population.
“We don’t expect any of the events that we describe to happen in any 10-year period. They might—but, on balance, they probably won’t,” Sebastian Farquhar, the director of the Global Priorities Project, told me. “But there’s lots of events that we think are unlikely that we still prepare for.”
For instance, most people demand working airbags in their cars and they strap in their seat-belts whenever they go for a drive, he said. We may know that the risk of an accident on any individual car ride is low, but we still believe that it makes sense to reduce possible harm.
So what kind of human-level extinction events are these? The report holds catastrophic climate change and nuclear war far above the rest, and for good reason. On the latter front, it cites multiple occasions when the world stood on the brink of atomic annihilation. While most of these occurred during the Cold War, another took place during the 1990s, the most peaceful decade in recent memory:
In 1995, Russian systems mistook a Norwegian weather rocket for a potential nuclear attack. Russian President Boris Yeltsin retrieved launch codes and had the nuclear suitcase open in front of him. Thankfully, Russian leaders decided the incident was a false alarm.Climate change also poses its own risks. As I’ve written about before, serious veterans of climate science now suggest that global warming will spawn continent-sized superstorms by the end of the century. Farquhar said that even more conservative estimates can be alarming: UN-approved climate models estimate that the risk of six to ten degrees Celsius of warming exceeds 3 percent, even if the world tamps down carbon emissions at a fast pace. “On a more plausible emissions scenario, we’re looking at a 10-percent risk,” Farquhar said. Few climate adaption scenarios account for swings in global temperature this enormous.
Yet natural pandemics may pose the most serious risks of all. In fact, in the past two millennia, the only two events that experts can certify as global catastrophes of this scale were plagues. The Black Death of the 1340s felled more than 10 percent of the world population. Eight centuries prior, another epidemic of theYersinia pestis bacterium—the “Great Plague of Justinian” in 541 and 542—killed between 25 and 33 million people, or between 13 and 17 percent of the global population at that time.
No event approached these totals in the 20th century. The twin wars did not come close: About 1 percent of the global population perished in the Great War, about 3 percent in World War II. Only the Spanish flu epidemic of the late 1910s, which killed between 2.5 and 5 percent of the world’s people, approached the medieval plagues. Farquhar said there’s some evidence that the First World War and Spanish influenza were the same catastrophic global event—but even then, the death toll only came to about 6 percent of humanity.
The report briefly explores other possible risks: a genetically engineered pandemic, geo-engineering gone awry, an all-seeing artificial intelligence. Unlike nuclear war or global warming, though, the report clarifies that these remain mostly notional threats, even as it cautions:
[N]early all of the most threatening global catastrophic risks were unforeseeable a few decades before they became apparent. Forty years before the discovery of the nuclear bomb, few could have predicted that nuclear weapons would come to be one of the leading global catastrophic risks. Immediately after the Second World War, few could have known that catastrophic climate change, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence would come to pose such a significant threat.So what’s the societal version of an airbag and seatbelt? Farquhar conceded that many existential risks were best handled by policies catered to the specific issue, like reducing stockpiles of warheads or cutting greenhouse-gas emissions. But civilization could generally increase its resilience if it developed technology to rapidly accelerate food production. If technical society had the power to ramp-up less sunlight-dependent food sources, especially, there would be a “lower chance that a particulate winter [from a volcano or nuclear war] would have catastrophic consequences.”
He also thought many problems could be helped if democratic institutions had some kind of ombudsman or committee to represent the interests of future generations. (This strikes me as a distinctly European proposal—in the United States, the national politics of a “representative of future generations” would be thrown off by the abortion debate and unborn personhood, I think.)
The report was a joint project of the Centre for Effective Altruism in London and the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford. It can be read online.
| Brown is the New Black by Steve Phillips. Each day, the United States population increases by more than 8,000 people, and nearly 90 percent of that growth consists of people of color:|
"People of color now comprise more than 37 percent of the U.S. population, greater than triple the12 percent in 1965. The two fastest-growing groups have been Latinos and Asian Americans. In1965 there were fewer than 9 million Latinos in the United States; by 2013 that number had soared to 54 million. During that same forty-eight-year span, the Asian American population has grown from 2 million to more than 18 million people. ...
"The country's demographic revolution over the past fifty years has given birth to a New American Majority. Progressive people of color now comprise 23 percent of all the eligible voters in America, and progressive Whites account for 28 percent of all eligible voters. Together, these constituencies make up 51 percent of the country's citizen voting age population, and that majority is getting bigger every single day. ...
"The New American Majority is growing larger every single day (every minute, actually). Each day, the size of the U.S. population increases by more than 8,000 people, and nearly 90 percent of that growth consists of people of color. To understand this startling reality, one must look at the rate of births and deaths, and the rise in immigration.
"In terms of births, as of 2011 the majority of babies born in America (50.4 percent) are now people of color. A baby is born every seven seconds, resulting in 12,343 births per day. At the other end of the age spectrum, the racial composition of the over-65 segment of the population is quite different. Because of centuries of racially exclusionary immigration policies (see Chapter 3), the total U.S. population was nearly 90 percent White as recently as 1950. As a result, the current over-65 population is 78 percent White. Using that figure to estimate the racial breakdown of the country's deaths -- which occur at a rate of 6,646 per day (once every thirteen seconds) -- it's clear that while a majority of births are people of color, deaths are overwhelmingly White.
"What this means for net population growth, then, is that the White birth number of 6,048 new babies each day (49 percent of the babies born every day) are largely canceled out by the 5,204 White deaths every day. For people of color, the 6,295 daily births (51 percent of all births) are only reduced by 1,442 deaths, leaving a net increase of 4,853 people of color every day.
"And then there are the immigration numbers. Implied, feared, but unstated in America's heated immigration debate is a remarkable population statistic -- more than 90 percent of all immigrants to America are people of color. In terms of legal immigration alone, 2,618 people are added to the U.S. population each day, nearly all of them people of color (reflecting the reality that most of the people outside of the United States are people of color). When those numbers are added to the net increase from births and deaths for people of color, the bottom line is that each and every day,7,261 people of color are added to the U.S. population, in contrast to the White growth of 1,053people."
On this day in 1667, the poet John Milton (books by this author) sold the copyright for his masterpiece, Paradise Lost, for 10 pounds. Milton had championed the cause of Oliver Cromwell and the Parliament over the king during the English Civil War, and published a series of radical pamphlets in support of such things as Puritanism, freedom of the press, divorce on the basis of incompatibility, and the execution of King Charles I. With the overthrow of the monarchy and the creation of the Commonwealth, Milton was named Secretary of Foreign Tongues, and though he eventually lost his eyesight, he was able to carry out his duties with the help of aides like fellow poet Andrew Marvell.
When the monarchy was restored in 1660, Milton was imprisoned as a traitor and stripped of his property. He was soon released, but was now impoverished as well as completely blind, and he spent the rest of his life secluded in a cottage in Buckinghamshire. This is where he dictated Paradise Lost -an epic poem about the Fall of Man, with Satan as a kind of antihero - and its sequel,Paradise Regained, about the temptation of Christ.