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Feb 24, 2009

I Don’t Want To Live in a Post-Apocalyptic World

Posted by in categories: asteroid/comet impacts, defense, existential risks, futurism, habitats, robotics/AI, space

Image from The Road film, based on Cormac McCarthy's book

How About You?
I’ve just finished reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road at the recommendation of my cousin Marie-Eve. The setting is a post-apocalyptic world and the main protagonists — a father and son — basically spend all their time looking for food and shelter, and try to avoid being robbed or killed by other starving survivors.

It very much makes me not want to live in such a world. Everybody would probably agree. Yet few people actually do much to reduce the chances of of such a scenario happening. In fact, it’s worse than that; few people even seriously entertain the possibility that such a scenario could happen.

People don’t think about such things because they are unpleasant and they don’t feel they can do anything about them, but if more people actually did think about them, we could do something. We might never be completely safe, but we could significantly improve our odds over the status quo.

Danger From Two Directions: Ourselves and Nature.

Human technology is becoming more powerful all the time. We already face grave danger from nuclear weapons, and soon molecular manufacturing technologies and artificial general intelligence could pose new existential threats. We are also faced with slower, but serious, threats on the environmental side: Global warming, ocean acidification, deforestation/desertification, ecosystem collapse, etc.

Looking back and saying “Things have been fine so far, why worry?” is not satisfactory. We’ve only recently acquired technologies that can quickly and easily kill vast numbers of us while compromising the viability of the Earth (if only temporarily), and new more powerful technologies (that have huge upsides too) are on the horizon. Also, because of a kind of anthropic principle, we know that if we’re sitting here saying “Nothing too bad happened before”, it means we’re still alive to think about it; we’re a biased sample.

If we play our cards right, our technology can help us deal with environmental problems while being used to immensely reduce suffering around the world (cures for more diseases, including those of aging, bringing more people out of poverty, etc).

But even if we succeed on that side, we can’t ignore natural disasters. As we become longer-lived individually, and stick around as a species, this increases our chances of being victims of a super-volcano or an asteroid striking the Earth. The dinosaurs didn’t get wiped out because of bad luck, they stuck around for about 160 million years so something was bound to happen sooner or later…

We need to design active and passive defense mechanisms against those threats (the details of those are a whole other post, but you can read something I wrote a while ago about deflecting Earth-bound asteroids), as well as make our human civilization more robust. Leaving all our eggs in the same basket for too long is dangerous. I expect that eventually space colonization will become feasible. Not necessarily other planets at first, but maybe giant space habitats made from raw materials harvested from the asteroid belt. With sufficiently advanced nanotech, this wouldn’t be out of the question.

But in the short-term, what matters is understanding the risks better and raising awareness.

This was originally posted on my personal blog.

For more on global catastrophic risks, see:

Photo: From upcoming movie based on The Road. Source: IMDB.

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Comments — comments are now closed.

  • John Hunt on February 24, 2009 1:20 pm

    There is a time when people pay great attention to such risks…after an incident has occurred (e.g. 9–11).

    So, wouldn’t it be better if such an event were to happen in a controlled setting? Why not actively seek a somewhat-existential threat but demonstrate it in a contained environment. For example, one could develop a hybrid flu-ebola virus and then demonstrate it in a level-4 containment facility (on human tissue culture that is).

    Naturally such an event would be newsworthy as it it would be extremely alarming. Any such event would likely spawn congressional investigations, regulations, etc. Even the open attempt to create such a contained threat might lead to hearings and regulation which could help buy us some time before someone develops a real-threat.

  • philip travers on March 2, 2009 3:41 am

    Having contributed ideas on matters desertification water filtering using PET bottles,now taken over by the Swiss ‚last time I read anything about it.I think the real problem is still on earth.I am being called racist in a blog today,because I have dared to mention David Irving’s Hitler’s War.And thus questioned the validity of matters 2cnd World War.It doesn’t matter what I have previously left and said.It is deliberately insulting to lower the creative processes.And these people are everywhere.

  • Ithaca Conradian on March 4, 2009 2:28 pm

    Thank you for an important post. Exactly as you said, what matters is understanding the risks better and raising awareness.

    As cynic, I would add that Bill Joy’s classic essay ‘why the future doesn’t need us’ was published in 1993. Fifteen years s/b enough time to digest 24 pages.

    Like John Hunt above, I worry that homo denialus will ignore the new risks, at our children’s peril, absent a tangible demonstration. But the 2001 Anthrax murders, reagrdless of motive, clearly provided such a tangible demonstration. Yet, look at the tepid response to the very reasonable 2004 National Academy of Sciences Commission recommendations.

    Your reading list is also appreciated. Recommended as well are Wired’s ‘Biowar for Dummies’, John Gray’s ‘Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals’ and John Robb’s excellent ‘Brave New War’. Fictional adds might include Frank Herbert’s (1982!) ‘White Plague’ and Richard Preston’s ‘Cobra Event’.

  • Ithaca Conradian on March 7, 2009 1:15 pm

    Correcting my prior post above, with considerable embarrassment, Bill Joy’s essay ‘why the future doesn’t need us’, was published in April, 2000 (but still plenty of time for us to digest its important message).

  • giorgio gaviraghi on June 17, 2009 2:02 pm

    I believe that the entire space program must be redirected to new goals such as capture, deflecting and utilizing existing resources located in asteroids and comets.
    A small NEO asteroid, once deflected in a cycling Earth-Moon or Earth-Mars cycling trajectory, can be properly equipped and function as a natural spaceship supplying the crew with most needed materials for life support (water, air, fuel, food ) .
    Such approach will reduce costs and can jumpstart a space industry by allowing affordable transportation to our neighboring bodies.
    Not only, the entire Earth based approach on which is based our space plans , can be substituted by a space based one, utilizing deflected asteroids as space bases eliminating the need of starting space missions from the most antieconomic point, the bottom of a high gravity well.
    The existing Orion and Ares plan to return to the moon and proceed to mars, if ever implemented , will prove another failure such as the ISS, an expensive exercise, that ate the space budget for over 20 years and didn’t give back any result.
    In Orion NASA is proposing the same technology as Apollo, throw away boosters and vehicles, the need of the fleet to receive and sometimes, rescue the astronauts in high sea, at excessive costs to be justified by any society or governement.
    Man may go back to the Moon but will probably not return for another 50 years like the after Apollo effect paralyzing , one more time mankind goal of reaching and colonizing space.