Aside from climate change, what have you worried about the future of humanity and the planet?

Aside from climate change, what have you worried about the future of humanity and the planet?

I’m not worried about the planet, but the future of the life forms living on it has consumed much of my attention over the last 50 years.

If you are at all prone to anxiety, stop reading, and go read something else. My wife and two children all have severe anxiety issues, and I suspect my planning to mitigate all foreseeable threats is a major component of that. Take heed. Stop now if uncertain.

First some context.

We are very complex organisms, the most complex things we know of.
When one begins to understand something of the complexity of evolution, there is some simplicity that emerges from all those equations and graphs and all those studies of thousands of species current and past.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand is that complexity always comes out of cooperation, and cooperation is always vulnerable to higher order cheating strategies, and so requires active strategies to detect and remove cheating.
Given that we are the most complex evolved organism we know, it is accurate to a first order approximation to say that we are also the most cooperative organism ever to exist (however competitive we may be in some contexts).

Our existence, and complexity at all levels, is predicated on cooperation (not competition, as economic dogma would have us believe {one of the biggest lies present in society today, as part of a suite of cheating strategies}).
When one looks closely at the mathematics of the emergence of cooperation, it requires situations in which external threats exist that may be countered by cooperative action; and that the benefits of such cooperation outweigh the benefits of competing with neighbours for existing resources.

If you understand and accept the need to cooperate, then you don’t need to read any further.

If you think that your self interest is best served by competing in markets, then read on; and be warned that these threats may give you nightmares, and do seem to fundamentally alter brain chemistry in some people.

Before I get into the detail of the threats, I need to be explicitly clear that I believe all of these threats have relatively simple mitigation strategies available, if one is able to think in terms of cooperation, abundance and automation rather that in terms of competition, scarcity and money. Once we develop fully automated technology capable of producing a duplicate set of systems (full process from mining to manufacture to delivery); then if it has a reasonably short replicating time (about a month) then within a decade anything that system can produce can be universally available to all people. The other aspect of technology like that is that it can let us produce vast systems in space, and within the earth. There is an issue with this mitigation strategy, in a competitive context it is a problem greater than any it solves, which is to say that it is only stable in cooperative contexts, but then life such as we are is only stable in cooperative contexts (something several different religious traditions have captured some aspects of, but current economic and political dogma ignores).

So, with that general class of mitigation strategy in mind – here are the major threats, followed by brief explanations and their mitigation strategies.

Valence failure
Culture failure
Ignorance (including over simplification of complexity)
Twin Tyrannies
Pandemics (natural and artificial)
War
Volcanism
Earthquake
Ecosystem collapse
Comet & Meteor strike
Black holes and other deep space phenomena
Severe Solar storm
Technology failure
Technology capture

Expanding each of those headings a little:

Valence failure

Valence is those things that attract and repel us at various levels. In mathematical terms one can think in terms of slopes on terrains with various humps and hollows in the terrain around certain “features”. There can be potentially infinite dimensions, with overlapping and summing valence. In simple terms, think of a mountain, gravity always wants to take us to the bottom of a valley and keep us there, but if we have a particularly strong attraction to standing on a peak, then we can expend time and energy to take ourselves to that peak (against the pull of gravity). Strategy “spaces” are like that too.

Over the deep time of history evolution has encoded many levels of valence into our genetic and cultural systems. Thus we get born with some sets, we learn other sets (without necessarily being consciously aware of them), and we get to choose some sets (the thin icing on the cake in a sense). For most people, most of the time, there are far more sub-conscious valences present than there are conscious ones. And for everyone that is true some of the time.

Because those valences were “tuned” by the conditions of our past, they are only useful in our present to the degree that our present is like our past. Some aspects of our present have no precedent in our past. So there are some contexts present right now that have no direct historical precedent; one has to go through levels of abstraction to get to something even remotely similar.
Thus our likes and dislikes, our cultural ways of being, can all lead us into danger if they are simply followed without conscious awareness. The contexts of today are sufficiently different that every one of us needs to use our own intelligence to interpret where the lessons of our past are applicable and where we may need to do something new.

At a personal level, it is almost 10 years since I watched my oncologist write “palliative care only” on my file, and heard him tell me “you could be dead in 6 weeks, you have a 50% chance of living 5 months and a 2% chance of living 2 years”. For me, that was enough to get me to examine many levels of valence in my life, to eliminate alcohol and refined sugar from my diet, to take animal products out of my diet, to add high dose vitamin C (at least 2 doses per day of at least 5g, every day, without fail, ever), to eat mostly raw organic produce for many months. For me, the strategy worked, the tumours (stage 4 melanoma) went away, then twice they came back when I cheated just a little (no cheating at all in the last 8 years and 8 months – and no tumours in that time). Many others I have talked to have not been as strict, and have had good success initially, but then not stuck to it. Those that have stuck to the regime all seem to be alive and well. So this is an example of where valence from our past (a liking for sweet sugars, and meat) that served our ancestors well, do not actually serve us well. There are many more such things at higher levels of culture and systems. Desire for power and prestige in social orders can deliver existential level risk to all of us, if it is too narrowly focused.

Culture failure

We all need culture. We all learn things from culture that are essential for our survival. Without culture we would not survive. And as mentioned above, culture is largely created by our past, and as such cannot possibly have knowledge of the truly new. We have lots of new things, and we need those new things. So we need to respect and honour the cultures of our birth, even as we see the need to go beyond them in some contexts, we should never do so lightly. Cultures are often far more complex than we give them credit for, and they are created in our past, so may contain aspects that are not applicable to our present and future. We must each be conscious of that, alert to it, and responsible for it. And that is not a simple thing, as by definition, there can be no universally applicable rules around it. It is something we must each be deeply responsible for, to the best of our abilities for reason and intuition (both are necessary).

When cultures lead us into conflict, they are a threat to us all. We all have a responsibility to choose cooperation over conflict if there is any reasonable probability of it being successful.

Most of our political and economic systems contain multiple levels of existential level risk at present.

Ignorance (including over simplification of complexity)

When one starts to comprehend the vast scale of the complexity of what it is to be a human being; when we start to understand something of the complexity of the evolutionary systems contained within multiple levels of each and every one of us, then we start to gain a certain humility, a certain acceptance of eternal ignorance, a certain acceptance of diversity, a respect for life and all its many differences.

Unfortunately, we are not born with such understanding and respect, we must each learn it.

We must (each and every one of us) start from a place of very simple ideas, of accepting culture and language, of creating our simple models of a reality that now seem clearly to be complex beyond the capacity of any conscious entity to understand in detail. We have no other choice. The younger we are, the more simple the world seems to us, and the easier some choices seem to be. That is necessary and unavoidable in a sense, and it also contains many levels of danger.
Modern science has developed many tools and ways of thinking that take a very long time to become familiar with, that most people are not aware of. To a scientist like myself, every aspect of knowledge contains fundamental uncertainties, even as in many contexts that knowledge delivers an ability to make things happen with extreme reliability (as in modern computer systems, and some aspects of engineering).

So when one starts to understand the complexity present, one starts to appreciate that a certain amount of simplification is necessary to do anything in life, and the more urgent the need for action, the more likely things are to be simplified. That is all necessary and needed in a sense, but there is another aspect in which some things are really complex, and have no useful simplification. Sometimes the most useful simplification is to accept profound ignorance and to trust others who have some beginnings of an understanding of the risks and responses required. The really difficult aspect is that most tend to place such trust based upon past experience, but in truly novel contexts, past experience is not necessarily a good predictor of future performance. So situations can get deeply uncertain, and one needs to exercise extreme caution with trust, even as one accepts the need to trust something or someone.

Another aspect of this, is that the more someone investigates the details of any one aspect of reality, the more one must ignore all other aspects. Thus experts in any field can become so ignorant of other fields that they make basic errors.
That demands that we make teams which have multiple levels of experts and generalists, and that we develop sufficient trust within those teams that communication actually happens, and we manage to see major risks before they become major problems.

Holding too tightly to overly simplistic models from our past, ones with overly simple answers to questions that have levels of complexity of which most are completely ignorant, can lead to choices with existential level risk. This applies at every level of social structure.

The tendency in American politics to put liberal and conservative against each other, rather than having them cooperate with each contributing their essential perspectives to creating long term workable outcomes, is one of the major systemic failures that currently poses existential level risk.

Twin Tyrannies

In terms of power and control, there are two major risk modalities – the tyranny of the majority (in which individuals that are away from the norm cannot self express) and the tyranny of a minority (in which a small group of individuals dominates all others). Both sets of tyrannies develop social instabilities which can lead to existential level threat (via a range of mechanisms including technology and warfare).

Developing systems that allow all individuals reasonable levels of freedom, while simultaneously demanding of all individuals responsible action in both social and ecological contexts, is required if we want any sort of long term security.

Pandemics (natural and artificial)

The 1918 influenza pandemic (Spanish Flu – H1N1) killed between 2 and 6 times (estimates vary) as many people as world war 1. It is always possible that a virus with a longish incubation time, early infectious stage, and high mortality rate could emerge and spread widely.

In today’s highly connected world, it is quite easy to imagine pandemics taking out over 90% of the population, with technological collapse following.
We have the tools to fight such things, but they take time to develop. The only effective counter strategy in the time it takes to develop such measures is isolation. Our current social and technological systems do not allow for such isolation. The sort of fully automated systems described far above would give us an effective counter strategy that would work for everyone.

When one factors in that military organisations around the world have been aware of this for nearly a century, and that some have already developed such viruses targeted to particular racial groupings (each side to the others), then the threat of artificial pandemics is at least as high as natural ones. The mitigation strategy is the same in either case, isolate until inoculation is available.

War

We have nuclear weapons capable of destroying all human life.

We have biological weapons capable of destroying most human life.

We have technological weapons capable of destroying technology, and with it most human life.

We could develop technology to seek out and destroy all human life.
We cannot afford all out war, yet in a competitive context, it is almost inevitable. For Mutually Assured Destruction to actually work as a deterrent, both sides have to actually be mad enough to actually push the button, and each has to actually believe that the other is actually that mad. That is not a stable situation, not at any level!!!

It must fail, it is only a matter of when, not a matter of “if”.

We cannot afford another war.

The only effective counter is universal cooperation, and universal observation.
That can only work with any sort of stability if it has as its highest values individual life and individual liberty, which demands respect for diversity at every level. So people would be free to do whatever they responsibly chose, and they may be called upon by others to justify their definition of responsible, and the group may decide that the risk is too high in that time and place, and they have to go some distance away to do that thing (perhaps into orbit, perhaps around some other body than earth).

Volcanism

Super volcanoes are a real thing. Many examples in the geological record.
Even relatively small ones like NZ’s Taupo can cause disruptions to civilisations within the written record of such things. Larger ones like Toba of Yellowstone have probably been responsible for bringing the total human population on the planet down to less than 1,000 individuals several times in the past.

Technical solutions are possible, and they require quite large scale technology, of the sort referred to in the introduction above.

Earthquake

I lived through a 7.8 quake 2 years ago, and my community is still in the recovery phase. A very large quake in an area of high population and technology could be a source of global destabilization of our current economic and political systems.
We need systems that can be stable and respond appropriately and cooperatively to such situations.

Again, very high tech mitigation strategies are possible, and they require wide level social agreement and cooperation to deploy.

Ecosystem collapse

Global climate change is just one tiny subset of this category.

We are altering global systems with our current technologies and numbers of people.
I don’t believe many people actually want a world without modern technology, modern medicine, modern communications, modern food reliability, etc. So we must accept that we have and will modify things.

We also need to accept the responsibility for managing such things. Doing that at a global scale can only be done with global cooperation. Our existing systems based in global competition are an existential risk in and of themselves in so far as they prevent and subvert such cooperative efforts.

Long term we need to accept the need to manage the amount of sunlight reaching the earth, in order to maintain temperature and sea levels etc within habitable ranges for human beings. That is all relatively simple technologically, once we have global cooperative systems that accept diverse cultures and individuals (provided that all such accept the right of all others to exist).

Comet & Meteor strike

Comets and meteors are similar in that they are big chunks of matter coming from outer space and going very fast. If they hit the earth they cause a lot of damage, the bigger and faster they are, the more damage they do. And it is more complex than that, but it is a good start.

It is reasonably well accepted that a large meteor took out the dinosaurs (and many other species) about 65 million years ago.

Smaller ones don’t cause extinction level events, but can still kill a lot of people, even most of them, without leaving much trace in the fossil record.

Both require the same sort of mitigation measures, it is just that for comets the measures need to be further away from earth than for meteors – and again they require global cooperation for security, and technology capable of fully automated manufacture and remote operation, so that it can be manufactured and deployed at scale from the moon.

Black holes and other deep space phenomena

These require the same sort of detection equipment deployed at scale at the edge of the solar system and beyond.

Very low probability, but the scale of disruption means that in the long term it is worth doing, once all other sources of risk are mitigated.

Severe Solar storm

This is actually quite high probability, and high impact. We need global systems hardened to survive it, and backup systems in place to replace anything destroyed.

Again, relatively simple once we have fully automated manufacturing on the moon, but devastating prior to that point.

Technology failure

This involves many possible levels of failure of technology, from variations on the “grey goo” nanotechnology mistakes to many levels of variation on “paper clip optimizer” in the world of AI. Reasonable levels of engineering precaution should mitigate those risks, and the incentives of market competition are to short circuit complete sets of tests to be “first to market”. Thus it is a combination failure of markets and technology in most instances. And there are non-market failure modalities possible.

Cooperation and visibility are key mitigating strategies.

Technology capture

Bad agents are always a problem.

Any agent that is optimising for some set of conditions that does not include reasonable consideration for the life and liberty of all others is an issue for everyone.

General openness, public visibility, fundamental cooperation, and ongoing personal commitment are the only effective strategies to combat this class of threat in the long term. The more sets of cooperative groups present, the safer it is for all involved.

Centralisation at any level is a risk that is best countered by empowering communication between diverse groups in a cooperative context.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) - see www.tedhowardnz.com/money
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