This guide’s goal is to examine existential threats to civilisation, humanity, other species, and the biosphere as a whole. Sadly I’ve not had much time to work on this, so it is unpolished/unfinished. If you’d like to make suggestions/contributions/comments please get in contact. Or I’d recommend the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk for an established organization doing work a little like this.
This guide aims are to create:
-A methodology by which threats and opportunities for the biosphere can be identified and understood
-A list of actual threats faced by humanity and the biosphere
-A list of contributing phenomenon that are not threats by themselves, but that contribute to threats indirectly
-A list of opportunities and remedies by which we can improve the prospect of survival for humanty and the biosphere
Methodology and skills
The philosophy of the ‘life-ethic’ is one that promotes the survival and wellbeing of the human species, our fellow species, and of life on Planet Earth. It promotes in public policy and in our personal actions a duty beyond one’s own selfish desires, opting instead for a greater, nobler and more meaningful existence.
It makes sense, therefore, to catelogue key events, trends, and phenomena that influence this goal of survival. We can assess, in each case we encoutner, the probability and extent that something can influence the survival of a species or many species. We aim for two components – a rich qualitative description that paints a vivid yet accurate picture of the threat or opportunity, and also a quantitative or statistical estimate of the true magnitude and probabilities involved, in order to facilitate decision making and sound policy. Not only does the Earth Survival Guide attempt to compile such a list, it attempts to consider the skills and methodology required to maximise the catalogue’s accuracy and usefulness.
This task is non-trivial, because the skills of ensuring the survival in the face of global threats is not one that we, as humans, are born with. Our instincts as humans are forged in the distant evolutionary past, where our anscestors struggled for personal survival in a fiercely competitive wilderness. So our primitive perception, emotions and unfocused awareness centres around the personal and the everyday. This everyday existence is detached from the reality of global events that shape the future and determine the survival of species. Our brains in particular often suffer from bias that erects barriers to the rational pursuit of this moral goal. The most prominent and poignant amongst these barriers is our own human tendancies to bias. Our bias, perhaps understandable in a personal environment, distorts our understanding and decisions when we pursue greater moral purposes that rely on an accurate confrontation with the facts. Worse, in gathering information about large-scale phenomena we rely on social information, and therefore we are greatly susceptable to the bias of others, perhaps many others. In other words, social bias is incredibly harmful to the moral purpose of defendng the biosphere.
Yet our heritage has also gifted us with another set of skills – our rationality, our logic, and our focus. We all start from a position of bias, but in time, especially if we push hard to overcome it, bias is understood and reduced. We can study bias, account for it, and do our very best to overcome it. Nowhere is this more vital than in the effort for global threat assessment, where our everyday cognitive experiences and intuitions are the most divorced from reality. Therefore our approach to global threat assessment begins with the consdiration of bias that particularly influences the process.
Consider the following:
Front-and-centre of biases that harm our ability to assess global threat is scope insensitivity or scope neglect. In simple terms, this is our inability to assign proportional value or significance to things where the quantities involved become larger than what we are used to dealing with. It particularly occurs where we have no immediate reference point that gives meaning to a quantity. So, we consider the harm caused by a serial killer and a genocidal mass murderer with roughly equal horror and using the same techniques – by imagining the bodies of his or her victims. Yet in the case of the genocidal killer, they may have caused many thousands more deaths or many thousands of times more suffering. When a direct comparison is made, we might acknowledge that genocide has harmed far more people, yet our intuitive reaction to both events is probably about the same.
This bias is perfectly understandable, even without reference to biology. In our everyday lives we simply do not deal with objects of a large quantity. We buy five apples from the store, or pay five dollars for a sandwidch, not five billion. We simply don’t have a feel for what these large numbers truly mean.
So, one remedy to this problem is to take every opportunity to truly immerse yourself in the larger quantities involved. This can be combined with a conscious effort to imagine the larger scales and their true meaning, expanding our imagination to a new scope. People that are habituated to larger numbers, for example those that deal frequently with the budgets of nations or the global deaths caused common health problems, have an enhanced working knowledge of larger numbers that we can emulate in order to improve the accuracy of our intuitions. We also start to give ourselves reference points – which the psychological research appears to indicate is the fastest way to reduce this bias. We can also repeatedly remind ourselves of the importance of the scales invovled.
Fiction as Bias
An important point that must be considered is how casual encounters with fictional materials might affect people’s perspectives. In encountering global issues only in a fictional context, we experience them primarily as a passive actor, and often with a degree of excitement and enjoyment. When a description of real-life global problem is encountered by those who do not consider the issue deeply, it is a natural reaction to perceive the problem as fiction that is mistakenly fallen into the world of fact. Descriptions of threats and scenarios seem absurd – people often imagine that the person giving the description of the issue has foolishly confused fact and fiction, regardless of the evidence presented. They may also be suspected of bearing some alterior motives. Faced with serious talk of big-picture issues, even those who enjoy fiction dealing with such matters will feel that action on the matter is absurd, because subconsciously part of them feels that they are only encountering another exciting story to listen in on. I, even as author of this site, still experience a feeling of absurdity when reading on certain global issues I logically know to be very serious matters. This reaction is normal; it must be identified correctly and overcome.
Fiction as a Tool
Films, books and other works of fiction dealing with global issues are one of the most useful tools to considering otherwise unreachable contexts. A story about a nuclear doomsday scenario allows us to imagine a situation in a way not immediately available from raw factual information. Of course, fictional work should never be accepted as fact. There is great scope for deceptions, misunderstanding or mistakes. An author can easily skew the consequences of a character’s choices to suit their own agenda, for example. However, it is still a useful source of stimulus on a topic if used correctly. A close familiarity with relevant fact and fiction, combined with a firm grasp of the distinction between the two, results in the best comprehension of a topic.
Boiling Frog and Bias
Our day-to-day decisions are often made knowing the consequences will be relatively immediate. To put it another way, our brain is used to considering a certain time-frame. Sometimes, when events or decisions are outside the usual timeframes we deal with, events or decisions can appear less significant or less obvious than they really are. In some circles this is known as the Boiling Frog effect. While we do not propose empirical testing of its veracity, the story goes that if you place a live frog into a boiling pot of water, it immediately jumps out, but if you place it in a pot of cold water, and slowly heat the pot to boiling point, the frog does not jump out, but remains in the pot until it dies. So it may be with us. Many of the events described in this guide occur gradually over a period of time outside the scope of our everyday thoughts, and therefore they commonly are thought of by the population as less important or urgent than they actually are. Rectifying this involves habituating yourself to also consider longer time-frames. One organisation founded upon this principle is the Long-Now Foundation [longnow.org] [wikipedia].
Social and Identity Bias
People will usually, in the case of a dispute or diagreement, lean towards a view that supports the group that they feel a part of, identify with in some way, or simply have the most in common with. This occurs to varying degrees even when the weight of evidence suggests to the contrary, so long is there at least some ability to maintain the facade of a solid argument. For some people, this can even be the primary deciding factor when they are processing a new argument, particularly for political or policy questions. However, it runs even deeper than this. People will actively ‘scan’ arguments they encounter and subconsciously assess the consequences for themselves and any group with which they identify. Again, they will strongly lean towards supporting an argument that most favours ‘their’ group, reporting a different and supposedly rational reason after the subconscious decision has already been made.
We can include in this category extensions of identity to property. Some people are particularly careful to scan arguments for consequences to their wealth and possessions. In some cases this is because many people choose to link possessions with social status.
An evolutionary argument exists for the presense of this trait. Very briefly and simply, an evolutionary advantage comes out of supporting arguments that benefit or seem to benefit, even through deception or at risk of self-deception, one’s group of allies. This advantage can in some contexts outweigh the evolutionary risks of getting the facts wrong. Imagine a case where a close friend or relative is accused accurately of a crime – an authentic but innacurate belief in their innocence may present certain evolutionary advantages, especially where case-by-case lying is ineffective or may come unstuck.
As global-thinkers we ought to also consider our membership in all of humanity. This in itself helps to fight this bias. Further, being mindful of this bias when dealing with anything involving a group in which you have membership, or when you process information from silimarly concerned fellow human beings, can give you the chance to filter out this bias.
When a person announces a position on something to others, they publicly commit to that position. Once committed to a position, they will usually be biased in assessing information relevant to that position. They will quite pro-actively scan for consequences that might reflect on the accuracy of their position, and filter their own information or steer discussions to support this position better. They will take a social penalty in their standing if they are seen to be unambigously wrong on some topic, and so have strong reason to defend their position very rigourously. This is ingrained quite deeply in most people, most likely by both genetics and socialisation. Again, identifying this bias in one’s self is a good way to fight it, as is taking pride in changing your position when good factual evidence suggests it is rational to do so. Better yet, remind yourself that the only view that will never change is that you believe in always searching for the truth in matters, regardless of what others think of your views.
These examples barely scratch the surface of bias. However, they are the obvious biases that will distort your perception of global threats before you even get started. Its easy to imagine we don’t have have these biases ourselves, yet in reality we’re all subject to them.
We discuss bias in more detail here. You may also view Wikipedia’s discussion of Cognitive Bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_bias) or its List of Cognitive Bias (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_cognitive_biases).
We are still assessing whether this is possibly useful:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_bias_modification and the use (in a global-risk context) of other techniques aimed at reducing bias.