Issue 12: the long-term is hard

Coal collapse, North-Korea, crypto-states, superspreaders and rare earth elements

Dear reader,

Welcome to this week’s issue of the Anti-Apocalyptus newsletter. Each week I send you five links about some of the most important challenges of our time: climate change, weapons of mass destruction, emerging technologies, mass causes of death and great power wars. If you haven’t done so yet, feel free to subscribe at the button below, hit the heart button or share this email with anyone who could be interested.

This week I published an interview with journalist Tom Chivers. We talked about his book on existential risk from AI and his experiences covering the rationalist community. If you haven’t done so yet, be sure to read it as he talks about great topics like Pascal’s mugging and why journalism should aim to find the truth.

Another snippet I want to leave you with is this tweet by Nils Gilman. He cites a study that, apparently, claims that there are 85 institutions in the world with unbroken histories from before 1520, 70 of which are universities.

As I’m reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s new book The Ministry For The Future, which deals with trying to overcome humanity’s short-termism, this again shows how hard that is. Less than 100 institutions survived more than 500 years, a blip in humanity’s history. Let’s hope we do better in the next 500.

1. Climate change

NY Times - ‘The Coal Industry Is Back,’ Trump Proclaimed. It Wasn’t.

When Trump came to power, he used a lot of pro-coal rhetoric. Now it turns out that coal plants are still closing, mostly because of market forces. This article looks into that process, and portrays some of the people affected. By now it’s a familiar story, yet the NY Times brings it in a very readable way, with some nice industrial landscape photography to sweeten the deal.

2. Weapons of mass destruction

Reuters - North Korea unveils 'monster' new intercontinental ballistic missile at parade

During a parade this week, North-Korea unveiled a new ICBM, with which they could strike most of the US with nuclear warheads. North-Korea claimed they wouldn’t deploy these things first, and that it’s a defensive measure. But it’s an indicator of how denuclearisation talks have stalled. And the more countries have these weapons, the bigger the threat of someone using them.

3. Emerging technologies

City Journal - The Crypto State?

Interesting essay by Bruno Maçães about state forms. Our current state-model, the nation state, has been around since the 18th-19th century, and dominant since the collapse of European empires after WWII. Yet the internet, and particularly blockchain technology might be starting to build a new state form, that could replace the nation state. I don’t entirely buy this argument, which was common during the crypto-hype of 2017-2018. Yet Maçães argues it elegantly, and it’s interesting to think about what comes after the nation state.

4. Mass causes of death

The Atlantic - This Overlooked Variable Is the Key to the Pandemic

Thought-provoking article by Zeynep Tufekci, where she argues COVID-19 isn’t just a flu virus where every sick person infects a small number of other people, but that it mainly develops in superspreader events. So a low amount of infected are responsible for the majority of infections, while most sick people don’t spread the virus (similar to the 80/20 rule). This in turn has implications for government restrictions, contact tracing and testing.

5. Great power war

ZDNet - The tech crisis that isn’t: China controls the world’s rare earth supply chains

Interesting article about the controversy around rare earth elements: key resources that go into our electronics with names like cobalt, scandium and dysprosium. China currently supplies three-fourths of these rare compounds, which they already used to embargo Japan after a tussle over an island. This has led to much US anxiety over rare earth supply chains. This article situates the issue very well, and nuances the threat China offers.

I hope you enjoyed this newsletter. Feel free to send me comments or remarks by responding to this email. If you haven’t done so yet, please subscribe at the link below, hit the heart button or forward this email to anyone who could be interested.