Issue 13: let's get past Taleb

Brazilian inferno, ICBM elimination, asteroid deflection, wild polio and Taiwan's invasion

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.

I like concepts such as black swans or tail risks. The basic insight that unlikely, high-impact events are generally discounted, yet tend to shape history in significant ways, is very important. The 2020’s will probably be shaped by the aftermath of COVID-19, just like the 2010’s were shaped by the financial crash of 2008 and the 2000’s by the 2001 terrorist attacks.

Yet it’s sad that the notion gets dominated by Nassim Taleb. He’s a good populariser, and has built a following. But to do so he adopted an annoying persona that revolves around personal attacks on critics and colleagues. His concepts also often lack internal coherency.

Some other interesting thinkers and concepts are present in this space, like grey rhino’s and dragon kings. Yet the notion of tail risk doesn’t seem to be able to leave the shadow Taleb has cast.

So if anyone has any reading materials to recommend in this field, feel free to send them over by responding to this email.

1. Climate change

NY Times - The World’s Largest Tropical Wetland Has Become an Inferno

Images of forest fires in California circled the world in the last few months, yet in Brazil the Pantanal, a tropical wetland area, has lost a quarter of its territory to fires this year. The wetlands are quite important for certain animals, water cycle management and carbon capture, but encroaching farming and climate change might put the area under threat.

2. Weapons of mass destruction

The National Interest - ICBMs Are Obsolete and Dangerous, And Should Be Eliminated

Thought-provoking article about ICBMs, or nuclear-armed missiles stored in silo’s across the US. These are a core part of the US’s nuclear triad of ICBM’s, bombers and submarines. This article says the US should remove the ICBM’s. Bombers and submarines are enough of a deterrent, and because ICBM’s are easy targets they need to be launched in minutes after detecting an enemy attack, thereby strongly increasing the chance of an accidental nuclear launch.

3. Emerging technologies

MIT Technology Review - This spacecraft is being readied for a one-way mission to deflect an asteroid

Interesting profile on the NASA DART mission. The mission wants to test if we can deflect an asteroid by crashing a satellite into it. Asteroids are a potential long-term threat to humanity, and asteroid collisions have in the past caused mass extinctions. We’re already making an inventory of all asteroids on collision course with earth that could hurt us, now we’re also developing a way to deflect them.

4. Mass causes of death

Undark - Why It’s Premature to Declare Africa Free of Wild Polio

This summer the WHO announced that wild polio had been eradicated in Africa. A rare victory in a year where vaccination drives have been disrupted by COVID-19. This article says this conclusion might be premature, arguing certain areas of Nigeria, where the disease remained present until recently, aren’t accessible enough to claim wild polio has been fully eradicated.

5. Great power war

The Scholar’s Stage - Why I Fear For Taiwan

Interesting blog article from Tanner Greer about Taiwan’s military capacity to defend itself in case China invades it. Greer turns out to be more pessimistic than a few years back, partly because of institutional dysfunction in Taiwan. An invasion of Taiwan would be a shocking event, that would destabilise the world, and could even cause a Sino-US war. And as Matthew Clifford argues in his newsletter, it’s a plausible tail risk.

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.