Issue 16: Biden won, X-risk remains

Geo-engineering, nuclear history, synthetic biology, societal collapse and new Trumpism

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 tried to avoid the topic in the links below, but Biden won the US presidential election. The last edition of this newsletter was dedicated to it, and most links in that issue have held up quite well.

We’ll most likely see both continuity and discontinuity if a Biden presidency can accede next year. The US might do a little bit more on climate change. And certain treaties that minimise international risk, like New START, could be back on the table.

On the other hand the political configuration of the US might still preclude an ambitious climate policy and even under Biden conflict with China might remain chronic.

We’ll see what the next four years will bring, but deep undercurrents didn’t yet shift.

1. Climate change

NY Times - As Climate Disasters Pile Up, a Radical Proposal Gains Traction

This article discusses recent investments from private and public sources into research on geo-engineering. This technique would entail spraying certain chemicals into the stratosphere, so sunrays would be reflected, and in turn our climate would cool down. A dangerous proposal, which could destabilise earth’s ecosystems, but also a likely one as climate change worsens, and it gets cheaper for individual countries or even companies to unilaterally do this.

2. Weapons of mass destruction

War on the Rocks - A Most Terrible Weapon

This podcast looks at the early history of nuclear strategy in the US, and how the country developed its ideas of atomic war. Often we associate this with very neatly defined ideas such as mutually-assured destruction. Yet the early history was much more messy (and scary). If you want to learn more about it, this podcast series (which is two episodes in) is a great guide.

3. Emerging technologies

Nature - The second decade of synthetic biology: 2010–2020

Great, albeit technical, overview of advances in the field of synthetic biology in the last decade. It shows some of the major tendencies, like how we’re moving from science to engineering, and the role of computing power. These advances in turn might be dangerous, and allow the cost to manufacture bio-weapons to drop.

4. Mass causes of death

NY Times - How Do You Know When Society Is About to Fall Apart?

Great profile of the people who study societal collapse. I have always been somewhat critical of the field, which seems to rely on incomplete (mostly archaeological) sources from ancient civilisations to construct simplistic rise and fall narratives that don’t necessarily translate to modern, industrial societies. Nevertheless cascading failure in complex systems, like our societies, could cause enormous harm. Which makes it an interesting field to follow.

5. Great power war

The Atlantic - America’s Next Authoritarian Will Be Much More Competent

I don’t know if I entirely agree with this article, and the comparison of Trump with authoritarians like Erdogan or Putin seems too easy for US liberals. Nevertheless it points to a key reality: even with a Biden presidency, Trumpism might not go away. Its key characteristics might remain embedded in the US, and could even return at the next election.

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.