Issue 2: from shared cups to pandemics

Nuclear fusion, open-source intelligence, AI overhangs, ventilation and China's rise.

Dear readers,

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, free to subscribe at the button below or share this email with anyone who would be interested.

This week I posted a small Twitter thread about the movement against the common drinking cup in the US.

People used to drink from a common cup at public fountains, which, with our hindsight bias, of course serves as a massive source of disease. Progressive campaigners then managed to get the practice outlawed in large parts of the US.

I have been interested in the progressive movement in the US of the end of the 19th century. It had deep flaws, like racism and imperialism, but also offers a stereotypical kind of middle-class reformism, that did manage to do good in certain cases, like in public health.

Where in the 19th and early 20th century, the largest public challenges were aimed at areas like sanitation, housing, hygiene and healthcare. In many Western countries (although not all), we might be moving to larger, more abstract goals. Things like pandemic preparedness, nuclear disarmament and coping with climate change.

Because of the hard work of earlier generations of reformers, in the West we managed to deal with short-term problems. The risk that we might die from cholera or smallpox is very small indeed, in contrast to what our ancestors experienced. And although these are conquests we should cherish and defend, now could be the time we look more forward, to the longer-term threats to our existence. These might be more abstract, but as COVID-19 shows, they can be very real as well.

1. Climate change

BBC - Iter: World's largest nuclear fusion project begins assembly

Construction has begun on Iter, a 20 billion euro nuclear fusion project in the South of France. In it China, the European Union, India, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US join together to make clean nuclear power. There’s still a lot of questions about the feasibility of Iter and nuclear fusion in general, and the project has been decades in the making (here you can find a primer about some of the controversies). Yet it’s remarkable that competing countries, like the US and China, are pouring billions into an ambitious science project. Scientific diplomacy FTW?

2. Weapons of mass destruction

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists - Arms control 2.0? With open source tools, desktop sleuths can go where governments won’t

We’re living in a time where nuclear disarmament treaties are rapidly disappearing. The Trump administration already withdrew from the likes of the Open Skies Treaty, and might be planning to do the same with New START (the last remaining non-proliferation treaty between the US and Russia). Which leaves a vacuum in its wake where countries and international bodies cannot verify weapon facilities. Open-source intelligence, from things like social media and satellite images, is however, compensating for this lack of information somewhat, as this article discusses.

3. Emerging technologies

Less Wrong - Are we in an AI overhang?

Short, but interesting post, about how AI systems might develop in short, rapid bursts. The author uses the metaphor of an AI overhang, where we don’t realise that we can build very powerful systems, until we suddenly do. In the context of new advances, like GPT-3, it’s interesting to think about how very large advances in AI might come very suddenly, so it could be in our interest to already build safety systems today, to prevent an intelligent system from getting out of control in the future.

4. Mass causes of death

The Atlantic - We Need to Talk About Ventilation

Interesting article by Zeynep Tufekci reviewing the existing research on how COVID-19 spreads through the air. Subsequently she also makes a call for better ventilation practices, particularly since those could avoid new super-spreader events.

5. Great power war

London Review of Books - Whose Century?

In this magisterial review essay Adam Tooze charts the causes and future of the US-China conflict. He starts with trade, particularly since China’s 2001 entry in the WTO. He explores the internal economic structures of the two countries and how we came to today’s weaponised interdependence. He ends with some musings about how to balance this conflict: according to Tooze a joint response to climate change and the anthropocene can force co-existence between the two powers.

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 and liked this newsletter, please subscribe at the below link, or forward this email to someone who would be interested.