Issue 5: pessimism or optimism?
California burning, China-India nuclear, lab security, GMO mosquitoes and AI rhetoric.
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 published my first interview as part of this newsletter. This time I talked to Phil Torres. He’s a researcher and writer who has studied existential risk for around a decade, and who has a book about x-risk coming out soon. You can read the interview here.
He mentions several interesting things during the interview. Such as how the study of existential risk emerged from the transhumanist movement, something we hardly talk about today (even though that’s where people like Nick Bostrom got their start). Or how most of the anthropogenic threats to human survival have only been identified since the 1950ies.
Yet what struck me most was his pessimism. Or as he puts it:
“there are not only a strong plethora of forces working against efforts to ensure our future but many of these are deeply rooted and extremely entrenched. Consequently, I very much find myself in the pessimistic camp, and think that the “doomsday hypothesis,” which resolves the Fermi paradox by claiming that nearly every civilization that reaches our stage of sophistication self-destructs, is highly plausible.”
The reasons for this pessimism are good, such as institutional short-termism, capitalist realism and psychological barriers. I’m probably more optimistic about our capacity to change these things, but it’s sobering to look at these questions honestly. If you do, be sure to start with Torres’ interview.
In the future I want to give a (humble) platform to more people like this. I already have some more interviews lined up, and if you have suggestions for possible candidates, be sure to reply to this email.
1. Climate change
California is going trough an apocalyptic few weeks with climate change induced heat waves, forest fires (+ the associated air pollution) and blackouts. All of that combines with the raging COVID-19 pandemic. This article gives a good overview of perspectives from the region, and includes some musings from journalist Sammy Roth about how not to give in to climate despair (a useful skill if you’re interested in the topics of this newsletter).
2. Weapons of mass destruction
Carnegie Endowment for International Peace - At a Crossroads? China-India Nuclear Relations After the Border Clash
This study investigates Chinese attitudes to nuclear competition with India. India and China (both nuclear powers) in June clashed at their borders in the Himalayas, a potentially dangerous situation. This study looks at the Chinese side of the nuclear divide, and finds that they aren’t really worried about atomic competition, because India is behind in conventional and nuclear technology development. Nevertheless this gap might represent a threat, since it can stimulate nuclear build-up in India.
3. Emerging technologies
Biotechnology, particularly through innovations such as CRISPR, is getting better. Which potentially translates into bio-engineered diseases becoming a bigger threat to humanity. Nevertheless it has been repeatedly shown that even high security labs suffer from safety lapses. ProPublica details a few cases at UNC Chapel Hill, including one a few years ago where a researcher was bitten by a mouse that was infected with a new corona virus. The researcher was just allowed to go along her daily routine with a mask. This doesn’t mean the current COVID-19 pandemic is engineered, but it’s worrying that laboratory safety standards face these types of issues.
4. Mass causes of death
Coinciding with World Mosquito Day Florida is about to release genetically engineered mosquitoes. These could help reduce the population of a species that carries diseases like dengue and yellow fever. Which are a massive problem for humanity (the mosquito is one of the deadliest animals to humanity because of them). Yet spraying the insects with pesticides isn’t always a good or effective option. Nevertheless several ecological groups are protesting the action because of uncertain effects on local ecosystems and atypical regulatory procedures. Here you can find scientific for and against perspectives on GMO mosquitoes.
5. Great power war
The rhetoric of an AI arms race has been highly prominent lately in discussions of great-power competition between China and the US. This study looks at news articles about it, and how they frame the issue. Thinking about it in terms of an arms race did grow, but also has its limitations. The frame often misinterprets what AI can really do, and pushes decision makers into a line of thought that might hinder regulation and norms for AI.
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.