Issue 6: Tambora 1815

Nuclear energy, biosecurity, AI timelines, polio and Trump on steroids

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 would be interested.

This week I read about the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora, an Indonesian volcano located on the island of Sumbawa.

This eruption was the most powerful one in human history. It directly killed thousands on Sumbawa and sent large amounts of volcanic ejecta into the stratosphere, where it reflected solar radiation. This in turn caused a global period of cold and extreme weather that lasted three years.

Which not only produced beautiful skies immortalised by artists such as William Turner, but also the infamous year without summer of 1816. Historian Gillen D´Arcy Wood traced the results of this sudden climate change all across the globe. It caused famines in Europe, India and China, and disrupted vital weather patterns such as the monsoon. Wood even cites Tambora as a potential source for the 1817-1824 cholera pandemic, that originated in India and potentially killed millions globally (and was possibly caused by a new cholera strain that jumped from aquatic plants to humans because of changing weather conditions in India). Tambora even inspired the novel Frankenstein, Mary Shelley spent the summer of 1816 in storm-wrecked Switzerland, setting the scene for the Gothic story.

Studying these cases of historical climate change is important, and the subject of a burgeoning field of climate history. It shows us how much human life is tied to the earth’s climate systems, and what disruptions of those can do. Where Tambora was not caused by humans, today we’re facing human-induced climate change of a magnitude far outstripping the year without winter.

But today we’re also much more resilient against climate change. The world of 1815 still largely relied on subsistence agriculture, which made the livelihoods of millions vulnerable to weather changes. The world of 1815 also didn’t know about the link between Tambora and climate, the link between volcanoes and weather had only been tentatively proposed by Benjamin Franklin in 1784. Today we do know what causes climate change and extreme weather changes. This gives us the capacity to deal with these deep issues, if our social structures allow it, and hopefully prevent some of the worst effects.

1. Climate change

Reuters - Bill Gates' nuclear venture plans reactor to complement solar, wind power boom

Terrapower, a Bill Gates backed nuclear power company, announced it wants to start building a new type of nuclear reactor in the US. These smaller plants would serve to balance grids served by unpredictable renewables like sun and wind, while limiting the problems of previous generations of nuclear. It’s easy to critique nuclear because of its past failures, but also the massive cost of new plants, yet it will be interesting to see what comes of this.

2. Weapons of mass destruction

Nature - California shows the way for biosecurity in commercial gene synthesis

Earlier this year California introduced legislation for biotech companies that requires them to screen their customers and the sequences they make when selling gene synthesis products. This is a barrier for when certain actors would want to use new advances in biotechnology to reconstruct diseases like smallpox or Ebola as bio-weapons.

3. Emerging technologies

Alex Irpan - My AI Timelines Have Sped Up

A rather technical blog-post by a Google Brain engineer, about how fast he thinks we will have human level artificial general intelligence. His forecast looks like this: 10% chance by 2035, 50% chance by 2045, 90% chance by 2070. An out there, but important issue, because this type of AI might arrive very unexpectedly. Which in turn might make us botch the transition to a world where we aren’t the most intelligent being anymore.

4. Mass causes of death

Vox - The WHO declares the eradication of wild polio in Africa

We have managed to eradicate wild polio in Africa. A great achievement under difficult circumstances, that should be celebrated. The fight, however, continues as vaccine-caused polio still occurs in some areas of Africa. Kelsey Piper also discusses the case of where the Obama administration used fake vaccination campaigns to look for bin Laden, thereby causing a violent backlash against their real counterparts in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

5. Great power war

Vox - “America First, but on steroids”: What Trump’s second-term foreign policy might look like

Alex Ward speaks to a range of experts about what a second Trump presidency might mean for foreign policy. A second presidency is a real possibility and how a new administration approaches issues like China, the Middle-East and nuclear non-proliferation has the possibility to affect massive amounts of lives, and even offer an existential risk. This article doesn’t present one view, and leans in on US foreign policy orthodoxies that aren’t necessarily shared in the rest of the world, yet presents some of the key scenarios.

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, hit the heart button below or forward this email to someone who would be interested.