Issue 7: Enlightenment and extinction

Air conditioning, nerve agents, robot revolution, animal vaccination and two-front wars

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.

On Friday I published my interview with Thomas Moynihan, an intellectual historian whose book about the history of existential risk will be published later this year.

He traces the notion of the possibility of human extinction, and the destruction of all we hold dear, to the Enlightenment. Before that we did have concepts of the world ending, but those were mostly centred on cyclical ways of thought. Humanity would just re-evolve after millennia or we might have a religious apocalypse, where we all just pass on to an afterlife.

From the 18th century onwards scientific and philosophical advances made us realise that we might actually disappear, which in the last few decades evolved into a concept of existential risk. This idea is a core achievement of modernity to Moynihan. To be modern here means we increasingly take self-responsibility for our actions and ideas. So what is more modern than ensuring our species survives?

I’m excited to read Moynihan’s full book. Movements like Effective Altruism or rationalism, that push attention to existential risk, are dominated by philosophers, with the occasional economist or computer scientist sprinkled in. Having more disciplines look at these questions, like history, provides a great advance that can counter group-think.

The interview is long, but it has some great material in there about the historical and philosophical bases of existential risk. So be sure to read it.

1. Climate change

MIT Technology Review - Air conditioning technology is the great missed opportunity in the fight against climate change

Our climate is getting hotter, and we need to find ways to cool ourselves. For much of the world today that means more air conditioning. That, however, requires a lot of electricity (already causing rolling blackouts in sweltering California) and these devices often use greenhouse gasses that might leak. Finding better ways to cool ourselves is thus key to our hotter future.

2. Weapons of mass destruction

NY Times - What Is Novichok, the Russian Nerve Agent Tied to Navalny Poisoning?

At the end of August, Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny seemed to have been poisoned, possibly by the Russian government. The German government (Navalny is being treated in Berlin) claims that the neuro-toxin Novichok did the deed. This poison was developed in the late Soviet-period and nineties in Russia. This article goes into detail about the composition, development and use of the chemical weapon.

3. Emerging technologies

National Geographic - The robot revolution has arrived

This feature offers little new material for the well-read technology observer. Yet it does a great job at explaining the rise, limits and contradictions of robotics today. It shows their potential, dangers but also how Covid-19 is speeding up automation in a range of sectors.

4. Mass causes of death

Quanta Magazine - Can Vaccines for Wildlife Prevent Human Pandemics?

Intriguing article about scientific research into vaccines for animals. These would be self-propagating through a wild population, and lower incidence of certain diseases. Originally this concept was developed to protect animal populations, but now it could also prove useful to prevent new pandemics from jumping from animals to humans, like probably happened with COVID-19, and diseases like Ebola or HIV before it.

5. Great power war

9Dashline - India-China Rivalry: towards a two front war in the Himalayas?

Interesting piece that looks at some of the geopolitical considerations China is thinking about during the face-off with India in the Himalayas. Essentially this article argues China is obsessed with the past history of revisionist powers, mainly Germany during the first and second world war. Based on that experience, it wants to prevent a two-front war between India in the Himalayas and the US (together with its allies) in the Pacific. The comparison of China and Germany lends itself too easily for a stereotypical “China/communists = Nazi’s” argument that seems to be rising in the US, yet it’s an interesting angle to look at the Chinese-Indian tensions.

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