The Anti-Apocalyptus newsletter #1: existential risk and idiots

Why political idiots are bad for existential risk. Also: EU green investments and Russian space weapons.

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.

In this edition I’ll discuss issues that range from the EU’s green investments to Russia’s space weapons. But first I want to talk a bit about politics.

Our lives have been controlled by COVID-19 for the past few months, and political commentators have been looking at what countries and political regimes have been doing better or worse in the fight against the pandemic.

Right-wing populists like Trump and Bolsonaro seem to be doing bad. Asian countries with strong governments, like Taiwan, South-Korea and Vietnam seem to be doing good. But much is still unclear about the specifics, and what political lessons can be learned from this.

Which brought me to this article in The Nation, about how prominent US immunologist and public health advisor Anthony Fauci historically managed to set up relations between both the political establishment and firebrand activists. He supported this brand of diverse networking by appealing to the authority of science, which for example allowed him to enact some changes in the initial, disastrous, US anti-HIV policies.

Yet that bridge collapsed under Trump. If your strategy to influence the powerful rests on them recognising science as a source of truth, then that makes you vulnerable to anti-science right-wingers entering power.

Similarly, in 2019 a study elected the US as the best prepared country for a pandemic in terms of plans and policies. That all falls apart, however, if politicians don’t follow the plan.

Which has a sobering implication for existential risk. We can prepare as much as we want for a worst case scenario, if an idiot happens to be in power when the crucial moment comes, it can all be for nothing.

1. Climate change

Bloomberg - EU Approves Biggest Green Stimulus in History With $572 Billion Plan

After much debate, the heads of government of the EU agreed on a 1,82 trillion euro budget for the next seven years. This includes an extra stimulus to reanimate the economy after COVID-19, and massive investments in the fight against climate change. If you want more detailed information, here’s a rundown by Politico. The deal is far from perfect, and the countries known as the frugal four managed to make deep (self-defeating) cuts to areas like R&D and green investment. Yet the old EU mentality of austerity and brutal cuts which characterised the Eurocrisis response, seems to have shifted somewhat.

2. Weapons of mass destruction

Defense One - Force Won’t Much Slow Iranian Nuclear Progress, But Something Else Can

At the beginning of July an explosion occurred at an Iranian nuclear complex. The reason is unclear, but there’s open rumours that it was orchestrated by Israel. This is part of increasing tensions in the area after the Trump administration scuttled a nuclear deal with Iran, with the associated peak in muscled behaviour by the US, Israel and Iran.

3. Emerging technologies

MIT Technology Review - OpenAI’s new language generator GPT-3 is shockingly good—and completely mindless

OpenAI released a new text-generator AI system, which has since gone viral on Twitter. Someone for example made a website layout generator where you describe how you want the website to look, and GPT-3 writes the code to build that. The above article gives a good overview, and for example links to a (pretty readable) blog that was generated using GPT-3. This explainer is interesting as well, if you want to see how the system works in practice.

4. Mass causes of death

Our World in Data - Our history is a battle against the microbes

This article illustrates very well how science and public health interventions, chief among them vaccinations, made our lives much more healthy and better over the centuries. Smallpox, polio and measles deaths all plummeted after large-scale vaccination campaigns, which contains a lesson for our current fight against COVID-19.

5. Great power war

BBC - UK and US say Russia fired a satellite weapon in space

This news reeks a bit of a he said, she said situation, where the US and the UK are saying Russia put an anti-satellite weapon into space, and Russia denies it. Nevertheless an increasing militarisation of space is something to worry about, particularly since there’s no international agreement limiting weapons there.

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.