“The Anthropocene is the time of profound human effects on the environment, while the Precipice is the time where humanity is at high risk of destroying itself.” There are quite a few different scenarios that could lead to the extinction of humans in the next 100 years, but some of them are negligible, like an asteroid or comet hitting the Earth, or a stellar explosion. Others, like climate change, nuclear weapons, or unaligned artificial intelligence, on the other hand, seem more likely. In this book, different risks, anthropogenic and natural, are discussed, as well as probablities for them happening in the next 100 years, and what we could or should do about them.
Emotionally, I’m pretty torn on this book because it is concerned with a heavy subject that needs an objective as possible approach in my opinion. This, however, is what makes the optimism and hope regarding humanity as a whole that the author projects so perplexing, and his conviction that humans will overcome almost every terrible event that could happen baffling. Ord is even positive that civilization would hold up in the case of a mass extinction event, because it didn’t even break down after the horrifying death toll of the Black Plague in Europe in the 14th century, and I have some questions about this assumption. People’s mindset was very different in the Middle Ages; their attitudes towards life and death, and the meaning society or civilization had back then cannot be compared directly. On top of that, a sample of one is too small anyway to draw any conclusions, especially because Ord frequently discusses death tolls up to 90% or more, which is absolutely not comparable to the Black Death. If a mass extinction event like that should happen, especially if the remaining ressources are very limited also, I think all bets are off, and it could either lead to more cooperation and solidarity or it could be a scenario in which civilization does break down which could then in turn lead to the end of humanity, or at least cause a severe delay to any kind of progress.
On the other hand, and in stark contrast to all this curious optimism, it is often a coldly rational book that simply calculates the odds. In regard to the premise of the book, every outcome that doesn’t mean annihilation is a success and gives hope for the fulfillment of humanity’s potential. As long as enough people survive, the potential is not lost, and this is a simple and utilitarian approach, that has absolutely nothing interesting to say because we really don’t have any clue what would happen to humanity in the case of a survival rate as low as 1%. Even if this is a book concerned with the big picture, there still needed to be more in-depth analysis on the different risks, more explanation of the numbers, more discussion of solutions and their practical application, just more of everything scientific, and less of the many general observations that quickly become tiresome because they cover almost no new ground. I feel as if half of what he is discussing I have already read in a newspaper in the last few years because supervolcanoes or asteroids or the progress of AI every so often make the headlines, not to mention pandemics or climate change and other environmental damage which all show up frequently.
This is a book that is just too broad and too unfocused in its treatment of the subject of existential risk, or maybe the subject itself is just too big to cram into one book. In the end, what I enjoyed the most were the philosophical questions the book raises, for instance, the moral obligation we have to these future generations that will or will not exist in a few hundred or thousand years, or the importance of the survival of the species in general. The majority of the book, however, was just supremely unsatisfying.
CBR13 Bingo: Landscape