Many people have recently found that they want to read books offering the grandest perspectives possible on human existence, such as Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, for, however speculative or unreliable they may be, the long views they offer make all other studies seem piddling.
Toby Ord’s new book is a startling and rigorous contribution to this genre (he pointedly never mentions Noah Harari) that deserves to be just as widely read. Australian-born, Ord is a moral philosopher at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University who has advised organisations such as the World Health Organisation, the World Bank and the World Economic Forum. He is a rationalist and meliorist who believes in looking at the biggest picture possible. Studying global health and global poverty, he concluded that his own money could do hundreds of times as much good for those in poverty as it could for him, so he made a lifelong pledge to donate at least a 10th of his earnings and founded a society, Giving What We Can, that has raised £100 million for charities. So he walks the walk, as well as talks the talk. The Precipice, boldly dedicated to the 100 billion people before us, the seven billion alive and “the trillions to come, whose existence lies in the balance”, addresses nothing less than the fundamental threats to humanity itself. It is clearly written, approachable and concise for a work tackling such an immense subject, since Ord has confined all subsidiary questions to extensive footnotes and appendices. He begins by setting out “the stakes”, saying that “we live at a time uniquely important to humanity’s future”, dubbing our era the Precipice, as the time of high risk of destroying ourselves. In the last century, we faced a one in a hundred risk of human extinction, he reckons, while in this century it is one in six. The book that follows presents his reasoning for this estimate, “the risks”. Read more A bluffer’s guide to Mantelmania: how to fake it He begins with natural risks, like asteroids and comets, supervolcanic eruptions and stellar explosions and finds them, taken altogether, to be low-risk, one in a million per century. But, significantly, he considers the risk represented by pandemics to be anthropogenic, not natural. The most obvious risk to human survival is nuclear war, and Ord provides an alarming litany of the times we have come near it, mainly by accident, but, unexpectedly, he doubts that even nuclear winter would lead to total human extinction or the global unrecoverable collapse of civilisation. Likewise, he contends that while climate change has the capacity to be “a global calamity of unprecedented scale”, it would not necessarily have that result either. Environmental damage doesn’t show “a direct mechanism for existential risk” either. Nonetheless, Ord concludes that “each of these three risks has a higher probability than that of all natural risks put together” — and then turns to future risks. These include pandemics, “unaligned artificial intelligence”, “dystopian scenarios” (his term for “a world with civilisation intact, but locked into a terrible form, with little or no value”, in which category he includes a single fundamentalist religion) and, more briefly, nanotechnology and extraterrestrial life. Catastrophic: nuclear testing on Mururoa, French Polynesia in the Seventies (Getty Images) Ultimately he charts the risks as he sees them, very surprisingly rating the chances of existential catastrophe through nuclear war or climate change in the next hundred years as just one in 1,000, while the risk from engineered pandemics is one in 30 and unaligned artificial intelligence is one in 10, adding up together to that one-in-six chance. Then he delivers a tremendous pep talk, The Path Forward, about what we can and should do to safeguard humanity, to reach existential security, have a “long reflection” and achieve our potential in deep time and space. “We need to take responsibility for our future,” he urges, saying he finds it “useful to consider our predicament from humanity’s point of view: casting humanity as a coherent agent, and considering the strategic choices were it sufficiently rational and wise.” He admits: “This frame is highly idealised.” Not half. Among his main recommendations (“International coordination”, “technological progress”), is that we need much more research on existential risk itself, a study in its infancy. That seems inarguable. Let us hope this book is not quite so timely as it feels. The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity by Toby Ord (Bloomsbury, £25), buy it here. More about: | Books | Book Reviews Reuse content