Part two: Existential risk
The Centre for the Study of Existential Risk is not, as it might first sound, a monthly meeting for nihilists in the basement of a co-operative bookshop. Instead it is based at the University of Cambridge and runs year-round.
My introduction to the centre came via a text message from a friend and, coming as it did at the end of 2019, it felt timely. While Australia and the Amazon burn, while oceans overflow with microplastics and Arctic sea ice recedes ever faster, it is good to know that someone is taking the end of the world seriously.
The centre was created and is run by the UK’s Astronomer Royal and Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics, Martin Rees; the academic director of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence and Bertrand Russell Professor of Philosophy, Huw Price; and Jaan Tallin, co-founder of the video-call interface Skype and the file-sharing app, Kazaa. Elon Musk is on the centre’s international advisory panel, as was Stephen Hawking.
CSER’s website is a delight if your comedy tastes lean to deadpan. “There seems to be a small but real possibility that civilisation ends in the next century,” it says at one point. “This would not only be terrible for the present generation, it would permanently remove the possibility of a good future.”
There is something bracing but strangely hopeful in the frankness of CSER’s vision of the future, which accepts that increasingly rapid change is global in scale and reach, and that technology and natural disasters are running at a pace we cannot ease.
A CSER artificial intelligence bot identifies a list of academic papers every month, “most relevant to existential risk or global catastrophic risk”. The snappily titled top pick for November was “The Apocalypse: It’s not the end of the world”, whose author, Jamais Cascio, writes:
Humanity is facing multiple possible apocalypses, with narratives that often miss an important point: The apocalypse probably won’t be quick or final. It will be an environment, not an event or an end point for humanity.
In the overwhelming atmosphere of doom, it is crucial to remember that the threats which lie ahead of us are mostly things that haven’t happened yet. While it’s important to face our future truthfully, so that we can shift course away from danger where possible, if we swallow the message, “all that lies ahead is dangerous”, we make ourselves vulnerable to anyone touting solutions to risks we’re too panicked to rationally assess.
An apposite example lies in the announcement by the government that 135 Australian Federal Police would carry assault rifles at Australian airports from early December. Why this dramatic development was necessary and what risk or threat it sought to prevent wasn’t something Prime Minister Scott Morrison was keen to make explicit at a press conference with Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton and AFP commissioner Reece Kershaw.
Morrison framed the significant uptick in weaponry as, “a further step … to keep Australians safe”.
He explained that “as people move around, they will see these officers appearing more and more around airports. And I would hope that that gives people a great sense of reassurance. They are there to protect the public and the travelling public.”
But protect us from what? When journalists asked if the step up in security reflected an increased risk of terrorist attack or other forms of violence at Australian airports, the answer was no.
“Today’s announcement doesn’t reflect a change to the alert and risk level that’s in place,” Morrison said. “But what it does recognise is an understanding of the new world, which we all live in today.”
Commissioner Kershaw addressed anxieties about what police would do with their new weaponry. “The officers will be trained in hostile reconnaissance threat assessment, behavioural assessment and security questioning, to better spot and intercept terrorist threats. They will be trained to spot people scoping out the airport or attempting to circumvent security.”
This new world and its new threats, necessitating rifles and a suite of bomb-detecting labradors, stayed vaguely defined. It was left to Dutton to articulate some justification.
“We know that Australia is at risk,” he said. “In July 2017, a major terrorist plot was disrupted targeting a passenger flight departing from Sydney. Just this week, our law enforcement agencies have arrested a 21-year-old who is alleged to have been involved in advocating and preparing for terrorist acts.”
The 21-year-old has since been charged with membership of a terrorist organisation, advocating terrorism and planning terrorist acts. Whether airports were a feature of his plans has not been made public.
There was no reminder at the joint press conference that while airport security was stepped up when the 2017 bomb plot was uncovered – the plot Dutton said was a justification for new weapons – Australia’s terrorist threat level remained where it had been since September 2014 and where it remains today, at “probable”, the third of five levels.
Nor was there discussion of the fact that while the AFP and other agencies protected Australians by arresting the three men involved in the plot before they could exact a plan on a later date, the reason no one was killed by the bomb destined for Abu Dhabi in 2017 is that the terrorists over-packed.
The suitcase holding the “meat grinder” bomb, which the men planned to detonate once the plane was in the air, was too heavy to be checked on, so one of the would-be bombers took it home. Stupidity, not an assault rifle, foiled the terrorists.
While there may be genuine, satisfying explanations for why Australians should become accustomed to more militarised police in the name of safety, those explanations have not been forthcoming.
In the 1980s, German sociologist Ulrich Beck argued that risk had supplanted wealth as the central organising principle of modern societies. “We become active today in order to prevent, alleviate or take precautions against the problems and crises of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow,” Beck wrote.
Beck became a favourite of the environmental movement in the ’90s, when he identified environmental risk as the primary outcome of industrial society. Even before the internet, he saw the unchecked growth and reach of technology as a risk-making machine, and it is this potent brew of rapid growth and collapse – frenetic technological and social change mixed with environmental catastrophe – that catches us in mental stasis.
When we feel beset by too many threats we overload, and every potential problem becomes a catastrophe. Society lives in a permanent state of alarm and struggles to focus long enough to make rational judgements about what is being asked of us and why. Should we stop to question, there is always another risk waiting to distract us.
There is no mental space to deal with “now” – because risk is something that lurks over the horizon, in the future, we as a society increasingly live there, too. Beck and the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk have a lot in common in their approach to the promise and danger the future holds.
Beck asserted that risk had escaped the control of institutions. This is alarming for citizens who look to the state for protection from forces that threaten them.
That alarm activates the state’s responsibility to offer certainty and safety, and sends politicians in search of things that can be controlled to address our fears.
It prepares the ground for legislators to frame prevention as the measure that will save us from future harm.
This is part two of a four-part investigation published by The Saturday Paper and The Monthly. Read part three next Saturday, January 11.