Yes, this is a real thing. The Global Challenges Foundation’s “annual report Global Catastrophic Risks 2016 is the result of a continued partnership between the Foundation and researchers at the Future of Humanity Institute and the Global Priorities Project at Oxford Martin School at Oxford University.” And their Annual Report on possible worldwide super-disasters is a real eye-opener. It’s surprisingly doomsday prepper-esque in its outlook. Download the Executive Summary or the Full Report here.
Two of the top three global risks in the Report were to be expected: nuclear war and a global pandemic. These two were presented as among the most devastating possible events that require our attention. But the third top risk was unusual: an engineered pandemic. The Report says:
“The past decades have seen rapid advances in biotechnology…. Gene synthesisers have the capacity to turn digital sequence data into physical genetic sequences, enabling individuals to create viruses from digital files….”
“In 2001 Australian researchers accidentally created a highly lethal and vaccine resistant form of mousepox. Similar techniques could potentially be applied to smallpox. Two recent controversial papers have shown how to create a version of H5N1 which is potentially transmissible between humans. Basic calculations based on H5N1 parameters suggest that a single release of these modified viruses could cause hundreds of millions of casualties. Engineered pathogens with dangerous features could be released accidentally from a lab or intentionally by states or terrorist groups.” [Report p. 52]
F-ing Son of a Gun. In all my writings on possible SHTF or TEOTWAWKI disasters, I hadn’t considered a rogue nation or well-funded terrorist group making its own modern-day equivalent of the Spanish Flu. This Report, by the way, is not some random musings of a prepper or survivalist (as you will find on this blog). It’s scientists and researchers, working out of Oxford University.
Another surprising Global Catastrophe Risk in the Report is a little harder to believe: Catastrophic disruption from AI (artificial intelligence). But no, this is not some version of SkyNet becoming sentient, and then deciding that humanity is expendable. Their take is less sensational but somewhat more likely: “widespread automation could cause significant economic and social disruption.” In other words, AI would cause human workers to be needed less and less, resulting in economic disruption or collapse. Color me skeptical.
The Report considers the possibility of a supervolcano eruption or a large-scale asteroid impact. These types of events would be absolutely devastating to the planet, but there is not much we can do about it. Similarly, a gamma ray burst from deep space could theoretically wipe out all life on earth in an instant. But the likelihood is exceedingly small, and we can’t defend against it.
“A global totalitarian state is a possible scenario, but it is unclear what proportion of the scenarios would meet the threshold for a global catastrophe and how likely it would be to arise given the current geopolitical environment.” [Report p. 64]
Right now, I don’t think a global totalitarian state is a tenable hypothesis. Maybe in the distant future. I am concerned, however, that rogue nations like North Korea or Iran, and terrorist groups like ISIS (ISIL, IS, whatever) will get enough power and start a world war. But conquering the planet is not really possible in the current global political situation.
One of the more interesting global risks in the Report is termed “failure of geo-engineering”. The scenario is compelling. The world decides to do something about global warming, by deliberately trying to engineer changes to the climate. But our understanding of how different interventions might affect climate is very limited. A poorly-planed and poorly-governed attempt to geo-engineer the climate then makes things much worse. We screw the pooch and also the planet as a result.
Well, I have to say, that could happen. Look at how “well” the U.S. Congress manages the economy. It’s like a blind man trying to put together a thousand piece puzzle, while he’s drunk and high. But at least we have some historical information on how government intervention affects the economy. We’ve never geo-engineered the climate. So we would be making a first attempt, based only on theory and computer models, with the governments of many other nations also helping to make the decisions. That is not going to go well. I’m bumping “failure of geo-engineering” into my top ten list of possible future global disasters.