Is this conclusion really understood?
Are we humans risking annihilation through lethal activities? Climate change comes to mind. But so do our perturbations of the nitrogen cycle which we are now at the very beginnings of understanding. In addition, the introduction of novel genes into the plant kingdom with little testing through genetically engineered crops poses unknown risks not only to food production, but also to biological systems everywhere.
But what does this mean in practical terms? The simple answer is that human societies are, and should not be engaging in activities which risk destroying all of humanity. Nuclear war comes t o mind. And, most, if not all, people recognize that a nuclear war would not only result in unthinkably large immediate casualties, but also might threaten all life on Earth with a years-long nuclear winter.
Certain premises must be accepted.
It should be obvious that the death of an individual human being isn’t as bad as the death of all humankind. But that’s only true if you accept the following premise laid out by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his upcoming book, Skin in the Game:
Consider the following thought experiment. First case, one hundred persons go to a casino to gamble a certain set amount each and have complimentary gin and tonic…. Some may lose, some may win, and we can infer at the end of the day what the “edge” is, that is, calculate the returns [for the casino] simply by counting the money left with the people who return. We can thus figure out if the casino is properly pricing the odds. Now assume that gambler number 28 goes bust. Will gambler number 29 be affected? No. You can safely calculate, from your sample, that about 1% of the gamblers will go bust. And if you keep playing and playing, you will be expected have about the same ratio, 1% of gamblers over that time window. Now compare to the second case in the thought experiment. One person, your cousin Theodorus Ibn Warqa, goes to the casino a hundred days in a row, starting with a set amount. On day 28 cousin Theodorus Ibn Warqa is bust. Will there be day 29? No. He has hit an uncle point; there is no game [any] more.
What is the essential finding?
If you climb mountains and ride a motorcycle and hang around the mob and fly your own small plane and drink absinthe, your life expectancy is considerably reduced although not a single action will have a meaningful effect. This idea of repetition makes paranoia about some low probability events perfectly rational.
Here is the essential finding of the chapter in Taleb’s new book: If you keep repeating an action which has a nonzero chance of killing you over time, you will almost surely end up in the grave. If society does the same thing, it risks the same fate. Individuals may die before risky behavior catches up with them. Societies live on to repeat actions that risk ruin. And, we as a society are engaging in multiple activities that risk our ruin as a species, a circumstance in which the probabilities of societal ruin are not merely additive, but multiplicative.
The confusion about risk entails 1) the inability to see that we are piling danger upon danger and 2) the failure to understand that we have assessed risk in the wrong way.
Complex Earth Systems present a problem.
In the realm of complex earth systems, however, the odds of ruin cannot be calculated. In fact, how the actions we take might cause ruin cannot be known for certain. Much about these systems is hidden from us. What we do know is that our very survival depends on their proper functioning, and that therefore, perturbing them as little as is possible makes sense. We cannot be certain exactly what actions at what scale will, for example, create runaway global warming.
So there is one final crucial aspect of the dangers we are creating to the Earth’s systems. The precise extent and nature of the systemic planet-wide risks we are taking in fiddling with those systems are hidden. We cannot know all the interactions in the atmosphere, in the soil, in the oceans or in the plant kingdom that result from our actions. That means that our models cannot capture all the possibilities the way a gambler can calculate precisely the odds of winning at roulette. And, this is emphatically a reason for us to be very, very careful. That’s because we know that what we are doing could lead to the ruin of our civilization and its people. In fact, we know it is very likely over time because we keep repeating offending acts that have a nonzero chance of causing systemic ruin while increasing their scale.
When someone says that genetically engineered crops have been around for years and no catastrophe has occurred that person is either a spokesperson for the industry or simply doesn’t understand that we are courting hidden risks under time probability. The same can be said for those downplaying the risks of climate change except the industry in question will, of course, be the fossil fuel industry.
We are on a short leash, and yet acting at a strange deniel level which undoubtfully will backfire if we do not change gears soon.