We consider ourselves to be a species with a long track record of progress, but this is not altogether true. First, in the grand scheme of planetary evolution, we haven’t really been around all that long, and second, for an awful long time in our evolution we were doing nothing more spectacular than hurling rocks at each other. Some may think that nothing much has changed, but of course it has. The past few hundred years have seen some momentous changes. We now have the technology available to completely erase ourselves from the grand landscape of planetary evolution. If we don’t watch our step we could make ourselves extinct. This is the concern of author Toby Ord, his reason for writing such an impressive and profound book. Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity is no small title. The notes and bibliography are voluminous.
So, just how worried should we be, and about what exactly? Ecologists worry daily about the threats to other species of animal on the planet. We worry about the rhino, the elephant and the tiger. We worry about trees and plants and sometimes even insect life. But do we worry enough about our own future? It seems that we don’t, because we have constructed most of our societies according to the ‘live for today’ principle. As Toby Ord points out, ‘we forget the scale of the story in which we take part…Fuelled by technological progress, our power has grown so great that for the first time in humanity’s long history, we have the capacity to destroy ourselves—severing our entire future and everything we could become.’
Note the words, ‘everything we could become’. Author Toby Ord talks often during this book about the potential of humanity, about how our future stretches, theoretically, before us, dwarfing our past by millennia, and that given what we have achieved so far, the future could be amazing. The only problem is, it could also be wiped out by our own inability to navigate the metaphorical precipice that currently lies before us.
In many respects The Precipice is a slightly frightening book, but in others it is also a reassuring one. Ord looks at the risks we face with a clear and scholarly eye, and explains how we can overcome them. Fortunately, for the most part, we are overcoming them. There is a great deal of research going on behind the scenes that the majority of us, immersed in our individualism, do not always see, and it is generally optimistic. But while the road ahead for humanity has the potential to be bright and long and beautiful, there is also the chance that it could veer off into darkness, like a path into the woods. And as every human child knows, once you get lost in the woods, it’s hard to find your way back again. You could be going round in circles forever, trapped in a dystopian future from which there’s no way out.
This book feels particularly relevant now because of what we’re going through. Pandemics feature alongside asteroids, stellar explosions, volcanic eruptions, climate change and artificial intelligence. Even engineered pandemics are discussed — pathogens are currently being deliberately used, improved and created. So, ‘an escape of a pandemic pathogen is a matter of time,’ says Ord, chillingly.
Ultimately, the drive of this profound and fascinating book is to try to make us understand what is at stake, what is being done, and why it all matters. Such books form an essential part of the vital conversation that we should be having about the future. As we have recently discovered, preparedness is the key to our survival. And the more we understand that, the better. ‘Safeguarding humanity’s future is the defining challenge of our time’. But we have to do it wisely.
Any Cop?: It’s certainly not bedtime reading, unless you take a sleeping pill. But hard times call for hard truths, and if you can’t stand the apocalyptic heat, as they say, get out of the kitchen.