With the emerging trends in healthcare, many of today's young children will be alive in 2100. This would be a remarkable achievement.
Then again, sometime in the next 100 years perhaps the entire human race including all today's children will die violent deaths.
In Catastrophe, US Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner shows that humanity enters the 21st century with a greater chance of annihilation than at any time in human history. Mankind faces new perils that our institutions are not addressing.
Posner does not just warn of dangers. He proposes solutions we can enact today that would reduce risk and improve world security for the next 100 years.
His facts are well researched; his analysis is well thought out. Unfortunately, his writing is heavy. He uses large amounts of hard science, legal theory, and economic analysis.
His major theme is that rapid scientific progress has created perils that our leaders are not addressing.
In a short book, he addresses a large number of doomsday scenarios that would otherwise require years of study.
None of the risks he discusses are likely to happen this year or in any particular year. However, as a group they pose a disturbing risk when looked at over a hundred years.
He collects these horrific events into four groups
1) Natural disasters - This includes asteroids striking the earth, pandemic disease, and huge volcanoes and earthquakes. These have always been around and have caused mass destruction in the past.
The other risks are new to the 21st century.
2) Perils caused by Economic Growth - This includes global warming, resource depletion, loss of biodiversity, and population growth. Posner looks critically at each.
3) Scientific Accidents - These include accidents with robots, artificial intelligence, robotic war machines, genetically modified crops, nanotechnology, and particle accelerators, These all sound like science fiction but Posner uses credible evidence to paint scenarios on how each could destroy the entire human race.
4) Intentional catastrophes - These include nuclear war, biological terror, cyber terror, surveillance, concealment, and encryption. His discussion of biological terror is especially disturbing. He cites evidence that nations, terrorist groups, or even crazed Unabomber type individuals may soon be able to create life forms that can kill billions of people.
This is frightening but Posner does not stop here. He proposes solutions we can work on today to reduce the risk of each catastrophe.
His solutions attempt to reduce each hazard while impairing our current standard of living as little as possible. Each proposal is painful and will disturb many people.
1) Fiscal solutions - He proposes increasing taxes and spending on science to address natural disasters and global warming. He uses economic tools to show that our current policies are inadequate to address these risks. His solutions will lead to a reduced standard of living for all of us.
2) Regulatory solutions -These include an international EPA, specialized science courts, a center for catastrophic risk assessment and response, an international bio-weaponry agency, and catastrophic risk review of new projects. They require international cooperation to work. These proposals will be controversial because they would require national governments like the US, Russia, and China to obey international agencies like the UN. How likely is this?
3) Reduction of civil liberties - As a judge, Posner is careful to defend the US tradition of human rights. However he questions whether the civil liberties of Western societies can continue.
With nuclear or bio-terror, we cannot afford to allow a single mistake. One crazed person can kill millions or perhaps all of us. Given this threat, should we restrict the right of unstable persons to learn dangerous technologies? Can we extend a right to privacy to people with the know how to develop viruses that can kill the entire human race? Should we profile people from certain areas of the world? Does free speech allow us to publish how to make nuclear weapons? Is there a role for torture and threats to families? Being a judge, he explains these ideas clearly and soberly.
4) Education - Posner's solutions are weakest in this areas. He does not trust generalist judges to adjudicate any case involving scientific matters but proposes a special court with judges trained in science.
In an early chapter he shows how the scientific ignorance of some people and the obsession with scientific progress of others work together to make these risks worse. However, he does not recommend improved science education for Presidents, legislators, journalists, or the general public--only judges.
Most important he does not recommend changing science education to emphasize the dangers and ethical responsibilities of scientists. Is it not important for everyone trained in science to understand the danger of what they could achieve and the responsibility to abide by ethical standards? Posner does not mention this.
In a short book, Judge Posner has done an outstanding service in explaining the most important issues confronting us in the 21st century and how they can be solved. However, his ideas should be viewed as intial ideas to stir a public debate not as final solutions. For our children's sake, I encourage everyone to do the heavy research needed to read the book and become active in working toward the best solutions.