Existential Risks

An existential risk represents a catastrophe that leads to an extinction event, society’s collapse to a pre-agricultural state, or a totalitarian regime that maintains total and lasting subjugation of the global population.

An existential risk is a risk that threatens the destruction of humanity’s longterm potential.

Toby Ord

We must be aware of the probability of such events taking steps to reduce the risk of their occurrence and avoid them. In the book ‘The Precipice‘, Toby Ord suggests that we entered a period of high risk in 1945 with the first use of the atomic bomb on humans and calculated that we have a 20% risk of total extinction 2100. Toby argues that humans need to start to take a longterm view of their decisions or risk the end of civilisation.

There are two main categories of existential risk; the first and less likely are natural disasters, including supervolcanos or asteroids. The second, more likely set of threats we have created ourselves (anthropomorphic) such as war, environmental damage, and unaligned artificial intelligence. We are currently told that climate change is the most significant risk facing civilisation, and it does have real consequences. Still, other existential threats are more likely to have catastrophic effects, and each needs attention based on its probability and impact.

RiskEstimated probability
for human extinction
before 2100
Overall probability19%
Molecular nanotechnology weapons5%
Superintelligent AI5%
All wars (including civil wars)4%
Engineered pandemic2%
Nuclear war1%
Nanotechnology accident0.5%
Natural pandemic0.05%
Nuclear terrorism0.03%
Future of Humanity Institute, 2008, taken from Wikipidia

There is a common argument about the need to look after the current population before making decisions that might reduce current growth and prosperity to provide a better future for the people that are yet to be born. There is also a strong argument that many of these risks have been inherited from previous generations. Both of these arguments are strong, particularly when you see the suffering and deprivation that many people across the world live in. However, they do not change the fact that the existential risks are real, and we have a responsibility to leave the world in a better situation than we found it.

How to reduce existential risks

Responsible and mature activism can be an important secondary activity, but there are many more impactful and pressing actions for those serious about reducing the risk of an end to humanity, such as living as sustainably as possible ourselves first. Toby Orb provides two actions people can take to lessen the probability and impact of global catastrophic risks.

  1. Your choice of career
  2. Charitable donations

There is a global mismatch of skills; this is particularly an issue in the various engineering fields. For a sustainable future, people must be working on practical solutions to existential risks. 80,000 hours provides ideas for how you can use your career to solve the human races most important problems and offers a list of jobs by problem area to apply the skill you have to the issues you feel most strongly about helping to solve. The most significant impact an individual can have on the future of human civilisation is to choose a career that reduces the risk of an existential event. 

The second most significant impact you can have on reducing existential risks is to use your disposable income to support charities or companies that are working towards reducing global catastrophic risks. Toby Ord suggests donating to charities through the Giving what you can community. I would go a step further than this and suggest that investing your savings in private companies solving these problems is the best way to support sustainable solutions. Charities are dependent on donors for their survival; however, successful enterprises, once up and running, can fund themselves through the answers they provided, making a far more sustainable future.

Existential risks are real, and we live through a period of human history where the stakes are more significant than ever. We have a responsibility to leave the world a better place than when we enter it, first through living sustainably, second through choosing a career that reduces either the likelihood or consequence of existential risks, and thirdly by investing and donating to organisations doing the same. 

We are responsible for learning about the dangers and starting an open, honest, and respectful conversation with those around us. Just don’t be an art graduate who riots at protests about climate change and then returns to your single glazed converted barn in their camper van to sit in front of a log burning fire talking about how other people are ruining the planet. We have the creativity and skills; we need each person to take real action.