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Reflections on humanity’s long-term future

Noah Taylor found himself exploring the connection between existential risk and peace and conflict studies amidst a pandemic. This article provokes the reader to see peace as a requirement for survival and existential risk as an opportunity to shoulder responsibility.

Ever since I was a boy, I have been fascinated by the idea of the apocalypse, an obsession that I’ve come to see as a response to my childhood fear of death. The thought of dying at the end of the world with everyone else was somehow comforting. After all, at least I wouldn’t miss anything. This early fascination found its way back into my mind as I became drawn to the field of existential risk and its connections to peace and conflict studies. 

Risks to humanity’s existence

Existential Risks are those events that either threaten human extinction or its long-term potential. Humanity has, of course, contended with such threats often unknowingly since the dawn of time. What’s changed is our awareness of those risks and our possibility to mitigate some of them. Spurred on by the positive reception I found for my ideas presented at the Effective Altruism Global X Conference; I began to draft a research agenda that links peace and long-term human survival. This topic became my strange companion throughout the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. While this worldwide pandemic is not the end of humanity, despite the immense suffering, it has certainly illustrated the systems of cause and effect that could lead to the apocalypse. 

The world as we knew it was falling apart while I was researching existential risks and trying to school myself on Artificial Intelligence and Synthetic Biology. I kept remembering my favorite line from the movie Fight Club: “It’s like polishing the brass on the Titanic.” This expression of frivolous efforts that do not address the most severe problem was haunting. 

We knew the likelihood that such a pandemic would occur; our understanding of epidemiology is perhaps better than it has ever been in our history. Yet, the pandemic spread is often seemingly exacerbated by humans’ inability to come together and work for a common goal. How can we transform conflicts and build peace when we cannot address such a clear and imminent problem?

Quiet skies

In the course of my research, I came across the “Fermi Paradox,” an often-discussed topic in existential risk. This concept became an unexpected force in changing my frame of mind. Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi supposedly was having a lunchtime discussion with colleagues in Los Alamos about a newspaper comic which portrayed aliens stealing trash cans in New York. During the conversation, Fermi interjected the humorous mood with a question, “Where is everyone?” referring to the theoretical multitudes of intelligent life that mathematically should exist. Fermi’s Paradox has moved from a casual conversation to a problem for serious contemplation. Why is the sky so silent? In other words, these perhaps esoteric discussions on the possibility of extraterrestrial life are often evoked when trying to frame thinking about human extinction on long timescales. 

Two pillars of the paradox’s grounding are the Drake Equation—a series of assumptions designed to calculate the number of intelligent species in the universe—and the Great Filter—a concept originally coined by the economist Robin Hanso based on the assumption that since we have not found intelligent life beyond Earth, there must exist something which filters out, or in most cases prevents the emergence of intelligent life.

The Great Filter

One set of responses to the Great Filter, the question of “where are they?” is that either everyone never existed, or they are all dead. If the Great Filter is in the past, humanity has already made it through the hurdle that most emerging life has not. If this is the case, we can be optimistic. We are not polishing the brass on a doomed ship. Though we may be alone in the universe, we can quantify the preciousness of life in the vast expanse. This can be a call to work for its continued preservation. 

If the filter lies in the future, then we know that soon humanity will face our most important challenges, those obstacles that prevent most intelligent life from thriving. We best be ready. Both answers to this question call forth an expanded perspective on time. We may be at a precipice between the moment in our history when we take to the stars and become a spacefaring civilization or when we risk squandering not only the combined efforts of our ancestors but also our obligations to the untold numbers of humans who have not yet existed. 

Peace and Survival

For us to overcome the challenges of the filter that may lay before us or to honor how far we have already come, we must see that peace is required for our survival. The kinds of risks that threaten all of humanity require global cooperation and enough trust for coordinated action. When we ponder the apocalypse, it need not lead us to cynicism but rather to shouldering responsibility so that we may offer the gift of opportunity to the future.

Further links

  • Bostrom, N. (2001). Existential Risks Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards. Journal of Evolution and Technology, 9 (1).
  • Ord, T. (2020). The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity. New York: Hachette Books.
  • Taylor, N. B. (2021, January 21). Noah Taylor: Developing a Research Agenda for Bridging Existential Risk and Peace and Conflict Studies. Retrieved from Effective Altruism: https://www.effectivealtruism.org/articles/noah-taylor-developing-a-research-agenda-for-bridging-existential-risk-and/