12 May 2011

How long have we got?

Only 0.01 percent of all species that have ever existed continue to do so. We happen to be one of them, for now. When [UK Astronomer Royal Sir Martin] Rees looked at the myriad ways in which the present is more perilous than the past in his 2003 book Our Final Hour, he set the odds of human extinction in the next century at 50 percent. [Nick] Bostrom, [an] Oxford philosopher, puts the odds at about 25 percent, and says that many of the greatest risks for human survival are ones that could play themselves out within the scope of current human lifetimes. “The next hundred years or so might be critical for humanity,” Bostrom says, listing as possible threats the usual apocalyptic litany of nuclear annihilation, man-made or natural viruses and bacteria, or other technological threats, such as microscopic machines, or nanobots, that run amok and kill us all. What will happen to us?, Graeme Wood, 1 May
You might think that we'd be well advised, as a species, to look at these survival probability estimates, and see if we can find ways of increasing them. And it's true that many people are working, sometimes heroically, at ways of doing so. There are quite a few organizations, for instance, that seek to raise awareness of the possibility of nuclear conflagration, and many more that seek to mitigate or prevent natural and man-made calamity. The difficulty I have is that their work is unsystematic, unco-ordinated, and is rewarded in ways that bear no relationship to their success or efficiency. As well, and perhaps more dangerously, there are policies in play that can only accelerate disaster, such as: subsidies to fossil fuel extraction and consumption, the accumulation of weapons of all kinds; and the failure seriously to pursue one of the main goals of the Cairo Population Summit, where 179 signatory countries agreed to provide access to family planning services to all the women who want them. And last, there are ways in which our survival is threatened that are beyond our current knowledge and imagination. Nobody is being encouraged to anticipate them.

In short, we need to re-orient the incentives, and to do so in a coherent manner that rewards the survival of our species against calamities of all kinds. This is where the Social Policy Bond principle can help. The issuers of Disaster Prevention Bonds need have no knowledge of the relative likelihoods of known or unforseeable catastrophic events. Neither would they have to pre-judge, with our current limited scientific knowledge, the most efficient ways of ensuring our survival. Instead, the bond mechanism could target the sustained avoidance of any - unspecified - catastrophe. It would do so in a way that encourages the exploration and investigation of all threats, known and new, impartially. Policymakers would not (and anyway could not) have to decide on how dangerous each threat is. That would be left to bondholders, who would have powerful incentives to do so continuously. Investors in the bonds would be rewarded only if they can adapt to rapidly changing events and to our ever-expanding scientific knowledge.

This is a stark contrast to the current approach; the one that has led to highly intelligent men giving our survival such a baleful prognosis. The people who are currently working in favour of humanity do so in ways that, while worthy of great respect, are doing so within a system that is heavily weighted to favour the short-term goals of large organizations, including governments, that have little incentive or capacity to care about the long-term future of the whole of humanity. It's very regrettable, and Disaster Prevention Bonds, issued with sufficient backing, could change all that.

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