20 November 2020

How to minimise the risk of catastrophe

One typical manifestation of the 'New Optimism', is Steven Pinker's book The Better Angels of Our Nature. According to the New Optimists, most of the indicators of human health, freedom, and educational achievement are improving. This is undeniably good news, but as Adam Salisbury writes:

[W]e should not be complacent about our past trajectory, and not indulge in the New Optimist’s flawed fixation on observed outcomes. Second, we should develop more holistic measures of human progress: ones that take into account our exposure to catastrophe. New Optimism Ignores Our Potential for Catastrophe, Adam Salisbury, 'Paladium', 13 November

I agree that we underestimate the risk of catastrophe. There are many people working hard to find vaccines, cures and treatments for disease, for example, or to prevent natural disasters or deal with their aftermath. There are peacekeepers, arms control talks, and other efforts to avoid human-made conflicts and disasters. But, in my view, this is not enough. The potential for catastrophe—the probability of a disaster of any sort, multiplied by its impactis high enough to warrant more resources devoted to reducing its likelihood. Efforts to contain nuclear weapons proliferation, for example, are minimal in relation to their potential for calamity. 

Why is this? I think it's partly because the incentives aren't there for people to get involved. Much human ingenuity, and their attendant resources, go where people have the best chance of making a good living. Advertising dog-food for instance, or the useless (at best) financial services sector.  It's only natural. But there is no correlation between where our best talents go, and the value to society of the activities they undertake when they get there. 

Social Policy Bonds would change that. Instead of the purely coincidental relationship between activity and social utility that we have nowadays, a bond regime would channel resources into society's goals. These goals would be long-term, broad and meaningful to ordinary people, who could then participate in allocating them a priority. One such goal that would, in my view, receive far more funding under a bond regime than at present would be disaster prevention. You can read more about how the Social Policy Bond concept could address the minimisation of the risk of disaster here. The bonds could even bring into our purview those goals long considered to be unrealistic or idealistic; not because they are unattainable, but because they are not rewarded in ways that attract sufficient human and material resources. I am thinking now of that most noble but, in my view quite achievable, goal of world peace.

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