Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Top Risk to Human Extinction


I’m going to cut to the chase. Over the next 100 years, I see about 4 categories of events (that we have direct line of sight to) that can end human life on earth. I have left out many broad categories (artificial intelligence, meteors, sterilization, volcanic activity, etc.) as we have no line of sight as to how those events may happen before 2100.  I’ve outlined them below but don’t think that attacking them directly will lead to any success without deeply understanding the root cause.


Chronic risks (take time to develop but are subject to threshold effects)-

‘Climate change’, as broken down in 3 categories that connect in feedback loops to each other

-Ocean degradation/acidification- Mass aquatic extinction due to myriad factors (pollution, gas release, over-fishing, etc.) leading to depletion of fish stocks and unpredictable climate effects

-Desertification- Mass erosion of arable soil from productive land surfaces through to oceans due to extensive land mismanagement

-Rise of greenhouse gases- Rise in atmospheric heat from numerous gases (due to fossil fuel usage, industrial agriculture, deforestation) leading to massive rise in sea levels, and unpredictable/volatile climate effects


Acute risks (manifestation to extinction in days)-

-Infectious disease pandemic- Increasingly dense population centers of all forms of human and animal life along with abusive use of antibiotics will continue to raise yearly risk of genesis of exotic disease

-Biotechnological virus- Creating a biological virus is increasingly becoming no different than creating a computer virus in terms of the coding process. The cost of development and ease of creation continues to fall

-Nuclear emissions/detonations- Still a massive threat considering there are thousands upon thousands out there, uranium is available, enrichment process is less of a black box than ever, and accidental/force of nature errors can occur


All these major issues have plenty of people working on them, in the form of what people believe are the ‘root causes’ – poverty, nation-state conflict, terrorism, slavery, poor policy, faulty systems, etc. However, I see a few causes lying underneath these supposed ‘root causes’:


‘Secondary root causes’






‘Primary root causes’





Pre-frontal cortex

Opposable thumbs :)


What I am seeing is

- A lot of people paying zero attention to any of this.

- Some people paying attention to long-term risks (but with a sizable populous discounting it completely)

- Fewer people paying attention to acute risks

- Very few people focusing on ‘secondary root causes’, which is really about teaching people the golden rule and following it deeply

- Even fewer focusing on the ‘primary root causes’, which is really about developing awareness and equanimity to what is happening in the present moment


I have been working on a couple of the longer-term issues but perceive it as an excuse to work on the primary causes. Whenever I’m asked ‘what can I do to help’, my response is the same – practice meditation. There is a domino effect that comes from bringing awareness to one’s own craving and aversions. It changes EVERYTHING and the virtuous circle is as unpredictable in its harmonious effects as the vicious cycle is in the negative. 

The key is in understanding that if primary root cause is not addressed, even if acute risks to humanity are averted today, tomorrow will be an even bigger challenge as the underlying issues have only intensified.  As a side-benefit, focusing on bringing awareness to one’s own craving and aversions makes for a happier life anyways!

With that, I will go meditate :)