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Meeting the challenge of Global Extinction

Review of Andrew Leigh, What is the Worst that Could Happen?: Existential Risk and Extreme Politics (The MIT Press, 2021, 240 pp), Australian Book Review, March 2022

Most people, and certainly most politicians, don’t spend much time or emotional energy thinking about whether human life on this planet will still exist in one hundred years’ time, or what efforts might need to be made right now if we and our descendants are to avoid extinction.

More Covid-scale pandemics, and the increasingly obvious reality of global warming, are both now being seen – though still not universally – as serious risks demanding serious policy response. They may prove to be game changers. But, here as with other potentially huge man-made risks, complacency generally prevails. Since the end of the Cold War, it has been hard to energise policymakers and publics anywhere in the world about the risk of annihilation by nuclear weapons – and even harder to alarm anyone but a handful of afficionados about developments in artificial intelligence amounting to a measurable threat to our very existence.

Andrew Leigh, as so often, sees things differently. With the same extraordinary energy and polymathic reach – more than a little alarming to us lesser mortals – that he has brought to publishing eight books on multiple subjects in the less than twelve years that he has been a member of the Australian Parliament, not to mention running marathons and devoting quality time to his young family, he has now published a wake-up call on the reality of global existential risks that should be hard for any of us to ignore.

Leigh’s focus in What’s the Worst That Could Happen? is not on ‘natural’ risks such as asteroid impact, super-volcanic eruption, or stellar explosion, which, though beloved by some catastrophists, he not unreasonably assesses as being either so remote or so beyond human capacity to avoid, or both, that they are not worth worrying about. His book is rather about the anthropogenic risks posed particularly by out-of-control artificial intelligence, engineered pandemics, climate change, and nuclear war, which, Leigh suggests, together add up to a one in six chance that within a century all human life will go the way of dodos and dinosaurs.

He relies for this extraordinary figure on the Australian Oxford philosopher Toby Ord’s highly praised analysis in The Precipice: Existential risk and the future of humanity (Hachette, 2021), which assesses these individual risks of extinction as ranging in magnitude from one in 1,000 (nuclear war and climate change) to one in ten (out-of-control artificial intelligence). Leigh’s book (like Ord’s, which Robert Sparrow reviewed in the December 2020 issue of ABR) would benefit from more detailed explanation of the methodology behind both these individual judgements – involving, essentially, knowledgeable guesstimates rather than anything more robustly objective – and especially the arithmetic (not obvious to the uninitiated reader) which enables them to be distilled, collectively, into odds of one in six for human extinction. But these figures are certainly not incredible, and they should concentrate our minds.

Where Leigh breaks new and very interesting ground, going beyond anything in Ord’s work, is in drawing a link between existential risk and extreme politics. His book is as much about the anatomy, and dangers, of populism – of both the left and right – as an incubator and accelerator of these risks as it about the risks themselves. The basic storyline, and he develops it very persuasively, is that ‘tackling long-term threats requires four things: strong science, effective institutions, global engagement, and a sense of cooperation and order. Populists are anti-intellectual, anti-institutional, anti-international and anti-irenic.’ (‘Irenic’, he helpfully reminds us, means to strive for peace and consensus.) In short, ‘we should no more expect populists to be good crisis leaders than we should expect jockeys to be good at basketball’. And it gets worse: if populists coming to power within democratic systems succeed in become authoritarian demagogues – a recurring phenomenon from Hitler to Hun Sen, and with the Trumps, Orbáns, Erdoğans, Bolsonaros, and perhaps Modis of this world giving us plenty to currently worry about – then populism itself becomes a dangerously destructive force.

The difficulty, as always, in addressing problems of this magnitude is to come up with prescriptions that are both realistically achievable and likely to be effective. Leigh’s proposed responses to the various specific risk scenarios he discusses are hardly original, but there is plenty of value in their repetition when publics are as disengaged, and policymakers as slow to act, as for the most part they all still are.

For nuclear weapons, for example, he is right to stress the utility of focusing, in the first instance, on risk-reduction measures, including the universal adoption by the nuclear-armed states of ‘no first use’ doctrine, de-alerting launch systems, and reducing overall stockpile numbers. To ensure that the development of super-intelligent computer systems serves legitimate human goals rather than becoming capable of destroying our very existence, he is right to advocate the adoption of appropriate universal programming principles, ultimately embodied in a formal and enforceable global treaty.

To lessen the risk of pandemics, Leigh is unadventurous but right to insist on the necessity of investment in scientific research, disease surveillance, surge capacity and stockpiles, and strengthened international guardrails against bioterrorism. And it is hard for any even half-informed observer to disagree with his insistence that potentially catastrophic carbon emissions must be cut by investing in renewables, restricting power plant discharge, and assisting developing nations in following a cleaner path than that managed by their advanced predecessors.

When it comes to meeting the scourge of populism – and all the inadequate risk response and other bad policy this enables and encourages – some reviewers have found the author’s action prescriptions, which focus basically on national institutional reforms to restore democracy’s strength in countries where it is under stress, as more than a little limp. For the American readership to whom this book is primarily addressed, it no doubt makes sense to emphasise the utility of some relatively modest measures (albeit none of them remotely easy to implement in the present hyper-partisan US political environment) that would make the electoral system less obviously flawed than it now is.

But the recommended panaceas of weekend polling days, compulsory voting, independent re-districting, and ranked-choice voting have all been part of Australia’s democratic system for many decades. While they may have spared us some of populism’s worst excesses, it is hard to argue – certainly on the evidence of the last decade – that they have done anything at all to deliver the kind of intelligent, principled, far-sighted, and, above all, competent government that is necessary to address effectively not only current domestic problems but also potentially much further distant global existential risks.

That said, I am inclined to be more forgiving of Leigh’s difficulty in solving at a stroke the problems of contemporary governance that he so lucidly identifies. As someone who has struggled for decades both at home and abroad, arguing for and trying to deliver better public policy, not least in relation to global public goods, I am acutely conscious of just how difficult it is to change mindsets and priorities. But, as hard as it sometimes seems – not least in the digital age – for reason to trump raw emotion, rational arguments for better policy, unexciting though they might appear, must be made, carefully, systematically, and relentlessly.

My own mantra has long been that optimism is self-reinforcing in the same way that pessimism is self-defeating. Achieving anything of lasting value in public life is difficult enough, but it is almost impossible to do so without believing that what seems to be out of reach really is achievable. And it is important to keep things in perspective. Community norms do change, sometimes with stunning speed, as we have seen with gay marriage and gender sensitivity more generally, and increasingly with attitudes to climate change and fossil fuels. Good political leadership matters more than anything else, but even when things seem at their most desolate, we know that pendulums do swing, wheels do turn, and that presidents and prime ministers do change.

If good policy is to prevail – and no policy issue could be more important than the survival of our planet – voices of rationality, decency, and optimism must be heard. Andrew Leigh’s voice on these issues is one that matters, and What’s the Worst That Could Happen? deserves to stimulate long-overdue debate both in Australia and internationally.

Gareth Evans was Australia’s Foreign Minister 1988–96, President of the International Crisis Group 2000–9, and Chancellor of the Australian National University 2000–19. His latest book is Good International Citizenship: The case for decency (Monash University Press, March 2022).

This article was originally published in Australian Book Review in March 2022.