04 March 2021

The risk of human extinction

“The risk of human extinction” topic by James


Essay by Lawrence


John Maynard Keynes, the British economist, said in 1923, "In the long run we are all dead." And so far this hypothesis has not been falsified. But the problem is not the dying but how we get there and for our topic what matters is getting there all together.


There are many ways human kind can become extinct. There are natural disasters such as meteorite impacts, catastrophic collapse of the Earth’s mantle that will contribute or cause the extinction of life on Earth, or multi volcano eruption. Except today, maybe we are better informed about these doomsday events even though there isn’t much we can do about it.


The more concerning form of extinction is what is called omnicide when only humans become extinct due to human activities or causes. The most common cited causes of omnicide are nuclear explosions or accidents, climate change, biotechnology failure, and chemical and biological warfare. It seems that nuclear extinction is not that high after all we’ve had three massive nuclear accidents and the effects have been localised: the Three Mile Island accident in the US; Chernobyl in the Ukraine; Fukushima, Japan; and to this list we must add Windscale (Sellafield) in the UK. Wikipedia lists many more incidents throughout the world in their article “List of nuclear power accidents by country.”


Of course, whilst nuclear weapons are headline news, and nuclear accidents are dinner party topics, what is really dangerous are depleted uranium ammunition that leave long term radioactive scrap for many years after the conflict. These radioactive remains are as dangerous to the local population as land mines. The reason why these radioactive weapons are not on the international agenda is because they first and foremost generate a nice profit for the arms industries and secondly they do actually work as intended.


I am quite sceptical that nuclear energy will cause the demise and extinction of humanity. Of course, nuclear energy does create problems and people do die at the local level from exposure to radiation, but it seems that nuclear “accidents” are due to human errors or negligence. If run properly and well designed nuclear structures and facilities need not be unsafe: whether nuclear energy is desirable is another matter.


A better contender for a human made disaster with the propensity of causing human extinction is climate change: that is the greenhouse effect, climate change, sustainability and local ecology. Of course, the dinosaurs eventually did die, or so we are told, because of the greenhouse effect. Climate change, to use a general term, can be both a natural disaster and a human made disaster. Multi volcano eruptions are a reality but they are not human made disasters.


In and of itself, the greenhouse effect is a desirable effect otherwise the Earth would be no better that an ice cube or one of Jupiter’s moons. The problem is when there is more heat than the planet can handle. What we know today is that there is a dangerous amount of greenhouse effect that is human made: this is not in doubt.


The problem with climate change is whether “climate change” is the best term to describe the disaster in the making. The way we name things in English is more suggestive of the context than a description of the thing in question. Looking at the meaning of climate change the key issue is not that there are changes in the climate: this has been happening since day one. But the key semantic factor of the term “climate change” is the use of fossil fuels that increase the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The question is how many people on Earth understand “climate change” to mean fossil fuels and carbon dioxide?


My point is that if the name of a human created phenomenon is misunderstood by the world community we risk mixing up our priorities. An unintended consequence of this is that we might not take the necessary action to manage climate change for the simple reason that the name itself does not generate the right reaction. Compare the well proven terms: “Fire” (especially in a theatre), “Shark”, “Free”, or “Stop” with “climate change.” Climate change does not exactly inspire adrenaline flow in human beings. Sure there are band wagons, but bandwagons have never replaced an orchestra meaning that advocating for a cause does not replace the need to do something now.


Once again we find that cutting costs is attractive than having healthy human being still alive in the long term. The alternative to fossil fuels is managed energy sources, maybe even safer nuclear energy which is anything but cheap. But managing CO2 emissions is something that can be done, if only people cooperated. So if emissions have unintended consequences they certainly can be responsible for unintended profits. The sooner the Arctic ice melts the sooner speculators can start drilling for petroleum in the polar sea, and access the North West passage for trade and military shipping. The shipping and transport costs between the US and Europe on the one side and Asia on the other would be greatly reduced.


Two additional benefits of opening the North West passage is that northern countries would have more fishing grounds to exploit and the other benefit is a massive reduction in military costs. Today regions like the USA, Europe, China and Russian need to invest heavily in their navies to patrol shipping lanes and protect their cargo ships.


But these tangible and real benefits are only available to even fewer countries. The consequence, however, is that many people living in costal regions would need to be relocated: for example many Pacific islands would disappear into the ocean and countries like Egypt and Panama would lose their monopolies with their canals.


Despite having lived twelve months living with a pandemic, chemical and biological weapon are not ideal weapon systems. At best these sorts of weapons are only efficient at the very local level: remember the chemical attacks during the Iraq-Iran war? These systems are not the best ways to attack an enemy. This was established during the First World War with the use of mustard gas. At the level of human extinction these classical contenders are inefficient, but this does not mean that many people won’t be victims of these activities.


Economic instability is probably a more comprehensive means to bring us close to extinction. The difference between climate change and nuclear war is that if we’re rich enough we can protect ourselves against climate change over sometime. The climate change disaster is not going to happen tomorrow. Climate change is more long term than Keynes was thinking off. All out nuclear war is immediate and we more or less we all understand this is short term.


Therefore, the short term risks of climate change are minimal for those with economic power, and the long term risks will first be borne by poor people. In the short term a few selected countries and regions will definitely benefit from the negative effects of climate change. It is not until the very long term that climate change would result in extinction or near extinction.


In the meantime all the initiatives that promote green policies are first and foremost trade war policies and nothing to do with climate change. Of course, any green policies will always benefit people somewhere, but green policies are first and foremost trade strategies to slow down the competition.


The new bandwagon is the Right to Repair initiative (see EU parliament initiative link below) is basically the right to have equipment repaired if it breaks down before ten years or so. This makes consumer sense and political genius because why should we have to buy a new product that can be repaired for much less money.  And the extra money we have to pay for the original product is justified by invoking the fight against climate change. But the most serious consequence of this initiative is to burden countries who model their international economy on making cheap use-and-trash products: e.g. China. Many European countries already manufacture products that are of high quality and can lasts more than ten years.


The risks of omnicide are very slim in my opinion; or at best more long term than what we can imagine. Of course, there might always be the impossible accident but if we are careful things shouldn’t be as bad as to lead to extinction. But it’s not an issue that localised disasters and even extinctions are not possible; they are and do happen. At the human level I don’t think we can compete with nature: we’re good but not as good as nature at creating extinctions. For the time being we’re only good at causing untold suffering, large scale death, and wonton abuse of nature.


Parliament wants to grant EU consumers a “right to repair” https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/press-room/20201120IPR92118/parliament-wants-to-grant-eu-consumers-a-right-to-repair)  


Best Lawrence


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