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Very Bad News

In the United States, Los Angeles, where he lives, is choked with smog and traffic, its elite having retreated to gated communities; Montana, where he spends his summers, once among the top ten states in per-capita income, is now forty-ninth out of fifty, because of the decline of the extraction industries—logging, coal and copper mining, oil, and gas—which have left behind them a poisoned landscape and a second-home society of self-absorbed seasonal visitors, “half-retirees” from the megapolitan coasts. “Failure to anticipate,” “failure to perceive,” “rational bad behavior,” “disastrous values,” “unsuccessful solutions,” “psychological denial,” “groupthink” are present everywhere.

There are some signs of hope. Japan has managed its forests effectively, highland New Guinea has stabilized its garden economy, radical reform is beginning in Australia, environmentalist activism is growing in the United States. But in general, the prospects are bleak. The modern world is caught up in an “exponentially accelerating horse race” between bigger and bigger environmental problems and increasingly desperate attempts to deal with them. “Many readers of this book are young enough, and will live long enough, to see the outcome.”


Richard Posner’s conception of the sorry end awaiting us if we are insufficiently alert is as futuristic as Diamond’s is haunted by history. Collision with an asteroid that could shatter the earth into a thousand pieces. Precipitate global warming that could, paradoxically, turn it into a giant snowball. A runaway particle experiment that could squeeze the planet down to an uninhabitable hyper-dense marble. Gene-spliced pandemic, nuclear-winter war, run-amok robots, self-assembling nanomachines, billionths of a meter across, gobbling up everything in their path until they have consumed all of life. A cloud of extinction events, bodeful and indeterminate, hovers on the world horizon or just over it. Unless we rethink how we order our lives and manage our technology, and perhaps even if we do, the worst may be yet to come.

The main problem, over and above their mind-bending dimensions, is that these various sorts of megacatastrophes seem to most people either so far off, so unlikely, or so thoroughly beyond what they have even vicariously experienced—psychologically off-scale, conceptually out-of-sight—as to be beyond the range of rational estimation or practical response. We are both emotionally disinclined and intellectually ill-equipped to think systematically about extreme events. Absorbed as we are in the dailiness of ordinary life, and enfolded by its brevity, the calculation of remote possibilities and the comparison of transcendent cataclysms look pointless; comic, even. That, Posner argues, must change, and change radically if we are to have a chance of averting, for ourselves and our descendants, a final annihilation:

The dangers of catastrophe are growing. One reason is the rise of apocalyptic terrorism. Another… is the breakneck pace of scientific and technological advance…. The cost of dangerous technologies, such as those of nuclear and biological warfare, and the level of skill required to employ them are falling, which is placing more of the technologies within reach of small nations, terrorist gangs, and even individual psychopaths. Yet, great as it is, the challenge of managing the catastrophic risks is receiving less attention than is lavished on social issues of far less intrinsic significance, such as race relations, whether homosexual marriage should be permitted, the size of the federal deficit, drug addiction, and child pornography. Not that these are trivial issues. But they do not involve events of potential extinction or the modestly less cataclysmic variants of those events.

The first necessity is obviously to distinguish the threats. Where are we to begin? Are natural accidents like tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, glaciations, and asteroid collisions the most pressing danger? (“An asteroid that struck what is now Mexico 65 million years ago, though estimated to have been only 10 kilometers…in diameter when it entered the earth’s atmosphere, is believed to have caused the extinction of the dinosaurs…. A similar collision is believed to have occurred 250 million years ago wiping out 90 percent of the species living then.”) Or is it a germ-war pandemic, “the possibility that science, bypassing evolution, will enable monkeypox to be ‘juiced up’ through gene splicing into a far more lethal pathogen than smallpox ever was”? Or a laboratory accident? A shower of quarks in a particle accelerator self-reassembled into “a very compressed object called a strangelet [that] would keep growing until all matter was converted to strange matter”? A similarly generated “phase transition” that would “rip the fabric of space itself” and “[destroy] all the atoms in the entire universe”?

Genetically modified crops? Artificial life? Mechanical super-intelligence? Species loss? Greenhouse pollution? Cyberterrorism? Posner reviews them all in turn, in a hectic flurry of piled-up fact-bites, speculative calcula-tions, passing quarrels, and offhand policy dicta—an orderless mixture of assertion, guess, remark, and opinion for which the term “farrago” would seem to have been invented. The result, perhaps unsurprisingly, is rather like a lawyer’s brief. If one line of reasoning fails to carry, try another. If one expert demurs, find one who doesn’t.

The threats identified, the costs of their impact, should they contrive to occur, must be somehow assessed, a formidable task when you are dealing with minuscule probabilities, anomalous events, and world-shaking consequences. Posner largely handles the problem of estimating danger via sheer postulation—weird and (one assumes, unintentionally) madcap burlesque. “Suppose the cost of extinction of the human race…can be very conservatively estimated at 600 trillion dollars [and there is] a 1 in 10 million annual probability of a strangelet disaster.” “Suppose there is a 70 percent probability that in 2024 global warming will cause a social loss of $1 trillion.” “Suppose that [a] $2 billion expenditure reduces the probability of [a bioterrorist attack] from .01 to .0001.” That done, cost-benefit analysis, the assigning of numerical weights to policy proposals—emission taxes, sky-search programs, early-warning systems, accelerator inspections—can then be applied (at least theoretically: “people have trouble placing a money value on ‘products’ remote from what they are accustomed to find offered for sale”) to determine what proportion of its resources society as a whole, and especially American society, “dollar-weighted…about one-fourth of the world,” ought to devote to one or another of them: where this or that catastrophe should rank on our scale of worries.

On this basis, page after page of statistical assumption (most people “would rather have a reasonable assurance of living to 70 than a 50 percent probability of living to 50 and a 50 percent probability of living to 90”) and speculative number crunching (“…let me make a wild guess that the benefits [of Brookhaven’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider] can be valued at $250 million per year”), Posner arrives at a series of sweeping conclusions, confident and emphatic, and not a little unnerving, concerning what it is that, “better safe than sorry,” needs posthaste to be done.

An International Environmental Protection Agency to enforce treaty-determined environmental norms—a stronger and more binding Kyoto Protocol—should be created. (Conservatives’ worry that international institutions put the United States at the mercy of other nations is misplaced: “as the world’s most powerful nation, the United States tends to dominate international organizations, and, when it does not, it ignores them with impunity.”) A worldwide police agency, “a greatly strengthened Interpol,” is needed to deal with bioterrorism, “precisely because it is a police problem as well as a scientific and medical one.” (Not just the investigation and apprehension of terrorists as such “but also of innocent scientists who by failing to observe security precautions may become [their] unwitting accomplices” demands a global system of official surveillance.) The policy of allowing foreign students open access to our universities ought to be reexamined. (“It is doubtful that all of those who [have] returned home [have], by virtue of their sojourn in the United States, become inoculated against rabid anti-Americanism.”)

Scientists, whose “goal is knowledge, not safety…cannot be entrusted with the defense of the nation and the human race.” (“The Large-aperture Synoptic Survey Telescope…would as we know be an ideal tool for identifying potentially hazardous near-earth objects. The principal advocates of the project, however, are interested not in near-earth objects, but in remote galaxies.”) They need to be brought to a more responsible awareness of their social duty—perhaps by a science court manned by “scientifically literate lawyers,” perhaps by a federally funded “Center for Catastrophic-Risk Assessment and Response.” “Johnny-one-note civil libertarians uttering fallacious slogans,” peddling “bromides about free speech,” and obsessing over “coercive interrogation” may object that such measures break constitutional norms. But since September 11, “the marginal cost of civil liberties [has] increased dramatically.” As the risk is great, so must be the response:

In wartime we tolerate all sorts of curtailments of our normal lib-erties…conscription, censorship, disinformation, intrusive surveillance, or suspension of habeas corpus. A lawyer might say that this is because war is a legal status that authorizes such curtailments. But to a realist it is not war as such, but danger to the unusual degree associated with war, that justifies the curtailments. The headlong rush of science and technology has brought us to the point at which a handful of terrorists may be more dangerous than an enemy nation…. It has been a commonplace since Thomas Hobbes wrote Leviathan that trading independence for security can be a profitable swap…. Only the will is wanting.


For all their differences—Diamond’s pageant and panorama, Posner’s hodgepodge and swirl, Diamond’s materialism, Posner’s utilitarianism, Diamond’s earnest prophesying, Posner’s belligerent policy mongering—both are engaged, at bottom, in the same sort of exercise: engineering a social mood. They are out to alter attitudes, redirect mind-sets, refocus worries; transform the currents of popular feeling. They ask, in somewhat different ways, the same question: “Is the modern way of life globally sustainable?” And they give, on the basis of somewhat different material, the same answer: “Not as it stands.”

Looking around, one finds it hard to argue. There are enough calamities, actual and looming, natural and man-made, to give anyone pause, even if they still fall a bit short of Diamond’s isolate and castaway Easter Island or Posner’s world-devouring nano-machines. Kobe and Banda Aceh, Bhopal and Chernobyl, September 11 and Madrid, Rwanda and Darfur; AIDS, deforestation, overpopulation, urban sprawl, pollution, and the proliferation of industrial waste seem near out-of-hand; and it is, in fact, difficult to imagine a world in which the Chinese use of automobiles matches the American. Yet it is possible to wonder whether the situation will yield to alarm and entreaty, the cry havoc persuasion of large numbers of minds. Decline and fall melodramas and sci-fi scenarios may serve to italicize crisis, but it is not so clear what they do to engage it.

What is most striking about both Diamond’s and Posner’s views of human behavior is how sociologically thin and how lacking in psychological depth they are. Neither the one, who seems to regard societies as collective persons, minded super-beings intending, deciding, acting, choosing, nor the other, for whom there are only goal-seeking individuals, perceiving and calculating rational actors not always rational, has very much to say about the social and cultural contexts in which their disasters unfold. Either heedless and profligate populations “blunder” or “stumble” their way into self-destruction or strategizing utility maximizers fail to appreciate the true dimensions of the problems they face. What happens to them happens in locales and settings, not in culturally and politically configurated life-worlds—singular situations, immediate occasions, particular circumstances.

But it is within such life-worlds, situations, occasions, circumstances, that calamity, when it occurs, takes intelligible shape, and it is that shape that determines both the response to it and the effects that it has. However “natural,” “physical,” or “material” they may be, and however unpredictable or unintended, collapse and catastrophe are, like coups and recessions, riots and religious movements, social events.

A cataclysmic flood in southern Asia projects world powers into the midst of the most local of local conflicts—Sumatran separatism, Sri Lankan civil war. An AIDS pandemic shakes the foundations of family life and alters power relationships across an entire subcontinent. The state’s response, selective and defensive, to a nuclear accident in the Ukraine alters the whole language of rights and obligations in an emerging nation. An industrial accident in a US-owned plant in central India leaves behind it a quarter-century of litigation and legislation, claim and counterclaim, that shapes attitudes toward everything from the limits of corporate responsibility to the foundations of distributive justice. The introduction of efficient methods of selective harvesting into the Indonesia rain forests by Japanese multinationals rearranges the relationships between the forests’ inhabitants, the urban-centered central government, and the broader world of global trade.

Monographic attention to such critical examples should take us further than either Diamond’s chronicles or Posner’s scenarios toward whatever understanding and whatever control of the disruptions and disintegrations of modern life are actually available to us.2


Very Bad News’ June 9, 2005

  1. 2

    Under the general rubric of “the anthropology and sociology of science,” such a monographic literature about particular disasters has begun to appear. See, on the Ukraine case, Adriana Petryna, Life Exposed: Biological Citizens After Chernobyl (Princeton University Press, 2002); on the Union Carbide tragedy in India, Kim Fortun, Advocacy After Bhopal: Environmentalism, Disaster, New Global Orders (University of Chicago Press, 2001); on the commercial exploitation of Indonesia’s forests, Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton University Press, 2005).

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