The Era of Global Risk An Introduction to Existential Risk Studies

Publication Date

August 23, 2023

Page Number


Link to Report



The Era of Global Risk An Introduction to Existential Risk Studies

The book “The Era of Global Risk: An Introduction to Existential Risk Studies” provides a comprehensive examination of the major threats facing humanity in the 21st century, including environmental degradation, emergent technologies, natural disasters, and nuclear threats. It offers insights into understanding and mitigating these risks, making it a valuable resource for students and professionals in global risk. The book also poses the critical question of how we can transition from an era of global risk to one of global safety.


1. A Brief History of Existential Risk and the People Who Worked to Mitigate It

Existential risk arises from scientific discoveries, technology, and secular worldviews—awareness of such risks heightened with nuclear weapons being the first significant source. Scientists and activists played a crucial role in raising consciousness and preventing nuclear warfare, symbolized by the Doomsday Clock. In the latter half of the 20th century, other risks, including environmental degradation, climate change, biotechnology, and AI, emerged, attracting organizations and individuals dedicated to mitigating them. The history of existential risk emphasizes the importance of reinforcing key messages, modelling extreme scenarios, managing scientific research speed, and publicly sharing findings. It also underscores the need for diverse, inclusive strategies to understand and reduce these risks, highlighting the importance of collaboration.

2. Theories and Models: Understanding and Predicting Societal Collapse

The chapter delves into various methods for understanding and predicting societal collapse—a global risk marked by rapid, drastic reductions in socio-political complexity. The main theories are divided into four categories. First, exogenous factors and one-shot explanations focus on external causes but fail to consider a society’s resilience. Second, theories based on social structure stress internal factors such as mismanagement by the elite yet ignore their historical repetition. Third, feedback mechanisms acknowledge societal dynamics’ non-linear nature, featuring models like Malthusian and Tainterian. Finally, quantitative models use mathematical methods to test theories, including agent-based and world models.

3. Existential Risk and Science Governance

The author critically examines the traditional view of scientific governance, arguing against its depiction as either purely authoritarian or entirely free. They suggest this view overlooks science and technology’s social and cultural dimensions. Presents an alternative perspective, viewing scientific governance as a socio-technical process. This process, influenced by research culture and self-governance, shapes technology and its societal impacts. It concludes by suggesting methods to improve scientific governance, including education, collective action, and international cooperation. Highlights the unique challenges faced in various political contexts, referencing literature on existential risk and socio-technical systems.

4. Beyond ‘Error and Terror’: Global Justice and Global Catastrophic Risk

Advocates for a paradigm shift in the global catastrophic risk discourse. Instead of focusing exclusively on ‘error’ (unanticipated consequences of human actions) and ‘terror’ (deliberate harmful acts), the author argues that global justice should be a central element in these discussions. It explores how global inequalities can worsen catastrophic risks and suggests that reducing these risks could also lessen the inequity. The discussion expands to the ethics and politics of risk mitigation, including equitable cost-benefit distribution and fairness in implementation. Highlights the necessity of global cooperation and strong governance to address catastrophic risks. Stressing the fair distribution of risk mitigation, the chapter suggests future research in this field, particularly integrating justice into risk analysis and mitigation.

5. We Have to Include Everyone: Enabling Humanity to Reduce Existential Risk

Emphasizes the vital role of diversity and inclusion in reducing existential risk. The authors argue that marginalized groups, particularly people with disabilities, offer unique perspectives in studying and mitigating these risks. It debunks the stereotype of disabled people as helpless and dependent in crises, stating these views are not only restrictive but costly. They highlight the benefits of incorporating disability perspectives into existential risk management. Also it illustrates this through three case studies: foresight and horizon scanning, space colonization, and bioethics. These cases show how such perspectives enhance creativity, resilience, adaptability, and ethical reasoning. In conclusion, the authors propose practical steps to promote diversity in Existential Risk Studies. These include engaging with disability studies, combating discrimination, and fostering accessibility and support. The goal is to create a more inclusive and comprehensive approach to existential risk management.

6. Natural Global Catastrophic Risks

Discusses “Natural Global Catastrophic Risks,” encompassing natural events with the potential to cause extensive harm or human extinction. These risks are classified as geological (e.g., volcanic eruptions, earthquakes), astronomical (e.g., asteroid impacts, gamma-ray bursts), and biological (e.g., pandemics, ecosystem collapse). The chapter examines natural risk assessment methods like historical data, scientific models, and expert judgment. It also presents risk mitigation strategies, including monitoring and early warning systems, disaster preparedness, response, and resilience enhancement measures. It stresses the importance of scientific research, public awareness, and policy for managing natural risks, calling for increased interdisciplinary and international collaboration.

7. Ecological Breakdown and Human Extinction

It defines ecological breakdown as a rapid and severe change in ecosystems, leading to potential species collapse and extinction. The chapter identifies causes like habitat destruction, pollution, climate change, and resource overexploitation and how they intensify each other. It discusses the impacts of ecological breakdown on societies, economies, and cultures, emphasizing the risks of cascading failures and tipping points. It proposes strategies for conservation, restoration, sustainable management, and socio-economic transformation to counter this breakdown.

8. Biosecurity, Biosafety, and Dual Use: Will Humanity Minimise Potential Harms in the Age of Biotechnology?

Provides a concise overview of recent advancements in biotechnology, including genomics, gain-of-function experiments, gene drives, synthetic biology, and AI-backed biological research. It discusses their potential impacts on human and environmental health while introducing the dual-use research concept that can yield beneficial and harmful outcomes. The challenges of regulating this type of research in a swiftly changing field are also addressed.

The chapter discusses the risks of biotechnology misuse, including bioterrorism, biowarfare, biohacking, and biocrime. It emphasizes the importance of effective biosecurity and biosafety measures to mitigate these risks, stressing the need to prevent the misuse of technology. Finally, it examines biotechnology’s ethical and social issues, including privacy, consent, equity, justice, human dignity, and environmental stewardship. It underscores the need for ethical considerations and social responsibility amid technological advancement and emphasizes responsibly engaging diverse stakeholders and communities.

9. From Turing’s Speculations to an Academic Discipline: A History of AI Existential Safety

The chapter presents a historical view of existential safety in AI, tracing its evolution from Turing and Good’s conjectures to the present. It delves into AI’s potential threats to human survival and well-being, from initial reflections to a comprehensive study of the risks. Outlines AI’s potential existential threat, discussing the intelligence explosion, alignment problem, and instrumental convergence thesis. It also examines assumptions about AI’s discontinuous progress, generality, and goal-directedness and critiques these arguments. It reviews the state and future of AI’s existential safety. Despite its significant growth and various proposed safety methods, there are still urgent gaps and questions to address before AI becomes powerfully unpredictable.

10. Military Artificial Intelligence as a Contributor to Global Catastrophic Risk

The authors examine global catastrophic risks from artificial intelligence in military use, focusing on lethal autonomous and nuclear weapons systems. They acknowledge these systems’ significant military and ethical impacts but argue they won’t likely cause a global catastrophe due to production capabilities and costs. They emphasize the need for further research and regulation.

Still, the authors focus on AI’s intersection with nuclear weapons, asserting its high potential for global catastrophes. They suggest AI could increase nuclear escalation risks, as demonstrated through six hypothetical scenarios. They also propose strategies to mitigate these risks. The section concludes withcriticaly insights for communities engaged in military AI studies and governance. It offers a research agenda to address the evolving risks of military AI, underscoring the urgency to comprehend and mitigate potential threats from AI in military operations.

An independent, non-profit organization with a mission to challenge current and future leaders to shape a better world. The organization runs various programs and residencies, uniting individuals from diverse backgrounds….

A non-profit think tank whose mission is to safeguard humanity and the Earth’s ecosystem from nuclear risks and related security threats. BASIC is committed to promoting disarmament and minimizing nuclear…

A joint effort between the German Federal Foreign Office and adelphi, a Berlin-based think tank. The initiative emphasizes the importance of incorporating climate considerations into foreign policy decisions, requiring risk…