Can We Find a Balance Between Economic Growth with Environmental Sustainability?

The perils that threaten the continuity of human civilization are so obvious that it is puzzling that so little is being done to counter these perils. In fact, much is being done to hasten their arrival. Climate change, nuclear war, toxic pollution leading to complete loss of human fertilitysolar storms and electromagnetic pulse weapons that could take down the entire electric griddesigner viruses against which none of us have defenses, and energy and resource depletion are just some of the extinction-level risks that we face.

Now, none of these possibilities are certain to wipe out humanity altogether. But they might very well end modern technical civilization and leave behind only a few scattered groups of humans around the globe. And, then there is the recent hoopla about artificial intelligence (AI) taking over the world and extinguishing human beings or, at least making decisions without consideration for whether those decisions will lead to the demise of the human race. What the hoopla actually seems to be about is what people will do with AI, making this an all-too-human disaster rather than merely a technological one.


Given all that is known about these threats, what is stopping human societies from taking definitive action to prevent them? Let me offer a few ideas:

  1. I have long believed that perhaps one of modernity’s biggest challenges is that we live in complex systems, but we don’t understand them. Those without specialist knowledge may difficulty understanding the threats which emanate from the list of risks above. And, if they do understand them, they may have no way of engaging in the hunt for responses.
  2. These risks cannot be effectively addressed through individual action. For example, hardening your computer and even your home’s entire electrical system, will not prevent you from losing power in the event of a huge solar storm that knocks out the entire grid. Regarding climate change, even though individuals can make choices that reduce their carbon footprint, they cannot bring about the changes in infrastructure, industry and other people’s habits that will be required to halt climate change.
  3. The incentives in our current market-based system of finance and economics reward people 1) for doing things that are profitable but which add to our risks and 2) for avoiding costly actions that might mitigate those risks.  It is enormously profitable to burn lots of fossil fuels. It’s hard to see how that will slow down and ultimately stop until it is NOT profitable, mostly likely through taxation. Concerning toxic chemicals, the situation is roughly the same. As long as chemical companies can make huge profits selling toxic chemicals and allowing them to escape into the environment, they will do so. To the extent the chemical companies are forced to prevent escape of toxic chemicals into the environment, it is an obligation which they do not wish to bear and which their lobbyists toil daily to undermine.
  4. Most of the risks cited above and many others may seem to certain people like they just might end up being someone else’s problem in the distant future. Besides the immorality of saddling future generations with extinction-level risks that we could do something about today, there is the obvious problem that the future inevitably—and sometimes quite quickly—becomes the present. For example, climate change is now happening much more rapidly than anticipated in the 1990s when the first attempts at concerted global action were made.
  5. One often-heard refrain is that technology will address these risks. The speaker of these words usually says them without any irony since he or she seems unaware that most of the extinction-level risks we face are caused by technology to a great degree. Certainly, some technology could help mitigate these risks. But the real discussion we need to have is whether certain technologies are worth the risks.
  6. Finally, there is the argument that we humans have weathered all sorts of dangers through the ages, and we are still here. There is no denying the resilience of human beings. And, I deem it likely that small bands of humans will survive in the face of whatever catastrophe may befall us. In a near-term catastrophe, whether I or any of those reading this sentence will be among the survivors is problematic. Whether those small groups will survive for very long will depend a lot on what type of catastrophe manifests itself. One that destroys human fertility will obviously lead to the end of the human endeavor. One that merely destroys a lot of humans and leaves others untouched may allow the human experiment to continue for a long time.

As you contemplate these reasons why extinction-level threats seem not to arouse a robust response, you may be wondering if there are ways around these obstacles and attitudes. There are, but collectively we will almost certainly not pursue them on any large scale. As for individuals, I have no good answers except to do what you can where you are and live in hope—not foolish hope, but hope in the small activities we engage in to ready ourselves and others close to us for the unknown future.

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