Stories tagged existential threats

Jan
13
2008

So fragile, so vulnerable -- so what do you do?: How would you allocate funds to protect the Earth from disaster?
So fragile, so vulnerable -- so what do you do?: How would you allocate funds to protect the Earth from disaster?Courtesy NASA

The Lifeboat Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to finding solutions to global challenges, has an interesting poll on its blog. Let’s say you had an extra $100 million lying around, and you could spend it to protect the Earth and all its people from the following threats:

  • Deadly diseases
  • Global warming
  • Invasion from outer space
  • Abusive governments
  • Nanotechnology run amok
  • Nuclear holocaust
  • Asteroid collision
  • Intelligent computers run amok
  • Simulation shut down
  • Other

How would you distribute the $100 million? You might think all of these issues are important, but you’ve only got so much money. How would you spend it? (You can go to the Lifeboat blog and cast your vote, and see how other people have voted.)

Actually, a similar survey has already been run by Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg. He runs the Copenhagen Consensus, a program which invites world leaders to prioritize their efforts based on what actions would produce the greatest benefits. They found that every dollar spent on health issues, such as AIDS, malnutrition and malaria, produced up to $40 worth of benefits, while money spent on other worthy causes often generated much less.

As for me, I’d also put most of my money on deadly diseases – this is something we know is real. I’d probably also put a chunk on “other” for environmental protection – pollution, deforestation, species loss.

This is not to dismiss all of the other threats. I certainly worry about some crackpot getting a hold of nuclear weapons. But full-scale nuclear holocaust seems a lot less likely now than it did back during the Cold War. Abusive governments? A local problem, to be sure, but not one likely to threaten the planet and all life on it.

The others seem rather far-fetched to me. Global warming? My skepticism over the threat this poses is well-documented elsewhere on this blog, though certainly others disagree with me. Asteroid collision? Happens once every 100 million years or so; killer germs emerge once a generation. Invasion from outer space? Get real – if interstellar travel were possible, wouldn’t the space men be here by now? Nanotechnology turning everything into gray goo? A casual familiarity with nano shows that such fears are vastly overrated. Artificial intelligence ruling the world? They’ve been promising AI since the early ‘60s – I’m still waiting.

My favorite, though, is “Simulation shut down.” Basically, this means that nothing in this world is real – you, I, and everything on Earth are just part of a massive virtual game run on a gigantic computer operated by some intelligent being in another dimension, and we need to prevent him/her/it from turning the computer off. While this would certainly explain a few anomalies I’ve noticed in the Universe (I mean, come on, penguins?), epistemologically, there is no way we could possibly know whether or not this was true. And even if it was, how could our $100 million virtual dollars have any effect on the being running the program?

What about you? How would you spend a theoretical $100 million to save the Earth? Leave a note in the comments.