I can’t think of a more important question than whether humanity will survive the twenty-first century. Human civilization is a grand experiment—perhaps the only such experiment ever conducted in the universe*—and right now the results are inconclusive.
For most of our history, we were haunted by a small flock of “existential risks” from nature, which we might call our “cosmic risk background.” But this changed in 1945, when the United States dropped two atomic bombs on the Japanese archipelago, thereby inaugurating the Atomic Age. With the creation of nuclear weapons, humanity introduced the very first anthropogenic existential risk—a turning point after which self-annihilation became a real, and terrifying, possibility.
Since then, many additional risks with existential implications have appeared on the threat horizon—climate change, biodiversity loss, engineered pathogens, self-replicating nanobots, and even rogue superintelligences that harvest humanity for our atoms. These possibilities gesture at a wild future of exotic new threats, but by many accounts it’s the future toward which Homo sapiens is rushing, propelled by the exponential development of advanced technologies and our ability to force global-scale changes to the climate and biosphere.
Perhaps one is skeptical at this point about the degree to which existential apprehension is warranted. After all, the ancient roads of history are littered with end-times alarmists who shouted that the world was about to end. For example, readers might recognize the name of Harold Camping, an American evangelist who incorrectly predicted the world’s supernatural destruction on May 21, 2011. But he is by no means unusual within the Abrahamic traditions. With respect to Christianity, the lineage of failed prophets stretches back ages, through Edgar Whisenant, Hal Lindsey, William Miller (of the Millerites), Martin Luther, Irenaeus (an early church father), and the Apostle Paul. Indeed, most New Testament scholars today maintain that Jesus himself was a failed apocalyptic prophet who expected an imminent end to the world (see Matthew 24:34).
The point is that every generation has claimed the unique status of being the last, only to be embarrassed by the continued existence of our pale blue dot. But a history of people crying wolf without a subsequent attack doesn’t mean that a vicious canine isn’t creeping up behind us. The one and only thing that matters when evaluating apocalyptic claims is the epistemological basis upon which they stand. For secular philosophers such as myself, it’s no surprise at all that so many past prophets have been dead wrong about their predictions: faith and revelation are never good bases for truth claims about the past, present, or future of the universe.
In contrast, the declarations of possible doom made by contemporary scientists are based not on faith and revelation but evidence and reason: our very best, albeit fallible, guides to truth. Even the more speculative risks that have been discussed—such as the possibility of a mean-spirited superintelligence dismantling the biosphere or humanity living in a supercomputer simulation that gets shut down—involve ideas that are constrained by what current science tells us is possible and what current social and technological trends suggest is probable. As the great Scottish philosopher David Hume might say if he were to join the conversation at this point: it’s not that wise people are never afraid; it’s that they proportion their fears to the best available evidence, considered as a whole. This is precisely what scientists and philosophers today are doing, and it’s why their claims ought to be heeded while those of religious prophets should be dismissed as unfounded nonsense.
The result of this incursion of scientific thinking into the once-purely theological arena of eschatology—or the study of the end of the world—is a new field called “Existential Risk Studies.” Although people have worried about a secular apocalypse at least since the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, Existential Risk Studies as a proper field of inquiry can be traced back to a brilliant 1996 book by the philosopher John Leslie, appropriately titled The End of the World. In the years since, a number of institutions dedicated to understanding our existential predicament using the tools of scientific inquiry have popped up, such as the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) at Oxford University and the Centre for the Study of Existential Risks (CSER) at Cambridge University. The central idea behind these institutions is that the threat of annihilation today is genuine, and it might even be growing due to increasingly powerful “dual-use” artifacts. Indeed, according to some existential riskologists, not only are there far more annihilation scenarios than ever before in our history (nuclear weapons didn’t exist before 1945!), but the probability of a scenario occurring has risen significantly as well.
For example, the director of FHI, Nick Bostrom, argues that the likelihood of an existential catastrophe occurring before the twenty-second century is at least 25 percent, and he adds that “the best estimate may be considerably higher.” Meanwhile, the cofounder of CSER, the cosmologist Sir Martin Rees, claims that the odds of survival this century are the same as getting a “heads” after flipping a coin: a mere 50 percent. These dismal figures are—one might be surprised to know—fairly representative of the opinions of other experts in the field. Indeed, I would argue that Rees’s figure is plausible, although I think that one could make a case that, if anything, it’s overly optimistic (due to what I call the “New Doomsday Argument)†.” The point is that the most knowledgeable scholars are often, but not always, the most skeptical about our future survival on spaceship Earth.
While FHI and CSER are fairly young institutions, having emerged in the past decade and a half, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is a much-older organization whose focus has been less futurological and, instead, directed more toward immediate global threats. It was founded shortly after World War II by a group of physicists horrified by the catastrophic destruction unleashed by the weaponized atom. The initial aim of the Bulletin was to educate the public about the existential dangers of nuclear weapons. Toward this aim it created the Doomsday Clock—a metaphorical mechanism that tracks our collective nearness to annihilation over time by moving the minute hand toward or away from midnight, which represents doom. Since its inception in 1947, the clock’s minute hand has changed positions a total of twenty-one times, getting as close as two minutes before midnight in 1953, after the United States and the Soviet Union detonated hydrogen bombs, and as far away as seventeen minutes, at the end of what we might call the First Cold War. (There appears to be a new, Second Cold War brewing between the United States and Russia right now, as the Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev recently suggested.)
Unfortunately, since being set at 11:43 back in 1991, the Doomsday Clock’s minute hand has steadily moved closer to midnight. For example, in 2015, the Science and Security Board of the Bulletin decided to move the minute hand forward from five minutes to a mere three minutes before midnight, as a result of the ongoing threat posed by nuclear weapons and the slow-motion catastrophe of climate change. Then, just last January, the Bulletin announced that it would keep the Doomsday Clock set at an ominous 11:57, despite two “small bright spots in a darker world situation full of potential for catastrophe”: the Iran nuclear deal, which effectively prevents Iran from buil
ding a nuclear weapon in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions; and the Paris climate agreement, which aims to keep global surface temperatures from exceeding 1.5 degrees Celsius relative to preindustrial levels.
Curious about the Bulletin’s decision, I contacted Dr. Lawrence Krauss, a world-renowned cosmologist, chair of the Bulletin’s Board of Sponsors, author of A Universe from Nothing, and an honorary board member of the Center for Inquiry.
Over Skype, we had a pleasant conversation about an unpleasant topic (it could only have been enhanced by the absence of digital mediation and the presence of a glass—or three—of wine). I was especially eager to know Krauss’s thoughts about the future of our threat situation in the cosmos and how religious belief—which a 2015 Pew poll projects will increase in the coming decades, with more than 60 percent of people being either Christian or Muslim by 2050—could nudge civilization toward collapse. As I’ve written elsewhere on a number of occasions, the growing power of emerging technologies means that we’re no longer irresponsible kids playing around with matches; we’re irresponsible kids playing around with flamethrowers that could easily burn down the entire global village. And perhaps the most obvious example of our irresponsibility as a species is our continued romance with ancient myths about what the world is like and, even more dangerously, how it ought to be. Unless we grow up—and fast—we could be headed for serious trouble. (Secular humanists, take note: our mission is even more important than we might have realized.)
Phil Torres: Thanks so much for chatting with me. To begin, why did the Bulletin decide to keep the Doomsday Clock set at three minutes before midnight? Is the fact that the minute hand wasn’t moved forward good news?
Dr. Lawrence Krauss: I don’t think it’s good news at all. It’s only good news when the hand is moved back. The point was, there are a lot of reasons to move it forward and backward, and we kind of figured that they cancelled out. There’s been some good news: the Iran [nuclear] deal and the Paris [climate] accords. These were two bits of positive news. But at the same time, the Paris accords really don’t do anything. They’re just a first step, and no country is required to do something about climate change.
And then countering the Iran deal is some real saber-rattling in terms of nuclear weapons with Russia, with a major government figure saying that we could reduce America to ash. This country [the United States] and Russia are both committed to modernizing their nuclear weapons fleets, which is counter to the spirit, if not the letter, of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. You also have North Korea, India, and Pakistan. These are worrisome [nuclear states], and I think that if it hadn’t been for the Iran deal—and this is just a personal view—the clock could very well have been moved forward. But the last time we left the clock stable and didn’t move it, we called on world leaders and governments to address these problems, and more or less none have been addressed. So that’s probably the most important reason for keeping it the same.
Torres: The Bulletin’s official press release specifically criticizes the Republican Party for “[standing] alone in the world in failing to acknowledge even that human-caused climate change is a problem.” And the Bulletin’s press conference included references to the difficult “political climate” in which the Obama administration forged the Iran nuclear deal. Some people might see this as a partisan attack on the Republicans from—well, you’re a progressive atheist, for instance. Do you think it’s unfair to single out a political party like this?
Krauss: No. It was kind of an amazing thing for the Bulletin to say—and an unfortunate thing for us to have to say. It’s not partisan at all. These are neither Democratic nor Republican issues. What’s unfortunate is that if you look at the modern industrial world, for better or worse there’s this anomaly right now that the Republican Party is the only major political organization that’s propagating myths about climate change. It’s particularly climate change that was addressed. It is true also that at this point any major nuclear weapons agreement seems to be stalled—or dead—in the House and Senate. But I think there we were talking more about the dysfunctional state of the U.S. government system rather than the Republican Party. You know, nothing the president wants to do is approved. But I think that [calling out the Republicans over] climate change is a real statement. In fact, we’ve had international members of the Bulletin who point out that we don’t find incoherent anti–climate-change propaganda coming from any major political party of any major industrialized country except for the United States.
Torres: That’s truly an incredible situation—to have a political party that’s literally pushing civilization toward the precipice of disaster.
Krauss: You can say that again.
Torres: Let me ask about the Doomsday Clock itself. It is, arguably, a somewhat confusing metaphor for conveying the overall level of global risk. What’s the best way to interpret it? What exactly does three minutes before midnight mean? And how exactly does the Bulletin decide where to place the minute hand each year?
Krauss: What’s really important if you look at the Bulletin is the derivative, as we say in physics—not the absolute value. Is the world getting safer or closer to a cataclysmic event? And so the absolute value of the clock never really means much. I’ve been involved in setting the clock for over a decade, and the question each time is: Are people acting to make the world a safer place? Part of the purpose of the clock is to offer an opportunity once a year to focus on these big questions. Most of the time people bury their heads and assume the best, especially when it comes to nuclear weapons, in spite of the fact that there have been many close calls and many times when the world was on the brink in one way or another.
The purpose is to really point out that these issues aren’t being addressed. We may be lucky and nothing may ever happen, but they’re nonetheless major, major issues. And also to point out to the public—who in the Western world, for the most part, can elect their government officials—that their governments are not acting in their best interest in this regard. So, if anything, it’s not so much a call to doomsday. We’re just saying that humanity is behaving as if there is no threat, and there is a threat. In fact, we’re taking actions such as modernizing our nuclear weapons fleet that are antithetical to the real purpose of defense. People can say, “What does three minutes until midnight really mean?” but to them I would just say that the clock didn’t go backward, and the issues are real.
Torres: The Bulletin seems to treat nuclear weapons and climate change as causally unconnected threats. Do you see potential interactions, or even a kind of synergy, between these two phenomena in the future? (After all, climate change has often been described as a “conflict multiplier.”) What about interactions between other risks looming in the future?
Krauss: We do look at everything, and we try to bring in experts to address different issues. There is a connection, in fact, because we talk not just about nuclear weapons but nuclear power as it applies to nuclear proliferation. So there’s a connection right there: nuclear power is one source of potential energy production that doesn’t generate carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases. There’s a motivation in some sense to incorporate nuclear power in the set of tools one has to try to address climate change. At the same time, nuclear reactors produce waste, which can in itself be dangerous, and they also can be used to produce enriched fuel to produce fissile materials for nuclear weapons. Thus, the safety of these materials is very important. And that’s a scenario that the Bulletin addresses at great length—has always addressed, in fact—in the Doomsday Clock announcement. It’s an area where there’s clearly a coupling.
Interestingly enough, when we look at other areas like cyberterrorism and bioterrorism, we often compare, along with our experts, these issues to nuclear weapons, because when we first began to discuss bioterrorism, there were aspects of it that suggested to us that it was not much of an issue at first. One is that it’s very difficult to broadly disperse a biological agent that could be used by terrorists. You could create a devastating blow to a locality, but not to global civilization. The other is that to generate serious biothreats, one needs access to laboratories that are rather sophisticated. They sometimes even make nuclear weapons laboratories—or rough nuclear weapons laboratories—look not so sophisticated. So for those reasons it doesn’t loom as high a threat in our minds. And cyberterrorism is an area that’s emerging, and obviously it’s related because one of the relevant questions concerns the command and control of weapons, including nuclear weapons. So the notion that hackers might be able to assume command and control or generate false signals is of great concern. Yes, there are obviously couplings.
Torres: I see, and I would completely agree. I think one of the areas of research that has, to my knowledge, been severely under-studied is the complex interactions between multiple risk scenarios unfolding in parallel, resulting in additive or synergistic effects. On a related note, the Bulletin’s official announcement also mentions emerging technologies, which it says “could become a major threat to humanity.” Do you think that fields such as advanced biotechnology, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence could one day pose even greater threats than nuclear weapons?
Krauss: Well, they can pose greater threats than they do now. And happily within fields such as synthetic biology there are a lot of controls that the community is imposing on its own. Many of the other threats are different. It’s hard to imagine in the near term any of these threats eclipsing nuclear war as a global existential threat that can be immediate and long-lasting. And as I said before, cyberterrorism is difficult to uncouple from it. I mean, destroying the world’s banking system—which could cause devastating lulls—may be one thing, but perhaps a more serious existential threat is related to getting command and control over nuclear weapons.
Torres: It’s an unsettling fact that we have increasingly powerful technologies being developed in a world that’s still overflowing with ancient faith-based beliefs about what reality is like and how it should be in the future, according to God’s plans. [As mentioned earlier, a recent Pew poll projects that the nonreligious demographic will shrink as a percentage of the world population by 2050.] What role do you think religion could play in inflating the probability of a global catastrophe? Is the “instrumental rationality” of our means beginning to dangerously surpass the “moral rationality” of our ends.
Krauss: I always view archaic worldviews as a negative. There’s never any way in which they’re positive. Not accepting the world for what it is is always a dangerous situation, especially when you’re talking about global threats. There have been evangelical groups that have spoken out about peace, and some Catholics have been trying to get the Vatican to speak out about nuclear weapons issues, but have not been able to so far. So, certainly religious leaders can advocate peace, but on the whole, religion is an obstruction to progress. And these apocalyptic views make people just resign themselves to saying, “Okay, if this is the end of the world then there’s a reason for it.” Or they lead to the equally ridiculous view that God has given us dominion over the earth and will take care of it for us, a view that ignores the reality of climate change and its possible devastating impacts. So, one can always find religious views that get in the way of progress. But the real danger is, as you say, an ancient and outdated understanding [of reality] that has been subsumed by our current knowledge. We have to get people to accept the world the way it is, and all the world’s religions are in some sense based on ignoring the realities of the world.
Torres: I completely agree. This being said, what can “ordinary” people do to reduce the threat of annihilation? What actions can we take to maximize the probability of an “okay outcome” for humanity—to borrow a line from Nick Bostrom’s “Maxipok rule”?
Krauss: As responsible citizens, we can vote. We can pose questions to our political representatives. And that’s a major factor. Politicians actually are accountable, and if lots of people phone them with questions or issues, politicians will listen. The second thing is that we all have access to groups, although some of us have bigger soapboxes than others. School groups, church groups, book clubs—we can all work to educate ourselves and our local surroundings, on a personal basis, to address these issues. The last thing anyone should feel is completely hopeless or powerless. We certainly affect our daily lives in how we utilize things, but also we affect our community in various ways. So, we have to start small, and each of us can do that. And, of course, if you’re more interested [in working to reduce the threat of a catastrophe], you can organize a local group and have sessions in which you educate others about such issues. The power of voting and the power of education—those are the two best strategies.
Torres: Those do go together, in my view, since one must be sufficiently educated to cast an informed vote.
Krauss: For me, education is incredibly important. We can’t expect people to act unless they’re aware of the issues or know how to make themselves aware. As an educator, this is very important to me. And the Bulletin does precisely this. It’s more than just the Doomsday Clock; it’s an online source of knowledge. Many people, including people in defense and world governments, use it to get accurate, nonpartisan information.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
* Then again, perhaps ours is one of millions of civilizations, all of which have self-destructed.