"When the benefits are so diffuse, across the world now and in the future, but the costs are specific and direct on individuals who stand to gain from exploiting new technologies or firms’ bottom lines, we cannot rely on them to make the right choice"
The left sees itself as a champion for those without a voice, a force that puts the common good above privileging certain groups. So why shouldn’t this extend to future generations? Short-sightedness in the past left us where we are today, with the crisis of Brexit essentially stalling our current legislative agenda, pushing more and more important issues to the wayside. However, there are other, potentially humanity-ending, problems that need our immediate attention if we are to survive beyond the next century.
What risks do we face?
There are two sorts of existential risks, those we are already earnestly engaging with (if not necessarily succeeding in combating) and those we are yet to seriously acknowledge in the mainstream.
Global thermonuclear war and climate change are prime examples of the first kind of risk. On the nuclear question, there has been tension between those who favour unilateral versus multilateral disarmament but there is a long-established consensus on the danger nuclear weapons present to the future of humanity and a policy of non-proliferation. Climate change and global resource depletion are newer and more insidious threats, where inaction is enough to doom us. We could afford to more ambitious in our policy, given the urgency of the issue, but we have at least embraced the seriousness of the problem.
There are also newer, emerging threats that need to be tackled with similar vigour. The overuse of antibiotics has contributed to the rise of superbugs. For instance, the World Health Organisation estimates a 1/3 of the world’s population is infected with tuberculosis, resulting in 1.3 million deaths a year. Strains of tuberculosis are increasingly resistant to multitudes of drugs, putting the lives of hundreds of millions at risk. Fortunately, in natural pandemics is a trade-off between transmissibility and lethality. With advances in biotechnology, such as CRISPR, a rogue state or terrorist organisation could intentionally engineer a highly infectious, antibiotic-resistant pathogen that wreaks havoc to rival Spanish Flu or even the Black Death.
The applications of artificial intelligence are another potentially severe threat. The deployment of autonomous lethal weapons raising serious concerns, though this doesn’t mean a terminator-style killer robot going rogue. Instead, authoritarian governments could become much more stable once installed. When enforcement can be done by drones without moral qualms or the potential to launch a coup, the dictator can much more easily quell uprisings and silence dissent, ushering in an era of permanent authoritarianism where democracy only has to fail once. There is also more speculative, long-term, worry around what happens when we eventually create human-level intelligence. If an artificial superintelligence is developed without humanity’s best interests in mind, it may leave us at the mercy of a being that treats us like we treat ants.
The above doesn’t include the less likely human-caused risks or a whole slew of potential natural disasters, which only make our current situation seem even more precarious.
Why we need to act and what should we do?
These are problems that aren’t going to be solved by private companies and charities. When the benefits are so diffuse, across the world now and in the future, but the costs are specific and direct on individuals who stand to gain from exploiting new technologies or firms’ bottom lines, we cannot rely on them to make the right choice. Further, these problems are at such a scale that only states have the shear capacity and breadth of scope required to deal with them. These are global problems that cannot be solved by inward-looking nationalists or free-marketeers trying to one-up each other, whatever the cost. Only a coordinated internationalist effort that is willing to pursue the common good, even at short-term cost, has a hope of ensuring a bright future.
Firstly, we need to continue to pursue global coordination and governance. The Paris Climate Agreement and the success of the Chemical and Biological Weapons Conventions give us some hope that the international community can work together. However, these efforts require constant attention and pressure on our part to prevent backsliding.
Secondly, we should seek to enshrine an explicit mechanism for the recognition of the long-term risks and implications when creating policy, e.g. a Commissioner for Future Generations. This duty shouldn’t be limited to government; private companies must also be required to consider the long-term implications of their actions, with accountability measures to offset shareholder short-termism
Finally, we should support research into discovering potential unknown unknowns. Man-made climate change began with the industrial revolution, yet it is only recent decades as it starts to approach crisis levels that we realised the dangers and took steps to prevent it. The earlier we can identify a risk, the longer we will have to consider our approach and the easier it will be to avert.
Elliot Jones is a Young Fabian member. Follow him on Twitter at @MrElliotJ