Politics / 

14 Jan 2019

Existential Risk Management

A bit more than a decade ago, in a post called “The Survivalist Fallacy”, I mentioned an article quoting Sir David Omand – former Director of British GCHQ, more recently a visiting professor at King’s College London – which outlined various serious threats to civilization and attempted to put them into a number of broad categories: “political threats, including wars, terrorism, and governmental de-stabilization by other groups; […] environmental threats, including the end of petroleum fuels, global warming, and pollution; and […] economic threats, including a ‘meltdown’ of the global economy.”

The article has disappeared from its original home, but remains accessible thanks to the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine. It’s still interesting reading.

Sadly, we have done little as a civilization in the last decade to mitigate many of those incipent problems; some have been actively made worse. (The bit about ‘governmental de-stabilization by other groups’ seems particularly prescient. One wonders what Sir David knew in 2008 but couldn’t say aloud.) But the “‘risk management’ approach” it discusses is as valid as ever. It is simply not practical to eliminate every threat, whether to a nation or to the international order generally; instead, we have to analyze and prioritize various threats, responding to them in ways that mitigates the potential damage, and assigning resources proportionally.

This approach is valid at an individual level as well. It’s not possible to completely eliminate the risk of a disaster, whether manmade or otherwise, from adversely affecting your life. But you can manage the risk, and take steps to make yourself more resilient. Those steps should be taken proportionally to the seriousness and immediacy of the risk.

Building apocalypse bunkers is stupid, but having a ‘go bag’, particularly if you live in a wildfire area, or in a flood zone, or downstream of a dam, or near a chemical plant or power station, is only prudent. The ‘go bag’ can come in handy in many scenarios, which together are far more likely to occur than the one demanding the bunker.

More prudent still is to build relationships in your community. In the event of a breakdown of civilization, whether temporary (think serious storm) or permanent (zombies), it’s your relationship with your neighbors, and your local community in general, that will probably influence how well you fare. In the worst case, it could be the difference between whether you end up getting shot and robbed of your stuff, or welcomed by your fellow refugees as you work together to break into some rich asshole’s bunker to liberate his supplies.

Plus, those relationships are valuable even if nothing goes wrong at all. They’re not just contingency planning, but a way of enriching life on a day-to-day basis. Knowing people – knowing who you can go to if you have a particular problem – is always a valuable thing, in every social context. It’s probably the only truly universal currency there is.

As we wait for the democratic process to grind along and put us in a better position to collectively deal with the big threats to free society, working at the ‘micro’ level can be a good antidote to the frustrations of the ‘macro’.