The Modern Survival Guide #37
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. But you can find discussions like this one in many of the world’s power centers, because today we’re talking about existential threats.
It has been said that ignorance is bliss. This is incorrect. Ignorance is just not knowing things until it’s too late. There are few areas where this is more true than the concept of existential threats — in short, these are events that are so threatening to our very way of life or our existence that as soon as you have the capacity to recognize that the potential for the event exists, it MUST be dealt with as an active threat.
Does that sound a little highbrow? Or perhaps a little too absolutist? Well, it’s neither. Existential threats are dead easy to understand, but unfortunately they are sadly misused in the modern world. This has pretty serious survival implications for you, so let’s get into it.
What is an Existential Threat?
Put simply, an existential threat is a catastrophe so great that it irrevocably alters the very fabric of human life, and/or snuffs out humanity in one blow. It is an event so severe, so globally significant, that it permanently alters or destroys all civilization as we know it. In other words, it’s a big friggin’ deal.
The traditional example of a real, no-kidding existential threat is an asteroid impact. The logic works like this: we know asteroids have impacted the Earth before. We have even observed, both directly and indirectly, the effects of impact events on Earth and on other planets. We also know that there are very large asteroids in the solar system, some of which pass near the Earth on a fairly regular basis.
Given the mass of these objects, we are able to calculate the impact force they would have on the planet, which allows us to determine whether or not such impacts would be extinction-level events (i.e. an explosion so severe it would scald the Earth or kick up enough dust to blot out the sun, destroying all plant life). We know there are asteroids that have sufficient mass to do this.
To sum up: We know that asteroids have hit the Earth before. We know that asteroids can hit the Earth again. We know that asteroids of a certain size would destroy all or most human life on the planet. And we know that we haven’t found all the asteroids yet. The probably of an asteroid impact in your or my lifetime is therefore non-zero.
Asteroids impacts therefore represent an existential threat — even if the possibility of an extinction-level impact in any given person’s life is very small, it represents a risk that must be mitigated because the consequences of that risk occurring are too dire to ignore.
This example gives us an existential threat checklist, which you should use anytime someone tries to label something an “existential threat:”
- Would the event wipe out all life on the planet?
- Would the event wipe out all civilization on the planet?
- Is there a non-zero probability that the event will occur?
- Is the threat confirmed?
These points give us the difference between a real existential threat, one that must be dealt with, as opposed to a lower-level threat that is not of equivalent risk.
This comes up surprisingly often. It is one of the traditional tactics of propaganda, after all, to cast national-level problems as existential threats in order to promote a reaction.
For example, communism is one of the Great Evils in American political culture. The whole point of establishing a nuclear arsenal of thousands of warheads was to prevent a communist takeover, which would lead to the end of Western civilization and usher in a new age of oppression from which humanity would never emerge, apparently. Because that’s literally the only scenario that would even come close to justifying a mass nuclear exchange.
Take that in contrast with the fact that these days, there are (depending on how you count) five communist countries. Not only was communism not a civilization-ending calamity, people appear to be surviving in each of these countries. In some cases they are even relatively satisfied with their governments. Quality of living arguments aside, communism simply is not and never was sufficiently dangerous to justify categorizing it as an existential threat for which the use of nuclear weapons was a logical response.
Indeed, the only thing that made communism an existential threat was the West’s categorization of it as an existential threat, which sparked the nuclear arms race. Otherwise it was just a change in economic and political systems — disruptive, and sometimes featuring large loss of life, but hardly unheard of in human history.¹
Similarly, in modern times a fairly large block of political and media influence-makers have tried to cast terrorism (specifically, “radical Islamic terrorism”) as an existential threat to Western civilization. This is, not to put too fine a point on it, laughable. Terrorism in general is a tool of the weak, and there are never enough terrorists to pose more than a mild threat to the US homeland. And yes, since I know some clever duck will ask, a nuke in a major US population center is still only a “mild” threat to the nation. In my lifetime, three major US population centers have been severely damaged to the point they might as well have been nuked. The nation went on.
There’s a reason why existential threats are brought up so often, and it is this: they are scary, and justify a large outlay of attention, resources, and political capital. This always benefits someone — “when there’s blood in the streets, buy property,” as the saying goes. If nothing else, this kind of threat is a great rallying tool if you want to gain, or keep, power. As a general rule, people who want to gain power are rarely the people you’d want in power, so keep an eye on anyone who starts talking about things in terms of existential threats.
So how do you know if something isn’t an existential threat? Time for another checklist:
- The threat is personal, or specific to a nation or people. As nasty as they might be, neither murder nor conquest nor genocide represent existential threats to humanity.
- The threat is specific to a particular culture or religion. Human history is filled with failed cultures and defunct religions. Neither represent an existential threat to humanity.
- The threat is specific to an economic or monetary system. Being or becoming poor is not an existential threat; changing who is rich certainly is not. Humanity can, has, and will continue to survive economic upheaval.
- The threat is specific to a political ideology. Political parties and organizations rise and fall quite regularly. The failure of an ideology is not normally a threat to humanity.
This is not an exhaustive list; I could list off literally every other problem you might encounter in life that isn’t a direct threat to the human species or human civilization as a whole. But these are the things that most often come up, and these are the problems that do not deserve an existential response.
Dealing with Existential Threats
Once you have identified a threat, you can deal with it. Once you have identified an existential threat, you must deal with it; such is their nature. To do otherwise is to court disaster on an unheard of scale — disaster that might not come in your lifetime, but which will occur at some point.
The precise method in which you deal with an existential threat depends entirely on its proximity and probability. A threat like an asteroid strike, for example, is fairly low probability and fairly easy to see coming. This kind of threat can be addressed with a relatively low-key response,² which is why NASA has some, but not all, of its money invested in tracking near-Earth objects.
A threat like a world-impacting pandemic (another Spanish Flu or something similar) is something else entirely. Biological threats are often impossible to see coming, and the really nasty ones have the potential to kill on a world-wide scale. This is why nations listen to the WHO, and it’s why quarantines and travel restrictions can occur overnight — the level of response is proportionally higher because the threat is more immediate.
This brings to light a central point regarding existential threat responses — they are usually large-scale affairs involving governments and/or large private enterprises. Existential threats are normally just too big for individuals to resolve on their own.
Why brings us back to you. What can you do if you think you have discovered an existential threat? It’s time for one last checklist:
- Have you confirmed the threat? A LOT of “existential threats” are conspiracy theories, propaganda, or pseudoscience. Your first step should always be to make sure you’re not buying into one of those things. To do that, you need access to real data and a scientific mindset. Getting a scientist to agree with you is a definite necessity.
- Is it something we can actually stop? Look… sooner or later the Sun is going to explode and fry the Earth. Most likely later, like billions of years later — astrophysicists think they have a decent theoretical grasp of stellar lifecycles. But sooner or later, it’s going boom. There is nothing, whatsoever, we can do about it right now. So while this is an existential threat, it’s not worth getting worked up over.
- Is it something you know how to stop? Hey, you might be the first person to figure out how to solve global warming,³ right? Somebody has to think of these things first. If you think you have a solution, tell people about it — particularly scientists. Just keep point #1 in mind, please.
- If you don’t know how to stop it, does someone else? Because if they do, they might need some help getting the word out or need some support. It’s worth noting that people still have to keep calling certain Congressional representatives’ offices to remind them that global warming is a thing, for example.
- Are people already aware of the threat? Because if so, you may do more good contributing to whatever organization has already started to manage the threat, rather than starting something new. Resource dilution can be a problem under some circumstances.
- What resources can you offer? Can you contribute money? Can you contribute time? Are you willing to dedicate some portion of your life to resolving the threat as an employee or leader of a group formed for that purpose? In short — what are you willing to do and how far are you willing to go?
Based on your answers to these questions, you should be able to identify your best path to help manage these types of threats. Make no mistake — anything big enough to count as an existential threat is your problem as a member of the species. These aren’t things that care if you don’t care about them — they’ll kill you regardless.
But at the same time, there is such a thing as too many hands on deck. Most known existential threats have multiple organizations dedicated to managing them. Unless you’re the first one to ID a new threat, and unless you’re willing to make the management of a threat your life’s work, the best thing you can do is the same thing you should do for any big disaster scenario:
Money makes miracles happen. It enables science, pays personnel, and buys physical assets. No organization can ever have enough money, and that goes double for perennially underfunded groups like SETI.⁴ So my best advice to most of you is, if you want to help stop an existential threat, send money. It’s not the flashiest move ever, but it’s the easiest way to make an immediate, tangible impact — and that’s good for your survival.
¹Note here an important point: just because something isn’t an existential threat doesn’t mean it’s not a threat.
²Put simply, we have nukes. I know, irony, right? Nukes might not be enough to destroy a large asteroid, but they are more than sufficient to alter its course by a few fractions of a degree, and that’s all you have to do to avoid a space-borne threat if you catch it early enough.
³Listen carefully, I’m only going to say this one more time: Global warming is real. All the scientists who matter agree it’s real. NASA agrees that it’s real. Even the guy who didn’t believe the climate scientists changed his tune once he was put in charge of NASA. Global warming is real. It is a threat, and something has to be done about it if we don’t want to live in Venus-like conditions. Period.
⁴Yes, SETI manages an existential threat. Have you never seen an alien invasion movie?