End Times book cover and Bryan Walsh headshot

How will the world end?

Given our odds, it’s a lot more likely the human species will go extinct long before Earth itself is destroyed. Funny that we don’t given that chilling nuance more thought.

The 2019 book “End Times” by journalist Bryan Walsh discusses various potential catastrophes that could threaten humanity’s survival. One of the main points made in the book is that humans have a tendency to underestimate the likelihood and consequences of catastrophic events, and that we should be more proactive in addressing potential threats to our survival. Fitting that the book was published before the covid-19 pandemic was identified.

The book covers a range of topics, including the risk of a nuclear war or environmental disaster, the possibility of an asteroid impact, the threat of pandemics and epidemics, and the long-term consequences of climate change. It also explores the psychological and economic factors that influence our ability to address these issues, such as the “arithmetic of compassion” and the social discount rate.

I found the book a mix of big-picture thinking and practical evaluation, a thought-provoking reminder of the fragility of human civilization and the importance of being prepared for potential disasters.

I shared below my notes from reading the book.

My notes:

  • The availability heuristic is one way we understand why we think the past is always better than the present
  • John Leslie: 30% chance humans die out in the next 500 years
  • Stephen Hawking “One way or another, I regard it as almost inevitable that either a nuclear confrontation or environmental catastrophe will cripple the Earth at some point in the next 1,000 years which, as geological time goes, is the mere blink of an eye.
  • Phil Torres: an American is 1,500 times more likely to die of an end times event than a plane crash
  • Dinosaurs lasted around 180 million years before crushed by the asteroid and its knock-on effects, that is thousands times more than humans
  • Shoemaker-Levy 9 collision in the 1990s
  • Tunguska and then Chelyabinsk meteors
  • Only NASA is really prepared to intercept an asteroids. Though Russia and China could be helpful
  • Carl Sagan’s deflection dilemma: “any technology allowing us to deflect asteroids from a collision trajectory with the Earth could also be used to direct them towards the Earth”
  • Neil degrass Tyson: the universe is trying to kill us
  • Richard Posner: “Cost of threat” times “Probability” = the budget worth spending to avoid
  • For asteroids it would be something like $750 trillion, so what is the real number? $50m that NASA spends on NEOs now
  • Toba volcano catastrophe theory about 74,000 years ago: Ann Gibbons argued perhaps just 4,000 people survive in the world. Those who survived were cooperators. Later human population spiked
  • Background rate of extinction : 1-5 extinctions a year
  • Earth has had at least five mass extinction events: Loss of half or more species on the planet
  • Will Durant: “Civilization exists by geological consent, subject to change without notice.”
  • RB Trombley
  • Tambora: accelerated European migration to America, established European welfare state pathway
  • Yellowstone super eruption
  • The concepts of the Countdown and Ground Zero both originate from nuclear test
  • Leo Szilard drafted the letter from Einstein to Roosevelt urging him to develop what began the Manhattan project
  • We evolved for small group mourning not at large scale. The bigger the scale the less we care: “scope neglect”
  • Paul Slovic “arithmetic of compassion”
  • Elllsberg from Pentagon Papers also had nuclear war government documents
  • Cuban Missile Crisis and Vasily Arkhipov, who may have saved the world
  • Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control book shows many times computer errors almost triggered a counter attack (200 ICBMs from Russia faulty seen)
  • TTAPS coined “nuclear winter”
  • Contrast climate change with ozone depletion, one we’re stuck on and the other we addressed
  • Climate is a “super wicked” problem
  • Vaclav Smil: renewables aren’t more energy dense than past energy transitions
  • Why does life keep getting better as the environment gets worse? The environmentalist’s paradox, but some argue the worst is yet to come
  • MRI machines show that our MPFC brains light up less for family than for us and less for future us than for present us
  • Social discount rate: what number you choose determines how much to invest in future (like climate change)
  • Wendell Bell: “a present sacrifice for the welfare of the future appears to be a one way street.” So instead we are “colonizing the future” says Roman Krznaric by delaying our climate change problems 162
  • Children of Men book/movie: without the future, our present doesn’t matter
  • Long Now Foundation and Interval at Long Now
  • Stewart Brand: “ we are as gods – and have to get good at it” (information wants to be free guy)
  • Half of all humans who ever lived were killed by malaria; the Justinian plague in sixth century killed as many as 50m, perhaps half of global population. Likely Black Death was same pathogen killed 200m
  • Viruses live to replicate though so they can’t spread too wide if they kill too fast
  • “Even though it is an active nature, a pandemic is much closer to war, “rights Michael Osterholm in his 2017 book Deadliest Enemy. “As in war, in a pandemic, there is greater and greater destruction day by day, with no opportunity for recovery” 197.
  • Biotechnology that overrides the virus getting milder would be a powerful bio-weapon
  • David Evans recreated horsepox which created backlash for sharing how he did it
  • Nick Bostrom “information hazards” 217 it is the “unilateralists curse”
  • Information wants to be free like water wants to go downhill 217 (Stewart Brand)
  • George Church: founding father of genomics
  • Collinridge dilemma: David Collinridge wrote in his 1989 book The social Control of Technology, that either we regulate a technology too early or too late
  • Eliezer Yudkowsky “Moore’s law of mad science “: “every 18 months the minimum IQ necessary to destroy the world drops by one point“
  • AI researchers are as nervous as Oppenheimer and Fermi were about nuclear bomb tests (242)
  • IJ Good: “ The first ultra intelligent machine is the last invention that men need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.” Recursive self improvement
  • “It may not be a machine overlord we need to fear, but the human overlords who own the machines.” 253
  • Christine Peterson of Foresight said Inheritance Day
  • 2017: Ali Rahimi said AI is like alchemy not science yet
  • Brent Hecht: computer science journals should consider social impact of AI research
  • Future of Life Asilomar Conference principles on AI, (are there journalism thinking similarities?)
  • Artificial general intelligence like nuclear arms race : could first AGI keep others from getting it?
  • Sorcerers Apprentice Mickey Mouse short is an AI comparison says Nate Soares Machine intelligence research institute
  • Inside the first church of artificial intelligence: Wired story
  • IJ Good: super intelligence will be humanity’s “final invention “
  • Bostrom’s Superintelligence: perverse instantiation
  • Victoria Krakovna list of ai algorithms gone wrong
  • Fermi paradox and Drake equation
  • SETI vs METI (Sagan called it unwise)
  • Likely any conversation with aliens would happen over centuries
  • Sagan thought extraterrestrials would bring us together
  • There is a protocol if we find alien signals
  • We assume alien life would be more advanced at us because we are so new to it, which would mean a military mismatch
  • Any civilization that could travel interstellar space wrote Robert Freitas in Xenology: “not only would such a civilization singing God like to us, it would actually be God for any practical purpose to keep that can be imagined“ 290
  • It’s like the European colonization of the Americas, “the scale of death was so extreme attended millions of hectares of now unintended farms were claimed by forests, which in turn sucked so much carbon dioxide from the air that global temperature is actually fell” 291
  • If we have advanced AI why assume aliens would be biological?
  • Hippke and Learned: “it is cheaper for [aliens] to send a malicious message to eradicate humans compared to sending battleships”
  • David Brin: The Great Silence
  • Alien necrosignstures
  • “Now whether we endure or die will come down chiefly to our own decisions.” 308
  • “Feeding Everyone No Matter What” book, on collapse of food chain sure to existential risk: mushrooms and ground up leaves to feed rats Snd insects
  • Seed bank but for humans
  • “Last few people problem”
  • Multiplanetary species derisks
  • But why live elsewhere when even a catastrophe on earth would be better to live than on Mars or equivalent
  • Julian Savulescu gene edit altruism because moral ethics is all that stops us from self destruction 334

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