Sunday, July 25, 2010

Doomsday Scenarios: Is Humanity Prepared For The Worst?

Once more, it's time for the end of the world!

Here's an article, Doomsday Scenarios: Is Humanity Prepared For The Worst?, from The Guardian. An excerpt:

Existential threats are nothing new. Schoolchildren learn that an asteroid strike wiped out three quarters of Earth's species 65m years ago and promptly ended the reign of the dinosaurs. There have been at least four other mass extinctions, each one the result of an epic natural disaster. The point that intrigues researchers such as Bostrom is that society is bad at identifying dangers such as these, and even worse at preparing for them. In an essay published in the Journal of Evolution and Technology in 2002, Bostrom expressed dismay at how little research has been done on serious threats to humanity, writing: "There is more scholarly work on the life-habits of the dung fly than on existential risks." Little has changed since, he says.

A major sticking point, says Bostrom, is that humans are doomed only to learn from direct experience. Nuclear reactors were made safer after the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. The UN drew up plans for a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean a year after 230,000 people died from a devastating wave in 2004. Plans to bolster flood defences around New Orleans are still being thrashed out, five years after hurricane Katrina killed nearly 2,000 and left thousands more homeless. In each case, the risks were known, but they were only acted on after the event.

"Our attitude throughout human history has been to experience events like these and then put safeguards in place," says Bostrom. "That strategy is completely futile with existential risks. By definition, you don't get to learn from experience. You only have one chance to get it right."

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