The Vulnerability of Man

In this exclusive interview series, we talk to Jaan Tallinn (Co-Founder of Skype and Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk), Professor Sir John Beddington (Senior Advisor, Oxford Martin School & the UK Government’s former Chief Scientific Adviser) and Sir Crispin Tickell (former diplomat and advisor to successive UK Prime Ministers, who is regarded as the world’s foremost authority on climate change and environmental issues).  We tackle the question of how vulnerable our species really is and explore threats ranging from climate change and natural disasters to food, energy and water security, technology, artificial intelligence, near earth objects and the biggest threat to humanity… humans themselves.

“People underestimate their personal probability of encountering negative events” Wrote Frank McKenna in the British Journal of Psychology (1993, Volume 84), “…it is not so much that individuals believe that negative events will not happen, but rather that these events are relatively unlikely to happen to them.”

In much the same way that children underestimate their own vulnerability, humanity does too and a lot of this attitude can be attributed to the relative ‘youth’ of our species. Behaviourally modern man has only existed for one thousandth of a percent of the Earth’s life (a mere snapshot when you consider that species such as dolphins are a magnitude of a thousand times more ancient than us). During this chronologically insignificant stretch, man has largely avoided any great extinction events (be they from natural disasters, biological events or near earth objects) and has grown to become the dominant species on the planet (by influence rather than numbers) with no real predators to speak of. This uncontested growth has led our species to be blinded by the ‘illusion of control’, a phenomenon that manifests in two ways. Firstly we compensate for our failure to exercise actual control over events by creating a “generalized, subjective sense of control… by undertaking acts the effect of which on the environment is illusory.” (Friedland et. al, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 1992, Vol. 63). Historically this may have included phenomena such as rain dances and sacrifices, and in more modern society has become more abstract with economic and political instruments used to give (governments) a notional sense of control over populations. Secondly the illusion manifests in a (group held) sense of control imbued by our perceived species-immortality. In this case humanity, having always had ample access to whatever resources it needed, and having never faced any (serious) competition or whole-species-threats, feels relatively safe from existential events and cannot conceive any threats it may be creating. In much the same way, therefore, that individuals perceive their own chance of experiencing accidents or being struck by illness as lower than ‘others’, our incumbent generation of humanity irrationally group-thinks that unfortunate events will happen to ‘other’ generations or species.

William B. Meyer (in his 1996 book, ‘Human Impact on the Earth’) describes how, “…humankind has become a force in the biosphere as powerful as many natural forces of change, stronger than some, and sometimes as mindless as any. Nature has not retired from the construction (or demolition) business, but humankind has in the recent past emerged as a strong competitor. It is now, indeed, the principal agent modifying the earth’s surface.” Thomas Malthus extended this dramatically this in his essay ‘on the Principle of Population’ (first published in 1798) in which he states, “…the power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction; and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague, advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and ten thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world..” So how vulnerable is humanity?

In this exclusive interview series, we talk to Jaan Tallinn (Co-Founder of Skype and Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk), Professor Sir John Beddington (Senior Advisor, Oxford Martin School & the UK Government’s former Chief Scientific Adviser) and Sir Crispin Tickell (former diplomat and advisor to successive UK Prime Ministers, who is regarded as the world’s foremost authority on climate change and environmental issues).  We tackle the question of how vulnerable our species really is and explore threats ranging from climate change and natural disasters to food, energy and water security, technology, artificial intelligence, near earth objects and the biggest threat to humanity… humans themselves.

View Interviewee Biographies

Jaan Tallinn is one of the programmers behind the Kazaa file sharing platform, and a founding engineer of Skype. He is a partner in a seed-stage venture firm called Ambient Sound Investments and co-founder and chairman of MetaMed Research – a startup intent on revolutionising healthcare. He is also a co-founder of the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk – a research centre at the University of Cambridge investigating the risks and opportunities of future technologies.

Professor Sir John Beddington is Senior Advisor at the Oxford Martin School. Between January 2008 and the end of March 2013, Sir John was the Government Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the Government Office for Science. He reported directly to the Prime Minister and attended Cabinet Sub-committees and, on occasion, Cabinet. He had access to and numerous interactions with various Secretaries of State and his formal reporting line was to the Cabinet Secretary. He was Head of Profession for Science and Engineering in Government and founded the Government Science and Engineering Network. He headed the group of Chief Scientific Advisers in Government.

He chaired the National Security Council Science Advisory Group and the Science Advisory Group in Emergencies reporting into the COBR Committee. His experience was in three rather different emergencies: the pandemic influenza outbreak in 2009, the volcanic ash closure of UK air space in 2010 and problems linked to the earthquake and tsunami affecting the nuclear plants in Fukushima in Japan in 2011.

He directed the Foresight team which had the responsibility to look forward and assess implications for major challenges in the future. Typical timescales ranged from 10 to as much as 40 years. The reports produced by the Foresight team are substantial, typically projects may involve some 400 contributors from around 40 countries. The subjects studied are highly variable and involve substantial multi-disciplinary work.

Since taking up his position, the following reports were published: The Future of Identity (2013); Computer Trading in Financial Markets (2012); Migration and Global Environmental Change (2011); International Dimensions of Climate Change (2011); Global Food and Farming Future (2011); Land Use Futures (2010); Mental Capital and Wellbeing (2008); Sustainable Energy Management and the Built Environment (2008).

Sir John co-chaired with Dame Nancy Rothwell the PM’s Council for Science and Technology. This group is the main advisory group to the PM and it produced in the last few years a number of significant reports in response to requests from the PM and Cabinet. Some examples are: The NHS as a driver for growth (2011), A Vision for UK Research (2010), A national infrastructure for the 21st century (2010), Improving innovation in the water industry: 21st century challenges and opportunities (2009) and How academia and government can work together (2008).

Sir John was involved in heading the UK delegation to a number of joint science and technology commissions with a variety of countries. The key ones were with Japan, Russia, Brazil, China, India, Vietnam and Thailand. In addition, there were clear links with the USA where he interacted regularly with his counterpart, John Holdren, who is the Science Adviser to President Obama.

During 2011, at the request of the World Bank, he chaired an International Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change.

Sir Crispin Tickell has long been a pioneer in linking environmental and in particular climate change to the worlds of politics and business. For many years he was an informal adviser on such issues to successive British Prime Ministers. Until recently he was Director of the Policy Foresight Programme at the James Martin 21st Century School at Oxford University. He is associated with several other British universities as well as universities in the United States.

Most of his career was in the Diplomatic Service. He was Chef de Cabinet to the President of the European Commission (1977-80); Ambassador to Mexico (1981-83); Permanent Secretary of the Overseas Development Administration (now DFID) (1984-87); and British Permanent Representative to the United Nations (1987-90). He then became Warden of Green College, Oxford (1990-97), and set up the Green College Centre for Environmental Policy and Understanding, which later became the Policy Foresight Programme at the James Martin School. Among other things he was President of the Royal Geographical Society (1990-93); Chairman of the Board of the Climate Institute of Washington DC (1990-2002); Convenor of the Government Panel on Sustainable Development (1994-2000); a Trustee of the Baring Foundation (1992-2002); Chairman of the Advisory Committee on the Darwin Initiative for the Survival of Species (1992-99); a member of the China Council for International Cooperation on Environment and Development (1992-2006); Chancellor of the University of Kent (1996-2006); Inaugural Senior Visiting Fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment (2002-03); and Adviser At Large to the President of Arizona State University from 2002. Since 2007 he has been President of Tree Aid. He also has business interests, including being Director (Non Executive) of IBM (UK) (1990-95). He is author of Climate Change and World Affairs (1977 and 1986) and Mary Anning of Lyme Regis (1996). He was a member of two Government Task Forces: one on Urban Regeneration, the other on Potentially Hazardous Near Earth Objects (a minor planet no. 5971 has been named after him). He has received many honours and distinctions.


Q: What is consequentialism?

[Jaan Tallinn] Consequentialism is a philosophical approach to morality which says that actions themselves don’t have intrinsic value, rather- the value of actions is determined by their consequences. We should therefore should be aware of the effects and side effects of actions when establishing their value.

Q: What makes threats existential?

[Jaan Tallinn] By definition, existential risks are those which- by definition- could terminate the species, or permanently limit the long term potential of our civilisation. Martin Rees, the distinguished scientist, said that the difference between killing 90% of humanity, and 100% of humanity is not 10%. The difference is huge. By killing 100% of humanity, you are also killing all future generations.

There’s an interesting over-representation of physicists within the existentialist community. Physicists, especially astronomers and cosmologists have had a glimpse of how vast the universe is, and the potential value of it, versus our planet.

Q: Has humanity always been concerned with existential risk?

[Jaan Tallinn] Humanity has always been concerned with the end of the world!

There’s an important difference however, between scientific predictions of the end of the world, and those which- frankly- people pull out of their hind quarters.

The Manhattan Project scientists for example, did a lot of analysis before detonating the H-Bomb to understand the probability that nuclear fusion would spread to the atmosphere and destroy the Earth. Even in principle, this is not the same as a religion prognosticating about the end of days.   One is based on scientific analysis, and the world needs more of that!

On Resource Crisis

Q: What are the potential impacts of the food, water and energy security crises?

[Sir John Beddington] I think the first thing to do, is step back from the issue and say, “ok what are the major drivers out there…” One is population growth- which drives demand for goods and services. A second driver is, arguably, increasing prosperity- meaning that the purchasing power of this growing population is increasing. The third important trend is urbanisation. If you take these factors together, the time-scales are really quite frighteningly short and the potential impact on food supply is a real concern. The sort of challenges that one is thinking about is how to maintain a sustainable and secure global food system, while protecting the environment, to meet the increasing demand for food, with an increasing proportion of so called ‘higher value’ commodities like meat and dairy products, which require a larger resource footprint. For example, the production of one kilogram of grain-fed beef, uses at least 15mof water, compared with less than 2m3 of water to produce a kilogram of grains, pulses or root crops. In terms of the availability of water, even if you ignore climate change, increasing competition in demand of water for agriculture, industrial and domestic use, threatens adequate supply. Energy security is also a significant challenge. Energy poverty has been relatively ignored compared with access to food and water. Approximately, 1.4 billion people globally have no access to electricity.

We cannot afford to continue with ‘business as usual’, as the current food system is unsustainable. In the last three or four years, real food prices have increased substantially, firstly in 2007/8,and then again in 2010/11. These significant increases in food prices, dramatically out of step with the all-time low prices experienced over the last 3 decades, have contributed to a large increase in the number of hungry people globally, and political instability. There are serious issues in increasing competition for access to water which mean that water supplies are not managed appropriately or efficiently. Urbanisation means that a growing urban population will have more political and purchasing power to access water, potentially reducing the amount available to rural communities where agriculture is the major use of water. As you can see, food, water and energy security are therefore intimately related.

If you combine these factors with the fact that climate change is happening, and that irrespective of what happens at the COP17 in Durban, or has happened in the proceeding COPs…. the time lags in the climate system are such that the climate for the next twenty years at least, probably rather more, is already determined by the greenhouse gases that are in the atmosphere at the moment. These challenges are not going to go away, and globally we need to work together to find solutions.

Q: What is the role of climate change in conflict, famine, migration and inequality?

[Sir John Beddington] You have to be fairly careful considering these links. The idea that you may have warfare breaking out nationally or across borders about water resources is arguably a bit overstated- but these are additional stresses to a very stressed world.

If we look at famine, this is more clear cut- albeit more looking at ‘poverty’ rather than famine itself. The price rises that occurred in 2007/8 pushed about 100 million people into poverty. Price rises that occurred in 2010/11 put another 40 million into poverty- as demonstrated by research published by the World Bank and appropriate UN bodies. Increased levels of poverty is absolutely one of the things which will follow from an increase in food prices, food poverty in particular.

A failure to look at these issues is likely to lead also to higher chances of failed states- I think that’s fair. I think the idea that the world is going to break out into mass global migration across borders, or that wars will break out over resource… That’s more science fiction than likely.

On Food Security

Q: What has been the impact of climate change on food security?

[Sir John Beddington] We already experience some of the effects of climate change now, but it is still relatively early days. What we can observe shows that there is no doubt that growing seasons have altered, and there will be significant challenges with access to sufficient water for agricultural production. Some types of extreme weather events, such as flooding and droughts, are expected to occur more frequently in some regions in the future as our climate changes. This could impact on global agricultural production and have implications for food security. For example, in 2010, heat-waves, with large forest fires, in Russia and increased rainfall in China and Pakistan, both had consequent reductions on cereal production. The effects on global trade and food prices were also exacerbated by decisions of these countries not to export cereals.

In terms of what climate change has done. It is hard to remove that from particular weather events. The attribution of particular weather events to climate change is actually quite subtle. The sort of thing people are having to do is to understand if a particular weather event has a greater probability of having occurred as a result of climate change versus ‘business as usual’.   This is very early in the science.

The key here is that inevitably some climate change is going to happen in the next twenty or thirty years, irrespective of what happens now. So we need to be thinking about how agriculture operates. Agriculture is going to have to adapt as the climate changes, and there really needs to be more global recognition that agricultural practices have to adapt to the climate change that the world is already locked into. There are big uncertainties, but some things are rather more certain than others such as changing growing seasons, changes in precipitation, and changes to the functioning of ecosystem services – meaning you can get more rain than expected in a particular place and less where you wanted it, and so on. This is disruptive, and we need to be thinking about strategies to develop agricultural technologies and practices that are resilient to a range of future climatic uncertainties..

Q: What do you feel are the impacts of urbanisation, industrialisation and renewable energies on food security?

[Sir John Beddington] This is a very complicated situation. In terms of urbanisation, the trends are there. Currently, Africa is the second most populous continent after Asia with over 965 million people and accounts for about one-seventh of the world’s human population. The expectation is that Africa will have the fastest growth rate in the world between 2000 and 2050, twice the rate of any other region during that time. Sub-Saharan Africa is also rapidly urbanizing and is expected to sustain the highest rate of urban growth in the world for several decades. Problems from this are clear- how do you feed and get water to these populations? How do you get energy to these populations? Those are really big challenges.

In terms of land degradation… ‘we cannot afford to continue with ‘business as usual’…… The evidence for this is supported by the recent Government Office for Science Foresight report ‘The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability 2011‘ which carried out an extensive analysis of the challenges facing the current food system. Approximately 12 million hectares of productive agricultural land are lost each year to land degradation, and climate change will lead to further land degradation or desertification. We have to think about regenerating degraded land and using sustainable agricultural practices. The basic solution to increase food production is really going to be saying, “…we have to grow more food on a particular unit of land.” If you were operating in the nineteenth or twentieth century, for example, and faced the need to increase food production… the typical way you would do this is to generate more agricultural land by clearing forest or grassland. Changing land use contributes significantly to increasing greenhouse gas emissions, and is no longer a viable solution. Effectively there is little new land for agriculture, and we need to practice sustainable intensification of agricultural productivity. This means increasing yields simultaneously while increasing the efficiency with which inputs such as water, energy and land are used, and reducing the negative environmental effects of food production.

The issue of energy crops is a complication to this – in the sense that we also want clean energy. Although some biofuel systems have net positive effects for greenhouse gas emissions, many first-generation biofuels do not contribute to greenhouse gas reductions but reduce the area available to grow food. The history of the introduction of biofuels illustrates the dangers of not considering all the consequences of a climate change policy. Whether or not bio fuel production has driven recent fluctuations in food prices is more difficult to assess. The hope is that we have second or third generation bio fuels which focus on waste products as a source of energy.

The amount of waste within the food system is really significant, and needs to be addressed. While estimates of waste are reliant on a weak evidence base, it has been estimated that 30% of all food grown worldwide is wasted. Typically between 10% and 30% of agricultural products are lost post-harvest in low-income countries By contrast in high-income counrties, roughly 25% is wasted post-purchase. For instance in the UK, 25% of purchased food was found to be wasted in the home and a family could save around £680 a year if they managed the purchase and consumption of food better.

Q: What are the potential solutions for existing food-crises in the developing world? Can we end hunger?

[Sir John Beddington] I think the first thing to say is that we’re not going to get anywhere without significant investment. Historically, over the past twenty or thirty years, there has been a reduction of investment into agriculture. This needs to be reversed. Those countries that have invested in agriculture, for example, Brazil and China have demonstrated the value of agriculture in driving economic growth and poverty reduction.. It has been estimated that for every RMB 10,000 (US$1500) investment in China on agricultural R&D, seven people have moved out of poverty. If we are going to see agriculture respond and adapt to climate change, and increase productivity – there has got to be more investment in agricultural research and development. We have real potential to produce better varieties of plants which are resistant to drought, resistant to saline conditions and even plants that can sequester carbon dioxide and make better use of nitrogen. The difference between yields in the poorest farms and best farms is really rather dramatic. It has been estimated that the application of existing technology and best practice could increase yields by as much as two to three times in Africa.

One of the things which is really interesting, is whether or not agriculture becomes a central part of negotiations on climate change. In some sense, it’s absolutely essential that agriculture is able to adapt to climate change. But also, in that adaptation, and in a move to more sustainable agriculture production systems – we could even mitigate against climate change by reducing greenhouse gases emissions or, indeed, even sequester carbon in soils. The FAO and World Bank alliance is promoting “climate smart agriculture” – as a central part of climate change negotiations internationally.   Climate smart agriculture includes proven practical techniques and practices that can help the elusive triple win of food security, adaptation and mitigation. It not only increases yields, but also has the potential- for example- to sequester carbon dioxide, use less nitrogen fertilisers and so on… African countries are now calling upon COP17 in Durban to establish an agriculture programme of work covering adaptation and mitigation. I think sustainable agriculture should become a very central part of the climate change negotiations.

Long-term actions are needed to address hunger. This means increasing the political priority and commitments by Governments on food, agriculture and hunger reduction, and monitoring outcomes better. As we saw with the food price spikes in 2011, 44 million were thrown into poverty as food prices increased Addressing food price volatility is going to be absolutely critical. Whether that is done by targeted food reserves for those most vulnerable to food price volatility or enabling the poorest food producers to obtain specific insurance and manage their risk against volatility are decisions as much for today as for the future….

On Water Security

Q: Is the notion that water should be free realistic? and how serious a threat is water security?

[Sir John Beddington] Globally, around 70% of available fresh-water is used for agriculture. That is, arguably, not sustainable on the basis that demand is growing, and already approximately a billion people don’t have access to sufficient supplies of fresh water. This is against a backdrop of increasing demand for water from industry, domestic use and the need to maintain environmental flows in rivers. There are real issues of sustainability. Some of these issues relate to the use of aquifers- which are being over-exploited around the world. These are ‘historic’ supplies of water, hundreds of years old, which are being used for irrigation. We need incentives to encourage greater efficiency of water use and the development of integrated water management plans need to be given high priority.

In terms of whether water should be priced, I don’t think there’s a ‘one size fits all’ solution. In some countries, most water resources belong to the state, in others to the owner of the land or water source from which it is extracted. Clearly defined property rights can incentivise conservation, and different forms of water markets have been introduced in some areas to increase water-use efficiency, with varying consequences for agriculture. Most nations currently lack water markets, but growing water scarcity may lead to them becoming more common, affecting water availability for agriculture. Social safety nets will be essential if water markets are to avoid penalising small farming communities.

Q: How is climate change affecting water security?

[Sir John Beddington] It’s going to present significant problems. Give or take, one would expect that as climate change increases- it will involve overall rising global temperatures. The availability of water will be affected by climate change in complex ways. You may get more precipitation, but it’s the distribution of that precipitation which will be an issue, with a general increase in high-latitude precipitation and decrease in many parts of the tropics. If you look at glaciers, they provide a very satisfactory store of fresh-water which is released over a relatively long period of time. The problem we have with glacier melt – which is occurring in some tropical glaciers- is that we don’t have that storage capacity any more, and this could lead to water scarcity in the affected regions in the future.

On Energy Security:

Q: What are the key energy security threats?

[Sir John Beddington] I think the issue of energy supply and poverty is inextricably linked to how much greenhouse gas is produced. There are problems there…. the large volumes of coal in various parts of the world are very cheap supplies of energy- whereas some other fossil fuels are becoming more expensive. The sort of analysis one needs to be pondering is… where is this energy going to come from, and where is the demand? There is clearly burgeoning demand for energy in China, India, Brazil and so on… and we need to think about how that is going to be satisfied with the constraint that we don’t want greenhouse gas emissions to increase- that will exacerbate the climate change problem.

Q: What are your views on nuclear energy? have disasters such as Fukushima changed our opinion of this technology?

[Sir John Beddington]If you look, for example, in the UK- it is very hard to imagine how the UK could meet its commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions without having a significant proportion of its energy produced through nuclear. It’s very hard to imagine Europe, as a whole, being able to produce sufficient energy over the next twenty or thirty years without a significant proportion of that coming from nuclear.

We can be confident that nuclear power can fulfil a proportion of our low-carbon energy needs in the years to come. Many other low-carbon technologies, for example carbon capture and storage and certain renewables, have tremendous potential to change our energy landscape in the future, but their impact in the next few decades is far harder to predict

Fukushima is fairly straightforward. You had a very old-fashioned plant, sited on an earthquake zone. Even with that, the safety mechanisms actually did shut down the reactors. What happened subsequently was that the tsunami wiped out electrical supplies, which then caused problems. The level of radiation release was relatively modest, except in the immediate vicinity of the plant. That’s not to underplay… there’s a massive clean-up issue in that area! In terms of Northern Europe and North America, the design of plants is vastly different- with significantly more safety feature. They’re also not on earthquake zones or at risk of tsunamis. The head of the nuclear inspectorate, Mike Weightman, was asked by Chris Huhne (Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change) to consider if there were any real things we may learn from Fukushima that would change our decision to build nuclear plants.   He came back unequivocally saying that there were absolutely no reasons not to continue our programme. That’s not to say we can’t learn from Fukushima. Significant back-up and redundancy on electrical supply and control systems are essential. Mike has visited Japan a number of occasions and is producing a report for the IEA on lessons to be learned from Fukushima. I think the response of most of the world has been, “terrible disaster, but this isn’t very likely here…” that’s certainly my view. The effect beyond the immediate 20km exclusion zone has been quite modest.

Q: Are there any viable renewable technologies to satisfy our energy demand?

[Sir John Beddington] Renewable energy is a growing. The biggest opportunity for this, probably over several decades away, is solar production in North Africa- this has really interesting potential and big corporations such as Munich RE have been involved in significant developments of solar technology in North Africa.

We are going to need a whole lot of different sources to ‘hedge bets’. As technology develops, some things may appear to become extremely effective while others may not.   The current biggest issue is, in fact, whether we can get by on using fossil fuels- but with Carbon capture and sequestration of Carbon products, and that’s a big ‘if’. The principles are understood- but the systems of engineering to make something that works at scale hasn’t happened yet…

On the Fragility of our Planet and Species.

Q:   How has our understanding of the Earth’s fragility changed over the last century?

[Sir Crispin Tickell] I think there is now much greater realization of Earth’s fragility.   The relationship between living organisms and the physical environment has been much better explored and understood than ever before.   A lot of people resist these ideas of a relationship between the physical environment and living organisms, but there’s no question in my mind that the relationship between the physical world, and the world of life, is very close.   The two constitute the Earth system as a whole.

Q:   How vulnerable is the Earth system?

[Sir Crispin Tickell] The Earth is vulnerable, life systems are vulnerable, and we don’t really know where the next threat is going to come from.   If you look at the history of Earth, you realize that living organisms have been subjected to disruption at fairly regular intervals.   Most disruption has been manageable by organisms, but not entirely.   There have been five great extinctions of life, but even after those events, life survived – changing its circumstances and characteristics for a whole variety of reasons – not all of which are yet fully understood.

I have been interested in this subject for many years and have researched nearly all of these disruptions.   The interesting thing is not just whether these events occur, but whether they are fast disruptions or slow.   The biggest extinction of all which occurred around 250 million years ago probably started fairly slowly.   The one that everyone knows about when an object hit the coast of Mexico around 65 million years ago was probably quite rapid, although nowhere near as serious as the one which occurred long before then.

Q:   How vulnerable are Earth species?

[Sir Crispin Tickell] Some organisms have survived very well.   The horseshoe crab, for example, has remained relatively unchanged for hundreds of millions of years.   The same can be said of the now famous Coelacanth fish of the Indian Ocean, which has survived a lot of disruptions.   There’s a new book on this subject called Survivors by Richard Fortey, which goes into all of these events.

Species are always being made extinct, but in recent history we’ve had a very steep increase in extinctions.   That rise has been caused by a combination of things happening in which human activity plays a substantial role.   Many regard this period as the current great extinction.

Humans are a very recent addition to the panoply of life.   We are vulnerable, just as any other organisms are.   We are vulnerable to shock.   However, we are arguably better than most organisms at organizing ourselves to cope with shock.   If we look at history, our species has seen a number of significant threats – but they have been relatively manageable, and we have survived.

Q:   What is the risk to Earth from asteroids and other objects?

[Sir Crispin Tickell] There is nothing immediately foreseen, but there’s always the chance that something will come and hit us.   Near earth objects are a fact of life, and hit the Earth every now and again.   If one did so, the result would depend on how big the object was, where it hit, and whether and how we could cope.

Q: How vulnerable is our species from viruses and bacteria?

[Sir Crispin Tickell] Viruses and bacteria are part of life.   There are new viruses emerging all the time, some of which are good for us – and some bad.   If you get a new disease coming like the Black Death starting in around 1348, or influenza as after the First World War, you see that we as a species are vulnerable.   Viruses are changing all the time, they are very versatile, and we have to be able to cope with them if and when they come.   Those emergent viruses we have seen in recent history, we have managed to tame a bit but not entirely. There have been things like the West Nile virus which killed a great number of people before it was clearly understood.   In these circumstances, we just have to react and do the best we can to cope.

It is important to remember that we are, indeed, products of the natural system.   Each human body contains ten times more bacterial than body cells.   Viruses and bacteria are the stuff of life, and we are part of that tissue of living … and like all other manifestations of the tissue of living, we are vulnerable.

Q: What has been the impact of humanity and the Anthropocene on Earth?

[Sir Crispin Tickell] It is now clear that the last 250 years – a tiny flash of time in geological terms – have seen substantial changes to the surface of the Earth, the nature of its seas and the quality of its air.   The proposal to name a new geological epoch the Anthropocene therefore has my full support.   Indeed, if we look at the total effect of human activity during this period, we should be staggered by the changes we have brought about.

A good way to look at this is to suppose some visitor from space came, let us say, in a hundred thousand years and looked at the geological detritus of the last little while.   He would come across the end of the ice ages, the relatively warm period of the last ten thousand or so years, and then he would come to some very substantial changes where the fertility of the soil and the chemistry of the air changed substantially.   He would note that the seas suffered from acidification, and there were various mass extinctions.   He would realize something really remarkable had happened to the Earth during those 250 years.

By exploiting sources which cannot be replaced, we have fuelled an enormous increase in one particular animal species – our own.   I regard human population increase as the most serious environmental problem we now face.   When you consider there are 80 million more people on the planet every year, you see the scale of the problem.   The effects of this are very hard to measure.

Q: How serious is the threat to our planet, and our species, from climate change?

[Sir Crispin Tickell] Climate change is a symptom of the changes that are taking place.   We cannot regard the phenomenon by itself, rather it has to be linked to a lot of other things.   Climate change is a very serious problem – but I tend to refer to it as climate destabilization, as it is not so much the change in climate but its destabilizing effects which cause problems.   The manifestation of this ranges from new viruses and bacteria, which often change when climates change, to the exhaustion of raw materials and the other resources on which we all depend.   Climate change also means that some areas which were fertile become less so, areas which were previously less fertile can become more so, and we could therefore get mass migrations of humans towards the north because of deteriorating conditions further south.   This is already happening in some measure …

Q: If things continue as they are, what do you see as the future of our planet?

[Sir Crispin Tickell] Even in the next 50 to 100 years a lot of the problems we have been facing will clearly look very different, we shall be thinking much more sensibly about things because we shall be forced to do so.

One of my favourite points is to describe how there are three main impulses for change.   The first is when we get real leadership, and that is something we haven’t seen much: by this I mean leadership from above.   The second is when humans come together through non-governmental organizations or popular feeling, and force changes from below.   The third is when you have some benign catastrophe – where we can safely establish the cause, and mobilize opinion and action to do something about it.   An example of a big catastrophe of the kind I have described would be a big hit from space.   Leadership of the kind I have described occurs when we have politicians who are ready to face these things.   Politicians face the difficulty that such big changes such as climate and events such as hits from space don’t always fit the electoral cycle – and politicians want to be re-elected!

As for the pressure from below … I think the world, certainly the world in Britain, is far better aware of the problems of climate change than even thirty years ago.   We are now, for example, able to observe parts of the world where climate destabilization is already beginning.

Q: Does technology introduce any threats to our species?

[Sir Crispin Tickell] Let me make three points.   The first is that technology can greatly improve our condition, we see it happening all the time – it makes our lives easier.   The second is the uncertainty technology introduces – we don’t know what the consequences of our development will be, especially when we get into micro technology.   The third point is that technology doesn’t match population increase.   One of the effects of technology is that we require fewer people to do the things which, hitherto, were done by humans.   Therefore we have a risk of not only having huge population increase, but also the prospect of widespread unemployment with all of the social consequences it brings, which we know all too well.

Many people are reluctant to have these discussions.

Q: What is the risk to humanity from the deliberate misuse of technology?

[Jaan Tallinn] Technology, as long as we are not talking of something super-human, is just an amplifier of intentions. The more powerful technology is, the bigger the impact you can make on the world. Compare for example, bows and arrows to nuclear weapons. They’re both technologies with the same intent, but the impact of a nuclear bomb is greater than a bow & arrow.

One of the concerns existentialists see is that we may have people who- for some reason- want to extinguish everything. The more powerful our technology, the easier it becomes for them to do that.

Q: What is the risk to humanity from the accidental misuse of technology?

[Jaan Tallinn] The probability of the world ending via misapplication of technology is much higher than deliberate. One of my friends says that being crazy is only a super-power in Batman, not so much in real life!

People with crazy intentions are not on the frontiers of new science and technology; with some qualifications, there are some crazy scientists of course.

Science is hard, and scientific breakthroughs are even harder, and so most scientists are not motivated to think of these negative consequences. When you are an AI researcher for example, you’re highly motivated to improve the capability and performance of your system, rather than research the side effects those systems could have in the world.

Q: What could be the existential impact of Artificial Intelligence?

[Jaan Tallinn] Broadly, there are two classes of AI- and they’re so different that it’s almost unfortunate that they share the name. Sometimes people pull-them apart by classing them as narrow-AI and general AI, or sub-human AI and super-intelligence.   Once AI acquires greater capabilities than humans, or acquires the ability to model itself better than we can- the situation changes drastically.

If we consider the dangers that a ‘sub-human’ AI poses to society, we see things such as autonomous weapons and-potentially- some weird unintended consequences such as the 2010 flash-crash and our fragile technological infrastructure. We also see wider economic issues and consequences, such as technological unemployment.

Once you have something that is better than humanity, at modelling humanity, developing strategies, and advancing science- it will control the planet. All the concerns we have about sub-human AI go out of the window, and now we have to think about remaining relevant as a species, and how we drive our future whilst no longer being at the steering wheel. How do we describe whatever we want to ‘it’ so ‘it’ can execute our plans?

So, while sub-human AI’s pose risks such as unemployment, and unintended consequences of complex systems etc, super-human intelligences give us the problem of dealing with an entity that is able to model us, better than we can model it- or ourselves.

Q: Have we impacted the evolution of our (and other) species?

[Sir Crispin Tickell] Evolution is a very long-term process …   Humans in their present form didn’t emerge till around 200 thousand years ago, and during that time we have seen many changes including the disappearance of two other human non homo sapiens species, namely the Neanderthals and the Denisovans.   I also understand that the human brain has slightly diminished in size over that period of time, while becoming no less efficient.

So what direction will evolution take next for us?   Well … the truth is we have no idea.   If we again use the analogy of a visitor from space, a hundred thousand years from now they may find some substantial changes.   They may find that some virus or other disease had virtually wiped us all out.   I don’t think that will happen – but it has happened to other species before now.   I am certain they would find that humans were a bit different.   I wonder playfully whether women, for example, may get over the perils of childbirth in the same way as marsupials, where babies spend only three months in the womb and the rest in a pouch … much like kangaroos …   That may be a rather sensible way forward.

Some people also speak of a singularity and how the development of artificial intelligence will impact humanity.   The truth is that we simply cannot conceive what the results would be for our species if we came to rely on artificial intelligence.

We are also affecting many other species quite substantially and promoting variants in other species which would otherwise not be there.   Take cows, for example, which we need for a whole variety of purposes.   Cows are not like the aurochs from which they descend.   The auroch looked and behaved quite differently to a cow.

Suppose also that humans disappeared entirely.   What would happen to cows? frogs? rats?   There have been some very interesting attempts made to try and judge what the long-term effects would be of a human disappearance.   We could imagine rats would be rather successful, and become as large as dogs.   We could imagine a whole variety of instances where species which we have deliberately cultivated, or which have flourished under human supervision, would change their shape, their form and their way of life if we were not here.

Q:   Do you think policy-makers give enough consideration to Earth vulnerability?

[Sir Crispin Tickell] Most policy-makers are not aware of these issues, but are becoming more so.   These individuals tend to be driven by local issues as politics requires you to be re-elected.   Quite a good example of where you have leadership, however, was when Margaret Thatcher took up the issue of climate change at a time when it was not fashionable to do so.   You could also argue that Ken Livingstone, when he was Mayor of London, took up the issue of congestion in a manner which had not been done before.   In each case it was a short-term hazard politically which resulted in a long-term advantage for society.

I am afraid that so many politicians and policy-makers are reluctant to look far ahead because they see electoral consequences, or practical consequences, which would damage their positions.

Q: Do you feel economic policies take into account climate change and other issues?

[Sir Crispin Tickell] I don’t think we have very efficient pricing mechanisms.  It has often been said that markets are marvellous at fixing prices but incapable of recognizing costs.   Pricing is a highly dubious business and must to some extent take into account the public interest.

There has to be some measure of regulation …  There is no such thing as a free market, and never has been.   If we take energy for example: in the United States it is astonishing that dependence on fossil fuels is still being encouraged by a variety of tax measures.   We need incentives and disincentives which reflect the public interest.

It’s also important to understand what we mean by growth.   In the classic GNP/GDP system, growth tends to mean producing more goods, regardless of whether these goods are desirable.   In China there is a word which means clean, green growth, which means that you take account of not just the advantages of producing something, but the true costs incurred in doing so.   That concept is something different from the current rules of the market.

Q:   Do you feel that indigenous people may have more appreciation for these phenomena than contemporary civilizations?

[Sir Crispin Tickell] We shouldn’t think that indigenous people were always doing the right things all the time.   I don’t think they were …   I do, though, think that people who are acquainted with the soil through agriculture or the oceans through fishing are probably better aware of the range of issues we’ve been discussing.

Cities now account for just over half the human species.   People who live in cities are frequently very isolated from what is going on in the wider environment …   I believe that the whole attitude towards cities has to change and I am depressed by people demanding still bigger cities.   What we should be doing is looking at how we constitute cities to make them more efficient.

In the longer term, as technology becomes even more advanced, we will probably find that the daily tides of people coming in and out of cities will change.   Many more people will be working from home, and we will see a shift going much more towards local communities.   This is why we have the current British government pressing the idea of the Big Society and giving more emphasis to local affairs.   In considering the future of cities, we must also look at transport systems as a means to limiting rather than increasing the size of future cities.   Cities are like organisms.  They take in water, food, energy and so forth … and emit enormous quantities of waste.

Q: Are we as aware as we should be of the social and economic impact of climate change, and do you feel there is a cultural disconnect between humanity and the environment?

[Sir Crispin Tickell] There are people who object to the notion of climate change and like to pretend, for example, that volcanic emissions produce just as much carbon dioxide as human activities.   This is nonsense.   Over time volcanoes don’t on the whole make an enormous difference to atmospheric chemistry.

In times of crisis as we are today financially, economically and socially, people don’t want to think about the wider issues.   The fact is the world is changing fast.   I think the effects of these crises may in the long run lead us to start doing the thinking we should … thinking differently is what we need. That means measuring things differently and rethinking our economics where people make a god of the work growth and behave as if producing things was the only thing that mattered.   Instead we should be focussing on the health, wealth and happiness of society at all levels.

Looking at the cultural element, if we analyse the precepts of some religions we find they feel the Earth was made for humans, and that God was there to help us develop the resources of the Earth.   Instead we have to see ourselves as a super organism with other super organisms, and a small part of a vast living system.   We can thereby rid ourselves of the conceit of thinking that the Earth is there for our delectation and exploitation.

Q: Should we be bringing more philosophical thinking into our technological discussion?

[Jaan Tallinn] There’s a very valuable intersection between philosophy and computer science. Daniel Dennett once said that computers keep philosophy honest. Philosophers have had thousands of years to think of interesting things, but those things are ultimately grounded in their intuitions rather than computer code.

If you ask people an intuitive question, the answer may depend on factors including culture or psychology. Intuitions are a very shaky platform on which to build our understanding of the universe.

Computers can help with figuring out many of our philosophical problems: maximising the potential of the universe, examining the pitfalls of that, creating algorithms to understand things, understanding the consequences of self-improving algorithms.

Classical philosophy is simply not compatible with the modern era, but there is a new kind of philosophy which encompasses ethics and moral values in terms of algorithms. This is sorely needed, and very interesting thinking.

Q: Can existential risk research help us understand ourselves, or our outcomes?

[Jaan Tallinn] New understanding is always neutral in expectation because what you’re trying to find out is- by definition- unknown at first.

My friend Robin Hanson, who is Professor of Economics at George Mason university has a theory called the great filter.

There seems to be a great-filter on the way from inorganic matter to space-faring civilisations, since there is a lot of the former out there but we have not seen any evidence of the latter.

The question is whether that filter is ahead or behind us. If we find signs of life out-there, that may therefore be the worst news ever- it could indicate the filter is ahead of us, and not behind!

One plausible candidate for the filter is that creating life from inorganic matter is very, very hard and doesn’t happen very often in universes of the size that we see. It would mean that we just got incredibly lucky in the beginning, and now it’s smooth sailing.   If simple life is abundant though, but somehow never gets to the level where it can colonise the galaxy and universe, that could be bad news….

One of Hanson’s talks states that “there is something out there killing civilisations, and we could be next!”

Q: Can we mitigate against existential risks?

[Jaan Tallinn] Whenever there is a topic that has potentially high-value, yet has been largely ignored so far, initial marginal progress can be quick.

Where we consider existential-risk, there are now many more people on the planet considering these risks than ever before, and as a result, we are relatively much safer than ever before.   That doesn’t mean we are safe, but we have gone from the path of certain doom to the path of almost-certain doom – and that’s phenomenal progress in relative terms!

There have been clear cases of humans being able to steer technological progress. Often people say nothing can be done, but if you look at CFCs for example, we saw the Ozone layer was being depleted, some people figured out what to do about it- and fixed it!   Alongside this, we have policy mechanisms that are successfully able to ban certain kinds of weapons for example- and currently, a movement to ban autonomous weapons is underway.


Shelley E. Taylor (in her 1988 paper for the Psychological Bulletin) argued that, “…accurate perceptions of the self, the world, and the future are essential for mental health. Yet considerable research evidence suggests that overly positive self evaluations, exaggerated perceptions of control or mastery, and unrealistic optimism are characteristic of normal human thought.” This is a view extended by Suzanne Thompson (in Current Directions in Psychological Science, 1999) who stated that, “…because the benefits of believing oneself to have control (e.g., positive mood and increased motivation) may be realized even if one’s control is illusory, it seems reasonable to suggest that people are often motivated to overestimate their control.”

It’s important in this sense to note that ‘control’ in context of humanity does not simply refer to our mastery over the environment, but also our perceived immunity from externalities which can affect us and also our strategic obliviousness to the impact of our actions on the system we exist in.

The fact is, humanity is at a critical moment. A 1993 Science Summit on World Population, organized by the U. S. National Academy of Sciences with 59 other scientific academies stated: “Humanity is approaching a crisis point with respect to the interlocking issues of population, environment, and development” because “The Earth is Finite” (D. Pimentel et. al, 1999). The same paper continues, “…unfortunately, most individuals and government leaders appear unaware, unwilling, or unable to deal with the growing imbalances between human population numbers and the energy and environmental resources that support all life. The interdependence among the availability of life-supporting resources, individual standard of living, the quality of the environment, environmental resource management, and population density are neither acknowledged nor understood. Natural resources are already severely limited, and there is emerging evidence that natural forces already starting to control human population numbers through malnutrition and other severe diseases. More than 3 billion people worldwide are already malnourished, and 3 billion are living in poverty. Historically, decisions to protect the environment have been based on isolated crises and are usually made only when catastrophes strike. Instead of examining the problem in a holistic manner, such ad hoc decisions have been designed to protect and/or promote a particular resource or aspect of human well-being in the short-term. Our concern, based on past experience, is that these urgent issues concerning human carrying capacity of the world may not be addressed until the situation becomes intolerable or, possibly, irreversible.”

This is far from an unrealistic analysis. We see examples in our day to day lives ranging from individuals who only try to improve their health when afflicted by disease and countries who only try to repair flawed policies after becoming the victims of economic, political, social or other crises. We can (and do) spend generations arguing whether climate change has been caused by humans, and pointing fingers to search for notional accountability for the failures which account for poverty, inequality and other crises we experience. The truth, however, is very simple. It is time for humanity to grow up and realise that we are a part of nature, not apart from it.

We are one of the (conservatively estimated) 9 million species who make up the living diversity of the planet. As a species, our arrogance even leads us to believe we have mastery over own bodies when, in fact, each and every adult on the planet carries over 90 trillion microbes with them; the number of bacterial cells living within the average person outnumber human cells 10 to 1.

As all children fear the unknown, so do we…. and as all children must grow up and become good citizens, so must we. This coming of age is nothing to fear. Growing up will provide humanity with the most profound sense of connectedness with the physical and biological systems of our planet. By becoming ‘good citizens’ we will not only improve the lives of billions of our own species, but help to prevent the extinction of millions more who form a part of our biological family. This new-found sense of accountability, mortality and perspective will also help us to more effectively understand and respond to the gamut of threats our species face (including ourselves) and preserve that most precious part of being human…. passing the stewardship of our knowledge, culture and environment to the next generation.
I would like to conclude with a poem I wrote in 2006 called “Environment”

“We are the spoilt child who, caught in his own ego, tries to beat his drum louder than the rest, spoiling a perfect piece of music that has played longer than he has lived. When will he understand, we are the harmony, not the song.”

Recent Articles

How to Change the World
In these exclusive interviews, I speak to the leaders of three of the world’s most influential civil sector organisations.  William “Bill” Drayton (Founder & CEO, ASHOKA), Linda Fuller (Co-Founder of Habitat for Humanity & the Fuller Center for Housing) and Nancy Lublin (Founder & CEO, Crisis Text Line). We...
A Conversation with Hussain Sajwani, Founder of DAMAC
Hussain Sajwani has an extraordinary story.  From modest beginnings, he has become a self-made billionaire, recognised as one of the most powerful Arabs in the world.  Sajwani is Founder & Chairman of the DAMAC Properties, a global business with revenues of over $1.6bn and 2000+ employees which has delivered...
A Conversation with Melinda Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
By deploying capital and talent, guided by the vision that every life has equal value, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has achieved some incredible successes.  Over 500 million children have been vaccinated, with over 7 million lives saved… 3 million households have received access to drought-tolerant crops…. 99%...