A cloud of dust
On existential risk, the volcano in Tonga, and the big question: Whose job is it to plan for the worst?
In the 1800s, a volcanic eruption (at Mount Tambora) produced so much ash that it became "the year without a summer" -- with dire consequences for food harvests. We really don't take that particular existential risk seriously enough, and the incredible views from space of the ash from Tonga's volcanic eruption ought to stir us from our slumber.
■ The matter of who is indeed responsible for species-level existential risk may be the ultimate collective-action problem. When it comes to the question of what may prevent the destruction of the entire range of human life -- something like an extinction-scale asteroid collision or a climate-altering volcanic eruption -- literally everyone has a vested interest, yet no one has either the responsibility or the capacity to resolve it entirely on their own, and in many cases there are conflicting interests about absorbing the costs.
■ Institutions, not just individuals, are hamstrung by this issue of collective responsibility. To whom are we supposed to turn? Governments have often been the cause of existential risks to humanity as much as the willing combatants thereof.
■ Non-governmental organizations are often either too busy trying to combat the issues for which they were initially founded, too anxiously preserving themselves institutionally in the face of uncertainty and change, or are too bound by bureaucratic constraints to make any real difference at all -- not to mention rarely equipped with sufficient resources to make an adequate difference.
■ Should we turn to the academy? Would any of us trust a university president or the chair of a college faculty guild to protect the rest of us in the face of even small-scale risks? It isn't obvious that most of us would do so, despite the concentration of expertise among the ivory towers.
■ What about churches and religious institutions? In a sense, these are institutions designed around questions of the meaning of life on Earth -- but whether we could trust them to be responsible for looking after the very practical risks to the essence of life on Earth is another question altogether.
■ No problem like this is ever truly hopeless, but it does behoove us to question who is responsible, and perhaps more to the point, to figure out what share of responsibility every institution and every individual has for these broader questions. Terrible terrible things will happen, but the more sophisticated, the wealthier, and the more technologically advanced we become as a human civilization, the more that can be done to divvy up the risks, as well as the investment in the solutions.
■ For as much as people bemoan partisan divisions, the question of setting ourselves up to survive the worst that the natural world could potentially throw at us may truly be the final frontier of non-ideological, non-partisan grand-coalition building. To prepare ourselves for the worst does not require us to think the best of one another.
■ It does, however, require us to make investments as insurance policies against what could potentially befall us. Some low-probability, high-impact event is statistically likely to come sooner or later. That is where the historians have something to say, as they are obligated to remind the rest of us both periodically and emphatically of the terrible things have happened to humankind in the past -- and to make us aware that most awful events are not truly unprecedented.
■ The odds of terrible events are the province of the physical scientists who have an obligation to give us the straight facts. But the human consequences are the province of the social scientists who are duty-bound to remind the rest of us that humanity can fail itself through a lack of preparation or a lack of will -- and also that we are capable as a species of acting not only when the time calls for it, but also well in advance.