Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Blog Subtitle: Risks to Global Civilization

After reflecting on it over the vacation, I changed the subtitle of the blog from the old:


which was sort of a hastily assembled laundry list of things I knew I was interested in to


which I think better captures what it is that really drives my interest and is much snappier.

Throughout my career, I get passionate about problems in which there's an element of "Things that could Go Wrong in a Really Big Way". In the computer security context, my main claim to fame is research on the spread of computer worms and mitigation thereof.  Computer worms have the potential to infect the entire Internet in sub-second times, and then cause major changes in its behavior, which is a completely fascinating fact to me.   In my current job, I work on a commercial system to detect malicious websites installing hostile software. But throughout my computer security career, I've not really been motivated by the hackerish desire to understand how to exploit a particular flaw in a particular program, but rather by the implications for an enterprise as a whole, or the Internet as a whole, or society as a whole, of the existence of security vulnerabilities in programs.

Similarly, I got interested in peak oil because it seemed like it posed a credible threat to society as a whole that I wanted to understand better. The tendency of that society as a whole to choose biofuels as the main first response to oil shortages poses a host of secondary challenges to the biosphere and it's ability to continue to support human-kind that I'd also like to understand.

But, my instinct is very much to take a risk management perspective on these things. There are plenty of folks out there (eg the Archdruid) who have made up their minds that the prognosis for our current civilization is certain collapse, but I find that unsupported by the facts. Similarly, there are cornucopians (eg the late Julian Simon) who think that because civilization over the last few hundred years has overcome all challenges, therefore it must overcome all future challenges. This too seems to me an unjustified extrapolation given that we know plenty of past civilizations have collapsed.

Instead, to me, each challenge is to be analyzed on it's own merits in a spirit of risk management. How serious might it be? How likely is it? How soon might it occur? What things will people probably do on their own to mitigate it? If they had additional or better insight, what might they do differently that would mitigate more effectively? What psychological or social factors might prevent them from adopting more effective mitigations?

I think my interest in different threats might change over time as some threats recede in significance while new threats rise in prominence. But I doubt my basic nature will change enough that my interests will stray far outside the domain of "Risks to Global Civilization".

The word "civilization" is in there because, while I love nature and spend a fair amount of time out on my bike or in my kayak in the beautiful areas in Northern California, I haven't found that threats to nature get me very excited unless they also pose a threat to the human order. I didn't become an environmentalist when I was young because I don't have enough of that passion. I have some sense that I should be different in this regard; perhaps if I was more spiritually developed, I'd be less anthropocentric, but I'm not.

It is of course somewhat arrogant and grandiose to tackle such a large, complex, and interdisciplinary subject as "Risks to Global Civilization". Inevitably, there will be screw-ups and cases where I take indefensible positions because I lack the specialized expertise required in some particular area of risk. At the same time, it seems clear to me that there should be some people who worry holistically about global risks to civilization, I'd like to be one of them, no-one is going to be qualified in all the areas required, and a background in physics and computer security is probably about as good as a background in, say, soil science, or macro-economics, or archeology, or petroleum geology, or whatever.

In short, no-one is really qualified to think about these things, and I'm as good as the next PhDified specialist. I'll just have to work on the deficiencies in my background, and do my best to be honest about them in the meantime.


Sam Charles Norton said...

Two brief comments:
a) from my point of view I'd say if you were more spiritually advanced you'd end up being more anthropocentric...., and
b) do you read John Robb (Global Guerrillas)?

Unknown said...

there are cornucopians (eg the late Julian Simon) who think that because civilization over the last few hundred years has overcome all challenges, therefore it must overcome all future challenges. This too seems to me an unjustified extrapolation given that we know plenty of past civilizations have collapsed.

While I have no idea how bad things are really likely to get, I can make the following observation. No matter what happens, eventually (perhaps 1-200 years out), the age of petroleum will be over. It is a virtual certainty that there will still be people, and in their minds the challenges of peak oil were overcome.

Perhaps the best analogy that I can come up with would be the various plagues that swept through Europe in the 14th century. The people that survived would have seen that they had overcome the challenges. The people that didn't survive couldn't speak any more of course.

P.S. - computer security happens to be a subject that I am also quite interested in.

Stuart Staniford said...

Sam: I guess it would depend on which spiritual direction I advanced in! If I were a regularly practicing Buddhist I'd definitely be less anthropocentric, but certainly some Christian traditions (and I'm guessing yours from your comment) view animals as not having souls and therefore not being worthy of moral consideration (and presumably plants too a fortiori).

Sam Charles Norton said...

Stuart - my angle isn't that animals don't have souls, or that the environment isn't worthy of attention; it's more that the risks to global civilisation come about because we are horrible to each other, ie if we pledge to social justice (= more anthropocentric, more humane/humanist) then most of the other problems will resolve themselves. I said a bit more about this here

Half Empty said...

Perhaps starting with a definition of what you mean by civilisation would be helpful. If we're talking about the 200-or-so-year-old phase of highly energy-intensive, fossil-fuelled industrial growth, then the work of Heinberg et al on viable recoverable fossil resources vs the potential of renewable replacements to maintain growth suggests, to me at least, that the pips will be squeaking very loudly by mid-century.

Transition to something else seems unavoidable. A very rapid transition - whether achieved by "accident" or design - may seem indistinguishable from collapse to many people.

I'm intrigued by your assertion that the facts don't support a belief that collapse is eventually inevitable. John "Archdruid" Michael Creer puts as much emphasis on "long" as on "descent" in his first book. Given that the process of what might eventually be regarded as the collapse of our civilisation could take a century or more to run its course, which are the key facts that suggest that this process is not going to happen?

Stuart Staniford said...


Civilization = living in cities, not working on the land. Collapse would consist of a large and lasting loss of income, population, or complexity (eg as measured by the fraction of people not working on the land).

I haven't read the Archdruid's book at this time, but I do read his blog most of the time. I'll have to make a more specific and footnoted critique another time, but briefly my dissent with him is that 1) society has an awful lot of fossil fuels (eg the potential to gasify the 3GT of coal under the North Sea so the peak in overall fossil fuel use is not at all close unless we voluntarily restrain ourselves for the sake of the climate, and 2) modern versions of renewables such as solar/wind have very high EROEI so it's entirely physically and technically feasible to transition to a renewable powered civilization. So to argue collapse is inevitable you need to make a socio-historical argument that at no time over the next hundred+ years will people avail themselves of the available technical options. I just don't think people are inherently predictable enough to make such a case airtight. Admittedly, people haven't been terribly smart about it so far, but I don't think you can rule out that they will do the right thing once their backs are to the wall (eg see the response to the financial crisis in 2008 and last year).

Half Empty said...


While I don't necessarily share your sanguine outlook on the availability of cheap fossil fuels, I don't think there is any doubt that there are enough to maintain intensive agricultural production and distribution, at least, for a long time to come.

Whether there will be enough energy to go round to maintain the majority of the world's population in the style to which a minority of it has become accustomed is another matter.

The Archduid discusses a possible future civilisation that would be based neither on land-slavery or debt-slavery in his new book, The Ecotechnic Future.

You mentioned in your reply the need for people to respond appropriately to energy challenges and new technologies. William R Catton Jnr's Bottleneck offers useful background reading on some of the potential risks facing global civilisation from that direction.

Finally, you are surely not suggesting that people did the right thing in response to the financial crisis? At Government level, the policy of "extend and pretend" threatens to be painfully shown up in the next few years. At household level, the story that sticks in my mind was the one about the US car rental company that stocked up with hybrids in 2008, only to find its customers deserting in droves for rivals that still offered SUVs.