Found on Little Green Footballs
, Charles Johnson's "Weblog covering issues dear to both conservatives and US liberals," a link to an opinion article in The Atlantic
.We're Underestimating the Risk of Human Extinction
by Ross Andersen in which he interviews Nick Bostrom, a professor of philosophy at Oxford. Emphasis mine on the moral and ethical premise of sustainable development as articulated in the Earth Charter
and Agenda 21
Bostrom, who directs Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute, has argued over the course of several papers that human extinction risks are poorly understood and, worse still, severely underestimated by society. Some of these existential risks are fairly well known, especially the natural ones. But others are obscure or even exotic. Most worrying to Bostrom is the subset of existential risks that arise from human technology, a subset that he expects to grow in number and potency over the next century.
Some have argued that we ought to be directing our resources toward humanity's existing problems, rather than future existential risks, because many of the latter are highly improbable. You have responded by suggesting that existential risk mitigation may in fact be a dominant moral priority over the alleviation of present suffering. Can you explain why?
Bostrom: Well suppose you have a moral view that counts future people as being worth as much as present people. You might say that fundamentally it doesn't matter whether someone exists at the current time or at some future time, just as many people think that from a fundamental moral point of view, it doesn't matter where somebody is spatially---somebody isn't automatically worth less because you move them to the moon or to Africa or something. A human life is a human life. If you have that moral point of view that future generations matter in proportion to their population numbers, then you get this very stark implication that existential risk mitigation has a much higher utility than pretty much anything else that you could do. There are so many people that could come into existence in the future if humanity survives this critical period of time---we might live for billions of years, our descendants might colonize billions of solar systems, and there could be billions and billions times more people than exist currently. Therefore, even a very small reduction in the probability of realizing this enormous good will tend to outweigh even immense benefits like eliminating poverty or curing malaria, which would be tremendous under ordinary standards.
[Many, though not all, of the actions that would reduce the existential risk of human extinction would have positive effects in the short or medium term. If we seek to alleviate poverty not only by giving money, food, and supplies to the poorest people but also by giving people autonomy, knowledge, and the capacity to act in their own interests, we are more likely to alleviate poverty over the long run and alleviate its present suffering. Poverty represents an existential threat if for no other reason than that poverty breeds disease, and diseases become epidemics.]
The far right is superficially aware of sustainable development, the Earth Charter, and Agenda 21, often declaring these ideas to be the agenda of the New World Order, the Devil, or President Obama. They should think out the full implications of holding that human lives are human lives, wherever and whenever they are lived, and that a future life counts as much as a present life. Those implications are devastating to the far right wing's ideology, policies, and practices. Laissez-faire capitalism is both immoral and unethical on those grounds. More than that, "Do unto others as ye would have them do unto you" becomes a moral guidestone with teeth.
The question is, of course, whether there exists a human institution that has the capacity and the will to think about something other than the next election, the next budget, or the next day. I take a bit of optimism from what a Neolithic people managed to do: it took almost two thousand years to build the Stonehenge complex. We can at least match their achievement.