Doomsday Dread: The End of Civilization, with Phil Torres

October 04, 2016

Phil Torres is an author, contributing writer for the Future of Life Institute, and an Affiliate Scholar at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. His writing has been featured in numerous publications such as Time, Motherboard, Salon, Huffington Post, and our very own Free Inquiry. His book is The End: What Science and Religion Tell Us About the Apocalypse.

Since the beginning of civilization, people have worried about its collapse. Pockets of people across the world have long warned that the end is near, and as it turns out, their warnings of apocalypse might be closer to the truth than we think. Torres joins Point of Inquiry host Josh Zepps to discuss just how close we are to experiencing catastrophes that have the potential to fuel our demise. With everything from climate change and biodiversity loss to uncontrollable technologies and the greater accessibility of advanced weaponry, Torres predicts that the human race is going to have some major hurdles to overcome if we want to survive the coming century.

Welcome to Point of Inquiry. I’m Josh Zepps, and this is a production of the Center for Inquiry, which aims to foster a secular society based on science and reason, skepticism, secular humanism. 

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We discuss the end of civilization as we know it. A cheery subject with Phil Taris. He’s a scholar at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. He’s the founder of the X Risks Institute and the author of The End What Science and Religion Tell US about the Apocalypse. Phil, Taras, thanks for being on point of inquiry. Thanks for having me. It’s great to be here. 

So I let’s just start with how religious the world is or isn’t. I feel like as part of a visit of secular movement in the United States, I can occasionally find myself quite optimistic about how many strides we’re making and the growing religiosity of countries like, well, especially my home country of Australia and countries like Western Europe, especially Northern Europe, and the strides that we’re making in the United States. But I’ve recently read you saying that although there are apparently nine countries which are on the brink of becoming almost entirely non-religious, the global trend is actually working against us. 

Can you just unpack those two strands? 

Yes, sure. That’s absolutely true. So I think Alan Cooperman put it best. He basically said you could think of this, the global situation as the secularizing west and the rapidly growing rest. So, yeah, it’s absolutely true. There was that you just mentioned the study. Australia was one of those countries where, you know, religion is marching towards extinction along with like Switzerland and Canada, various others even in the US. Of course, if I remember correctly, the demographic of nones of, you know, religiously unaffiliated individuals is, I think, the only religiously relevant demographic that is growing. So. So there is plenty of good news. 

I mean, I would anticipate if people are wondering, just because I know that everyone’s thinking, what are the other eight countries? It’s Australia. It’s Australia. New Zealand. Canada, which is not very surprising. The Anglican countries that aren’t the the UK and the US own island is in there. 

Then it is Austria, Czech Republic, Finland, Netherlands, Switzerland. 

Yeah. So. Yeah, so. So it’s also worth pointing out that secularism is is definitely correlated with other questions of causation here. But just as a matter of fact, I mean, is correlated with like higher standard of living. You know, secular societies tend to be less Sextus, less racist, anti-Semitic and so on and so on. So there was that one study even that I came across a while ago that found secular parents are more likely to expose their kids to actually take their kids to a mosque, to a temple, to, you know, whatever church in order to expose them to different ideas. And I suppose that’s consistent with yet another study out from several years ago that found that actually atheists know more about world religion than any other group out there. 

Yeah, I mean, that’s superficially surprising. And then when you think about it for a split second, it’s kind of obvious because you you know, you notice when you understand lots of religions, you can see how they’re all just different incarnations of different different forms of tissue’s of fabrications, mysticism, misheard rumors about the past and so on. 

And the similarities between them are more likely to make you agnostic of them than then believe in them. I mean, I in in Australia, we don’t have the same separation of church and state. And we had religious studies class in elementary school. And I think that served me well to be more skeptical of religion, not more not more religious. 

Yeah, I’m actually a big fan of comparative religion classes, and there’s that. So actually, I published an article skeptic recently about this phenomenon that I termed the clash of eschatology. And in the first couple paragraphs, I basically argued that Zoroaster or Zera Through is also known as who was the founder of Zoroastrianism. There’s a pretty good case to make that he’s the most influential figure in all of human history. And the reason gets it exactly what you’re talking about. This sort of, you know, the relationship between different religions, all the similarities. You know, Zoroastrian was founded long before Jesus was born and then Judaism drew from it. Well, you know, all sorts of crucial elements, including the SC, its logical end times, sort of elements that was taken up by Christianity and Islam. So there’s there’s amazing parallels even if you go back to Sarastro. Where they expect a virgin born savior to usher in actual physical bodily resurrection of the dead. And then a final judgment. The parallels are really quite striking. And for me, certainly studying comparative religion has led me to has has reinforced my skepticism about the veracity of world religions. So speaking of which, yeah, if you look at, you know, if you look at the West, we are becoming more secular. And I think that’s a good thing for many, many reasons. But if you look at the world more broadly, the secular movement is is losing the battle. So, I mean, I think by 20, why is that? 

It’s not just demographics. Is that because religious people are having more babies? Yeah. Is it because the ideas are actually more powerful? 

I think there are there is a multiplicity of different factors. But just off the top my head, I’m quite sure I’m quite confident in saying that rates of reproduction are the primary reason. So religion is supposed to grow tremendously, like in Africa, for example, and India and various other places like that. 

And of course, a lot of Western nations, the birth birthrate is quite low. So I think it does have to do with the fact that religion tends to be inherited. 

And those of us who who are no fans of any religion, but particularly concerned about the role of Islam in the world at the moment. The statistics don’t look right. Right that say it looks like over that over the coming half century, that will be the the overwhelming boom in terms of religious identity. 

That’s absolutely right. Yeah. So there is no seven point four billion people roaming the planet today, and it’s estimated that there’ll be nine point three billion by 2050. So that’s, what, 34 years? It’s got a lot to me. By comparison, 1970, there was like two billion or a billion. 

So the growth really is quite significant. And also, by 2050, they’re supposed to be an estimated eight billion religious people. So even though the demographic of atheist leading individuals will increase in absolute numbers, we will decrease in terms of our percentage of the global population. And Islam in particular, as you mentioned. So Christianity, I think, will grow in terms of absolute numbers, in terms of percentage. They’ll stay roughly the same, which I think is thirty one percent. And Islam, in contrast, will go from one point six billion to two point seven, six billion. If I remember, I’ve taught my head. So, I mean, that’s not only a huge increase in terms of absolute numbers, but they’ll also more or less reach the same percentage as Christians by the middle of the century. 

So let’s talk about. I mean, let’s talk about why that matters. And to the pivot to your field of expertize. 

So we’ve got an increasingly religious world, a and increasingly disproportionately Muslim world. And of course, on the counter side to that, we’ve got a much more technologically advanced world. And the pace of innovation in biotech, in medicine and genetically modified organisms is is growing apace. And perhaps the proliferation of nuclear weapons is growing apace. I see sort of two ways of interpreting this on. On my sunny days, I think, well, everything has always been complicated and things are going to somehow iron themselves out. And yes, the pace of change is fast, but that gives us as many opportunities as it does liabilities. And then on my docket days, I read filters. 

I’m so glad to know that I could contribute to this darker moments. 

Yeah. So why are we all going to die? Feel that that is true. You have the universe will ultimately sink in to entropy death. As Gary Johnson pointed out, the sun will expand and five billion years and consume the earth, but more immediately speaking. And therefore more relevant to our current situation. It is absolutely true that I think it’s important to recognize that more or less every generation going back through time, a certain number of individuals who have, you know, raise their arms and shouted that the end is imminent. And this is the last generation. Beware, you know, Saker. So whatever. But I think so. So, I mean, I feel like that reveals perhaps a human tendency. A bias is something of that sort. That is absolutely worth seriously considering. But I think there are additional facts that suggests that our situation is genuinely unique. I mean, there are, first of all, phenomena like there have sort of background phenomena like asteroid comets, super volcanic eruptions, you know, global pandemics, things of this nature which have always haunted us. Yeah. 

And and I don’t really worry about those because I feel like at any given point in time, we are better equipped than we’ve ever been to be able to address them. So even if they do take us out, there’s no it’s not a downward spiral. Right. I mean, at least I feel like we’re on an upward upward curve. We will we will never be we will never be less capable of deflecting an asteroid than we are. At the latest possible moment in our history. 

Yeah. So I would say that’s Demi Moore capable. Right, right. Yeah, totally. Yeah, I think that’s mostly true with respect to asteroids and comets. It’s not so clear what we would do with the case of a super volcanic eruption that resulted in a volcanic winter that led to agricultural failures and famine and things of that nature except to just burrow underground in some bunkers and hang out for a decade or so. And you’re absolutely right. There’s a sense in which which advanced technologies has either not it either won’t have any impact on some of these, you know, our cosmic risk background kind of hazards or it will mitigate them. So in a sense, we’re better off with respect to the natural dangers than than we’ve ever been in the past. But at the same time, there are anthropogenic phenomena like climate change, which is a genuinely new phenomenon that civilization has never before encountered. And so far has has really proven it’s not capable of thinking deeply about and acting with sufficient foresight and prudence to to avoid a catastrophe that literally kids were born today are probably gonna live to twenty one hundred. And a lot of the predictions are, you know, stop at that time and they’re pretty dire. So there’s things like that. There’s biodiversity loss. A lot of people don’t realize how dire biodiversity loss is. There was a study out in science advances just last year that confirmed that even on the most conservative or optimistic assumptions we’ve ushered in, human activity is ushered in the sixth mass extinction event. That’s the sixth one in three point eight billion years. So that’s really something to think about. There’s another study just to give you some more facts that underline the point that the Living Planet report from 2014 found that between 1970 and 2010, there was a 52 percent decline in the global population of wild vertebrates. So that would be like reptiles, birds, mammals, fish, amphibians and so on. So, I mean, the situation really is pretty shocking. These are new phenomena. Just just to reiterate, these are new phenomena that civilization hasn’t before encountered and even more. 

I think important to point out is the fact that there’s a constellation of new technologies which are unprecedentedly powerful. 

And not only are they extremely powerful, but they met some of them, at least like biotechnology, synthetic biology and advanced nanotechnology is expected to exhibit this trend as well. They’re becoming more accessible to individuals. So essentially what you have is a situation where the population’s growing. If certain percentages of individuals at the fringe, you know, if it’s one percent of your four percent of humanity suffers from sociopathy, which is something that by 2050 that would result in, I think, three hundred and seventy two million sociopaths among us. But not all sociopaths, by the way, since sociopathy and psychopathy are more or less equivalent terms, and although not all of them are violent for sure, they are disproportionately violent. So a lot of dictators very likely suffered for, you know, very likely they were sociopaths. I think if Trump isn’t a sociopath, I don’t know who is. So, you know, so. So if that percentage holds fixed, that means the number of sociopaths is increasing over time. You could say the same thing about Islamic extremists. If it’s one percent or if it’s point five percent, actually more accurate estimates put it at a violent jihadists at point twelve percent or so, which is a tiny, tiny percent of the global population. But when you actually crunch the numbers, that results in a really long one, hundreds of thousands of individuals who are bent on using violence as a mechanism, in some cases essentially for accelerating Armageddon salaries, some sort of apocalyptic, you know, termination of contemporary civilization this year. 

This is where it starts getting scary, because in the past, you could have those 300. What was what did you say, 300000 people or something in the world that were crazy? Sociopaths. 

Like million. Yeah, that’s right. Four hundred million. Yeah. Four hundred and 100 billion psychopaths. 

But the opportunity for any one of them to be in a position to wreak mass havoc was always limited. I mean, it just wasn’t that likely that you were going to be in a position of power to take over the nation of Iraq unless you were Saddam Hussein? Well, you know, if you were born a psychopath in Tasmania, there wasn’t a lot you could do apart from being a pest to watch your your neighbors. Right. The difference in the 21st century is going to be increasingly there will be there will be means that those people will have to to enact their fantasies on on a wider scale. And they have been able to. 

Yeah. Exactly. There are two factors. There’s Beane’s and motivation. And in other words, tools, which are the means. And then agents, which are the the entities in which motivations reside and and compel the entity to act in the world. You know, you look across history, there have been. I mean, just innumerable active, apocalyptic groups that if they only had the means, they would have attempted to bring about the end of the world. And there definitely were recent examples. Aum Shinrikyo is a Japanese called responsible. They did the sarin attack, right? Exactly. Seventy five. Yeah. Subway. Certa Tech. Exactly. And that was explicitly an attempt to initiate Armageddon or World War Three involving the U.S. and, you know, whatever. It’s very crazy ideas that that group also happened to be. A lot of its members were highly educated individuals. These are people from top universities who given, you know, a certain cultural or cultural malaise of the time, sort of succumb to the charm and charisma of the leader. And, you know, it found the ideology interesting. But there are so many other examples. Islamic State is another contempt example, threat if they only had the being said. So now we’re entering this new era in which humanity, more or less hasn’t changed. In fact, our brains really haven’t changed that much for at least the past thirty thousand years. So we have this there’s this old hardware, namely our brain and this old software, which is, you know, you can analogize to a religious worldview. It’s you know, this is a software people are running on their on their brains that, you know, the world is evidence and it’s going to involve some supernatural events. It’s got usher in, you know, some paradisiacal kind of new era. And yet the situation of the means of the tools has completely changed we within two radically different environments. So, you know, there’s a sense in which, you know, there’s an Oxford professor whose name is Julian Saville Rescue and his colleague Ingomar Person, and they wrote a book basically advocating for moral bio enhancement, basically using technologies to alter our moral sensibilities because they argue we are radically unfit for the new environment. We were we’re extremely fit. All our prejudices are xenophobic tendencies and so on. This these were all probably very advantageous and expedient in our environment of evolutionary adaptiveness, you know, in the African savanna 12000 years ago. But today, this makes us really vulnerable to a catastrophe. Some nutcase who is motivated by a religious worldview or by some sort of, you know, some sort of ideology that is antiquated and not conducive to human well-being in our current world, might have access to the tools, to the mechanisms and the levers that that could be pulled to into some sort of civilizational catastrophe. 

Let me Phil, let me let me reword some situation. Let me channel the moderate religious listener now who is thinking, yes, religious nut bags of crazy people. And we need to do everything we can to make sure that ISIS doesn’t get a nuke. But the real danger, or at least as large of danger in the 21st century is going to be hyper scientific, high, hyper rationalistic, atheistic, godless scientists who are going to unleash upon the world the same kind of tinkering that you were just alluding to in an attempt to either biologically manipulate our sense of ethics by tinkering with our brains, purrfect themselves in preparation for the singularity, to try to plug their heads into into a into a computer and upload their consciousness. They’re going to unleash an artificial intelligence, which is going to be inimical to the interests of humanity. 

They’re going to create genetically engineered crops that are going to put out of business all of the natural the natural crops that we find around the world and are going to ruin biodiversity once and for all the great tragedies of the 20th century where the eugenics inspired Nazis and the atheist Stalin experiment. There’s no reason to believe that the solution to all this is not the is not the gospel of love and humility that that Jesus proposed. 

Yeah. Well, that is a is a lot you on that you have. 

There’s a lot of material there for sure. I mean, I certainly would point out that, you know, Hitler, the whole eugenics movement, that actually was really quite popular in the U.S. at the time. And then he implemented it in a in a brutal, horrific, genocidal fashion, of course. I mean, he was not an atheist, you know, in the Catholic Church, never really disavowed any kind of connection with him also. 

I mean, they were quite supportive of fascism in the 30s. 

They were quite supportive. Also, it’s absolutely worth pointing out that he borrowed a lot from Christian eschatology. I mean, he talked about a thousand year Reich, which is which borrows directly from this notion of the millennium from Revelation. Exact same thing. In fact, you’d find with respect to Marxism mean his. There’s some historians who’ve pointed out this, these extraordinary isomorphic that were parallelism between between Christian eschatology and sort of the narrative of creation all the way to the, you know, the millennium and then and then paradise after that with Marx’s notion of, you know, you start with pure communism. You go through various dispensations, various stages like feudalism. Capitalism appears, you know, it introduces alienation, all these sins and stuff. And then this messianic figure, namely Marx, appears, you know, to to sort of set things right to get us back on the right track. And ultimately, we end up with the advanced communist state that comes after capitalism. So there is I mean, the point of saying that is I think both of those ideologies, which were Chugh, obviously hugely influential in the 20th century. I mean, they sort of defined that hundred year block are deeply religious in nature. And that’s not what I think contemporary eigth ism is about. There’s a lot, you know, people sort of adopted these views by faith. There’s a kind of dogmatism to it. There were all these telli logical notions that were infused in the beliefs which are nonscientific. So anyways, yeah, I would just push back against this notion, first of all, that the 20 century has these examples of the dangers that atheists can cost, because I don’t think there’s a causal relation between the atheist itself that was exhibited by communist states and their moral atrocities that they committed. So beyond that, I think I’m not convinced that Jimbo’s are that big a danger, although I do think I would hasten to add that I’m not an expert with respect to the connection between biodiversity loss and Jimbo’s. I as I emphasized before, I think biodiversity loss is truly a magnificent problem. That needs to be that one is underreported. Few people know about it, but it is, as some scientists have said. 

I mean, it’s our greatest legacy that I is gonna revisit the stat that you cited earlier. Am I am I remembering correctly that you said that we’ve lost 50 percent of vertebrates in the past, in the 40 years between 1970 and 2010? 

Correct. Fifty two percent. 

Well, we if we are merely maintained the current pace, then within our lifetime, presumably. 

Knock on wood, all of a vertebrate symptom on the planet would be gone because I’m going a little over 40 years. 

That is most definitely what the statistics imply. In fact, it could be worse than that because as populations dwindle, ecosystems weaken and they become more vulnerable to collapse. So actually, as you as you get as biodiversity loss continues, the probability of some sort of catastrophic event would increase. And in fact, there was a study out from, I think, 2012 that was published in Nature. I mean, one of the most prestigious journals in the world. And there were over 20 authors from around the world, too, who had their name on this paper. And they basically argued that we could encounter a an irreversible, sudden, catastrophic collapse of the global ecosystem. The idea is basically that there are certain thresholds within the ecosystem that before you hit them, there’s all sorts of perturbations in the environment, the environment that have maybe linear or maybe expected sort of effects. 

But then you cross this threshold and everything changes suddenly, you know, in a matter of a decade or something and basically ideas. This has been very well studied with respect to local ecosystems. So we know that this can happen. You know, everything kind of looks fine. And then suddenly, you know, the next day the local ecosystem is just dead. 

Yeah, there’s a doesn’t Jared Diamond have this this philosophy as well? And his, I think and one of Jared Diamond’s book seeds, he talks about an island on which they were they were maybe dieser and they and everything was going okay, okay, okay, okay, okay. 

As the deer population grew and grew and grew and then the extinction event is calamitous and sudden and there just isn’t enough time to unwind it. The question then becomes, are we different from dieser? And do we have the recent the resourcefulness to in that decade of collapse, scramble our way out of it? Will or not? 

Yeah. Well, I think. That’s true. That might bean from his jaw Diamond’s book collapse. Yes, that’s right. Why? Yeah. 

Why cut why societies trival file or something like that. 

Yeah. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. It’s a fantastic book. So, yeah, I think that the idea is that once you cross the threshold, there is no turning back. You’ve already initiated a process that whereby you know, their various feedback mechanisms and so on, that, you know, it’s irreversible. 

Once, once you do, you have a way of getting your head around what you regard, the likelihood of that being of that happening. Today. 

Well, the authors said that it’s they essentially presented evidence for thinking that this could very well happen. I don’t really have a probability that there is. 

And what does that look like? Make that real for us. Does that mean that crops just fail widespread on a global scale? Does it mean that the monsoon gets screwed up in South Asia and suddenly people don’t have water on their crops? I mean, what does it mean that suddenly green the ice shelf comes collapsing off and we don’t have an ice shelf anymore? 

Or is it a combination of all of that? 

Yeah, I’m not sure the ice shelf would would play in. 

I think that’s more of an issue of the temperature of the atmosphere at ground level. But yeah, I mean, there would be major food supply disruptions. You know, the article goes into some of the repercussions. And I mean, just various underpinnings of of civilization would be severely weakened. And, you know, I, I don’t know beyond that what exactly to expect. I think in the first world, things would be would get more difficult. I think in the Third World, they’d probably be absolutely catastrophic. So, yeah, I mean, ultimately, it is a it is a bad situation that we absolutely want to avoid, and not just because of the immediate and obvious consequences of, you know, agricultural failures and stuff like that. 

But I mean, this this is the fertilizer. No pun intended of global conflict. Climate change, in fact, is an ongoing cause of terrorism. Of course, you know, there’s an article out that logo that found a causal connection between climate change and the Syrian civil war, which started in 2011. And that was kind of the petri dish in which the Islamic State emerged as arguably the most powerful terrorist organization in human history. So biodiversity loss would be the exact same thing. You think of these as conflict multipliers or threat multipliers? I think that was Chuck Hagel or John Brennan’s term. I can’t remember if somebody had, but these are things that will multiply conflicts in the world. So, you know, you could have a cascading effect that results in, you know, perhaps some kind of nuclear exchange. Know, wasn’t that just 2002, India and Pakistan were on the brink of a war that both countries explicitly said could have gone nuclear? So, you know, this isn’t just a Cold War kind of concern. 

And it’s in fact, one reason that the reports of the atomic scientists, their doomsday clock, which they maintain and the minute hand basically represents our collective nearness to some sort of catastrophe. And it moves back and forth from midnight, which indicates. And right now it’s three minutes, which is closer than it was for most of the Cold War. So it’s worse. So it’s worth thinking about, like the cascading effects. And, you know, if there was a global collapse of the ecosystem, worldwide ecosystem, you know, what’s there’d be all these immediate consequences, which could also be this. Who knows how many additional effects that could push civilization to to the brink, to the precipice of some sort of catastrophic conflict or confrontation or something like that. 

So let’s take depressing environmental calamity as a possible given and just shift our focus to terrorism and ideology and share religious delusion. In your recent piece in Free Inquiry magazine via the magazine of a Secular Humanist magazine, you talk about you cite three possible contributing factors to cataclysmic terrorism. Right. Apocalyptic terrorism, three conditions. Yeah. One is being perceived as some kind of crisis that gets perceived as a challenge to to people’s identity and dignity. A second is the loss of a cultural identity and tradition that some thinkable that people have to sort of fight against. And the third is if there’s no way to alleviate the crisis in real time or in real in real terms, can you just elaborate on on those criteria for us that nudge people into apocalyptic extremism? 

Yeah, absolutely. So the reason apocalypticism is in particular, so there’s a sort of a passive version, passive mode of apocalyptic thinking, in which case people are sort of spectators and they wait patiently for the times to come. And there’s this other mode which is active and it’s sort of a blurring distinction. But you definitely find this is what I was referring to before, what I mentioned. You know, throughout history there are individuals who, if they had the means, would have pushed the doomsday button in attempt to to accelerate Armageddon. So you actually have these these active apocalypses, you know, and they’re around today. There’s sort of an active apocalyptic movement even in China, which is roughly a million strong. It’s called Eastern Whitening, which comes from a Bible verse in Matthew. So the reason I focus on these active, apocalyptic sort of terrorists is that I feel like they’re the ones who are most likely for reasons that I literally just said, to push a doomsday button. They’re the ones who wants to initiate a catastrophe in order to precipitate the apocalypse. So that’s the that’s the reason I focus on them. And then there’s some really. Scholarship that’s been done about essentially sort of environmental triggers for apocalyptic groups to form. They tend not to form it when everything’s going well in society and everybody is well fed and happy and so on. 

Rather, it’s when you’re your community seems to be facing some existential crisis that cannot be surmounted through means that are available. So instead, you sort of you know, you look to the supernatural to provide a way to overcome the problems that you’re facing. So so you look across history, their periods of like social reorganization or cultural tumult that have led to the rise of apocalyptic groups. I think the Islamic State is a perfect example. I don’t know if you’ve seen videos like drone videos of some of the Syrian towns like Aleppo. Yeah, but, you know, the world really looks like it’s going to end there. 

It looks like it has. It looks like it has. I mean, it is totally apocalyptic. 

So you can you’re not talking about just how people to clear you’re not talking about violent videos or beheadings or anything like that. There are just some drone videos online which are well worth people looking at, which is simply aerial shots flying through some of the damaged cities with nothing in them. They just ghost cities essentially by now. Right. And that, yeah, there isn’t a single building intact. I mean, it is just it’s just demolition as far as the eye can see. 

It’s unfathomably horrific. I mean, it’s it’s really so so I mean, I feel like that’s just an obvious case of people looking around going, you know, I mean, if I were were immersed in that environment, I might have come to believe that the end of the world is imminent. That’s an obvious case. I mean, there are other situations like the Iraq war was widely seen among both Sunnis and Shiites in the region as a fulfillment of apocalyptic prophecy. So that really galvanized a whole lot of people to to adopt more apocalyptic ways of thinking. Then a certain percentage of them ended up with active, apocalyptic view. So I point is that I feel like the situation in the Middle East is a perfect example of exactly the conditions that we were just talking about, political instability and economic uncertainty and so on, just fueling these sort of apocalyptic beliefs which once accepted, can become extremely dangerous, particularly in a world that’s cluttered with, you know, advanced, dangerous, unprecedently powerful technologies. So the ultimate point in the article was like, OK, here’s some conditions that tend to in a probabilistic way, tend to lead to the formation of apocalyptic movements that could be very dangerous. Now, what sort of situations with satisfy these conditions, while obvious ones are like war, that would be the case of the Islamic State. Throughout history, you know, there’s been things like the occupation of a region by a foreign culture. So that would lead people to think, to worry, like all our culture is going to get utterly expunged. And this is, you know, we need to fight back. Let’s look. Let’s ask God to help us and then we’ll go into battle, you know, with apocalyptic expectations. Other conditions, though, that could satisfy this are like climate change. You know, the environmental consequences of the atmosphere getting warmer. A biodiversity loss of things like this. This is has been talked about by very scholars like Mark Jurgen’s Maya, who I mentioned in the article. So there’s a real concern that climate change is going to fuel apocalyptic movements in the future. And some other things that I mentioned is we’re also on the verge of an extraordinary revolution in technology, in genetics. And with respect to nanotechnology, biotech and so on, that virtually guarantee to radical, deep, pervasive, profound changes to human civilization. And these changes in the past, when there’s been technological revolutions, these have been changes have been disruptive in the future, given the rapidity of technological development these days. And again, the sort of pervasive and significant changes that these technologies will bring about, we could expect this to be even more disruptive than ever before. And I I think those disruptions will absolutely satisfy the conditions that we previously outlined. So that would be yet another reason, another factor that will fuels apocalypticism in the future. So essentially, you have a situation in which the absolute number and the percentage of certain religious groups is increasing. I feel like that is sufficient for concern moving forward. 

Well, all of those conditions. I mean, when you talk about the situation in Syria and you talk about occupations and so on. There is an entire generation of people who anyone who was born since the late 90s in Syria, Iraq, even neighboring countries. I mean, we we now have an entire generation of people who’ve known nothing but bloodshed. And yet that is going to do as they grow up and mature and how that influences their political thinking and who they choose to blame for that. Is it an enormous worry? You know, even as a Jew, I worry a lot about what happens, what happens to Israel and Palestine. And I’m just deeply unforgiving of Israeli governments in recent decades for not realizing that if you’ve got almost two million Gazans living in an area the size of Portland, Oregon, in essentially an open air refugee camp, then even if you do reach a peace accommodation at some point in the future. Who? What, how? What are these people’s attitudes towards you’re going to be like if they hated you in 1948? How do they feel about you now? 

Anyway, I’ll get lots of hate tweets about that, but that’s just my ruminations about, you know, the crisis that we face over the coming half century. Even if everything goes well right now, even if we did everything right from now on, we have this this kind of latent problem of people who are going to be enormously traumatized and enormously pissed coming to die. So let’s just talk about how they might actually screw things up, because there’s a difference between having to feel like we’re at a point of threat fatigue. Sort of. I certainly am. I think the Trump movement is part of that. I think the rise of right wing groups in Europe is part of that. We know that things are being disrupted. We know that environmental calamities are coming, or at least environmental challenges and disruptions are coming. We know the demographic disruptions are coming. We know the 21st century is going to be really challenging, but fundamentally. 

Do we face existential threats? Is the question. I think that I and many people are sort of coming back to we will be able to deal with what we can deal with. What would it take for a threat to kind of tip from being something that’s really shitty and disruptive that we have to pull out, pull out no stops to fix and something for which there is no fix? You alluded to environmental stuff earlier, but let’s talk about human beings and terrorism. 

Yeah, sure. First of all, I would say that the threat fatigue. I totally get that. And I think it’s crucial to modify line from. 

From David Hume. You know, why is people proportion their fears to the evidence? I think part of the threat fatigue is a result of people failing to proportion their fears to the evidence. People who are fearful of all sorts of ridiculous stuff out there. Chem trails, you know, one world governments. I know there’s all sorts of just. Just being afraid of terrorism. 

I mean, even even the extent to which terrorism looms in our lives, you know, we can we might have a justifiable reason to be afraid of a rogue nuke. And you can talk about that in a moment. But the threat of being of being blown up by a suicide bomber on the New York subway is. Yeah, that is just not something that deserves our attention. And we’re much more likely for the New York subway trying to go careening off its tracks and to smash into another train. 

Yes, exactly. OK. That’s a great point to emphasize because so a lot of my anxieties about terrorism are future oriented. It’s about what we can reasonably expect, given the evidence we have right now about our situation, you know, in the coming decades. It’s absolute. You’re less likely to die from terrorism than from a lightning bolt. And a lightning bolt is less probable to kill, less likely to kill you than a meteor strike. And if people don’t believe me, look it up. The statistics are there. They’re robust, they’re empirical and so on. So I think worrying about terrorism today is wrongheaded and misguided. In terms of the future, though, I do think that there is a good argument to be made that’s terrorism really will constitute in existential threat to human survival and prosperity. 

And I think a lot of that has to do so. I know to be formed into the demographic of religious individuals is increasing both in terms of absolute and relative numbers. That alone is is worrisome. In addition, you have all of these other factors that have historically shown to contribute to the formation of the most extreme kinds of terrorist groups possible. And then making matters worse. You have these technological trends whereby these artifacts are becoming not only more powerful, enabling people to manipulate and rearrange the physical world in increasingly significant ways, sometimes in very undesirable ways, from secular perspective. 

And they’re also becoming more and more accessible. So you’ve got more people able to to, you know, gain access to these weapons of total destruction. And with respect to these technologies, some of them really could be existentially catastrophic. I mean, there’s things like there’s lots to say about designer pathogens. This is a major worry that a lot of researchers have today. You know, somebody could mean a virus, a virus, medically engineered virus. 

Exactly something. It’s something of that sort. There are many possibilities. There was a report out a couple years ago that was published through a Global Challenges Foundation, and they talked about that. They just mentioned the possibility of like you could combine the lethality of rabies, the entire ability of Ebola, the contagiousness or infectiousness of the common cold, and then the incubation period of HIV. You say HIV has this huge incubation period, which means you can you have lost it on without knowing you’ve got it and pass it on. 

Exactly. You’re still asymptomatic at that point. So it would be not inconceivable to for someone to create a bug like this. And, you know, the equipment needed to manipulate microorganisms, it’s becoming more and more accessible. It’s part of the biohacking movement. It only really costs a couple hundred dollars, a couple thousand dollars to set up what we’d been considered ten, fifteen years ago is highly sophisticated sort of stuff. And a lot of it’s automated. You know, the genomes of Ebola and smallpox are literally online, publicly accessible. It might take you five minutes to find it, but it’s there. So, yeah. So there’s a lot of the ingredients are there for somebody to create a germ that is, you know, could be could could result in a global pandemic. Same thing could be said about like nanotechnology. So nanotechnology still kind of in its infancy, but a lot of the the products that could result from nanotechnology that experts today would consider to be very plausible. Those could have really catastrophic consequences if misused or abused by white individuals. So, I mean, what do with those feet? 

Can you think of what those look like? Just to just paint it for people who don’t know much about nanotechnology, you’re talking about machines the size of a molecule that go around and what infect you or something. How do they behave? 

Yeah, yeah. So you’re you’re not far off at all. So, Tony, to top technology in general is the idea behind it is the ability to move molecules one at a time. So ultimately, what you would get is atomically precise changes to the world. So right now, we we work on more or less the macroscopic level and we don’t worry about the organization of atoms. We just as long as the macroscopic properties are right, then that’s good enough. The idea with nanotechnology is you could build products from the atomic level up. So not only so one possibility is something called a native factory. And this is a factory that would, through this incremental process, begin with placing atoms in particular, extremely specific locations and then building up parts from there. So if you had two computers that were manufactured by Ananta factories, not only was baby identical in terms of their macroscopic properties, in terms of color, hardness and so on, but they would if you zoomed into the atomic level, you would find the atoms in the exact same position. Also, on the one hand, this is this is incredible. I mean, this would be incredible breakthrough because every higher level property of, you know, heart, hardness and color and digestibility and things of that nature. 

These these are all completely reducible to the organization of underlying atoms. So if you had an object that could manipulate those atoms, then you could build up you know, you give it a molecule and it could turn that molecule into a piece of clothing or a piece of wood. A piece of metal. 

Can I say so? So the point that the fear is not that people are going to going to build microscopic machines that will kill us. The fear is that you. In giving us the power to manipulate matter. Precisely. We’ll be able to create anything, even on a macro level. I mean, you’ll be you would be able to build a nuclear weapon from the ground up, from the ground up as long as you have the right atoms. 

Yeah. So this is one half of the concern. And you’re absolutely right that there is a debate right now about whether or not and NATO factory could could produce a nuclear weapon. But it’s not it’s not a possibility that’s off the table. 

I mean, you could produce a steak from scratch, couldn’t you? I mean, everything’s atoms. 

Yeah. So so some of that food items like that that are fair involve a lot of randomly placed molecules. Those I think would be difficult for sure. But there is a huge variety of commodities that could be manufactured almost for nothing. And with atomic precision. And these would include, as you were getting up to go, weapons, you could print out an AK 47, you know, all sorts of missiles, bombs and so on. So it would absolutely put a enormous amount of power in the hands of groups and individuals. And that would have extraordinary destabilizing effects within states. You know, even between states, you could have unstable arms races and things like that. So that’s one half of the worry. The other half does have to do with these autonomous nanobot. 

So this is, you know, the scale of it’s a billionth of a meter. And these would be little machines that would be programed to essentially convert whatever matter they come in contact to into clones of themselves. This is sometimes called the gray goo scenario, although it really has nothing to do with the color gray or greenness. It probably would mean we’re like a dust. You don’t get blown around in the wind and everything it touches would just turn into clones, which themselves would then multiply even more. So he’d have this exponential rate of self replication. And if you take this to its logical conclusion, I mean, you could potentially destroy the entire biosphere. You could also potentially design these nanobots to target individual species. So you could have it identify a genetic signature of like humans or perhaps even a race of human beings and then sent it out to destroy that entire class of organism. So that is definitely another threat. I mean, it would be an extraordinary mechanism for inflicting harm on civilization. Again, if you have a death wish for humanity or, you know, you feel it. You believe that God has told you you must destroy the world in order to save it. 

I mean, one of the so that I kind of try to put these things into categories in my head and maybe this is a way to sort of widen the conversation down here. One is things that might happen that we should keep an eye on. And I think, you know, some sudden climate catastrophe falls into that category. You get some sort of environmental collapse. These are these are maybes. The possibility of nanotechnology becoming so sophisticated that people can build anything from the ground up. You know, the gray goo problem, I think maybe artificial intelligence also falls into that category. I’m a bit agnostic as to how I feel about that. What frightens me about some of your work is there are some things that we just have a 100 percent probability of happening, and it’s simply a matter of time. I mean, biological, you know, the ability to in your in your basement tinker with genes and create simple biological organisms from other simple biological organism. That is definitely happening and is going to happen, and there is absolutely no doubt about it. Similarly, 3D printing and having the ability to download a program and build an AK 47 in your basement is not going to require nanotechnology at all. I mean, you will just be able to do it. That is absolutely 100 percent certain gonna happen. It’s just a matter of whether or not you can get the program from online and in. 

In an era of leaks and and so on, it’s hot. You know, if if even Yahoo! Isn’t secure, it’s hard to imagine how they won’t be Ukrainian websites selling blueprints for bombs that you can produce in your basement. Yeah. And so I wonder how you think if you think it’s possible for us to get through that eye of the needle once, once that is inevitably in the hands of anybody who wants it. But biological warfare and conventional warfare producible in your home? 

Yeah, it’s it is it is a real conundrum. 

I mean, is there anything we could do legislatively? Is there anything we can do? I mean, do we just have to have faith that no one in the world misuses this? 

So there have been some scholars have very, very genuinely, reluctantly talked about the need for perhaps a surveillance state, something of that sort. I mean, if it is, it is a real conundrum, trying to figure out a reason why. Sir Martin Reese, who who runs the Center for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge University, he wrote back in 2005, I think 2004 in his book that he he thinks, all things considered, civilization has a 50 50 percent chance of making it through the present century. So. So actually, if you look at the numbers, that is thousands of times it implies that the average individuals, thousands of times more likely to encounter a civilizational collapse than to die in a car crash. So, I mean, it’s or die in a plane crash or any of these these events that sort of worry us on a more mundane level. And it is it’s it’s really hard to know legislatively what to do, as you mentioned, like once information gets out. There was a case of Cody Wilson who found a defense distributed which came up with the design for a plastic gun that could shoot real bullets called deliberator. 

And he released that. So anybody with a with a contemporary 3-D printer could download the instructions and then just print out a working gun. And the FBI shut down his his company, I believe, the same day they released the designs for the Liberator. But anybody now can go to the Pirate Bay or any other Web site and download the instructions. So, you know, the designs for this weapon. So, I mean, once it’s out, it’s out. That makes the the that increases the stakes greatly because you you can’t make a single mistake. 

And that that’s a really, really hard. And I would also add that we haven’t even talked about the possibility of error. You know, I mean, we’re talking about people who intend to cause harm. But there’s also I mean, if if know, for example, the biohacking movement becomes really popular and you have individuals who are messing around with pathogens in a totally unregulated environment, maybe their intentions are entirely good. They want to find a new cure for Ebola or smallpox or Zika or whatever the disease is. It’s entirely possible that they could make a mistake, accidentally increase the virulence of some sort of pathogen, which we know we know can happen. We’ve done that before in the laboratory. Mousepox is a famous example. We accidentally turned mousepox into a totally vaccine resistant, extremely lethal virus that killed everything. 

Every mouse, even vaccinated mice very quickly. And is mousepox is very similar to smallpox, which got a lot of people worried about the possibility of some nut case trying to tamper with smallpox. So even if even if you have a lot of people with just access to dangerous technologies, dangerous techniques, information, ideas, if you crunch the numbers, if you have a billion people on the planet and the probability of any one of them making a mistake is point zero zero zero one per decade, which is a really infinitesimal amount. You are virtually guaranteed that civilization collapses within that time. So I so I actually feel like. Error is is yet another topic that deserves to be thought very carefully about and also sort of implies outcomes which are highly undesirable and further complicate this already really complicated situation about how it is that we’re going to survive the coming centuries. 

I’m assuming that you don’t go through life in utter despair. So in this way with the one. What’s what’s one thing that gives you hope on. 

Maybe even Musk. So I do think space colonization offers a tremendous amount of hope, you know, by spreading us out in space. It makes it more difficult for any single event to wipe out the whole species. I would also genuinely add, I think this is crucial to mention. So I’m glad you brought this up. The reason I study these issues and focus on them is not any kind of ghoulish obsession with dark, apocalyptic scenarios. It’s rather to figure out ways to avoid these situations. And I genuinely believe this is this is this is an honest a note of hope. 

I genuinely believe that there is hardly any risk facing us that isn’t solvable. So, you know, climate change, that’s something that I think we could change. We could we could mitigate, you know, if only we implement the right policies in the coming decades. Same with biodiversity loss. Same with bioterrorism, things of this nature. I do think there are you know, we just haven’t had enough time to talk about it. I do think there are other policies or, you know, even an even larger, much larger macro strategies that could reduce the risk. I think if people if humanity made a decision to be more scientific and empirical in their outlook, I think that could significantly increase our prospects for the future. So I think the reason it’s worth thinking about this stuff is not to despair, but to do your best to think critically about strategies for ensuring a safe passage through the coming centuries, which I feel like there’s sort of this bottleneck of heightened hazards. 

Filters. Thanks so much for being on the show. Great stuff here. Yeah. Thanks so much. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.