Books and Arts

Nature 455, 732-733 (9 October 2008) | doi:10.1038/455732b; Published online 8 October 2008

Burning down the house

Bill McGuire1

BOOK REVIEWEDGlobal Catastrophic Risks

Edited by Nick Bostrom and Milan C acuteirkovic acute
Oxford University Press: 2008. 550 pp. $50, £25

Eschatology, the study of how and when the world will end, has always grabbed attention, but perhaps never more so than now. Disaster movies play out our fear of our own extinction following a massive comet impact or cataclysmic volcanic super-eruption. The market for books on doom, gloom and disaster has never been so buoyant, nor so crowded — 148,000 titles on the online book shop Amazon contain the word "catastrophe".

A new addition to the genre is Global Catastrophic Risks, a weighty, academic tome edited by Nick Bostrom, aptly hailing from the University of Oxford's Future of Humanity Institute, and Milan C acuteirkovic acute, a professor of cosmology at Serbia's University of Novi Sad. Eschewing a tight focus, Bostrom and C acuteirkovic acute pull together 23 chapters covering the complete spectrum of events that could severely damage our world and civilization. They consider the philosophical, psychological and financial aspects of global catastrophic risks, and address the usual suspects of asteroid impacts, volcanic megablasts, plague and pandemic, and nuclear war. They also touch on more exotic potential terminations at the hands of over-enthusiastic nanobot replicators, by the anthropogenic creation of exotic matter such as black holes or strange particles, or through the rise of belligerent artificial intelligence.

As an eschatologist's almanac, the book works well, providing a mine of peer-reviewed information on the great risks that threaten our own and future generations. Yet the book is unbalanced, devoting just three chapters to natural catastrophes of global reach. Unlike technological catastrophes such as nuclear terrorism or rampant biowarfare, which may never happen, the long-term probability of occurrence of natural cataclysms such as comet impacts and volcanic super-eruptions is 100%.

More disturbing still is the downplaying of contemporary climate change, the greatest threat facing our planet, covered in a single chapter. In the editors' view, "global warming commandeers a disproportionate fraction of the attention given to global risks." Yet they also observe that "a wise person will not spend time installing a burglar alarm when the house is on fire". When your house is burning down, surely you use all the means at your disposal to put the fire out. The lack of immediate concern doesn't end there. In an otherwise insightful foreword, Martin Rees, president of the UK Royal Society, deems that the main downsides of climate change lie "a century or more in the future", whereas the authors of a chapter on the threat from cosmic rays persist with the discredited idea that "current global warming may be driven by enhanced solar activity". Neither statement stands up to scientific scrutiny.

If we are to evaluate future global threats sensibly, we must distinguish between real and projected risks. We should consider separately events that are happening now, such as anthropogenic climate change and the imminent peak in the oil supply, other events that we know with certainty will occur in the longer term, notably asteroid and comet impacts and volcanic super-eruptions, and extrapolated risks, such as those associated with developments in artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, which are largely imagined.

Any ranking exercise of global threats must put contemporary climate change and peak oil firmly in the first two places. Yet the latter is not even mentioned in Global Catastrophic Risks. Crystal-ball gazing and horizon scanning are warranted to avoid unexpected future shocks, but these efforts should not come at the expense of ignoring the severe threats that are already staring us in the face. Closing our eyes to dangerous climate change and fast-dwindling fossil fuels will bring about a failing society that is not equipped to address any other major threats, natural or anthropogenic. To return to Bostrom and C acuteirkovic acute's analogy: a mushroom cloud may hang over the distant horizon and nano-goo may be oozing in our direction, but we still need to douse the flames wrought by climate change and peak oil if we are to retain for ourselves a base from which to tackle such menaces, when and if required.

  1. Bill McGuire is director of the Benfield UCL Hazard Research Centre, University College London, Gower Street, London WC1E 6BT, UK. He is author of Seven Years to Save the Planet. Email: w.mcguire@ucl.ac.uk