How we think about global catastrophes and why it doesn’t work

Obstacles
"Most human beings have an almost infinite capacity for taking things for granted" - Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

It’s easy to feel secure about the world and everything in it. The circle of life revolves around a multitude of routines, from one’s daily visit to the cafe across the street to the seasonal changes across the globe. And routines have a way of leading to complacency.

In talking of a subject such as global catastrophic risk — extinction-level events that could spell the end of life as we know it — one tends to straddle the boundary between reality and science fiction, and the discourse around the subject may be culpable of fueling mass hysteria. 

I intend to do neither. Nor will I make projections about humanity’s impending doom through extreme climate change, nuclear winter, or a pandemic. It is too vast a sphere to tackle in the space of one article.

No, I wish to address - rather candidly - our own attitudes towards such scenarios and touch upon the biases inherent in our nature that keep us from taking them too seriously.

Simply put, there's something wrong with the way we think of macro-level catastrophes that could occur.

The debate on climate change and the realization that global warming is taking effect decades ahead of scientific projections (bye-bye, polar bears), has transformed the issue of a global catastrophe from an existential crisis to a very real one.

Voices grow stronger on the need for a supranational authority that could decide on and enforce mitigation measures against climate change, disarmament tribunals that further reduce or eliminate national nuclear arsenals, and governments that pull the plug on tax benefits to oil, gas, and coal corporations.

Yet these voices speaking against climate change remain spikes on the chart, surges of frenetic activity that are an exception to the rule. The impact of environmental activism, for instance, changes drastically as you go from West to East, where it is still largely considered a fringe movement.  Hardly what you’d call collective action on a global scale.

Worrying about the planet is like watching toenails grow. It’s hard to stay focused on something so gradual and unhurried — until of course, it breaks during your morning run.

Moreover, global catastrophes do not function in the linear manner our brains are optimized to understand. According to an issue by the Global Challenges Foundation published in 2017, “[...] most of our challenges are non-linear: beyond a certain threshold, change is sudden, rapid, and sometimes exponential.”

Thus our cognitive biases come into play every time we think of such events. Our brains are tuned to completely ignore or overplay events based on probabilities. Hence the spikes on the chart.

That nuclear weapons exist with the ability to destroy human life several times over is a fact. That greenhouse gas emissions have a direct correlation with temperature rise and consequent global warming to uninhabitable levels is a fact. That pandemics have and can eliminate millions, especially in a contemporary society with unprecedented cross-migration levels is also a fact.

According to a survey conducted by The Independent, of over 8,000 people from eight countries, a vast majority approves a world government to protect humankind from global catastrophes and is willing to make radical changes to their way of life in order to prevent risks like climate change.

But unless we’re able to recognize our own cognitive bias, separate fact from hyperbole, and act locally whilst holding our lawmakers’ feet to the fire to take preventive action, we will stay trapped in routines until none remain.

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    The Intercept has just released "A Message From the Future," a short science fiction movie narrated by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and drawn by Molly Crabapple, describing the coming "Green New Deal Decade," when Americans pulled together and found prosperity, stability, solidarity and full employment through a massive, nationwide effort to refit the country to be resilient to climate shocks and stem the tide of global climate change.

    It's an astonishingly moving and beautiful piece, and deploys a tactic that has been surprisingly effective at mobilising large groups of people: creating a retrospective describing the successful project to inspire people to make it a success. Famously, this is the tactic that Jeff Bezos insists on at Amazon for the launch of new internal projects: ambitious internal entrepreneurs must submit a memo describing the project as a fait accompli, and if the description is compelling and exciting enough, they get the resources to make it happen.

    But it's not just Amazon: as anthropologist Gabriella Coleman describes in Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, her seminal 2014 study of Anonymous, this is how Anon ops get started: an individual Anon makes a video announcing victory in some op that hasn't taken place yet, and if enough other anons are inspired by it to make it happen, then it happens.

    In her article accompanying the video, Naomi Klein describes the audacity of other projects on this scale, like FDR's New Deal, and how much skepticism they were met with at their outset -- and how, as the vision caught on, it spread like wildfire through the population, so that something that was once impossible became inevitable.

    "One reason that elite attacks never succeeded in turning the public against the New Deal had to do with the incalculable power of art, which was embedded in virtually every aspect of the era’s transformations. The New Dealers saw artists as workers like any other: people who, in the depths of the Depression, deserved direct government assistance to practice their trade. As Works Progress Administration administrator Harry Hopkins famously put it, 'Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people.'

    Through programs including the Federal Art Project, Federal Music Project, Federal Theater Project, and Federal Writers Project (all part of the WPA), as well as the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture and several others, tens of thousands of painters, musicians, photographers, playwrights, filmmakers, actors, authors, and a huge array of craftspeople found meaningful work, with unprecedented support going to African-American and Indigenous artists.

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  • Is Instagram's upcoming donation sticker just a way to lure credit card numbers?

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    Last February, Facebook announced that it will release a donation sticker feature on Instagram, giving its users the possibility to support charitable organizations through Instagram Stories.

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    Credit header image: Wikipedia

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    In 2014, when the Police of the Republic of Mozambique turned 39, Arsenia Massingue was presented as the first woman general in the corporation.

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