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Global Catastrophic Risks Conference - Abstracts

Catastrophe, Social Collapse, and Human Extinction

Professor Robin Hanson

Humans have slowly built more productive societies by slowly acquiring various kinds of capital, and by carefully matching them to each other. Because disruptions can disturb this careful matching, and discourage social coordination, large disruptions can cause a “social collapse,” i.e., a reduction in productivity out of proportion to the disruption. For many types of disasters, severity seems to follow a power law distribution. For some of the types, such as wars and earthquakes, most of the expected harm is predicted to occur in extreme events, which kill most people on Earth. So if we are willing to worry about any war or earthquake, we should worry especially about extreme versions. If individuals varied little in their resistance to such disruptions, events a little stronger than extreme ones would eliminate humanity, and our only hope would be to prevent such events. If individuals vary a lot in their resistance, however, then it may pay to increase the variance in such resistance, such as by creating special sanctuaries from which the few remaining humans could rebuild society.