Update on civilizational collapse research

post by landfish · 2020-02-10T23:40:39.529Z · score: 47 (22 votes) · EA · GW · 4 comments

Contents

  Collapse Q&A
None
4 comments

I spent a few months in 2019 researching civilizational collapse scenarios, and came to some tentative conclusions. One question that drove my research was: “How difficult would it be to launch a project that significantly improved the resilience capacity of civilization?” and “How likely is it that such a project could improve the long term prospects for humanity?”

For context, I also gave a talk about reducing the uncertainty in collapse scenarios, which you can watch here.

My conclusion after investigating potential collapse scenarios. (I originally wrote this as an EA Forum [EA · GW] comment.)

  1. There are a number of plausible (>1% probability) scenarios in the next hundred years that would result in a "civilizational collapse", where an unprecedented number of people die and key technologies are (temporarily) lost.
  2. Most of these collapse scenarios would be temporary, with complete recovery likely on the scale of decades to a couple hundred years.
  3. The highest leverage point for intervention in a potential post-collapse environment would be at the state level. Individuals, even wealthy individuals, lack the infrastructure and human resources at the scale necessary to rebuild effectively. There are some decent mitigations possible in the space of information archival, such as seed banks and internet archives, but these are far less likely to have long term impacts compared to state efforts.

Based on these conclusions, I decided to focus my efforts on other global risk analysis areas, because I felt I didn't have the relevant skills or resources to embark on a state-level project. If I did have those skills & resources, I believe (low to medium confidence) it would be worthwhile project, and if I found a person or group who did possess those skills / resources, I would strongly consider offering my assistance.

Collapse Q&A

In reviewing a grant proposal related to the project above, Oliver Habryka noted he had a number of cruxes about collapse scenarios & mitigations. I thought these were good questions, so recently wrote out my responses [EA · GW].

I think the answer in the short term is no, if "completely collapses" means something like "is unable to get back to at least 1950's level technology in 500 years". I think think there are a number of things that could reduce humanity's "technological carrying capacity". I'm currently working on explicating some of these factors, but some examples would be drastic climate change, long-lived radionuclides, increase in persistent pathogens.

I think we can. I'm not sure we can get very confident about exactly which potential bottlenecks will prove most significant, but I think we can narrow the search space and put forth some good hypotheses, both by reasoning from the best reference class examples we have and by thinking through the economics of potential scenarios.

I'm not sure about this one. I can think of some scenarios that would wipe out 90%+ of the population but none of them seem very likely. Engineered pandemics seem like one candidate (I agree with Denkenberger here), and the worst-case nuclear winter scenarios might also do it, though I haven't read the nuclear winter papers in a while, and there has been several new papers and comments in the last year, including real disagreement in the field (yay, finally!)

Population seems like one important variable in our technological carrying capacity, but I expect some of the others are as important. The one I mentioned in my other post is basically I think a huge one is state planning & coordination capacity. I think post-WWII Germany and Japan illustrate this quite well. However, I don't have a very good sense of what might cause most states to fail without also destroying a large part of the population at the same time. But what I'm saying is that the population factor might not be the most important one in those scenarios.

I'm very uncertain about this. I do think there is a good case for interventions aimed at improving the existential risk profile of post-disaster civilization being competitive with interventions aimed at improving the existential risk profile of our current civilization. The gist is that there is far less competition for the former interventions. Of course, given the huge uncertainties about both the circumstances of global catastrophes and the potential intervention points, it's hard to say whether it would possible to actually alter the post-disaster civilization's profile at all. However, it's also hard to say whether we can alter the current civilization's profile at all, and it's not obvious to me that this latter task is easier.

4 comments

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comment by Jsevillamol · 2020-02-11T10:21:14.734Z · score: 7 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
I'm currently working on explicating some of these factors, but some examples would be drastic climate change, long-lived radionuclides, increase in persistent pathogens.

Can you explain the bit about long-lived radionuclides?

How would they be produced? How would they affect "technological carrying capacity"?

comment by Denkenberger · 2020-02-11T19:35:37.038Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)
I think most nuclear winter scenarios also have less than a 90% food reduction impact

The Open Philanthropy funded nuclear winter project will soon have an estimate of global agricultural impact, but I think without relocation of crops, 90% production loss is plausible. How that translates into mortality is complicated. It may be possible to relocate crops towards the equator, but the likelihood of that happening would depend on preparation ahead of time for coordination, etc. On the positive side, we have some food storage, which has the potential to take ~10% of the population through a nuclear winter with complete agricultural collapse if perfectly protected. However, on the other extreme, if food were distributed equally, then perhaps a 70% food supply reduction would mean everyone starves. The reality is likely to be between these extremes of perfect protection and equal distribution. Of course the situation changes dramatically if we can produce alternative foods.

comment by Denkenberger · 2020-02-13T04:10:09.365Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for writing this up. I would love to see more detail in general, but in particular on this point:

The highest leverage point for intervention in a potential post-collapse environment would be at the state level. Individuals, even wealthy individuals, lack the infrastructure and human resources at the scale necessary to rebuild effectively. There are some decent mitigations possible in the space of information archival, such as seed banks and internet archives, but these are far less likely to have long term impacts compared to state efforts.

So you're assuming that the states still function after the collapse? What do you think they would do and what would you like them to do differently? What do you think about interventions post catastrophe to reduce the likelihood of collapse? For instance, there is the idea of a backup shortwave radio system that I mentioned in our joint salon that would not require a state.
Why is the Internet archive (I assume printed out) not important, because there would already be enough information preserved in books? I don't think that would apply so much in the case of seeds because we might not be able to continue growing the high-yielding varieties that are dependent on fertilizer and pesticides.

comment by Bluefalcon · 2020-02-13T05:22:30.072Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I don't think WWII presents a case for state planning capacity being all that disconnected from population. Looks like Germany lost roughly 10% of its population and Japan 5%. Big by normal standards but I wouldn't expect that to be civilizational collapse levels and I think their quick economic recoveries are in line with the timeframe you'd expect for replacing that population. Plague killed more like 30-60%.