A small but growing number of studies have aimed to understand, assess and reduce existential risks, or risks that threaten the continued existence of mankind. However, most attention has been focused on known and tangible risks. This paper proposes a heuristic for reducing the risk of black swan extinction events. These events are, as the name suggests, stochastic and unforeseen when they happen. Decision theory based on a fixed model of possible outcomes cannot properly deal with this kind of event. Neither can probabilistic risk analysis. This paper will argue that the approach that is referred to as engineering safety could be applied to reducing the risk from black swan extinction events. It will also propose a conceptual sketch of how such a strategy may be implemented: isolated, self-sufficient, and continuously manned underground refuges. Some characteristics of such refuges are also described, in particular the psychosocial aspects. Furthermore, it is argued that this implementation of the engineering safety strategy safety barriers would be effective and plausible and could reduce the risk of an extinction event in a wide range of possible (known and unknown) scenarios. Considering the staggering opportunity cost of an existential catastrophe, such strategies ought to be explored more vigorously.
This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Tax calculation will be finalised during checkout.
In this paper, the terms “mankind” and “humanity” refer to the sapient animals that are members of our global civilization. These are not necessarily human in the strict biological sense.
Experts at the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference suggested a 19 % chance of human extinction over the next century. Future of Humanity Institute. Global catastrophic risks survey, technical report [Internet]. 2008 Available from: http://www.fhi.ox.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0020/3854/global-catastrophic-risks-report.pdf.
About 43 flybys, orbiting and landing missions have been sent to Mars by NASA and other nations in the past 40 years, and only 12 have been fully successful (Kaufman 2011).
For example the “Doomsday device” from Stanley Kubrick’s film Dr. Strangelove is a nuclear warhead with an amount of cobalt at its core. This metal is transmuted in the explosion into the radioactive isotope cobalt-60, which would be vaporized. This device perfectly possible to manufacture for any nation with access to nuclear weapons capacity, and would contaminate an area with lethal levels of radiation for about 60 years, since cobalt has a long half-life and a lethal levels of radiation.
Arrhenius, G. (2000). An impossibility theorem for welfarist axiologies. Economics and Philosophy, 16, 247–266.
Baker, J. W., Schubert, M., & Faber, M. H. (2008). On the assessment of robustness. Structural Safety, 30, 253–267. doi:10.1016/j.strusafe.2006.11.004.
Bankes, S. C., Lempert, R. J., & Popper, S. W. (2003). Shaping the next one hundred years: New methods for quantitative, long-term policy analysis (186th ed.). Santa Monica, CA: Rand Publishing.
Basner, M., Dinges, D. F., Mollicone, D. J., Savelev, I., Ecker, A. J., Di Antonio, A., et al. (2014). Psychological and behavioral changes during confinement in a 520-day simulated interplanetary mission to Mars. PLoS One, 9, e93298. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0093298.
Ben-Haim, Y. (2006). Info-gap decision theory: Decisions under severe uncertainty. Waltham: Academic Press.
Blaszczynski, A., McConaghy, N., & Frankova, A. (1990). Boredom proneness in pathological gambling. Psychological Reports, 67, 35–42.
Bostrom, N. (2003). Astronomical waste: The opportunity cost of delayed technological development. Utilitas, 15, 308–314. doi:10.1017/S0953820800004076.
Butts, G., & Linton, K. (2009). The joint confidence level paradox: A history of denial. Presented at the NASA Cost Symposium, 28–30 April 2009.
Cirković, M. M., Sandberg, A., & Bostrom, N. (2010). Anthropic shadow: Observation selection effects and human extinction risks. Risk Analysis, 30, 1495–1506. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6924.2010.01460.x.
Clutton-Brock, T. (2007). Sexual selection in males and females. Science, 318, 1882–1885. doi:10.1126/science.1133311.
Cornil, A., Coster, A. D., Copinschi, G., & Franckson, J. R. M. (1965). Effect of muscular exercise on the plasma level of cortisol in man. Acta Endocrinologica (Copenh), 48, 163–168. doi:10.1530/acta.0.0480163.
Frankham, R. (2005). Genetics and extinction. Biological Conservation, 126, 131–140. doi:10.1016/j.biocon.2005.05.002.
Hall, J. W., Lempert, R. J., Keller, K., Hackbarth, A., Mijere, C., & McInerney, D. J. (2012). Robust climate policies under uncertainty: A comparison of robust decision making and info-gap methods. Risk Analysis, 32, 1657–1672. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01802.x.
Hanson, R. (2008). Catastrophe, social collapse, and human extinction. In N. Bostrom & M. M. Ćirković (Eds.), Global catastrophic risks (p. 554). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hansson, S. O. (2009). From the casino to the jungle. Synthese, 168, 423–432. doi:10.1007/s11229-008-9444-1.
Hernando, A., Villuendas, D., Vesperinas, C., Abad, M., & Plastino, A. (2009). Unravelling the size distribution of social groups with information theory on complex networks. The European Physical Journal B, 76(1), 87–97.
Hey, J. (2005). On the number of New World founders: A population genetic portrait of the peopling of the Americas. PLoS Biology, 3, e193. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0030193.
Highfield, R., (2001) 20:37. Colonies in space may be only hope, says Hawking. Telegraph.co.uk.
Ingersoll, D. T. (2009). Deliberately small reactors and the second nuclear era. Progress in Nuclear Energy, 51, 589–603. doi:10.1016/j.pnucene.2009.01.003.
Kanas, N., & Manzey, D. (2008). Basic issues of human adaptation to space flight. In Space psychology and psychiatry. The Space Technology Library (Vol. 22, pp. 15–48). Netherlands: Springer.
Kaufman, M. (2011). Landing on Mars is hard, but another mission to the Red Planet is about to begin. Washington: Washington Post, November 22, sec. National.
Launius, R. D. (2010). Can we colonize the solar system? Human biology and survival in the extreme space environment. Endeavour, 34, 122–129. doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2010.07.001.
Linkov, I., Bates, M., Loney, D., Sparrevik, M., & Bridges, T. (2011). Risk management practices. In I. Linkov & T. S. Bridges (Eds.), Climate, NATO science for peace and security series C: Environmental security (pp. 133–155). Netherlands: Springer.
MacCallum, T., Poynter, J., & Bearden, D. (2004). Lessons learned from biosphere 2: When viewed as a ground simulation/analog for long duration human space exploration and settlement (SAE Technical Paper No. 2004-01-2473). SAE International, Warrendale, PA.
Maher, T. M., & Baum, S. D. (2013). Adaptation to and recovery from global catastrophe. Sustainability, 5, 1461–1479. doi:10.3390/su5041461.
Matheny, J. G. (2007). Reducing the risk of human extinction. Risk Analysis, 27, 1335–1344. doi:10.1111/j.1539-6924.2007.00960.x.
Möller, N., & Hansson, S. O. (2008). Principles of engineering safety: Risk and uncertainty reduction. Reliability Engineering and System Safety, 93, 798–805. doi:10.1016/j.ress.2007.03.031.
Moses, F. (1997). Problems and prospects of reliability-based optimization. Engineering Structures, 19, 293–301. doi:10.1016/S0141-0296(97)83356-1.
Palinkas, L. A. (2003). The psychology of isolated and confined environments. Understanding human behavior in Antarctica. American Psychologist, 58, 353–363.
Parfit, D. A. (1984). Reasons and persons. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pretty, J., Peacock, J., Sellens, M., & Griffin, M. (2005). The mental and physical health outcomes of green exercise. International Journal of Environmental Health Research, 15, 319–337. doi:10.1080/09603120500155963.
Sabathier, V.G., Weppler, J., & Bander, A. (2009). Costs of an International Lunar Base | [WWW Document]. Center for Strategic and International Studies. http://csis.org/publication/costs-international-lunar-base. Accessed April 14, 2014.
Sagan, C. (1983). Nuclear war and climatic catastrophe: Some policy implications. Foreign Affairs, 257–292.
Taleb, N. N. (2010). The black swan: The impact of the highly improbable. New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks.
Tonn, B. E. (2007). Futures sustainability. Futures, 39, 1097–1116. doi:10.1016/j.futures.2007.03.018.
Wang, Y., Jing, X., Lv, K., Wu, B., Bai, Y., Luo, Y., et al. (2014). During the long way to Mars: Effects of 520 days of confinement (Mars500) on the assessment of affective stimuli and stage alteration in mood and plasma hormone levels. PLoS One, 9, e87087. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0087087.
I would like to thank Seth Baum, Nick Beckstead, Jacob Haqq-Misra, Niklas Möller, Aron Vallinder and two anonymous reviewers for Risk Analysis for their comments on earlier versions of this manuscript.
Conflict of interest
About this article
Cite this article
Jebari, K. Existential Risks: Exploring a Robust Risk Reduction Strategy. Sci Eng Ethics 21, 541–554 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11948-014-9559-3
- Existential risk
- Black swan
- Engineering safety
- Safety barriers
- Global catastrophe