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Space Settlement is likely to happen, and may not be as far in the future as we assume. It has the potential to decrease our likelihood of extinction at a manageable cost - but only if we do it right. Let us not squander its potential benefits for humanity. 

In the attached essay which I authored for the Swiss Existential Risk Initiative's (CHERI) summer research fellowship in the summer of 2022, I tackle this subject from three main directions by...

  1. ...attempting to quantify the direct effects of spreading humanity across celestial bodies on the risk landscape. For each of the widely accepted X-risks, I appraise how humanity's vulnerability to it will change of we do not solely inhabit earth anymore (example: " how will the probability of all humans being wiped out by an asteroid change?"). 
  2. ...taking a systems - theoretical view on complex risk in a settled solar system scenario. I investigate the necessary conditions that an interplanetary human civilization must fulfil to ensure its resilience to system-level threats (example: "if an extraplanetary settlement is not self-sustaining, it may succumb even if not directly affected by a catastrophic event")
  3. ...investigating higher-order effects of space settlement on the X-risk landscape. Space settlement will impact human civilization in many ways that are unpredictable and may be intangible, but nevertheless highly impactful on our susceptibility to X-risk (example: "how will the existence of a human sister civilization alter our moral circle on earth?")

For some more detail, here is the abstract: 

The survival of humanity is threatened by a plethora of hazards - from asteroid strikes to engineered pandemics. Can settling space increase our odds of survival? This article examines this question in detail and draws three main conclusions. 1) By spreading to other planets, some hazards will immediately be mitigated (example: supervolcanic eruptions) while others remain unaffected (example: rogue artificial intelligence). While this is favorable, becoming interplanetary alone will not fully mitigate existential risk. 2) To harness the full security potential of spreading to space, a matter of prime importance is to prevent knock-on effects of locally occurring catastrophes spreading to other settlements in space. This can be achieved by maximizing resilience to complex risk. This article offers some concrete policy suggestions to maximize resilience from a systems-theoretical point of view. Resilience comes at a price – the economic viability and the existential security of space settlements form a tradeoff. 3) Higher-order effects arising from the process of settlement can also act as existential security factors: next to their more general desirable effects, technological spinoffs will likely reduce the vulnerability to a number of existential threats in a virtuous feedback loop (examples: climate change and disaster shelter design). The psychological and socio-cultural effects of settlement (examples: the overview effect, awe and existential hope) are not to be underestimated and may lead to a broad risk reduction. It is likely that humans will explore and settle space driven mainly by their sense of curiosity, adventure, pride, economic gain and national competition, not the potential existential risk benefits. Thus, everyone concerned about existential risk should attempt to influence and shape these efforts while they are still at an early stage to ensure that humanity’s systemic resilience is increased. Space settlement, if done right, can significantly increase our security at a manageable cost.

If I have piqued your interest, please feel free to download the full essay from dropbox: 


Thank you and enjoy! 







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Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:19 AM

Thanks for the report.

If I were to add one thing to this report, it would probably be a comparison of increasing the likelihood of space settlement vs increasing the likelihood of extremely resilient and self-sustaining disaster shelters (e.g. shelters that could be self-sustaining for decades or possibly centuries). You note the similarities in "Design of disaster shelters", but don't compare these as possible interventions (as far as I can tell).

My naive (mostly uninformed) guess would have been that very good disaster shelters are wildly cheaper and easier (prior to radical technology change like superhuman AI or nanotech) while offering most of the same benefits.

(I put a low probability on commercially viable and self-sustaining space colonies prior to some other radical change in the technical landscape, but perhaps I'm missing some story for economic viability. Like I think the probability of these sorts of space colonies in the next 60 years is low (without some other radical technical advancement like AI or nanotech happening prior in which case the value add is more complex).)

Hi Ryan, thanks a lot for taking the time and leaving your thoughts, I appreciate it! 

I agree that extremely resilient and self-sustaining disaster shelters might offer similar benefits from an X-risk perspective. 

I didn't go all to deep into that topic because I feel there aren't the same incentives (and excitement) around building shelters on earth compared to starting settlements away from earth. At least, I am unaware of designated X-risk shelters being built specifically to save humanity in the event of a catastrophe (an exception might be the Svalbard Seed Vault or some of the military nuclear bunkers, or maybe nuclear submarines). 
On the other hand, there are multiple efforts currently aimed at starting a space settlement, and the concept is much more embedded into the popular awareness. 
I think there is an inherent attractiveness of spreading "outwards" as opposed to going "inwards". To put it romantically: there seems to be more potential for human development in the reaches of space than below the earth. 

HOWEVER I totally agree with you that it would certainly be smart to prepare (x-risk) shelters on earth for many reasons! Are you aware of any projects currently pursuing this? 

Thanks for sharing this Chris! 

Kudos especially for taking the time to write up the summary.