Professor Bear Braumoeller passed away earlier this week. Bear was a political scientist who studied the likelihood and causes of catastrophic wars. You may have read his book Only the Dead or heard his appearance on the 80,000 Hours podcast. For a short, recent example of his work I recommend this piece of his about the Russia-Ukraine war.
Bear’s work on conflict likelihood, escalation, and catastrophic wars is certainly among the best research on major conflict risks. Only the Dead was an important counter to strong claims about the long-term declines in interstate violence. Bear found, in brief, that the data on war severity offer few reasons to think that the risk of huge wars (including much-larger-than-WWII-wars) has declined much. And this risk accumulates catastrophically over time.
One of my favourite sentences from Bear is his darkly-humorous conclusion to a chapter on war severity (p. 130):
When I sat down to write this conclusion, I briefly considered typing, “We’re all going to die,” and leaving it at that. I chose to write more, not because that conclusion is too alarmist, but because it’s not specific enough.
Bear combined expertise in both statistical analysis and the theory of what causes war to great effect. He pushed forward our understanding of how the likelihood of major conflict has changed over time and why. His work was interesting not just to political scientists but to anyone seeking to understand and reduce global risks.
I’d corresponded with Bear frequently over the last two years while researching catastrophic conflict risks. He was generous and cared deeply about the social impact of his work. Despite my utter lack of credentials and experience, Bear gave me a lot of his time, advice, and connections to other researchers. In my experience academics rarely engage so meaningfully with outsiders. I was grateful.
Bear’s interest in EA had been piqued and as far as I know he was planning to do more work on catastrophic risks. Last year his lab received a grant from the Future Fund for follow-up research on the themes he wrote about in Only the Dead.
He is gone far too soon and will be missed.