Cross-posted from the High Impact Engineers Resource Portal. You can view the most up-to-date version on the Portal.
Edited 11 October 2023 to update links.
Civilisation resilience is concerned with both reducing the risk of civilisation collapse and increasing the capability for humanity to recover from such a collapse. A collapse of civilisation would likely cause a great deal of suffering and may jeopardise the future of the human race. We can defend against such risks by reducing the chances that a localised catastrophe starts, that it scales up to a global catastrophe, or that it triggers irreversible civilisation collapse. Many facets of our defence layers are physical, meaning there are many opportunities for engineers to contribute to improving humanity's resilience.
The content of this article is largely based on research by 80,000 Hours, the Future of Humanity Institute, the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, and ALLFED. We feel somewhat confident in the recommendations in this article.
What is civilisation resilience?
The industrial revolution gave humanity access to unprecedented amounts of valuable and lifesaving technologies and improved the lives we are able to live immensely. However, a global catastrophe could put unprecedented strain on the infrastructure — global agriculture, energy, industry, intercontinental shipping, communications, etc. — that enables civilisation as we know it today. If these systems were to collapse, would we be able to recover and return to the state of civilisation we have today?
Could we re-industrialise? Would this be possible without easy access to fossil fuels, minerals, and chemicals? Could we rebuild flourishing global societies and infrastructure if there was a breakdown of international relations? Questions such as these fall under the purview of civilisation resilience.
Civilisation resilience focuses on how we can buttress civilisation against collapse and increase our ability to recover from a collapse if it did occur.
A framework for thinking about civilisation resilience
Having a framework with which to analyse the risks and prioritise the strengthening of our defences is useful to sharpen our focus and direct our efforts to bolstering civilisation resilience. The paper Defence in Depth Against Human Extinction: Prevention, Response, Resilience, and Why They All Matter
(Cotton-Barratt, Daniel and Sandberg) introduces a framework that breaks down protection against extinction risk into three layers of defence (figure 1). This framework is equally applicable to civilisation collapse given civilisation collapse is a precursor to human extinction.
In evaluating extinction risk, the defence layers protect against an event becoming a catastrophe, scaling to a global catastrophe, and then wiping out the human race. When considering a given catastrophe, the following three defence layers are proposed:
- Prevention — how can we stop a catastrophe from starting?
- Response — how do we stop it from scaling up to a global catastrophe?
- Resilience — how does a global catastrophe get everyone?
Figure 1: The three layers of defence against extinction risk (Cotton-Barratt, Daniel, Sandberg)
One advantage of this characterisation framework is that it can be used to evaluate where the weaknesses are in humanity’s defence against a given catastrophe. If we consider a given catastrophic risk, , we can define an extinction probability,
- is the probability that risk is not prevented.
- is the probability that the risk gets past the response stage, given that it was not prevented.
- is the probability that the risk causes human extinction, given that it got past the response stage and became a global catastrophe.
Within this framework, the risk of human extinction can be reduced by reducing the likelihood that it starts, isn’t controlled, or can kill off humanity. A 50 % reduction in the risk in any layer of defence reduces the overall extinction risk by 50 %.
While this framework was created for extinction risk, it can be directly adapted to evaluate the risk of civilisation collapse by reframing the Resilience layer as either ‘how does a global catastrophe collapse civilisation?’ or ‘how does a global catastrophe prevent civilisation recovery after a collapse?’. By analogy, a 50 % risk reduction in any layer of defence reduces the overall civilisation collapse risk by 50 %.
This paper uses the term “resilience” for only one of the 3 defence layers against extinction, but when we refer to “civilisation resilience” in this article we include interventions that span all 3 defence layers. This is because, in our view, stopping civilisation collapse requires improvements in all 3 defence layers against existential risks.
Most other organisations view “resilience” as everything “right-of-boom” (a term originating from the military), as illustrated in Figure 2 for nuclear weapons use. However, HI-Eng believe that building up civilisation’s resilience against these threats requires attention to both “left-of-boom” and “right-of-boom” interventions.
Figure 2: The ‘Boom’ analogy for nuclear weapon use.
This framework enables us to compare different interventions designed to defend against a given risk. If we’re trying to decide between interventions in a particular defence layer, we can ask ‘which of these interventions achieves the highest percentage reduction of risk in that defence layer for the lowest cost?’. All else being equal, when prioritising between defence layers, prevention is most important (before loss of life), followed by response (to contain the catastrophe), and then finally resilience (the last resort to make sure humanity and civilisation survive). However, the resilience defence layer is often the most neglected of these, which may mean that working in this area could enable you to have an outsized impact.
The following section provides an example of how this framework can be applied to coronal mass ejections.
How could we defend against a coronal mass ejection?
The defence layer framework lends itself to evaluating the most effective ways to reduce the risk of extinction or civilisation collapse. To illustrate this, let’s consider the risk to civilisation of a coronal mass ejection (CME): an ejection of particles and electromagnetic radiation from the sun towards Earth’s atmosphere. Such an event could disrupt satellite communications and destroy power grid transformers, leading to long-term power outages.
Like many civilisation risks, this sounds like the plot to a good (or scientifically inaccurate) doomsday movie:
Our brave, and smart solar physicists are looking at live data streaming from the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO), a multi-instrument telescope sitting between the Earth and the Sun. They see an expanding bubble growing well beyond the disk of the Sun. An alert is sent out to the authorities; a CME is coming… and it’s headed straight for us… it will hit in a few hours. Cue the countdown to CME impact (the suspense will be tangible, you won’t be moving from your seat). But wait! Communications are patchy, the ionosphere just blocked the satellite link to the US President… time is running out! Bruce Willis, our hero heliospheric expert, steps in and volunteers to notify the president himself (with a gun in his pocket, as there’s bound to be an assassin or terrorist out there to shoot at).
Without the electricity we rely on to power fossil fuel extraction, food production, national security and other essential services, how can we best defend against a CME causing civilisation collapse?
For illustrative purposes, we’ll assume that the CME affects the whole of North America and that the effects last for weeks. To collapse civilisation it would need to first start a local catastrophe, scale to a global catastrophe, and then trigger civilisation collapse. A local catastrophe, in the context of a CME, could be mass power outages across the North American continent for weeks.
The following are examples of how one might think through the risk of civilisation collapse in this context, and the best ways to mitigate it. They are purely for illustrative purposes and shouldn’t be taken as necessarily likely risks or good defences.
Some options to prevent catastrophic power loss could be:
- Shielding essential power grid infrastructure.
- Backup food supply infrastructure, and increased national security coordination.
Assuming mass power outages weren’t able to be prevented, how could this become a global catastrophe? Perhaps supply chains could grind to a halt causing food and medicine shortages globally, or other unforeseen events could propagate across the world.
We could potentially defend against these through:
- International cooperation treaties — countries could agree to provide essential resources, services and replacement parts to each other in the case of such a catastrophe.
- Supply chain buttressing — countries could cultivate strategically important domestic industries that would allow them to absorb supply chain shocks.
- Contingency planning — by preparing for the event of extreme disasters, countries can improve their surge capabilities to quickly and efficiently deploy resources and technology. Contingency planning tackles extreme risks, and is different from the usual preparations for recurring risks such as fires and floods.
If the response is unsuccessful, perhaps a total breakdown of international relations occurs. This could be precipitated by supply chain shocks, starvation or opportunistic bad actors.
Cooperation treaties may also help provide resilience against civilisation collapse, so too might:
- Emergency stockpiles of essential resources (e.g. transformers).
- Robust emergency shelters.
- Backup communications systems.
What to focus on?
Considering the cost, or ease, of implementing any of the above interventions allows us to select the most cost-effective ones to implement. For example, you could harden the electrical grids across the globe against CME and other threats for $100 billion (Denkenberger et al., 2021), or you could prepare to meet basic needs after loss of electricity (having a back-up communications system, planning for shelter, water and food without industry, negotiations and pre-commitments), which could cost up to $50 million. Looking at this simplistically, if both of these interventions reduced the total long-term risk of civilisation collapse by 10%, then arguably, we should first focus on preparing to meet basic needs after loss of electricity as this provides the highest return on investment. Even if the prevention (hardening the global electrical grid) were 100% effective at preventing collapse of civilisation, there is a bigger bang for your buck for meeting basic needs, so that should be done first.
By applying the same method of comparative evaluation between the different interventions across the defence layers a ranking can be produced to allow the most effective defences to be prioritised.
How can engineers contribute to Civilisation Resilience?
Engineers can intervene across all three defence layers to increase civilisation resilience. In many scenarios, methods to prevent, respond to, or provide resilience against a catastrophe are inherently physical. This means there is scope for a broad range of engineering disciplines to contribute, some examples of which are provided in Table 1.
Our Biorisk and Biosecurity page covers more detail on how biorisks — a vector for civilisation collapse — can be addressed by engineers.
Table 1: Interventions to protect against catastrophes
|Pandemic (see Biorisk and Biosecurity )|
|Large volcanic eruption|
|Coronal mass ejection and cosmic rays|
|Runaway greenhouse effect (see Climate Change )|
On September 26 2022 NASA crashed a refrigerator-sized spacecraft into an asteroid as a first test of an asteroid deflection strategy. This mission, which was a success, relates to a broader objective to find, track, and characterise at least 90 % of near-earth objects that are larger than 140 meters in size to defend the earth against potentially catastrophic asteroid impact.
When considering interventions, defensive interventions are often better than offensive interventions as offensive interventions can have both upside and downside potentials (see dual use technologies). As an example, the technology to deflect asteroids away from Earth can also be used to move asteroids towards Earth.
There are interventions that can strengthen multiple layers of defence. For example, early detection systems for new pathogens can deter bad actors from engineering a pandemic, increasing defence through both the response and prevention defence layers.
It’s worth noting that physical defences are far from the only tools we have to increase civilisation resilience. Government policy work and efforts to improve international relations and cooperation are valuable tools to guard against the worst possible outcomes for human civilisation. These areas are often in need of technically skilled and knowledgeable experts, so they could be an impactful way for engineers to contribute to civilisation resilience.
- Defence in Depth Against Human Extinction: Prevention, Response, Resilience, and Why They All Matter. Future of Humanity Institute
- What is the likelihood that civilizational collapse would directly lead to human extinction (within decades)?. EA Forum
- Classifying Global Catastrophic Risks
- The Last Human – A Glimpse Into The Far Future. Kurzgesagt
- NASA Tried To Knock an Asteroid Off Course—And Succeeded Wildly Beyond Expectations. Time Magazine
- Planetary Defence Coodination Office. NASA
- What are resilient foods?. ALLFED