Like some of you, I have recently spent a greater than average amount of time dwelling on the possible and proximate onset of a nuclear dark age. But, I've been interested in how we’d rebuild from such a catastrophe for a while.
Ethos: I’m a researcher in the global health and wellbeing space and have practically no knowledge of this area except for a few books, podcasts, and a paranoid sister. I’m out of the longtermist loop, so call me out if I’m ignoring some classic forum post or showing similar ignorance.
I think of the cause area of existential risk as “prevention and recovery from capital "c" Catastrophes”. Prevention gets more attention than recovery. I see why, but I wonder if there is more room to lighten the next dark age and save our potential to pave the galaxy in hedonium. It seems like there’s more room for organisations to work on recovery because it seems, on brief reflection, that there are some tractable interventions to work on and just about no one (???) working on them.
Below I list some rough ideas about what we could do to shorten the next dark age. Some of these may be new—others I’ve seen and am reposting for list-making purposes. A few of these were briefly mentioned in a recent forum post.
- Identify promising areas to reboot civilisation from (AKA Foundations). What are the countries or parts of countries where it would be cost-effective to prepare the local government and economy to survive an apocalypse? I hear New Zealand commonly mentioned as relatively robust to catastrophes, but it seems plausible that other places have better characteristics. What about New Caledonia, Tasmania, the Azores, Puerto Rico, or Patagonia in Argentina?
- Andre Ferretti recently made a weighted factor model of countries it’d be good to go in case of a nuclear war. His shortlist is Malaysia, Argentina, Ecuador, Peru, Australia and New Zealand. When I fiddled with the weights, I ended up with a similar list dominated by countries in Latin America and prosperous, self-reliant islands.
- Distribute books like The Knowledge to libraries in places that are best placed to weather doomsday.
- Collect “The Knowledge +”. One book is insufficient to store enough information to rebuild civilisation. What are the other books that are essential to read? Which Wikipedia articles could act as a deep digital appendix to The Knowledge?
- Perhaps we could also push the values of the post-collapse world towards EA alignment by adding generally wise and entertaining fiction and nonfiction.
- Create a device that’d store "The Knowledge +". I imagine an e-reader fitted with a solar-powered charger and the most reasonably durable battery. These could potentially be sold commercially to recoup some costs.
- Design a post-apocalyptic video game that teaches the basics of rebuilding civilisation. An easier route would be to modify existing games like Don’t Starve to add more technical details like the Haber-bosch process. This also has potential commercial viability.
- Allfed is an EA organisation that advances technology to feed the world if there is a catastrophic shortfall in food production. Allfed is the only organisation I know of explicitly focusing on catastrophic risk's “recovery” part. It seems like it could be a good idea to move part of Allfed to a location more suitable for restarting modern civilisation than Alaska.
- Facilitate geographic EA community diversification. I think EA ideas should survive a catastrophe. We could make that likelier by having EAs themselves survive the calamity. Taking the long view, this could be especially valuable in the locations that will be highly influential in the next age. If we identify clear areas that will most likely withstand nuclear winter or a super-pandemic, we should be interested in having strong and diverse EA communities there.
- Build a broader community around effective prepping? This would involve first building a community of “preppers” whose preparations are more calibrated to the likeliest catastrophes (e.g., nuclear war is more probable than a leftist coup d’etat). Better preppers would presumably lead to more survivors in case of a calamity. The second part of this effort would involve imparting better values to the likeliest survivors of a catastrophe.
- Found more self-sufficient proto-utopian communities? I’m sceptical that founding experimental communities will change the present world dramatically. It’s unclear that they had a considerable positive impact in the past. Having communities that have already performed a dry run reboot of civilisation could be a valuable source of knowledge about rebuilding when Ragnarök arrives. I see this as a much more expensive version of previous points.
- Cause prioritisation question: How bad would a dark age be, anyway? If the average person's wellbeing goes from -5 to 5, what would it have been in the 1300s (a bad century IMO), 1600s or heck, now? This question was inspired by Holden Karnofsky's posts on a long history.
Below I repost existing ideas in the Future Funds Idea List:
- (5) Infrastructure to recover after catastrophes: We want to ensure that humanity is in a position to recover from worst-case catastrophes. For example, we’d like to ensure that humanity has reliable access to the tools, resources, skills and knowledge necessary to rebuild industrial civilization if there were a global nuclear war or a worst-case global pandemic. We’d be especially keen to see “civilizational recovery drills”: attempts to rebuild key industrial technology with only the tools and knowledge available to survivors.
- (11) Keeping coal in the ground: We’d be excited to see a project that enables donors (governments and philanthropists) to easily buy coal mines and retire them. Other approaches to keeping fossil fuels in the ground interest us as well—re-industrialization after a civilizational collapse could be much harder if fossil fuels are scarce.
- (12) Demonstrate the ability to rapidly scale food production in the case of nuclear winter: In addition to quickly killing hundreds of millions of people, a nuclear war could cause nuclear winter and stunt agricultural production due to blocking sunlight for years. We’re interested in funding demonstration projects that are part of an end-to-end operational plan for scaling backup food production and feed the world in the event of such a catastrophe. Thanks to Dave Denkenberger and ALLFED for inspiring this idea.
Next are ideas taken from a recent list of proposals for new ideas to the FTX Future Fund.
Greg Colbourn suggested: Should the worst happen, and a global catastrophe happens, we want to be able to help survivors rebuild civilisation as quickly and efficiently as possible. To this end, burying caches of machinery that can be used to bootstrap development is a useful part of a civilisation recovery toolkit. Such a cache could be in the form of a shipping container filled with heavy machines of open source design, such as a wind turbine, an engine, a tractor with backhoe, an oven, basic computers and CNC fabricators, etc. Written instructions would also be included of course! Along with a selection of useful books. First we aim to put together a prototype of such a cache and test it in various locations with people of various skill levels, to see how well they fair at "rebuilding" in simulated catastrophe scenarios. Learning from this, we will iterate the design until at least 10% of simulations are successful (to a what is judged to be a reasonable level). We ultimately aim to bury 10,000 such caches at strategic locations around the world. Some will be in well known locations (for the case of sudden catastrophe); some hidden with their location to be automatically broadcast should a catastrophe be imminent (to protect them from vandals and malevolent actors); and some hidden with some level of "treasure hunt" required to find them (to provide longer term viability should first attempts to rebuild fail).
Edit: Greg changed the text of his comment to indicate a variety caching strategies beyond concealment, so what I say next makes less sense now. I think this is a fine addition to the list, but having to “treasure hunt” for them seems like it do more harm than good. I expect that we will stumble into most catastrophes. If that’s the case, we should make these caches easy to find.
PhilC proposed: In the event of GCRs, conflicts or disasters, communication systems are key to sensemake and coordinate effectively. They prevent chaos and further escalation of conflicts. Today, there are many threats to the global communication infrastructure including EMPs, widespread cyber attacks, and solar flares.
To elaborate on this, it seems like having a backup network of HAM radios with independent energy equipment to power them could be a very cheap backup.
Feel free to contribute to this list or to add any comments or criticisms. If you're anything like me you should try and savor the fact that things are really good, for us, for now. And try not to freak out.
A civilisational collapse is bad because fewer people will exist with lower levels of wellbeing. I probably weigh the latter more than the former. I assume large swatches of the population have net negative wellbeing in a dark age. A catastrophe is also dire because it’ll probably knock civilisation dramatically off course. I don’t see “building back better” as remotely likely. I expect catastrophe survivors will have dramatically worse values, and whatever they build will depend on those ideas. To be clear, I expect people to collaborate and sacrifice during short term disasters. However, if the global food supply dramatically shrinks, I don’t expect those who remain to be the nicest.