“So if we drop the baton, succumbing to an existential catastrophe, we would fail our ancestors in a multitude of ways. We would fail to achieve the dreams they hoped for; we would betray the trust they placed in us, their heirs; and we would fail in any duty we had to pay forward the work they did for us. To neglect existential risk might thus be to wrong not only the people of the future, but the people of the past.”
- Toby Ord
In this chapter we’ll focus on existential risks: risks that threaten the destruction of humanity’s long-term potential.
We’ll examine why existential risks might be a moral priority, and explore why they are so neglected by society. We’ll also look into one of the major risks that we might face: a human-made pandemic, worse than COVID-19.
We’ll also introduce the following concepts:
- The importance, neglectedness, tractability framework: The most important problems generally affect a lot of people, are relatively under-invested in, and can be meaningfully improved with a small amount of work.
- Thinking on the margin: If you're donating $1, you should give that extra $1 to the intervention that can most cost-effectively improve the world. There are many great initiatives with a very high average impact per dollar that will have a low marginal impact because they can't get the same efficiency at scale (they display "diminishing marginal returns").
- Crucial considerations: It can be extremely hard to figure out whether some action helps your goal or causes harm, particularly if you’re trying to influence complex social systems or the long-term. This is part of why it can make sense to do a lot of analysis of interventions you’re considering.
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