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The Precipice: Existential risk and the future of humanity, by Toby Ord

23 October 2020

This vision, however, is a materialistic one, says David Atkinson

OUR generation is at a unique point in humanity’s history. We now have the technological power to bring about the extinction of humanity and the loss of any future for human beings. This is the “precipice”, Toby Ord argues, in this worrying, but determinedly hopeful book. Ord is a philosophy Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and works at an institute calculating the existential risks facing humanity, and the possibilities for any human future provided that the world is preserved habitable.

There could be “natural risks”: an asteroid strike, a supervolcanic eruption, a stellar explosion. Ord calculates the probabilities of total extinction caused by these to be very small. Then there are anthropogenic risks such as: overpopulation, loss of biodiversity and depletion of the earth’s resources, which could all be catastrophic and lead to mass migration and huge numbers of deaths, but need not cause an inevitable total extinction of humanity.

Risks that could bring about extinction, which Ord calculates to be 1000 times more likely than “natural risks”, are the “big five”: the use of nuclear weapons, increasingly catastrophic climate change, other environmental damage, and two “future risks” (100 times higher than from existing technologies): deliberately engineered pandemics, and uncontrollable Artificial Intelligences unaligned with any human values.

The substance of the book, of carefully computed risks based on up-to-date science, is beautifully written, clear, and very persuasive. Ord is surely right to conclude that humanity “faces a real and growing threat to its future” and to regard “safeguarding humanity” as “a central priority of our time”. There are 240 pages of text and then another 200 pages of appendices, detailed notes, and bibliography.

I am very impressed with Ord’s hugely important analysis in his first two sections, of the risks that we now face. I am less persuaded by his third section in which he moves speculatively to chart a path forward. He argues that our long-term future requires a deliberate choice to survive and will need international coordination.

The first task is to develop a strategy to create sufficient existential security for humanity to (as he puts it) “get its act together”, and then — in an interdisciplinary way — develop a “Long Reflection” on the future of humanity, even including a vision for centuries ahead when “we” might colonise the galaxy, and so enable humanity’s “full flourishing” to be achieved.

Ord considers “humanity” as a coherent agent, but there is little acknowledgment that we are spiritual beings and flourish mostly in relationships of love and communities of justice. He offers a materialistic utilitarianism, based on an optimistic belief in human progress, but alongside our huge achievements finds little space for the sin and selfishness and stupidity that lead to human failures, and to destructive and oppressive social structures.

He rightly says that we need to develop our corporate wisdom alongside our technologies, but makes no reference to any of humanity’s traditions of wisdom teaching, nor to the transcendent values that motivate many people.

It is interesting to read Precipice alongside Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato si’: On care for our common home, which explores many of the same themes as Ord, but in a very different key and with different basic assumptions. The Pope’s optimism is based not on what another philosopher calls “the myth of progress”, but on what the Christian tradition calls grace, redemption, and the faithfulness of God.


Dr David Atkinson is an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of Southwark, and a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists.


The Precipice: Existential risk and the future of humanity
Toby Ord
Bloomsbury £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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