The problem with existential threats are other existential threats.
There are two types of existential threats for our purposes: those with social dread seeking to prevent them and those without sufficient dread. As for the former, corporate greed and lies have yet to convince us that it’s alright for: jumbo jets to drop from the sky, cryptosporidium to poison urban water supplies, electric grids and lines to explode, and our huge dams to suddenly breach. These are existential threats in their truest sense of all-or almost-all-cost.
It is notable that global climate change has yet to elicit this type of social dread to prevent precursors from occurring. This failure to preclude the causes of failure is reminiscent of the widespread and endemic threat of deadly medical errors in hospitals: While to be avoided, they are clearly tolerated in ways that blowing up a nuclear reactor is not.
–To better highlight the differences in dread across existential threats, return to an earlier blog. There the massive destruction of Oregon’s Central Energy Infrastructure (CEI) located in Portland was discussed, were the much-predicted magnitude 9.0 earthquake to occur in the Cascadia subduction zone off the coast.
Think of this scenario as a local template for global destruction scenarios. Everyone we’ve interviewed recognizes an earthquake-racked CEI poses an existential threat to lives, property and ways of living not just in Portland but for the state and beyond. And just like global climate change, the social dread this elicits is not at a level to do more than tinker with this or that CEI mitigation.
Let’s say everyone in Portland understands the CEI is a concatenation of massive ticking bombs. Let’s also assume everyone there, as elsewhere, demands that plane travel and tap water don’t kill them and that electricity lines don’t routinely collapse and electrocute everyone around. Why does social dread work with respect to the latter in ways that it doesn’t for ticking bombs on Portland’s riverside? (Again, it would be difficult in this case to blame politics, dollars and jerks for what is and is not socially dreaded.)
–One answer is in the language of psychology: People are less in the grip of the Real with respect to the CEI. They aren’t caught up (as yet) in the same existential fear as when, say, a car careens right towards them, or when screaming inside a plane plummeting to earth, or retching poison at the kitchen sink, or caught by power lines whipping and sizzling around them.
This grip of the Real is of course tied very much to the brain as it has evolved–fear and flight response in the primitive amygdala, the much more recent kludge of the prefrontal cortex, and the sense of certainty that comes from one’s limbic system.
Not only do many people think they see through a clear pane of glass, many also believe we can bracket the historical, cultural, and societal contingencies that color this seeing–“At least I recognize I’m biased!”
Even then our cognitive biases (confirmation, attribution and more) render the bracketed pane with all manner of visible defects, which we can only hope are not mistaken for threats.
–Where, though, is that hope? The notion that it is rooted in neurology but existential threats aren’t would itself be an existential threat, were it anything but obvious.
Existential threats are better thought of as what’s left when hopes are bargained down to nothing. Hope, as philosopher Ernst Bloch, used to say, is something not to be bargained down. Hope is not something that fails; it is disappointed. “If it could not be disappointed, it would not be hope.” This, we might say, is an existential benefit.
My earlier blog, “What’s missing?” in this catastrophic earthquake scenario”