What a Trump Presidency Means for Human Survival: One Expert’s Take
Since its inception, the field of existential risk studies has recognized “bad governance” as an important factor that could modulate overall existential risk — or constitute an existential risk in its own right, if such governance were to gain global control. In my own work on the issue, I identify rogue states as potential agential risks, along with apocalyptic terrorists, negative utilitarians, idiosyncratic actors, future ecoterrorists, extraterrestrials, and machine superintelligence. (Note: an “agential risk” is posed by any agent who would willingly press a “doomsday button” if one were within reach.)
But my research, and the research of many other scholars working on similar issues, has focused primarily on the agential risks posed by nonstate actors. With the stunning election of Donald J. Trump, the dangers of bad governance have suddenly been thrust into the foreground. Not that Trump will attempt to take over the world and implement an extreme bioconservative agenda or create a repressive totalitarian regime (both possibilities noted by Nick Bostrom in a different context). Rather, the existential consequences of a Trump presidency will be mostly indirect. But this doesn’t for a moment mean that they won’t be significant — and perhaps irreversible.
In response to those who interpret Bostrom’s Maxipok rule as implying that the best use of available resources is to prevent specific existential risks from occurring, Nick Beckstead suggests that we see human civilization as being pushed (by the invisible hand of time) along a certain trajectory that a wide range of actions could change. Thus: there could be events that nudge our development trajectory in small but nontrivial ways or watershed happenings that punctuate the equilibrium of history. This framework provides a helpful way to understand how Trump’s policies could have both major and minor effects on this great experiment called civilization, and therefore on the existential predicament of the last species of Homo remaining on the planet.
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Here is a quick-and-dirty look at the possible consequences of Trump’s presidency:
(1) Trump’s campaign has helped to normalize bad epistemology. He has made so many factually false statements, distorted the truth on so many occasions, and changed his position at a whim due to political (rather than epistemic) considerations, that it’s hard to keep track of them all. It is absolutely shocking that, according to Politifact, some 26 percent of Hillary Clinton’s statements are demonstrably incorrect (as of this writing). But compare this to Trump’s record of literally 70 percent false statements. In fact, during a single week, Politico calculated that Trump told a lie on average about once every three minutes and fifteen seconds. And let us not forget that in 2015 he won Politifact’s ignominious “Lie of the Year” award for a record-breaking three egregious mendacities.
If humanity wishes to navigate the wilderness of existential risks before us, it’s imperative that we embrace an epistemological worldview that properly anchors our beliefs to reality. The damage that Trump’s campaign has done to valuing knowledge, embracing critical thinking, respecting verifiable facts, caring about education, listening to the experts, and paying attention to established science is beyond estimation. Existential risk studies, like all areas of scientific inquiry, rests upon a robust epistemological foundation (call it “rational empiricism”), and this foundation has been severely damaged by Trump’s devastating assault on intellectual honesty.
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(2) Trump has repeatedly stated that climate change is a Chinese hoax. Not only does this evince his radical anti-intellectualism — which could have a nontrivial affect on our civilization’s development trajectory, as explored in (1) — but climate change constitutes a clear and present danger to the perpetuation of civilization as we know it.
According to a recent study, global surface temperatures could exceed seven degrees Celsius within a lifetime (over pre-Industrial levels), which would be “game over.” Another article in Nature Climate Change argues that we have a rapidly closing window for meaningful action to alter climatic conditions whose deleterious effects “will extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far.” Finally, it’s worth noting that in addition to extreme weather, megadroughts, food supply disruptions, more infectious disease, desertification, sea-level rise, mass migrations, social upheaval, and political instability, climate change is also a major driver of global biodiversity loss. This is a topic rarely discussed, but existentially important. Consider the fact that even on the most optimistic assumptions, human activity has initiated only the sixth mass extinction event in life’s 3.8 billion year history. And between 1970 and 2010, the global population of wild vertebrates declined by an unbelievable 52 percent. The result could be, as a paper in Nature argues, a sudden, irreversible, catastrophic collapse of the global ecosystem. So: the danger is significant and immediate.
Yet Trump will have none of it. Showing his disdain for established science, he chose a climate change denier, Myron Ebell, to head up his EPA transition team. As Phil Plait points out, “That’s no surprise, as he had already chosen a climate change denying crackpot, Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-ND, as his energy adviser during the campaign. Once Trump is sworn in, he will “end all federal renewable energy development,” “pull the US out of the Paris climate change agreement,” and “kill every environmental safeguard the Obama administration put into place.”
More than ever before, we need people on the right side of futurology, yet Trump is surrounding himself with devastatingly ignorant anti-intellectuals. Although I do not know this for sure, I’d be willing to place a bet on the Bulletin’s Doomsday Clock ticking forward this January — after all, the last Doomsday Clock announcement specifically singled-out the Republicans for being the only major political party in the world today that continues to deny climate change. If the Doomsday Clock does tick forward, it will either tie or exceed the closest we’ve ever come to midnight since the clock was created three years after WWII ended, namely 1953, when the US and Soviet Union both detonated hydrogen bombs.
Do I think that climate change will cause our extinction? Probably not directly. There is a chance that a climate threshold could be crossed, thereby initiating a runaway greenhouse effect that turns Earth into a hellish cauldron, as happened on Venus. My understanding — which is limited relative to the experts — is that there is significant epistemic uncertainty about this possibility. But this doesn’t matter. Climate change is what we might call a crucial trajectory changer. It is a “context risk” that frames our entire existential situation on the planet, and it will, by virtually all accounts, have “conflict multiplying” effects. Like a rising tide, climate change will make everything worse than it otherwise would be — including the creation of safe artificial intelligence and other advanced dual-use technologies. (That is, societal instability will compromise research stability, and research instability will compromise safety.)
Like the Carter-Leslie Doomsday Argument, climate change should make us increase our prior probability estimates of disaster, in this case because of more conflicts between states and other states, state actors and nonstate actors, and nonstate actors and other nonstate actors. A world X that’s undergoing global environmental disruptions is a priori more likely to self-destruct than a world Y in which the biosphere is healthy.
Which leads to…
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(3) Trump will make terrorism worse, including its most dangerous form, apocalyptic terrorism. As mentioned above, this is one of the few primary agential risks that, if coupled to catastrophic dual-use technologies, could bring about an existential disaster. (Call such technologies “weapons of total destruction,” or WTDs.)
The first reason apocalyptic terrorism will get worse is because of climate change. One study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has already implied a direct link between anthropogenic global warming and the rise of the Islamic State — an apocalyptic terrorist group par excellence. (I’ve written about this many times elsewhere: see especially Section 5 of this article.) This study argues that there exists a causal concatenation from one event to the other, but there are more theoretical ways of looking at the situation. For example, one could examine history to identify “environmental triggers” that probabilistically lead to the formation of active apocalyptic ideologies. Once this task is complete, one could then examine the best science and scholarship to conjecture whether such triggers might arise in the future.
This is precisely what the terrorism scholar Mark Juergensmeyer does in a forthcoming article about apocalyptic terrorism and climate change. I won’t go into details here (see elsewhere), but suffice it to say that Juergensmeyer makes a cogent case that the Islamic State could be a mere preview of the sort of apocalyptic barbarity to come. In my own studies (including multiple academic articles), I’ve argued that demographic shifts (e.g., secularists are a declining portion of the global population, and Muslims constitute the fastest growing religious group) along with the pervasive disruptions of the inchoate genetics, nanotech, and robotics (GNR) revolution will both further fuel apocalyptic ideologies according to which the eschaton is imminent, and the world must be destroyed to be saved. (If this sounds improbable, read my article on how the “clash of eschatologies” has had a major, often completely unrecognized influence on the course of world history.) So: there are multiple phenomena converging to fertilize the most extreme ideologies — ideologies that could incline agents to push a “doomsday button” if one were made available, and such buttons will become increasingly available during the next four years.
(It’s also worth noting that climate change and other environmental tragedies could galvanize the radical environmentalist movement. The terrorism scholar Frances Flannery makes this case in her book Understanding Apocalyptic Terrorism. While many ecoterrorists have taken care not to hurt other humans in the past, there is a strain of deep ecological thinking that advocates for the extinction of Homo sapiens. See, for example, the Gaia Liberation Front, a version of which could come raging back to life as the effects of ecological collapse become more salient and ubiquitous. Future ecoterrorists thus constitute an agential risk in my tentative typology.)
Another reason that Trump will make terrorism worse is that terrorism feeds on the “clash of civilizations” narrative. One of Osama bin Laden’s hopes after 9/11 was that the US would invade the “Muslim lands” of the Middle East, thereby confirming the narrative he peddled of Western encroachment. As it happens, Bin Laden got exactly what he wanted, and the result no doubt exceeded his expectations: a spin-off of al-Qaeda in Iraq, namely the Islamic State, whose strategy was (unlike al-Qaeda’s) shaped by active apocalyptic beliefs and whose behavior towards Shi’ites and other unbelievers was far more barbaric than other radical Islamist groups. If Trump follows through on his promises to ban Muslims from the US, bring back torture, and violate international law (the Geneva Conventions) by killing the family members of terrorists, this will enrage Muslims around the world — for good reason — and give them a sense of moral superiority in the face of injustice. Recruitment for the dying Islamic State will grow.
The point: it’s crucial to recognize that religious dogmas aren’t the only causal factor behind religious terrorism; i.e., radicalization doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Or, as one terrorism scholar (Robert Pape) states, it’s not a supply-limited phenomenon, it’s a demand-driven phenomenon. Trump’s morally disastrous foreign policy ideas would drastically increase the demand for terrorist action, and thus increase the threat of terrorism. This could have trajectory-changing destabilizing effects, and it could produce the sort of apocalyptic fanatics who would eagerly release self-replicating nanobots into the environment or synthesize designer pathogens with exceptional virulence.
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(4) Trump with the nuclear codes. This is worrisome because Trump has proven himself to be incredibly fickle and easily provoked — someone who can be triggered by a single hostile tweet. Perhaps a major conflict with Russia will become less probable, given Trump’s apparent friendliness to the authoritarian leader across the old Iron Curtain, but as Seth Baum of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute opines: “I would expect nuclear war risk to increase due mainly to the electee’s volatile tendencies.”
In addition, Trump has suggested on multiple occasions that he favors nuclear proliferation among certain currently non-nuclear countries. For example, he told the New York Times, “If Japan had that nuclear threat, I’m not sure that would be a bad thing for us.” In an interview with Anderson Cooper, he repeated his claim that Japan should develop nuclear weapons, as well as Saudi Arabia(!). And in yet another interview, he suggested that South Korea should get nukes as well, that is, “if they’re not going to take care of us properly.” This is wildly irresponsible rhetoric from a man who is about to lead the most powerful country in the world, and it’s already encouraged far-right advocates of nuclear proliferation in countries like South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Iran to put more pressure on their respective governments to become nuclear-armed. Trump is playing with fire — and I mean that in the strongest sense possible.
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(5) Many of those surrounding Trump are bioconservatives, such as Mike Pence, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson, the latter of whom served on George W. Bush’s Council on Bioethics. This means that crucial medical research involving, for example, embryonic stem cells will probably lose funding or be made illegal, as well as any technological intervention classified as “enhancive” rather than “therapeutic.” The result won’t be that such enhancements are never developed. Instead, it will be that such enhancements are developed later than they otherwise would be, and this is worrisome because, as scholars have argued, human enhancements may be necessary for our species to survive the period of heightened existential hazards that we appear to be entering — an idea that I call the “bottleneck hypothesis.”
According to Ingmar Persson and Julian Savulescu, for example, our species is cognitively and morally “unfit” for the new milieu of climate change and advanced technology. We evolved over hundreds of thousands of years in an ancestral environment in which temporally myopic and spatially localized thinking was evolutionarily advantageous. We have tribalism and xenophobia built into our brains. Our empathy, sympathetic concern, and sense of justice (or fairness) were crafted by natural selection for radically different situations than those we currently find ourselves in.
Thus, Persson and Savulescu argue that, given the unprecedented seriousness of our existential predicament, we must now adapt our cognitive and moral attributes to better suit the challenges facing us, and this means using cognitive and moral bioenhancements to create better humans (or transhumans, or posthumans). The result would be that men are a little more like women (who tend to be more altruistic), and conservatives are a little more like liberals (in that they would value authority, purity, and loyalty less, to borrow from Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory).
It’s precisely this line of reasoning that leads me to suggest in my book The End that perhaps “to survive, we must go extinct.” That is, not in the sense that our population dwindles to zero, but through an enhancive process of anagenetic cyborgization.
(Note that Pew recently confirmed that religious people are significantly less likely to approve of “gene editing to give babies a lifetime with much reduced risk of disease, brain chip implants to give people much improved cognitive abilities and transfusions with synthetic blood to give people much improved physical capacities.”)
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Of all the dangerous consequences of a sociopathic, narcissistic, racist, sexist, pathological liar in the Oval Office, I think (1) is the worst. The world needs intellectuals to direct the ship of civilization through the obstacle course of existential risks before us — but even more, it needs intellectualists who, independent of cognitive capacity, actively respect critical thinking, knowledge, expertise, and science. We don’t yet know how this strange episode in human history will turn out, but there are multiple strong reasons for near panic about what the future holds for us.