Planet in Peril (2022)

Planet in Peril: Humanity’s Four Greatest Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them

(Cambridge U. Press, 2022)

Table of Contents | Overview | Amazon Link

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction

Part I.  Existential threats: The four most pressing dangers facing humankind

            2. Fossil fuels and climate change

            3. Nukes for war and peacetime

            4. Pandemics, natural or bioengineered

            5. Artificial intelligence: extreme reward and risk

Part II.  Strategies and obstacles: The solutions we need, and what’s preventing them from being realized

            6. How to beat climate change

            7. Wise governance for nukes and pandemics: where to go faster and where to slow down

            8. Controlling things vs. controlling agents: the challenge of high-level AI

            9. The international dimension: where every solution stumbles

Prologue to Parts III, IV, and V: Does history have a direction?  Hegel, Smith, Darwin

Part III.  Sensible steps for today’s world: powerful measures we can implement right away

            10. Do it now: five points of leverage

            11. Constructive moves on the international front for the next 25 years

            12. Breaking the political logjam 

            13. Lessons from the green movement: how to build lasting change in the absence of full consensus

Part IV. The middle-term goal: new international tools for the late 21st century

            14. A promising track record: the dramatic growth of international institutions and networks since 1900

            15. How to escape the sovereignty trap: lessons and limitations of the EU model

            16. Taking the UN up a notch: planet-level solutions for the year 2100

            17. The other path to 2100: ruthless competition, fingers crossed

Part V.  The long-term goal: envisioning a mature system of global governance for the 22nd century

            18. Global government in a world of democracies and dictatorships: what it might look like in 2150

            19. Keeping the system accountable and fair

            20. Collective military security and economic sanctions: how to handle rogues, cheaters, and fanatics

            21. What could go wrong?

22. Conclusion


* * *

Book Overview

            Planet in Peril is about the four greatest dangers lying ahead for humankind between now and the year 2100 – climate change, nuclear weapons, pandemics, and advanced AI (or artificially intelligent machines).  I propose a variety of short-term and long-term strategies we can follow to manage these four mega-dangers, so that we’ll be able to make it through in one piece.  But it’s not just about surviving the next hundred years – it’s about doing so in a way that we can feel good about, with our planet healthy and thriving, and a world civilization that more closely reflects our deepest values about democracy, justice, and peace.

            I was actually a bit surprised by the way my book turned out, because when I first started working on it, I felt quite grim about the prospects that lie ahead of us.  Climate change is accelerating, and we’re not doing nearly enough to rein it in.  Nuclear weapons are still there, poised for launch – about 13,000 of them – and tensions among many of the world’s nuclear nations are running high.  The Covid-19 pandemic showed how unprepared the world is for handling even a relatively mild global outbreak, and new developments in biotechnology could spawn far deadlier artificial microbes in the years to come.  Many experts in artificial intelligence are warning us that we need much better systems of safety and control for our increasingly brilliant machines – with potentially catastrophic consequences if we fail.

            And yet, despite all this, I’m actually more hopeful today than I was six or seven years ago, when I first started working on this book.  Here are the five main reasons why.

1. My first reason for hope is that all kinds of impactful, planet-level solutions are already being created today.

            All four of the mega-dangers facing us are global in nature – they’ll only be addressed successfully if humankind can come together in crafting planet-spanning solutions.  The good news here is that already today, we’re much farther along in building global systems of coordination than most people realize.  A hundred years ago, all we had was the pathetically weak instruments of the League of Nations.  Today we have a multi-layered meshwork of institutions managing the interactions of the world’s peoples: from the United Nations and International Criminal Court to regional bodies like the EU; from business networks like the OECD and IMF to regulatory bodies like the World Health Organization; from anti-terrorist organizations like Interpol to military alliances like NATO; from grass roots groups like Greenpeace or Amnesty International to volunteer bodies like Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam.  If you were to make a fast-forward movie of these interconnecting endeavors as they emerged over the past century, it would look like the self-organization of a young life form – a new kind of creature assembling its sinews and nerves around the planet’s spherical core. 

            Now, it’s true that all these organizations and networks still have a long way to go; but it’s a mistake to underestimate how far we’ve already come. 

2. My second reason for hope is that the United Nations has the potential to become a far more effective instrument over the coming years.

            The UN today is a mess.  The Security Council is outdated, with too many important nations excluded – and the veto power of its five permanent members too often results in deadlock and paralysis.  So a key feature of my book is the section where I lay out a series of reforms that could gradually transform the UN – turning it into a far more effective tool for coordinating the most important endeavors of humankind. 

            The long-term goals here are:

  • expanding the membership of the UN Security Council and eliminating the veto option so the Council no longer becomes deadlocked so easily;
  • developing a system of proportional, weighted voting in the UN, so that each nation’s influence in the global assembly more accurately reflects its population size and economic power;
  • reducing the terrible disparities in wealth and opportunity that divide the world’s peoples;
  • introducing new checks and balances for keeping the UN system accountable and transparent in its operations;
  • and building robust new instruments of collective military security and economic sanctions, capable of dealing decisively with rogues, cheaters, or fanatics. 

In this revamped UN, existing national governments would continue to do most of the day-to-day running of people’s affairs; only the truly global matters such as military security, climate change, or regulating dangerous technologies would be assigned for coordination by the UN.

            Clearly, these important reforms can’t happen overnight.  It’ll take a long time for us to make them a reality. 

3. This brings me to my third reason for hope: the power of purposeful, incremental change

            When you stop to think about it, some of the most profound transformations of the modern era have not happened quickly: they’ve come about gradually, through the dogged efforts of successive generations of committed individuals. 

            What’s possible and what’s impossible?  It turns out that the realm of the possible is not a stable place: it changes from decade to decade, as people’s habits, expectations, and assumptions evolve.  Technological achievements that seemed fanciful two centuries ago – such as conversing casually with someone on the other side of the planet – became conceivable a century ago, then a reality 50 years ago.  Societal achievements deemed utopian in 1850 – such as true equality for women –have started becoming legally the norm in recent decades, and are on their way to becoming a socioeconomic reality in the coming years. 

            What both these examples illustrate is the transformative power of small, purpose-driven innovations.  These kinds of seemingly modest changes are a lot like compound interest: they can accumulate remarkably over time, yielding quietly revolutionary results.

4. This is closely connected to my fourth reason for hope: people can bring about a major positive transformation in society, even in the absence of full consensus.  Let me illustrate this with two historical examples.

            In 1950 the West European nations were still reeling from the catastrophe of World War II –following centuries of distrust, rivalry, and conflict.  Yet four decades later, in 1992, these same nations were signing the Maastricht Treaty, binding themselves together in a partial supranational union.  War among the West European nations had become about as likely by that point as armed aggression between the United States and Canada. How was this achieved?  By ten thousand small, incremental steps, pushed along by several successive generations of devoted citizens and leaders. 

            A second encouraging example lies in the story of the green movement.  The environmentalists of the 1960s tackled a daunting challenge: how to persuade their fellow citizens to make the transition into a more ecologically sustainable way of life. Their efforts were fiercely opposed by all kinds of powerful and politically well-connected groups of people.  And yet, seven decades on, you’d be hard pressed to find a single aspect of a modern industrial economy that remains untouched at some level by green innovations.  From cars to cosmetics, from education to business, everything is now subject to considerations of sustainability.  Our economic system today is certainly not as green as the activists of the Sixties hoped; but it’s far greener than it would have been if they had simply thrown up their hands in resignation.

            The lesson I draw from these two stories is simple: we should not allow ourselves to be discouraged by the daunting nature of the political and diplomatic challenges facing us at the global level.  We can roll up our sleeves today and keep working on small, modest changes that will gradually accumulate over time, taking us incrementally into a different international system.

5. And this brings me to my fifth and final reason for hope: dictatorships and democracies can learn how to work constructively with each other despite their deep differences. 

            It’s all well and good to envision a reorganized UN coordinating the governance of the world’s affairs.  But how will this work, in practice, when some states are democratically governed while others are despotic or authoritarian in nature? 

            Here, I draw inspiration from the Cold War relationship between the United States and Soviet Union – a particularly challenging case because their rivalry was both geopolitical and ideological at the same time.  And yet, these two arch-enemies did not go to war.  As the decades went by, they were eventually able to set up a tacitly-agreed playbook of rules for dealing with each other.  By the time of the INF treaty in the 1980s, they’d even accepted limited mutual inspections of each other’s military installations, in the interest of maintaining stability and arms control.

            It’s possible that something analogous could perhaps emerge during the coming century as a basic principle for nations coexisting under a revitalized UN.  Many of those nations will not like each other.  Many will be profoundly different from each other in the ways they run their societies back home.  But if they perceive it to be in their national interest to do so, can they not learn over time to play by a common set of rules that they’ve negotiated with each other?  And could this not become the basis for a far more active UN role in coordinating their policies and decisions?

            The mentalities of humankind began to change a hundred years ago, as the horrors of World War I impressed themselves on thoughtful people here and there.  They changed even more drastically with the trauma of the Second World War and the grim prospect of nuclear holocaust.  Now, with pandemics and climate change vividly on our minds, still more people are beginning to see the need for planet-level instruments of governance. 

            My hypothesis here is that, as these planet-level pressures continue to escalate over the coming decades, more and more people will start to question the narrow, constricted nationalisms of the past.  Whether they like it or not, they’ll be compelled to seek ways to work constructively with strangers on other continents – and this will require them to create new institutional tools that bridge the gaps between them.  It will also demand new mental frameworks for thinking about who we are and how we draw boundaries around ourselves. 

            It comes down in the end to ongoing choices that we will make, and that our descendants will make.  But it’s very important to realize that these are indeed choices, not fixed or preordained pathways lying ahead of us.  The future is more open than many people tend to think.