One of the most alarming books I ever read was Kurt Vonnegut Junior’s Cat’s
Cradle, which features, as central plot device, Ice-Nine, a chemical
variant of water that freezes at room temperature and that also freezes any
adjacent molecule of liquid water (thus rendering it Ice-Nine as well).
Ingesting Ice-Nine is fatal and dropping it in a river would freeze the
Earth’s oceans solid — utter biocide. Vonnegut presents Ice-Nine’s
catastrophic power as a metaphor for the atomic holocaust looming at the time of
the book’s writing.
Despite Vonnegut’s cautions, we’ve not heeded the lessons of Cat’s Cradle. We
live in a world with multiple Ice-Nines being pursued at ever-faster rates on
ever-cheaper platforms by ever-more people. My alarm on this matter was greatly
exacerbated by Sam Harris’ lucid interview (Episode 151) with Nick
Bostrom about his work “The Vulnerable World Hypothesis”. It’s written
earnestly and clearly. I’d urge you to spend a half-hour reading the document
and the rest of the day cowering with its implications.
The upshot is that since we continue to make it easier to produce Ice-Nine
level technology (Bostrom calls these “black balls from the urn of invention”),
we need institutions that can respond to them. Bostrom’s only feasible solution
is a global surveillance state and push-button totalitarianism. For most people,
unsurprisingly enough, this is a non-starter. As such, concludes Bostrom, it’s
inevitable that an Ice-Nine catastrophe will come to pass.
We, as the guardian species of life on this planet, accept and recognize that
the world is vulnerable, it does need our help, and that no one is going to fix
this for us.
While it’s certainly comfortable to write off both yours truly and Bostrom as
Chicken Littles catastrophizing as prophets of doom have always done, I do
think that now is different. The crucial factors making it so are:
- non-localized collapse is more steadily the default (an engineered superbug gone loose will travel the globe in hours; debased coinage in Rome had no impact on the Chinese empire, etc.)
- emergent failure i.e. local actions show no damage, but in toto globally those actions culminate to catastrophe (e.g. climate change)