From The Wall Street Journal:

Since Gilgamesh, apocalyptic prophecies have been a staple of human culture. These stories follow a familiar pattern: God will punish man for his sins by ending the world. But as faith has waned, the genre has taken a scientific turn, from Elizabeth Kolbert predicting mass extinction as a result of our burning fossil fuel to Nick Bostrom theorizing that our work in artificial intelligence could lead to being ruled by robots. Nouriel Roubini, with his book “MegaThreats,” makes those Cassandras look like Pollyannas.

“Will a deadly pandemic finish us before the transition to machines is complete?” asks Mr. Roubini, an economist and consultant who earned the sobriquet “Dr. Doom” for his congenital pessimism. “Will climate change destroy the planet before rational machines come to the rescue? Will we suffocate under a mountain of debt? Or will the U.S. and China destroy the world in a military conflict as competition to control the industries of the future becomes extreme?” In fields from economics to epidemiology to foreign policy to technology, the author finds reasons for fear and even panic.

But the reason he has chosen to survey 10 different megathreats, rather than emphasize just one, is that he believes a common thread unites these challenges facing humanity: They are all slow-moving, and therefore those who warn about them can for a long time look like the boy who cried wolf.

Pandemics had worried public health experts for years—the George W. Bush administration drew up detailed plans to fight them—before Covid-19 took the world by surprise. Milton Friedman warned in the 1980s that an aging population would make entitlement programs insolvent, while Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan lost an election in part because of their support for reform in 2012. China has wanted to take over Taiwan since the days of Chiang Kai-shek.

Mr. Roubini writes to urge us to confront the looming dangers of climate change, pandemics, inflation, artificial intelligence, war with China, the fall of the U.S. dollar, and several other worrisome trends that earn paragraphs instead of chapters in the book. The author warns that we are lurching from a “period of relative stability to an era of severe instability, conflict, and chaos.” Our return to the dark ages may be the result of the convergence of megathreats: climate change causing pandemics, China and the U.S. fighting over control of AI technology, a declining population exacerbating a debt crisis.

Mr. Roubini halfheartedly suggests potential solutions. Maybe the U.S. could import young immigrant workers to help solve its demographic challenge, or perhaps nations could offer universal basic income to those unfortunates put out of work by robots. But he fears that most of the problems he raises are essentially unsolvable. “Spoiler alert,” he writes in the prologue. “We are in way too deep.”

At times, Mr. Roubini gets so caught up in pessimism that he seems only cursorily interested in making coherent arguments for action. For example, he approvingly cites a Natural Resources Defense Council study that estimates the potential economic effects of climate change by the end of this century: $1.9 trillion a year. Pages later, he advocates taking drastic action to mitigate climate change, citing those immediate costs at between $2 trillion and $6 trillion annually. If this is the type of math used to justify climate action, an economic argument is hard to make.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG notes that there have been innumerable business booms and busts around the world. There have also been pandemics that killed millions in their day, a far higher percentage of the population then than a similar number of deaths would be in the contemporary world.

Athens v. Sparta is the earliest state-sponsored war PG knows much about, but wars and rumors of wars are a relatively consistent fact of life. Today, modern communications bring us news about wars of any meaningful size starting anyplace in the world almost immediately.

Wikipedia has a page titled List of ongoing armed conflicts with a map which helpfully shows the location where armed conflicts all over the world. One sub-part of that page lists 6 conflicts that have caused at least 10,000 direct, violent deaths per year in battles between identified groups. And this is a list of wars with a significant number of organized fighters fighting on each side. It doesn’t include deaths from criminal acts or gang violence.

PG is not certain how many times a war has been described as, “a war to end all wars.” Such is a wonderful goal and a thing of beauty to contemplate, but wars have continued, regardless.

Ditto for crop failures, pandemics, etc. In 1918-20, The Spanish Flu appeared. About 500 million people, or one-third of the global population at the time, fell ill. At least 50 million died, with 675,000 deaths occurring in the U.S. The population of the United States in 1919 was an estimated 104,514,000, so 0.646% of the US population died from the Spanish Flu. Two other world-wide influenza pandemics occurred in 1957 (the Asian Flu) and 1968 (the Hong Kong Flu).

The Asian Flu killed 1.1 million worldwide and 116,000 in the United States. The Hong Kong Flu killed 1 million worldwide and about 100,000 in the United States. Covid has infected 636 million worldwide and caused 6.61 million deaths worldwide.

PG remembers hearing a quip a long time ago, “Everybody has to die from something.”

With every major outbreak of an infectious disease or virus, experts appear to warn us that the apocalypse is right around the corner. PG is not dismissing threats of various sorts, but is very optimistic about the ability of humanity to overcome and bounce back.

PG is reminded of the old adage about the news business, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

PG’s general optimism is likely to prevent him from being quoted in the Wall Street Journal any time in the future.

8 thoughts on “MegaThreats”

  1. If It bleeds it leads.

    according to the media. There is nothing comparable to Covid in living memory, which sort of ignores the fact that people who went through the Spanish Flu are still alive.

    • Seldom remembered is the is the huge economic surge that happened after the Black Death. A plausible case can be made that the plague gave the Europeans an edge over everyone else in the world. (Yes, at a cost of one third of the population. I don’t endorse plague as economic policy.)

  2. died with covid or died from covid?

    they have been caught counting people who were killed in motorcycle crashes or with multiple gunshots to the chest as ‘covid deaths’ because they tested positive.

    • Each armed conflict in africa–few if any are napoleonic style wars between states–is a distinct case.

      While some eurasian states dabble in them, notably France, Russia, and Iran, the vast majority have nothing to do with outside states and are rooted in pre-colonial times, local/tribal sources and are fought for control of territory or inter-tribal genocide, not for ideologies.

      A good exemplar is the Rwandan genocide of 1994, much of which was carried out by mobs armed with nothing more than machetes.

      Other wars in Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Congo (never ending since the 60’s) are rooted in post colonial borders that feature overlapping or split tribal territories or both.

      Few african countries are “proper” unified nation states and most of central Africa is permanently unstable. And the “armies” are hardly anything resembling a modern army; no tanks, planes or artillery, no logistic chain or formal chain of command. Transport is likely to be decades old minibusses or pickup trucks. The most common is a “technical”: a light truck with a mounted light machine gun atop the cabin and operated by somebody standing in the back. (see below) Most operate like linked armed gangs, supported by “living of the land” while attacking or selling the fruits of forced labor while defending. Standard tactics include torture, summary executions, mas graves, raped and kidnapping of boys to serve as child soldiers or slave workers. No good guys versus bad guys. Just barbarians rampaging. Other than Ak-47’s instead of bows and arrows and technicals instead of horses, it might as well be the times of the mongol hordes.

      As to the outside world, most countries have zero vested interest in who runs what.

      At most, individual companies might buy the minerals of whoever controls the mines and slaves that week. Who that is is of no concern.

      When it comes to Africa it is easier to list the few stable countries than the ones dealing with continual rebellions, military coups, and border clashes. And that is without factoring the Islamist guerillas seeking to overthrow most of the few stable countries.

      • Technicals are a story unto themselves:

        Very MAD MAX.

        The Ukrainians have evolved a new version this year adding shoulder fired anti-tank wespons and MANPADS plus modified commercial drones to fight off their barbarian invasion. With encrypted cell phones to stay in touch with their commands and satellite imagery. The russians are not enjoying their “shoot and scoot” convoy killing tactics. Very useful in strangling their supply lines.

        (This motorized light cavalry was also used to great effect in WWII North Africa. Another story unto itself.)

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