It should be obvious that the death of an individual human being isn’t as bad as the death of all humankind. But that’s only true if you accept the following premise laid out by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his upcoming book, Skin in the Game:
I have a finite shelf life; humanity should have an infinite duration. Or I am renewable, not humanity or the ecosystem.
The quotation actually comes from a draft version of one chapter available here. The book is not yet out.
But what does this mean in practical terms? The simple answer is that human societies should not engage in activities which risk destroying all of humanity. Nuclear war comes to mind. And, most, if not all, people recognize that a nuclear war would not only result in unthinkably large immediate casualties, but also might threaten all life on Earth with a years-long nuclear winter.
But are we humans risking annihilation through other activities? Climate change comes to mind. But so do our perturbations of the nitrogen cycle which we are now at the very beginnings of understanding. In addition, the introduction of novel genes into the plant kingdom with little testing through genetically engineered crops poses unknown risks not only to food production, but also to biological systems everywhere.
The thing that unites these examples is that they represent an introduction of novel elements (artificial gene combinations not seen in nature) or vast amounts of non-novel substances (carbon dioxide, nitrogen compounds and other greenhouse gases) into complex systems worldwide. Scale, it turns out, matters. A population of only 1 million humans on Earth living with our current technology would almost certainly not threaten climate stability or biodiversity.
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