What's the Worst That Could Happen?
Existential Risk and Extreme Politics
Why catastrophic risks are more dangerous than you think, and how populism makes them worse.
Did you know that you're more likely to die from a catastrophe than in a car crash? The odds that a typical US resident will die from a catastrophic event—for example, nuclear war, bioterrorism, or out-of-control artificial intelligence—have been estimated at 1 in 6. That's fifteen times more likely than a fatal car crash and thirty-one times more likely than being murdered. In What's the Worst That Could Happen?, Andrew Leigh looks at catastrophic risks and how to mitigate them, arguing provocatively that the rise of populist politics makes catastrophe more likely.
Leigh explains that pervasive short-term thinking leaves us unprepared for long-term risks. Politicians sweat the small stuff—granular policy details of legislation and regulation—but rarely devote much attention to reducing long-term risks. Populist movements thrive on short-termism because they focus on their followers' immediate grievances. Leigh argues that we should be long-termers: broaden our thinking and give big threats the attention and resources they need.
Leigh outlines the biggest existential risks facing humanity and suggests remedies for them. He discusses pandemics, considering the possibility that the next virus will be more deadly than COVID-19; warns that unchecked climate change could render large swaths of the earth uninhabitable; describes the metamorphosis of the arms race from a fight into a chaotic brawl; and examines the dangers of runaway superintelligence. Moreover, Leigh points out, populism (and its crony, totalitarianism) not only exacerbates other dangers but is also a risk factor in itself, undermining the institutions of democracy as we watch.
“Ever since the first atom bomb was exploded, humans have faced the possibility of existential risk—and that risk is clearly growing, both because we've unleashed strong physical forces and because our politics has grown ever more short-sighted. This book makes the powerful case that we need to replace populism with clear-headed thinking that takes a long view; it's in our own interest, and the interest of all the generations that we hope will follow.”
Bill McKibben, author of Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?
“The book is not only a catalog of doomsday prognoses, it is a clarion call for improving political institutions and strengthening democratic norms. Andrew Leigh calls it 'fixing politics,' and his suggested measures to protect a well-functioning democracy should be widely read by lawmakers as well as civil society. We may all have developed tunnel vision during the pandemic, but this thoughtful book will help us see at last some light at the end of it.”
Angela Kane, former UN High Representative for Disarmament Affairs
“Existential risk matters a great deal, yet too many policy makers undervalue it. Perhaps that's because the risks are rather abstract, and the problem doesn't provide short-term feedback. What's the Worst That Could Happen? provides a compelling case that by paying just a bit more attention to reducing the risk of catastrophe, we just might save our species from a premature end.”
Jaan Tallinn, founding engineer of Skype and Kazaa; cofounder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk