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Raising awareness of existential risks - perhaps explaining at "personally stocking canned food" level?

13 Post author: Dmytry 24 January 2012 04:17PM

Many articles have been written on the topic of existential risks, and the need of greater public awareness. Here's my take - the existential risks are perhaps easier to explain with a simple example that does not yet trigger the 'too scary to be true' reflex. Example which one can easily explain to the people one knows and meets with regularly, and have them explain it to others. Example not involving any controversial predictions such as strong AI.

So, let's suppose that there's 1 in 500 years lethal flu-like pandemic risk, that kills 1/5 of the population. That's likely to be a gross underestimate, especially in the light of recent news. You can talk about that risk with mostly anyone for a while without any protest, building up some tolerance to the scariness of this scenario and letting them become accustomed with the notion, perhaps letting them suggest that real risk may be higher, perhaps 1 in 100 years.

Then you can compare it to personal everyday risks - specific to the audience. Homicide rates, car accidents, what ever everyday risks that we take counter measures against.

That's where this risk gets scary, and if you do comparisons right away some people just withdraw into a fantasy world where such pandemic is impossible or much less probable.

A lot of people, majority perhaps, are very sensitive about risks at this level. It is higher than risk of death by a car wreck, by homicide, and by many types of accidents, in about any developed country. We have seat belts and airbags, the cars are engineered for safety at non-insignificant expense, etc. We vaccinate against rare but severe diseases.

So here's the thing. Stocking up on food for two months could conceivably be as effective in the event of outbreak as seat belts, airbags, and road safety measures are for prevention of car crash fatalities; and there are many more scenarios than virus outbreak where those cans can improve your safety. Note: viruses normally don't survive for a long time in the environment, highly lethal viruses burn out the susceptible population, and after month or two a vaccine could become available. Non-interaction for months is doubly important as the sick can stay at home and avoid infecting others.

Thus it follows that one should a: stock up on preserved food and other necessities if possible (assuming western income levels and fairly low cost of the preserved food which can be further reduced by simply eating that food as it nears the expiration date - other places would need detailed cost benefit analysis), and b: try to explain this argument to others as this, too, would enhance the survival.

Meanwhile this argument should raise awareness of global risks, which are not insignificant, and make people more accepting of the notion that something globally bad may happen. The biggest problem with awareness of global risks is that they never happened in today's world, whereas for individual risk of such magnitude everyone knows someone who died of it not so long ago.

So, what do you think? Any other global risks that could serve as good, easy to understand example to make people accept better the notion that something globally bad may happen?

edit: typos

Comments (3)

Comment author: DanielLC 24 January 2012 05:38:47PM 2 points [-]

As it is, I can do huge amounts to help people in third-world countries by donating to them. I find it unlikely that storing food to help in case of a global catastrophe will do nearly as much good.

Comment author: Dmytry 24 January 2012 08:46:11PM *  4 points [-]

Well, storing food is more of a selfish option. People seem to prefer to think of either the catastrophes that are so improbable that nothing needs to be done, or so devastating that nothing can be done; but there's a great number of possible, not very improbable severe global events for which one can significantly improve own (and family's) survival with relatively simple measures.

Comment author: TobyBartels 25 March 2012 06:17:07PM 0 points [-]

Do you apply this reasoning to other safety-related expenses?