Posts

FLI Podcast: On Consciousness, Morality, Effective Altruism & Myth with Yuval Noah Harari & Max Tegmark

Neither Yuval Noah Harari nor Max Tegmark need much in the way of introduction. Both are avant-garde thinkers at the forefront of 21st century discourse around science, technology, society and humanity’s future. This conversation represents a rare opportunity for two intellectual leaders to apply their combined expertise — in physics, artificial intelligence, history, philosophy and anthropology — to some of the most profound issues of our time. Max and Yuval bring their own macroscopic perspectives to this discussion of both cosmological and human history, exploring questions of consciousness, ethics, effective altruism, artificial intelligence, human extinction, emerging technologies and the role of myths and stories in fostering societal collaboration and meaning. We hope that you’ll join the Future of Life Institute Podcast for our final conversation of 2019, as we look toward the future and the possibilities it holds for all of us.

Topics discussed include:

  • Max and Yuval’s views and intuitions about consciousness
  • How they ground and think about morality
  • Effective altruism and its cause areas of global health/poverty, animal suffering, and existential risk
  • The function of myths and stories in human society
  • How emerging science, technology, and global paradigms challenge the foundations of many of our stories
  • Technological risks of the 21st century

Timestamps:

0:00 Intro

3:14 Grounding morality and the need for a science of consciousness

11:45 The effective altruism community and it’s main cause areas

13:05 Global health

14:44 Animal suffering and factory farming

17:38 Existential risk and the ethics of the long-term future

23:07 Nuclear war as a neglected global risk

24:45 On the risks of near-term AI and of artificial general intelligence and superintelligence

28:37 On creating new stories for the challenges of the 21st century

32:33 The risks of big data and AI enabled human hacking and monitoring

47:40 What does it mean to be human and what should we want to want?

52:29 On positive global visions for the future

59:29 Goodbyes and appreciations

01:00:20 Outro and supporting the Future of Life Institute Podcast

 

This podcast is possible because of the support of listeners like you. If you found this conversation to be meaningful or valuable consider supporting it directly by donating at futureoflife.org/donate. Contributions like yours make these conversations possible.

All of our podcasts are also now on Spotify and iHeartRadio! Or find us on SoundCloudiTunesGoogle Play and Stitcher.

You can listen to the podcast above or read the transcript below. 

Lucas Perry: Welcome to the Future of Life Institute Podcast. I’m Lucas Perry. Today, I’m excited to be bringing you a conversation between professor, philosopher, and historian Yuval Noah Harari and MIT physicist and AI researcher, as well as Future of Life Institute president, Max Tegmark.  Yuval is the author of popular science best sellers, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, and of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Max is the author of Our Mathematical Universe and Life 3.0: Being human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. 

This episode covers a variety of topics related to the interests and work of both Max and Yuval. It requires some background knowledge for everything to make sense and so i’ll try to provide some necessary information for listeners unfamiliar with the area of Max’s work in particular here in the intro. If you already feel well acquainted with Max’s work, feel free to skip ahead a minute or use the timestamps in the description for the podcast. 

Topics discussed in this episode include: morality, consciousness, the effective altruism community, animal suffering, existential risk, the function of myths and stories in our world, and the benefits and risks of emerging technology. For those new to the podcast or effective altruism, effective altruism or EA for short is a philosophical and social movement that uses evidence and reasoning to determine the most effective ways of benefiting and improving the lives of others. And existential risk is any risk that has the potential to eliminate all of humanity or, at the very least, to kill large swaths of the global population and leave the survivors unable to rebuild society to current living standards. Advanced emerging technologies are the most likely source of existential risk in the 21st century, for example through unfortunate uses of synthetic biology, nuclear weapons, and powerful future artificial intelligence misaligned with human values and objectives.

The Future of Life Institute is a non-profit and this podcast is funded and supported by listeners like you. So if you find what we do on this podcast to be important and beneficial, please consider supporting the podcast by donating at futureoflife.org/donate

These contributions make it possible for us to bring you conversations like these and to develop the podcast further. You can also follow us on your preferred listening platform by searching for us directly or following the links on the page for this podcast found in the description. 

And with that, here is our conversation between Max Tegmark and Yuval Noah Harari.

Max Tegmark: Maybe to start at a place where I think you and I both agree, even though it’s controversial, I get the sense from reading your books that you feel that morality has to be grounded on experience, subjective experience. It’s just what I like to call consciousness. I love this argument you’ve given, for example, that people who think consciousness is just bullshit and irrelevant. You challenge them to tell you what’s wrong with torture if it’s just a bunch of electrons and quarks moving around this way rather than that way.

Yuval Noah Harari: Yeah. I think that there is no morality without consciousness and without subjective experiences. At least for me, this is very, very obvious. One of my concerns, again, if I think about the potential rise of AI, is that AI will be super superintelligence but completely non-conscious, which is something that we never had to deal with before. There’s so much of the philosophical and theological discussions of what happens when there is a greater intelligence in the world. We’ve been discussing this for thousands of years with God of course as the object of discussion, but the assumption always was that this greater intelligence would be A) conscious in some sense, and B) good, infinitely good.

And therefore I think that the question we are facing today is completely different and to a large extent is I suspect that we are really facing philosophical bankruptcy that what we’ve done for thousands of years didn’t really prepare us for the kind of challenge that we have now.

Max Tegmark: I certainly agree that we have a very urgent challenge there. I think there is an additional risk which comes from the fact that, I’m embarrassed as a scientist that we actually don’t know for sure which kinds of information processing are conscious and which are not. For many, many years, I’ve been told for example that it’s okay to put lobsters in hot water to boil them but alive before we eat them because they don’t feel any suffering. And then I guess some guy asked the lobster does this hurt? And it didn’t say anything and it was a self serving argument. But then there was a recent study out that showed that actually lobsters do feel pain and they banned lobster boiling in Switzerland now.

I’m very nervous whenever we humans make these very self serving arguments saying, don’t worry about the slaves. It’s okay. They don’t feel, they don’t have a soul, they won’t suffer or women don’t have a soul or animals can’t suffer. I’m very nervous that we’re going to make the same mistake with machines just because it’s so convenient. When I feel the honest truth is, yeah, maybe future superintelligent machines won’t have any experience, but maybe they will. And I think we really have a moral imperative there to do the science to answer that question because otherwise we might be creating enormous amounts of suffering that we don’t even know exists.

Yuval Noah Harari: For this reason and for several other reasons, I think we need to invest as much time and energy in researching consciousness as we do in researching and developing intelligence. If we develop sophisticated artificial intelligence before we really understand consciousness, there is a lot of really big ethical problems that we just don’t know how to solve. One of them is the potential existence of some kind of consciousness in these AI systems, but there are many, many others.

Max Tegmark: I’m so glad to hear you say this actually because I think we really need to distinguish between artificial intelligence and artificial consciousness. Some people just take for granted that they’re the same thing.

Yuval Noah Harari: Yeah, I’m really amazed by it. I’m having quite a lot of discussions about these issues in the last two or three years and I’m repeatedly amazed that a lot of brilliant people just don’t understand the difference between intelligence and consciousness, and when it comes up in discussions about animals, but it also comes up in discussions about computers and about AI. To some extent the confusion is understandable because in humans and other mammals and other animals, consciousness and intelligence, they really go together, but we can’t assume that this is the law of nature and that it’s always like that. In a very, very simple way, I would say that intelligence is the ability to solve problems. Consciousness is the ability to feel things like pain and pleasure and love and hate.

Now in humans and chimpanzees and dogs and maybe even lobsters, we solve problems by having feelings. A lot of the problems we solve, who to mate with and where to invest our money and who to vote for in the elections, we rely on our feelings to make these decisions, but computers make decisions a completely different way. At least today, very few people would argue that computers are conscious and still they can solve certain types of problems much, much better than we.

They have high intelligence in a particular field without having any consciousness and maybe they will eventually reach superintelligence without ever developing consciousness. And we don’t know enough about these ideas of consciousness and superintelligence, but it’s at least feasible that you can solve all problems better than human beings and still have zero consciousness. You just do it in a different way. Just like airplanes fly much faster than birds without ever developing feathers.

Max Tegmark: Right. That’s definitely one of the reasons why people are so confused. There are two other reasons I noticed also among even very smart people why they are utterly confused on this. One is there’s so many different definitions of consciousness. Some people define consciousness in a way that’s almost equivalent intelligence, but if you define it the way you did, the ability to feel things simply having subjective experience. I think a lot of people get confused because they have always thought of subjective experience and intelligence for that matter as something mysterious. That can only exist in biological organisms like us. Whereas what I think we’re really learning from the whole last of century of progress in science is that no, intelligence and consciousness are all about information processing.

People fall prey to this carbon chauvinism idea that it’s only carbon or meat that can have these traits. Whereas in fact it really doesn’t matter whether the information is processed by a carbon atom and a neuron in the brain or by the silicon atom in a computer.

Yuval Noah Harari: I’m not sure I completely agree. I mean, we still don’t have enough data on that. There doesn’t seem to be any reason that we know of that consciousness would be limited to carbon based life forms, but so far this is the case. So maybe we don’t know something. My hunch is that it could be possible to have non-organic consciousness, but until we have better evidence, there is an open possibility that maybe there is something about organic biochemistry, which is essential and we just don’t understand.

And also with the other open case, we are not really sure that’s consciousness is just about information processing. I mean, at present, this is the dominant view in the life sciences, but we don’t really know because we don’t understand consciousness. My personal hunch is that nonorganic consciousness is possible, but I wouldn’t say that we know that for certain. And the other point is that really if you think about it in the broadest sense possible, I think that there is an entire potential universe of different conscious states and we know just a tiny, tiny bit of it.

Max Tegmark: Yeah.

Yuval Noah Harari: Again, thinking a little about different life forms, so human beings are just one type of life form and there are millions of other life forms that existed and billions of potential life forms that never existed but might exist in the future. And it’s a bit like that with consciousness that we really know just human consciousness, we don’t understand even the consciousness of other animals and beyond that potentially there is an infinite number of conscious states or traits that never existed and might exist in the future.

Max Tegmark: I agree with all of that. And I think if you can have nonorganic consciousness, artificial consciousness, which would be my guess, although we don’t know it, I think it’s quite clear then that the mind space of possible artificial consciousness is vastly larger than anything that evolution has given us, so we have to have a very open mind.

If we simply take away from this that we should understand which entities biological and otherwise are conscious and can experience suffering, pleasure and so on, and we try to base our morality on this idea that we want to create more positive experiences and eliminate suffering, then this leads straight into what I find very much at the core of the so called effective altruism community, which we with the Future of Life Institute view ourselves as part of where the idea is we want to help do what we can to make a future that’s good in that sense. Lots of positive experiences, not negative ones and we want to do it effectively.

We want to put our limited time and money and so on into those efforts which will make the biggest difference. And the EA community has for a number of years been highlighting a top three list of issues that they feel are the ones that are most worth putting effort into in this sense. One of them is global health, which is very, very non-controversial. Another one is animal suffering and reducing it. And the third one is preventing life from going extinct by doing something stupid with technology.

I’m very curious whether you feel that the EA movement has basically picked out the correct three things to focus on or whether you have things you would subtract from that list or add to it. Global health, animal suffering, X-risk.

Yuval Noah Harari: Well, I think that nobody can do everything, so whether you’re an individual or an organization, it’s a good idea to pick a good cause and then focus on it and not spend too much time wondering about all the other things that you might do. I mean, these three causes are certainly some of the most important in the world. I would just say that about the first one. It’s not easy at all to determine what are the goals. I mean, as long as health means simply fighting illnesses and sicknesses and bringing people up to what is considered as a normal level of health, then that’s not very problematic.

But in the coming decades, I think that the healthcare industry would focus and more, not on fixing problems but rather on enhancing abilities, enhancing experiences, enhancing bodies and brains and minds and so forth. And that’s much, much more complicated both because of the potential issues of inequality and simply that we don’t know where to aim for. One of the reasons that when you ask me at first about morality, I focused on suffering and not on happiness is that suffering is a much clearer concept than happiness and that’s why when you talk about health care, if you think about this image of the line of normal health, like the baseline of what’s a healthy human being, it’s much easier to deal with things falling under this line than things that potentially are above this line. So I think even this first issue, it will become extremely complicated in the coming decades.

Max Tegmark: And then for the second issue on animal suffering, you’ve used some pretty strong words before. You’ve said that industrial farming is one of the worst crimes in history and you’ve called the fate of industrially farmed animals one of the most pressing ethical questions of our time. A lot of people would be quite shocked when they hear you using strong words about this since they routinely eat factory farmed meat. How do you explain to them?

Yuval Noah Harari: This is quite straightforward. I mean, we are talking about billions upon billions of animals. The majority of large animals today in the world are either humans or are domesticated animals, cows and pigs and chickens and so forth. And so we’re talking about a lot of animals and we are talking about a lot of pain and misery. The industrially farmed cow and chicken are probably competing for the title of the most miserable creature that ever existed. They are capable of experiencing a wide range of sensations and emotions and in most of these industrial facilities they are experiencing the worst possible sensations and emotions.

Max Tegmark: In my case, you’re preaching to the choir here. I find this so disgusting that my wife and I just decided to mostly be vegan. I don’t go preach to other people about what they should do, but I just don’t want to be a part of this. It reminds me so much also things you’ve written about yourself, about how people used to justify having slaves before by saying, “It’s the white man’s burden. We’re helping the slaves. It’s good for them”. And much of the same way now, we make these very self serving arguments for why we should be doing this. What do you personally take away from this? Do you eat meat now, for example?

Yuval Noah Harari: Personally I define myself as vegan-ish. I mean I’m not strictly vegan. I don’t want to make kind of religion out of it and start thinking in terms of purity and whatever. I try to limit as far as possible mindful movement with industries that harm animals for no good reason and it’s not just meat and dairy and eggs, it can be other things as well. The chains of causality in the world today are so complicated that you cannot really extricate yourself completely. It’s just impossible. So for me, and also what I tell other people is just do your best. Again, don’t make it into a kind of religious issue. If somebody comes and tells you that you, I’m now thinking about this animal suffering and I decided to have one day a week without meat then don’t start blaming this person for eating meat the other six days. Just congratulate them on making one step in the right direction.

Max Tegmark: Yeah, that sounds not just like good morality but also good psychology if you actually want to nudge things in the right direction. And then coming to the third one, existential risk. There, I love how Nick Bostrom asks us to compare these two scenarios one in which some calamity kills 99% of all people and another where it kills 100% of all people and then he asks how much worse is the second one. The point being obviously is you know that if we kill everybody we might actually forfeit having billions or quadrillions or more of future minds in the future experiencing these amazing things for billions of years. This is not something I’ve seen you talk as much about in you’re writing it. So I’m very curious how you think about this morally? How you weigh future experiences that could exist versus the ones that we know exist now?

Yuval Noah Harari: I don’t really know. I don’t think that we understand consciousness and experience well enough to even start making such calculations. In general, my suspicion, at least based on our current knowledge, is that it’s simply not a mathematical entity that can be calculated. So we know all these philosophical riddles that people sometimes enjoy so much debating about whether you have five people have this kind and a hundred people of that kind and who should you save and so forth and so on. It’s all based on the assumption that experience is a mathematical entity that can be added and subtracted. And my suspicion is that it’s just not like that.

To some extent, yes, we make these kinds of comparison and calculations all the time, but on a deeper level, I think it’s taking us in the wrong direction. At least at our present level of knowledge, it’s not like eating ice cream is one point of happiness. Killing somebody is a million points of misery. So if by killing somebody we can allow 1,000,001 persons to enjoy ice cream, it’s worth it.

I think the problem here is not that we given the wrong points to the different experiences, it’s just it’s not a mathematical entity in the first place. And again, I know that in some cases we have to do these kinds of calculations, but I will be extremely careful about it and I would definitely not use it as the basis for building entire moral and philosophical projects.

Max Tegmark: I certainly agree with you that it’s an extremely difficult set of questions you get into if you try to trade off positives against negatives, like you mentioned in the ice cream versus murder case there. But I still feel that all in all, as a species, we tend to be a little bit too sloppy and flippant about the future and maybe partly because we haven’t evolved to think so much about what happens in billions of years anyway, and if we look at how reckless we’ve been with nuclear weapons, for example, I recently was involved with our organization giving this award to honor Vasily Arkhipov who quite likely prevented nuclear war between the US and the Soviet Union, and most people hadn’t even heard about that for 40 years. More people have heard of Justin Bieber, than Vasily Arkhipov even though I would argue that that would really unambiguously had been a really, really bad thing and that we should celebrate people who do courageous acts that prevent nuclear war, for instance.

In the same spirit, I often feel concerned that there’s so little attention, even paid to risks that we drive ourselves extinct or cause giants catastrophes compared to how much attention we pay to the Kardashians or whether we can get 1% less unemployment next year. So I’m curious if you have some sympathy for my angst here or whether you think I’m overreacting.

Yuval Noah Harari: I completely agree. I often define it that we are now kind of irresponsible gods. Certainly with regard to the other animals and the ecological system and with regard to ourselves, we have really divine powers of creation and destruction, but we don’t take our job seriously enough. We tend to be very irresponsible in our thinking, and in our behavior. On the other hand, part of the problem is that the number of potential apocalypses is growing exponentially over the last 50 years. And as a scholar and as a communicator, I think it’s part of our job to be extremely careful in the way that we discuss these issues with the general public. And it’s very important to focus the discussion on the more likely scenarios because if we just go on bombarding people with all kinds of potential scenarios of complete destruction, very soon we just lose people’s attention.

They become extremely pessimistic that everything is hopeless. So why worry about all that? So I think part of the job of the scientific community and people who deal with these kinds of issues is to really identify the most likely scenarios and focus the discussion on that. Even if there are some other scenarios which have a small chance of occurring and completely destroying all of humanity and maybe all of life, but we just can’t deal with everything at the same time.

Max Tegmark: I completely agree with that. With one caveat, I think it’s very much in the spirit of effective altruism, what you said. We want to focus on the things that really matter the most and not turn everybody into hypochondriac, paranoid, getting worried about everything. The one caveat I would give is, we shouldn’t just look at the probability of each bad thing happening but we should look at the expected damage it will do so the probability of times how bad it is.

Yuval Noah Harari: I agree.

Max Tegmark: Because nuclear war for example, maybe the chance of having an accidental nuclear war between the US and Russia is only 1% per year or 10% per year or one in a thousand per year. But if you have the nuclear winter caused by that by soot and smoke in the atmosphere, you know, blocking out the sun for years, that could easily kill 7 billion people. So most people on Earth and mass starvation because it would be about 20 Celsius colder. That means that on average if it’s 1% chance per year, which seems small, you’re still killing on average 70 million people. That’s the number that sort of matters I think. That means we should make it a higher priority to reduce that more.

Yuval Noah Harari: With nuclear war, I would say that we are not concerned enough. I mean, too many people, including politicians have this weird impression that well, “Nuclear war, that’s history. No, that was in the 60s and 70s people worried about it.”

Max Tegmark: Exactly.

Yuval Noah Harari: “It’s not a 21st century issue.” This is ridiculous. I mean we are now in even greater danger, at least in terms of the technology than we were in the Cuban missile crisis. But you must remember this in Stanley Kubrick, Dr Strange Love-

Max Tegmark: One of my favorite films of all time.

Yuval Noah Harari: Yeah. And so the subtitle of the film is “How I Stopped Fearing and Learned to Love the Bomb.”

Max Tegmark: Exactly.

Yuval Noah Harari: And the funny thing is it actually happened. People stopped fearing them. Maybe they don’t love it very much, but compared to the 50s and 60s people just don’t talk about it. Like you look at the Brexit debate in Britain and Britain is one of the leading nuclear powers in the world and it’s not even mentioned. It’s not part of the discussion anymore. And that’s very problematic because I think that this is a very serious existential threat. But I’ll take a counter example, which is in the field of AI, even though I understand the philosophical importance of discussing the possibility of general AI emerging in the future and then rapidly taking over the world and you know all the paperclips scenarios and so forth.

I think that at the present moment it really distracts attention of people from the immediate dangers of the AI arms race, which has a far, far higher chance of materializing in the next, say, 10, 20, 30 years. And we need to focus people’s minds on these short term dangers. And I know that there is a small chance that general AI would be upon us say in the next 30 years. But I think it’s a very, very small chance, whereas the chance that kind of primitive AI will completely disrupt the economy, the political system and human life in the next 30 years is about a 100%. It’s bound to happen.

Max Tegmark: Yeah.

Yuval Noah Harari: And I worry far more about what primitive AI will do to the job market, to the military, to people’s daily lives than about a general AI appearing in the more distant future.

Max Tegmark: Yeah, there are a few reactions to this. We can talk more about artificial general intelligence and superintelligence later if we get time. But there was a recent survey of AI researchers around the world asking what they thought and I was interested to note that actually most of them guessed that we will get artificial general intelligence within decades. So I wouldn’t say that the chance is small, but I would agree with you, that is certainly not going to happen tomorrow.

But if we eat our vitamins, you and I and meditate, go to the gym, it’s quite likely we will actually get to experience it. But more importantly, coming back to what you said earlier, I see all of these risks as really being one in the same risk in the sense that what’s happened is of course that science has kept getting ever more powerful. And science definitely gives us ever more powerful technology. And I love technology. I’m a nerd. I work at a university that has technology in its name and I’m optimistic we can create an inspiring high tech future for life if we win what I like to call the wisdom race.

The race between the growing power of the technology and the growing wisdom with which we manage it or putting it in your words, that you just used there, if we can basically learn to take more seriously our job as stewards of this planet, you can look at every science and see exactly the same thing happening. So we physicists are kind of proud that we gave the world cell phones and computers and lasers, but our problem child has been nuclear energy obviously, nuclear weapons in particular. Chemists are proud that they gave the world all these great new materials and their problem child is climate change. Biologists in my book actually have done the best so far, they actually got together in the 70s and persuaded leaders to ban biological weapons and draw a clear red line more broadly between what was acceptable and unacceptable uses of biology.

And that’s why today most people think of biology as really a force for good, something that cures people or helps them live healthier lives. And I think AI is right now lagging a little bit in time. It’s finally getting to the point where they’re starting to have an impact and they’re grappling with the same kind of question. They haven’t had big disasters yet, so they’re in the biology camp there, but they’re trying to figure out where do they draw the line between acceptable and unacceptable uses so you don’t get a crazy military AI arms race in lethal autonomous weapons, so you don’t create very destabilizing income inequality so that AI doesn’t create 1984 on steroids, et cetera.

And I wanted to ask you about what sort of new story as a society you feel we need in order to tackle these challenges. And I’ve been very, very persuaded by your arguments that stories are so central to society for us to collaborate and accomplish stuff, but you’ve also made a really compelling case. I think that’s the most popular recent stories are all getting less powerful or popular. Communism, now there’s a lot of disappointment, and this liberalism and it feels like a lot of people are kind of craving for a new story that involves technology somehow and that can help us get our act together and also help us feel meaning and purpose in this world. But I’ve never in your books seen a clear answer to what you feel that this new story should be.

Yuval Noah Harari: Because I don’t know. If I knew the new story, I will tell it. I think we are now in a kind of double bind, we have to fight on two different fronts. On the one hand we are witnessing in the last few years the collapse of the last big modern story of liberal democracy and liberalism more generally, which has been, I would say as a story, the best story humans ever came up with and it did create the best world that humans ever enjoyed. I mean the world of the late 20th century and early 21st century with all its problems, it’s still better for humans, not for cows or chickens for humans, it’s still better than it’s any previous moment in history.

There are many problems, but anybody who says that this was a bad idea, I would like to hear which year are you thinking about as a better year? Now in 2019, when was it better? In 1919, in 1719, in 1219? I mean, for me, it’s obvious this has been the best story we have come up with.

Max Tegmark: That’s so true. I have to just admit that whenever I read the news for too long, I start getting depressed. But then I always cheer myself up by reading history and reminding myself it was always worse in the past.

Yuval Noah Harari: That never fails. I mean, the last four years have been quite bad, things are deteriorating, but we are still better off than in any previous era, but people are losing faith. In this story, we are reaching really a situation of zero story. All the big stories of the 20th century have collapsed or are collapsing and the vacuum is currently filled by nostalgic fantasies, nationalistic and religious fantasies, which simply don’t offer any real solutions to the problems of the 21st century. So on the one hand we have the task of supporting or reviving the liberal democratic system, which is so far the only game in town. I keep listening to the critics and they have a lot of valid criticism, but I’m waiting for the alternative and the only thing I hear is completely unrealistic nostalgic fantasies about going back to some past golden era that as a historian I know was far, far worse, and even if it was not so far worse, you just can’t go back there. You can’t recreate the 19th century or the middle ages under the conditions of the 21st century. It’s impossible.

So we have this one struggle to maintain what we have already achieved, but then at the same time, on a much deeper level, my suspicion is that the liberal stories we know it at least is really not up to the challenges of the 21st century because it’s built on foundations that the new science and especially the new technologies of artificial intelligence and bioengineering are just destroying the belief we are inherited in the autonomous individual, in free will, in all these basically liberal mythologies. They will become increasingly untenable in contact with new powerful bioengineering and artificial intelligence.

To put it in a very, very concise way, I think we are entering the era of hacking human beings, not just hacking smartphones and bank accounts, but really hacking homo sapiens which was impossible before. I mean, AI gives us the computing power necessary and biology gives us the necessary biological knowledge and when you combine the two you get the ability to hack human beings and if you continue to try, and build society on the philosophical ideas of the 18th century about the individual and freewill and then all that in a world where it’s feasible technically to hack millions of people systematically, it’s just not going to work. And we need an updated story, I’ll just finish this thought. And our problem is that we need to defend the story from the nostalgic fantasies at the same time that we are replacing it by something else. And it’s just very, very difficult.

When I began writing my books like five years ago, I thought the real project was to really go down to the foundations of the liberal story, expose the difficulties and build something new. And then you had all these nostalgic populous eruption of the last four or five years, and I personally find myself more and more engaged in defending the old fashioned liberal story instead of replacing it. Intellectually, it’s very frustrating because I think the really important intellectual work is finding out the new story, but politically it’s far more urgent. If we allow the emergence of some kind of populist authoritarian regimes, then whatever comes out of it will not be a better story.

Max Tegmark: Yeah, unfortunately I agree with your assessment here. I love to travel. I work in basically the United Nations like environment at my university with students from all around the world, and I have this very strong sense that people are feeling increasingly lost around the world today because the stories that used to give them a sense of purpose and meaning and so on are sort of dissolving in front of their eyes. And of course, we don’t like to feel lost then likely to jump on whatever branches are held out for us. And they are often just retrograde things. Let’s go back to the good old days and all sorts of other unrealistic things. But I agree with you that the rise in population we’re seeing now is not the cause. It’s a symptom of people feeling lost.

So I think I was a little bit unfair to ask you in a few minutes to answer the toughest question of our time, what should our new story be? But maybe we could break it into pieces a little bit and say what are at least some elements that we would like the new story to have? For example, it should accomplish, of course, multiple things. It has to incorporate technology in a meaningful way, which our past stories did not and has to incorporate AI progress in biotech, for example. And it also has to be a truly global story, I think this time, which isn’t just a story about how America is going to get better off or China is going to get better off, but one about how we’re all going to get better off together.

And we can put up a whole bunch of other requirements. If we start maybe with this part about the global nature of the story, people disagree violently about so many things around world, but are there any ingredients at all of the story that you think people around the world, would already agreed to some principles or ideas?

Yuval Noah Harari: Again to, I don’t really know. I mean, I don’t know what the new story would look like. Historically, these kinds of really grand narratives, they aren’t created by two, three people having a discussion and thinking, okay, what new stories should we tell? It’s far deeper and more powerful forces that come together to create these new stories. I mean, even trying to say, okay, we don’t have the full view, but let’s try to put a few ingredients in place. The whole thing about the story is that the whole comes before the parts. The narrative is far more important than the individual facts that build it up.

So I’m not sure that we can start creating the story by just, okay, let’s put the first few sentences and who knows how it will continue. You wrote books. I write books, we know that the first few sentences are the last sentences that you usually write.

Max Tegmark: That’s right.

Yuval Noah Harari: Only when you know how the whole book is going to look like, but then you go back to the beginning and you write the first few sentences.

Max Tegmark: Yeah. And sometimes the very last thing you write is the new title.

Yuval Noah Harari: So I agree that whatever the new story is going to be, it’s going to be global. The world is now too small and too interconnected to have just a story for one part of the world. It won’t work. And also it will have to take very seriously both the most updated science and the most updated technology. Something that liberal democracy as we know it, it’s basically still in the 18th century. It’s taking an 18th century story and simply following it to its logical conclusions. For me, maybe the most amazing thing about liberal democracy is it really completely disregarded all the discoveries of the life sciences over the last two centuries.

Max Tegmark: And of the technical sciences!

Yuval Noah Harari: I mean, as if Darwin never existed and we know nothing about evolution. I mean, you can basically meet these folks from the middle of the 18th century, whether it’s Rousseau, Jefferson, and all these guys, and they will be surprised by some of the conclusions we have drawn for the basis they provided us. But fundamentally it’s nothing has changed. Darwin didn’t really change anything. Computers didn’t really change anything. And I think the next story won’t have that luxury of being able to ignore the discoveries of science and technology.

The number one thing it we’ll have to take into account is how do humans live in a world when there is somebody out there that knows you better than you know yourself, but that somebody isn’t God, that somebody is a technological system, which might not be a good system at all. That’s a question we never had to face before. We could always comfort yourself with the idea that we are kind of a black box with the rest of humanity. Nobody can really understand me better than I understand myself. The king, the emperor, the church, they don’t really know what’s happening within me. Maybe God knows. So we had a lot of discussions about what to do with that, the existence of a God who knows us better than we know ourselves, but we didn’t really have to deal with a non-divine system that can hack us.

And this system is emerging. I think it will be in place within our lifetime in contrast to generally artificial intelligence that I’m skeptical whether I’ll see it in my lifetime. I’m convinced we will see, if we live long enough, a system that knows us better than we know ourselves and the basic premises of democracy, of free market capitalism, even of religion just don’t work in such a world. How does democracy function in a world when somebody understands the voter better than the voter understands herself or himself? And the same with the free market. I mean, if the customer is not right, if the algorithm is right, then we need a completely different economic system. That’s the big question that I think we should be focusing on. I don’t have the answer, but whatever story will be relevant to the 21st century, will have to answer this question.

Max Tegmark: I certainly agree with you that democracy has totally failed to adapt to the developments in the life sciences and I would add to that to the developments in the natural sciences too. I watched all of the debates between Trump and Clinton in the last election here in the US and I didn’t know what is artificial intelligence getting mentioned even a single time, not even when they talked about jobs. And the voting system we have, with an electoral college system here where it doesn’t even matter how people vote except in a few swing states where there’s so little influence from the voter to what actually happens. Even though we now have blockchain and could easily implement technical solutions where people will be able to have much more influence. Just reflects that we basically declared victory on our democratic system hundreds of years ago and haven’t updated it.

And I’m very interested in how we can dramatically revamp it if we believe in some form of democracy so that we actually can have more influence on how our society is run as individuals and how we can have good reason to actually trust the system. If it is able to hack us. That is actually working in our best interest. There’s a key tenant in religions that you’re supposed to be able to trust the God as having your best interest in mind. And I think many people in the world today do not trust that their political leaders actually have their best interest in mind.

Yuval Noah Harari: Certainly, I mean that’s the issue. You give a really divine powers to far from divine systems. We shouldn’t be too pessimistic. I mean, the technology is not inherently evil either. And what history teaches us about technology is that technology is also never deterministic. You can use the same technologies to create very different kinds of societies. We saw that in the 20th century when the same technologies were used to build communist dictatorships and liberal democracies, there was no real technological difference between the USSR and the USA. It was just people making different decisions what to do with the same technology.

I don’t think that the new technology is inherently anti-democratic or inherently anti-liberal. It really is about choices that people make even in what kind of technological tools to develop. If I think about, again, AI and surveillance, at present we see all over the world that corporations and governments are developing AI tools to monitor individuals, but technically we can do exactly the opposite. We can create tools that monitor and survey government and corporations in the service of individuals. For instance, to fight corruption in the government as an individual. It’s very difficult for me to say monitor nepotism, politicians appointing all kinds of family members to lucrative positions in the government or in the civil service, but it should be very easy to build an AI tool that goes over the immense amount of information involved. And in the end you just get a simple application on your smartphone you enter the name of a politician and you immediately see within two seconds who he appointed or she appointed from their family and friends to what positions. It should be very easy to do it. I don’t see the Chinese government creating such an application anytime soon, but people can create it.

Or if you think about the fake news epidemic, basically what’s happening is that corporations and governments are hacking us in their service, but the technology can work the other way around. We can develop an antivirus for the mind, the same way we developed antivirus for the computer. We need to develop an antivirus for the mind, an AI system that serves me and not a corporation or a government, and it gets to know my weaknesses in order to protect me against manipulation.

At present, what’s happening is that the hackers are hacking me. they get to know my weaknesses and that’s how they are able to manipulate me. For instance, with fake news. If they discover that I already have a bias against immigrants, they show me one fake news story, maybe about a group of immigrants raping local women. And I easily believe that because I already have this bias. My neighbor may have an opposite bias. She may think that anybody who opposes immigration is a fascist and the same hackers will find that out and will show her a fake news story about, I don’t know, right wing extremists murdering immigrants and she will believe that.

And then if I meet my neighbor, there is no way we can have a conversation about immigration. Now we can and should, develop an AI system that serves me and my neighbor and alerts us. Look, somebody is trying to hack you, somebody trying to manipulate you. And if we learn to trust this system that it serves us, it doesn’t serve any corporation or government. It’s an important tool in protecting our minds from being manipulated. Another tool in the same field, we are now basically feeding enormous amounts of mental junk food to our minds.

We spend hours every day basically feeding our hatred, our fear, our anger, and that’s a terrible and stupid thing to do. The thing is that people discovered that the easiest way to grab our attention is by pressing the hate button in the mind or the fear button in the mind, and we are very vulnerable to that.

Now, just imagine that somebody develops a tool that shows you what’s happening to your brain or to your mind as you’re watching these YouTube clips. Maybe it doesn’t block you, it’s not Big Brother, that blocks, all these things. It’s just like when you buy a product and it shows you how many calories are in the product and how much saturated fat and how much sugar there is in the product. So at least in some cases you learn to make better decisions. Just imagine that you have this small window in your computer which tells you what’s happening to your brain as your watching this video and what’s happening to your levels of hatred or fear or anger and then make your own decision. But at least you are more aware of what kind of food you’re giving to your mind.

Max Tegmark: Yeah. This is something I am also very interested in seeing more of AI systems that empower the individual in all the ways that you mentioned. We are very interested at the Future of Life Institute actually in supporting this kind of thing on the nerdy technical side and I think this also drives home this very important fact that technology is not good or evil. Technology is an amoral tool that can be used both for good things and for bad things. That’s exactly why I feel it’s so important that we develop the wisdom to use it for good things rather than bad things. So in that sense, AI is no different than fire, which can be used for good things and for bad things and but we as a society have developed a lot of wisdom now in fire management. We educate our kids about it. We have fire extinguishers and fire trucks and with artificial intelligence and other powerful tech, I feel we need to do better in similarly developing the wisdom that can steer the technology towards better uses.

Now we’re reaching the end of the hour here. I’d like to just finish with two more questions. One of them is about what we wanted to ultimately mean to be human as we get ever more tech. You put it so beautifully and I think it was Sapiens that tech progress is gradually taking us beyond the asking what we want to ask instead what we want to want and I guess even more broadly how we want to brand ourselves, how we want to think about ourselves as humans in the high tech future.

I’m quite curious. First of all, you personally, if you think about yourself in 30 years, 40 years, what do you want to want and what sort of society would you like to live in say 2060 if you could have it your way?

Yuval Noah Harari: It’s a profound question. It’s a difficult question. My initial answer is that I would really like not just to know the truth about myself but to want to know the truth about myself. Usually the main obstacle in knowing the truth about yourself is that you don’t want to know it. It’s always accessible to you. I mean, we’ve been told for thousands of years by, all the big names in philosophy and religion. Almost all say the same thing. Get to know yourself better. It’s maybe the most important thing in life. We haven’t really progressed much in the last thousands of years and the reason is that yes, we keep getting this advice but we don’t really want to do it.

Working on our motivation in this field I think would be very good for us. It will also protect us from all the naive utopias which tend to draw far more of our attention. I mean, especially as technology will give us all, at least some of us more and more power, the temptations of naive utopias are going to be more and more irresistible and I think the really most powerful check on these naive utopias is really getting to know yourself better.

Max Tegmark: Would you like what it means to be, Yuval 2060 to be more on the hedonistic side that you have all these blissful experiences and serene meditation and so on, or would you like there to be a lot of challenges in there that gives you a sense of meaning or purpose? Would you like to be somehow upgraded with technology?

Yuval Noah Harari: None of the above. I mean at least if I think deeply enough about these issues and yes, I would like to be upgraded but only in the right way and I’m not sure what the right way is. I’m not a great believer in blissful experiences in meditation or otherwise, they tend to be traps that this is what we’ve been looking for all our lives and for millions of years all the animals they just constantly look for blissful experiences and after a couple of millions of years of evolution, it doesn’t seem that it brings us anywhere and especially in meditation you learn these kinds of blissful experiences can be the most deceptive because you fall under the impression that this is the goal that you should be aiming at.

This is a really good meditation. This is a really deep meditation simply because you’re very pleased with yourself and then you spend countless hours later on trying to get back there or regretting that you are not there and in the end it’s just another experience. What we experience with right now when we are now talking on the phone to each other and I feel something in my stomach and you feel something in your head, this is as special and amazing as the most blissful experience of meditation. The only difference is that we’ve gotten used to it so we are not amazed by it, but right now we are experiencing the most amazing thing in the universe and we just take it for granted. Partly because we are distracted by this notion that out there, there is something really, really special that we should be experiencing. So I’m a bit suspicious of blissful experiences.

Again, I would just basically repeat that to really understand yourself also means to really understand the nature of these experiences and if you really understand that, then so many of these big questions will be answered. Similarly, the question that we dealt with in the beginning of how to evaluate different experiences and what kind of experiences should we be creating for humans or for artificial consciousness. For that you need to deeply understand the nature of experience. Otherwise, there’s so many naive utopias that can tempt you. So I would focus on that.

When I say that I want to know the truth about myself, it’s really also it means to really understand the nature of these experiences.

Max Tegmark: To my very last question, coming back to this story and ending on a positive inspiring note. I’ve been thinking back about when new stories led to very positive change. And then I started thinking about a particular Swedish story. So the year was 1945, people were looking at each other all over Europe saying, “We screwed up again”. How about we, instead of using all this technology, people were saying then to build ever more powerful weapons. How about we instead use it to create a society that benefits everybody where we can have free health care, free university for everybody, free retirement and build a real welfare state. And I’m sure there were a lot of curmudgeons around who said “awe you know, that’s just hopeless naive dreamery, go smoke some weed and hug a tree because it’s never going to work.” Right?

But this story, this optimistic vision was sufficiently concrete and sufficiently both bold and realistic seeming that it actually caught on. We did this in Sweden and it actually conquered the world. Not like when the Vikings tried and failed to do it with swords, but this idea conquered the world. So now so many rich countries have copied this idea. I keep wondering if there is another new vision or story like this, some sort of welfare 3.0 which incorporates all of the exciting new technology that has happened since ’45 on the biotech side, on the AI side, et cetera, to envision a society which is truly bold and sufficiently appealing to people around the world that people could rally around this.

I feel that the shared positive experience is something that more than anything else can really help foster collaboration around the world. And I’m curious what you would say in terms of, what do you think of as a bold, positive vision for the planet now going away from what you spoke about earlier with yourself personally, getting to know yourself and so on.

Yuval Noah Harari: I think we can aim towards what you define as welfare 3.0 which is again based on a better understanding of humanity. The welfare state, which many countries have built over the last decades have been an amazing human achievement and it achieved many concrete results in fields that we knew what to aim for, like in health care. So okay, let’s vaccinate all the children in the country and let’s make sure everybody has enough to eat. We succeeded in doing that and the kind of welfare 3.0 program would try to expand that to other fields in which our achievements are far more moderate simply because we don’t know what to aim for. We don’t know what we need to do.

If you think about mental health, it’s much more difficult than providing food to people because we have a very poor understanding of the human mind and of what mental health is. Even if you think about food, one of the scandals of science is that we still don’t know what to eat, so we basically solve the problem of enough food. Now actually we have the opposite problem of people eating too much and not too little, but beyond the medical quantity, it’s I think one of the biggest scandals of science that after centuries we still don’t know what we should eat. And mainly because so many of these miracle diets, they are a one size fits all as if everybody should eat the same thing. Whereas obviously it should be tailored to individuals.

So if you harness the power of AI and big data and machine learning and biotechnology, you could create the best dietary system in the world that tell people individually what would be good for them to eat. And this will have enormous side benefits in reducing medical problems, in reducing waste of food and resources, helping the climate crisis and so forth. So this is just one example.

Max Tegmark: Yeah. Just on that example, I would argue also that part of the problem is beyond that we just don’t know enough that actually there are a lot of lobbyists who are telling people what to eat, knowing full well that that’s bad for them just because that way they’ll make more of a profit. Which gets back to your question of hacking, how we can prevent ourselves from getting hacked by powerful forces that don’t have our best interest in mind. But the things you mentioned seemed like a little bit of first world perspective which it’s easy to get when we live in Israel or Sweden, but of course there are many people on the planet who still live in pretty miserable situations where we actually can quite easily articulate how to make things at least a bit better.

But then also in our societies, I mean you touched on mental health. There’s a significant rise in depression in the United States. Life expectancy in the US has gone down three years in a row, which does not suggest the people are getting happier here. I’m wondering if you also in your positive vision of the future that we can hopefully end on here. We’d want to throw in some ingredients about the sort of society where we don’t just have the lowest rung of the Maslow pyramid taken care of food and shelter and stuff, but also feel meaning and purpose and meaningful connections with our fellow lifeforms.

Yuval Noah Harari: I think it’s not just a first world issue. Again, even if you think about food, even in developing countries, more people today die from diabetes and diseases related to overeating or to overweight than from starvation and mental health issues are certainly not just the problem for the first world. People are suffering from that in all countries. Part of the issue is that mental health is far, far more expensive. Certainly if you think in terms of going to therapy once or twice a week than just giving vaccinations or antibiotics. So it’s much more difficult to create a robust mental health system in poor countries, but we should aim there. It’s certainly not just for the first world. And if we really understand humans better, we can provide much better health care, both physical health and mental health for everybody on the planet, not just for Americans or Israelis or Swedes.

Max Tegmark: In terms of physical health, it’s usually a lot cheaper and simpler to not treat the diseases, but to instead prevent them from happening in the first place by reducing smoking, reducing people eating extremely unhealthy foods, et cetera. And the same way with mental health, presumably a key driver of a lot of the problems we have is that we have put ourselves in a human made environment, which is incredibly different from the environment that we evolved to flourish in. And I’m wondering rather than just trying to develop new pills to help us live in this environment, which is often optimized for the ability to produce stuff, rather than for human happiness. If you think that by deliberately changing our environment to be more conducive to human happiness might improve our happiness a lot without having to treat it, treat mental health disorders.

Yuval Noah Harari: It will demand the enormous amounts of resources and energy. But if you are looking for a big project for the 21st century, then yeah, that’s definitely a good project to undertake.

Max Tegmark: Okay. That’s probably a good challenge from you on which to end this conversation. I’m extremely grateful for having had this opportunity talk with you about these things. These are ideas I will continue thinking about with great enthusiasm for a long time to come and I very much hope we can stay in touch and actually meet in person, even, before too long.

Yuval Noah Harari: Yeah. Thank you for hosting me.

Max Tegmark: I really can’t think of anyone on the planet who thinks more profoundly about the big picture of the human condition here than you and it’s such an honor.

Yuval Noah Harari: Thank you. It was a pleasure for me too. Not a lot of opportunities to really go deeply about these issues. I mean, usually you get pulled away to questions about the 2020 presidential elections and things like that, which is important. But, we still have also to give some time to the big picture.

Max Tegmark: Yeah. Wonderful. So once again, todah, thank you so much.

Lucas Perry: Thanks so much for tuning in and being a part of our final episode of 2019. Many well and warm wishes for a happy and healthy new year from myself and the rest of the Future of Life Institute team. This podcast is possible because of the support of listeners like you. If you found this conversation to be meaningful or valuable consider supporting it directly by donating at futureoflife.org/donate. Contributions like yours make these conversations possible.

FLI Podcast: Feeding Everyone in a Global Catastrophe with Dave Denkenberger & Joshua Pearce

Most of us working on catastrophic and existential threats focus on trying to prevent them — not on figuring out how to survive the aftermath. But what if, despite everyone’s best efforts, humanity does undergo such a catastrophe? This month’s podcast is all about what we can do in the present to ensure humanity’s survival in a future worst-case scenario. Ariel is joined by Dave Denkenberger and Joshua Pearce, co-authors of the book Feeding Everyone No Matter What, who explain what would constitute a catastrophic event, what it would take to feed the global population, and how their research could help address world hunger today. They also discuss infrastructural preparations, appropriate technology, and why it’s worth investing in these efforts.

Topics discussed include:

  • Causes of global catastrophe
  • Planning for catastrophic events
  • Getting governments onboard
  • Application to current crises
  • Alternative food sources
  • Historical precedence for societal collapse
  • Appropriate technology
  • Hardwired optimism
  • Surprising things that could save lives
  • Climate change and adaptation
  • Moral hazards
  • Why it’s in the best interest of the global wealthy to make food more available

References discussed include:

You can listen to the podcast above, or read the full transcript below. All of our podcasts are also now on Spotify and iHeartRadio! Or find us on SoundCloudiTunesGoogle Play and Stitcher.

Ariel Conn: In a world of people who worry about catastrophic threats to humanity, most efforts are geared toward preventing catastrophic threats. But what happens if something does go catastrophically wrong? How can we ensure that things don’t spiral out of control, but instead, humanity is set up to save as many lives as possible, and return to a stable, thriving state, as soon as possible? I’m Ariel Conn, and on this month’s episode of the FLI podcast, I’m speaking with Dave Denkenberger and Joshua Pearce.

Dave and Joshua want to make sure that if a catastrophic event occurs, then at the very least, all of the survivors around the planet will be able to continue eating. Dave got his Master’s from Princeton in mechanical and aerospace engineering, and his PhD from the University of Colorado at Boulder in building engineering. His dissertation was on his patented heat exchanger. He is an assistant professor at University of Alaska Fairbanks in mechanical engineering. He co-founded and directs the Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters, also known as ALLFED, and he donates half his income to that. He received the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. He is a Penn State distinguished alumnus and he is a registered professional engineer. He has authored 56 publications with over 1600 citations and over 50,000 downloads — including the book Feeding Everyone No Matter What, which he co-authored with Joshua — and his work has been featured in over 20 countries, over 200 articles, including Science.

Joshua received his PhD in materials engineering from the Pennsylvania State University. He then developed the first sustainability program in the Pennsylvania State system of higher education and helped develop the Applied Sustainability Graduate Engineering Program while at Queens University Canada. He is currently the Richard Witte Professor of Materials Science and Engineering and a professor cross-appointed in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and he’s in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Michigan Technological University where he runs the Open Sustainability Technology research group. He was a Fulbright-Aalto University Distinguished Chair last year and remains a visiting professor of photovoltaics and Nano-engineering at Aalto University. He’s also a visiting professor at the University of Lorraine in France. His research concentrates on the use of open source appropriate technology to find collaborative solutions to problems in sustainability and poverty reduction. He has authored over 250 publications, which have earned more than 11,000 citations. You can find his work on appropedia.org, and his research is regularly covered by the international and national press and continually ranks in the top 0.1% on academia.edu. He helped found the field of alternative food for global catastrophes with Dave, and again he was co-author on the book Feeding Everyone No Matter What.

So Dave and Joshua, thank you so much for joining us this month.

Dave Denkenberger: Thank you.

Joshua Pearce: Thank you for having us.

Ariel Conn: My first question for the two of you is a two-part question. First, why did you decide to consider how to survive a disaster rather — than focusing on prevention, as so many other people do? And second, how did you two start working together on this topic?

Joshua Pearce: So, I’ll take a first crack at this. Both of us have worked in the area of prevention, particularly in regards to alternative energy sources in order to be able to mitigate climate destabilization from fossil fuel burning. But what we both came to realize is that many of the disasters that we look at that could actually wipe out humanity aren’t things that we can necessarily do anything to avoid. The ones that we can do something about — climate change and nuclear winter — we’ve even worked together on it.

So for example, we did a study where we looked at how many nuclear weapons a state should have if they would continue to be rational. And by rational I mean even if everything were to go your way, if you shot all of your nuclear weapons, they all hit their targets, the people you were aiming at weren’t firing back at you, at what point would just the effects of firing that many weapons hurt your own society, possibly kill many of your own people, or destroy your own nation?

The answer to that turned out to be a really remarkably low number. The answer was 100. And many of the nuclear power states currently have more weapons than that. And so it’s clear at least from our current political system that we’re not behaving rationally and that there’s a real need to have a backup plan for humanity in case something does go wrong — whether it’s our fault, or whether it’s just something that happens in nature that we can’t control like a super volcano or an asteroid impact.

Dave Denkenberger: Even though there is more focus on preventing a catastrophe than there is on resilience to the catastrophe, overall the field is highly neglected. As someone pointed out, there are still more publications on dung beetles than there are on preventing or dealing with global catastrophic risks. But I would say that the particular sub-field of resilience to the catastrophes is even more neglected. That’s why I think it’s a high priority to investigate.

Joshua Pearce: We actually met way back as undergraduate students at Penn State. I was a chemistry and physics double major and one of my friends a year above said, “You have to take an engineering science class before you leave.” It changed his life. I signed up for this class taught by the man that eventually became my advisor, Christopher Wronski, and it was a brutal class — very difficult conceptually and mathematically. And I remember when one of my first tests came back, there was this bimodal distribution where there were two students who scored A’s and everybody else failed. Turned out that the two students were Dave and I, so we started working together then just on homework assignments, and then continued collaborating through all different areas of technical experiments and theory for years and years. And then Dave had this very interesting idea about what do we do in the event of a global catastrophe? How can we feed everybody? And to attack it as an engineering problem, rather than a social problem. We started working on it very aggressively.

Dave Denkenberger: So it’s been, I guess, 18 years now that we’ve been working together: a very fruitful collaboration.

Ariel Conn: Before I get any farther into the interview, let’s quickly define what a catastrophic event is and the types of catastrophic events that you both look at most.

Dave Denkenberger: The original focus was on the catastrophes that could collapse global agriculture. These would include nuclear winter from a full-scale nuclear war like US-Russia, causing burning of cities and blocking of the sun with smoke, but it could also mean a super volcanic eruption like the one that happened about 74,000 years ago that many think nearly wiped out the human species. And then there could also be a large asteroid impact similar to the one that wiped out the dinosaurs about 66 million years ago.

And in those cases, it’s very clear we need to have some other alternative source of food, but we also look at what I call the 10% global shortfalls. These are things like a volcano that caused the year without a summer in 1816, might have reduced food supply by about 10%, and caused widespread famine including in Europe and almost in the US. Then it could be a slightly smaller sized asteroid, or a regional nuclear war, and actually many other catastrophes such as a super weed, a plant that could out-compete crops. If this happened naturally, it probably would be slow enough that we could respond, but if it were part of a coordinated terrorist attack, that could be catastrophic. Even though technically we waste more than 10% of our food and we feed more than 10% of our food to animals, I think realistically, if we had a 10% food shortfall, the price of food would go so high that hundreds of millions of people could starve.

Joshua Pearce: Something that’s really important to understand about the way that we analyze these risks is that currently, even with the agricultural system completely working fine, we’ve got somewhere on the order of 800 million people without enough food to eat, because of waste and inefficiencies. And so anything that starts to cut into our ability for our agricultural system to continue, especially if all of plant life no longer works for a number of years because of the sun being blocked, we have to have some method to provide alternative foods to feed the bulk of the human population.

Ariel Conn: I think that ties in to the next question then, and that is what does it mean to feed everyone no matter what, as you say in the title of your book?

Dave Denkenberger: As Joshua pointed out, we are still not feeding everyone adequately right now. The idea of feeding everyone no matter what is an aspirational goal, and it’s showing that if we cooperated, we could actually feed everyone, even if the sun is blocked. Of course, it might not work out exactly like that, but we think that we can do much better than if we were not prepared for one of these catastrophes.

Joshua Pearce: Right. Today, roughly one in nine people go to bed hungry every night, and somewhere on the order of 25,000 people starve to death or die from hunger-related disease . And so one of the inspiring things from our initial analysis drawn up in the book is that even in the worst-case scenarios where something major happens, like a comet strike that would wipe out the dinosaurs, humans don’t need to be wiped out: We could provide for ourselves. And the embarrassing thing is that today, even with the agricultural system working fine, we’re not able to do that. And so what I’m at least hoping is that some of our work on these alternative foods provides another mechanism to provide low-cost calories for the people that need it, even today when there is no catastrophe.

Dave Denkenberger: One of the technologies that we think could be useful even now is there’s a company called Comet Bio that is turning agricultural residues like leaves and stalks into edible sugar, and they think that’s actually going to be able to compete with sugar cane. It has the advantage of not taking up lots of land that we might be cutting the rainforest down for, so it has environmental benefits as well as humanitarian benefits. Another area that I think would be relevant is in smaller disasters, such as an earthquake or a hurricane, generally the cheapest solution is just shipping in grain from outside, but if transportation is disrupted, it might make sense to be able to produce some food locally — like if a hurricane blows all the crops down and you’re not going to be able to get any normal harvest from them, you can actually grind up those leaves, like from wheat leaves, and squeeze out the liquid, boil the liquid, and then you get a protein concentrate, and people can eat that.

Ariel Conn: So that’s definitely a question that I had, and that is to what extent can we start implementing some of the plans today during a disaster? This is a pre-recorded podcast; Dorian has just struck the Bahamas. Can the stuff that you are working on now help people who are still stuck on an island after it’s been ravaged by a hurricane?

Dave Denkenberger: I think there is potential for that, the getting food from leaves. There’s actually a non-profit organization called Leaf for Life that has been doing this in less developed countries for decades now. Some other possibilities would be some mushrooms can mature in just a few weeks, and they can grow on waste, basically.

Joshua Pearce: The ones that would be good for an immediate catastrophe are the in between food that we’re working on: between the time that you run out of stored food and the time that you can ramp up the full scale, alternative foods.

Ariel Conn: Can you elaborate on that a little bit more and explain what that process would look like? What does happen between when the disaster strikes? And what does it look like to start ramping up food development in a couple weeks or a couple months or however long that takes?

Joshua Pearce: In the book we develop 10 primary pathways to develop alternative food sources that could feed the entire global population. But the big challenge for that is it’s not just are there enough calories — but you have to have enough calories at the right time.

If, say, a comet strikes tomorrow and throws up a huge amount of earth and ash and covers the sun, we’d have roughly six months of stored food in grocery stores and pantry that we could use to eat. But then for most of the major sources of alternative food, it would take around a year to ramp them up, to take these processes that might not even exist now and get them to industrial scale to feed billions of people. So the most challenging is that six-month-to-one-year period, and for those we would be using the alternative foods that Dave talked about, the mushrooms that can grow really fast and leaves. And the leaf one, part of those leaves can come from agricultural residues, things that we already know are safe.

The much larger biomass that we might be able to use is just normal killed tree leaves. The only problem with that is that there hasn’t been really any research into whether or not that’s safe. We don’t know, for example, if you can eat maple or oak leaf concentrate. The studies haven’t been done yet. And that’s one of the areas that we’re really focusing on now, is to take some of these ideas that are promising and prove that they’re actually technically feasible and safe for people to use in the event of a serious catastrophe, a minor one, or just being able to feed people that for whatever reason don’t have enough food.

Dave Denkenberger: I would add that even though we might have six months of stored food, that would be a best-case scenario when we’ve just had the harvest in the northern hemisphere; We could only have two or three months of stored food. But in many of these catastrophes, even a pretty severe nuclear winter, there’s likely to be some sunlight still coming down to the earth, and so a recent project we’ve been working on is growing seaweed. This has a lot of advantages because seaweed can tolerate low light levels, the ocean would not cool as fast as on the land, and it grows very quickly. So we’ve actually been applying seaweed growth models to the conditions of nuclear winter.

Ariel Conn: You talk about the food that we have stored being able to last for two to six months. How much transportation is involved in that? And how much transportation would we have, given different scenarios? I’ve heard that the town I’m in now, if it gets blocked off by a big snow storm, we have about two weeks of food. So I’m curious: How does that apply elsewhere? And are we worried about transportation being cut off, or do we think that transportation will still be possible?

Dave Denkenberger: Certainly there will be destruction of infrastructure regionally, whether it’s nuclear war or a super volcano or asteroid impact. So in those affected countries, transportation of food is going to be very challenging, but most of the people would not be in those countries. That’s why we think that there’s still going to be a lot of infrastructure still functioning. There are still going to be chemical factories that we can retrofit to turn leaves into sugar, or another one of the technologies is turning natural gas into single-cell protein.

Ariel Conn: There’s the issue of developing agriculture if the sun is blocked, which is one of the things that you guys are working on, and that can happen with nuclear war leading to nuclear winter; It can happen with the super volcano, with the asteroid. Let’s go a little more in depth and into what happens with these catastrophic events that block the sun. What happens with them? Why are they so devastating?

Joshua Pearce: All the past literature on what would happen if, say, we lost agriculture for a number of years, is all pretty grim. The base assumption is that everyone would simply starve to death, and there might be some fighting before that happens. When you look at what would happen based on previous knowledge of generating food from traditional ways, those were the right answers. And so, what we’re calling catastrophic events not only deal with the most extreme ones, the sun-killing ideas, but also the maybe a little less tragic but still very detrimental to the agricultural system: so something like a planned number of terrorist events to wipe out the major bread baskets of the world. Again, for the same idea, is that you’re impacting the number of available calories that are available to the entire population, and our work is trying to ensure that we can still feed everyone.

Dave Denkenberger: We wrote a paper on if we had a scenario that chaos did not break out, but there was still trade between countries and sharing of information and a global price of food — in that case, with stored food, there might around 10% of people surviving. It could be much worse though. As Joshua pointed out, if the food were distributed equally, then everyone would starve. Also people have pointed out, well, in civilization, we have food storage, so some people could survive — but if there’s a loss of civilization through the catastrophe, and we have to go back to being hunter-gatherers, first, hunter gatherers that we still have now generally don’t have food storage, so they would not survive, but then there’s a recent book called The Secret of Our Success that argues that it might not be as easy as we think to go back to being hunter-gatherers.

So that is another failure mode where it could actually cause human extinction. But then even if we don’t have extinction, if we have a collapse of civilization, there are many reasons why we might not be able to recover civilization. We’ve had a stable climate for the last 10,000 years; That might not continue. We’ve already used up the easily accessible fossil fuels that we wouldn’t have to rebuild industrial civilization. Just thinking about the original definition of civilization, about being able to cooperate with people who are not related to you, like outside your tribe — maybe the trauma of the catastrophe could make the remaining humans less open to trusting people, and maybe we would not recover that civilization. And then I would say even if we don’t lose civilization, the trauma of the catastrophe could make other catastrophes more likely.

One people are concerned about is global totalitarianism. We’ve had totalitarian states in the past, but they’ve generally been out-competed by other, free-er societies. But if it were a global totalitarianism, then there would be no competition, and that might be a stable state that we could be stuck in. And then even if we don’t go that route, the trauma from the catastrophe could cause worse values that end up in artificial intelligence that could define our future. And I would say even on these catastrophes that are slightly less extreme, the 10% food shortfalls, we don’t know what would happen after that. Tensions would be high; This could end up in full-scale nuclear war, and then some of these really extreme scenarios occurring.

Ariel Conn: What’s the historical precedence that we’ve got to work with in terms of trying to figure out how humanity would respond?

Dave Denkenberger: There have been localized collapses of society, and Jared Diamond has cataloged a lot of these in his book Collapse, but you can argue that there have even been more global collapse scenarios. Jeffrey Ladish has been looking at some collapses historically, and some catastrophes — like the black death was very high mortality but did not result in a collapse of economic production in Europe; But other collapses actually have occurred. There’s enough uncertainty to say that collapse is possible and that we might not recover from it.

Ariel Conn: A lot of this is about food production, but I think you guys have also done work on instances in which maybe it’s easier to produce food but other resources have been destroyed. So for example, a solar flare, a solar storm knocks out our electric grid. How do we address that?

Joshua Pearce: In the event that a solar flare wipes out the electricity grid and most non-shielded electrical devices, that would be another scenario where we might legitimately lose civilization. There’s been a lot of work in the electrical engineering community on how we might shield things and harden them, but one of the things that we can absolutely do, at least on the electricity side, is start to go from our centralized grid infrastructure into a more decentralized method of producing and consuming electricity. The idea here would be that the grid would break down into a federation of micro-grids, and the micro-grids could be as small as even your own house, where you, say, have solar panels on your roof producing electricity that would charge a small battery, and then when those two sources of power don’t provide enough, you have a backup generator, a co-generation system.

And a lot of the work my group has done has shown that in the United States, those types of systems are already economic. Pretty much everywhere in the US now, if you have exposure to sunshine, you can produce electricity less expensively than you buy it from the grid. If you add in the backup generator, the backup co-gen — in many places, particularly in the northern part of the US, that’s necessary in order to provide yourself with power — that again makes you more secure. And in the event of some of these catastrophes that we’re looking at, now the ones that block the sun, the solar won’t be particularly useful, but what solar does do is preserve our fossil fuels for use in the event of a catastrophe. And if you are truly insular, in that you’re able to produce all of your own power, then you have a backup generator of some kind and fuel storage onsite.

In the context of providing some resiliency for the overall civilization, many of the technical paths that we’re on now, at least electrically, are moving us in that direction anyway. Solar and wind power are both the fastest growing sources of electricity generation both in the US and globally, and their costs now are so competitive that we’re seeing that accelerate much faster than anyone predicted.

Dave Denkenberger: It is true that a solar flare would generally only affect the large grid systems. In 1859 there was the Carrington event that basically destroyed our telegraph systems, which was all we had at the time. But then we also had a near miss with a solar flare in 2012, so the world almost did end in 2012. But then there’s evidence that in the first millennium AD that there were even larger solar storms that could disrupt electricity globally. But there are other ways that electricity could be disrupted. One of those is the high altitude detonation of a nuclear weapon, producing an electromagnetic pulse or an EMP. If this were done multiple places around the world, that could disrupt electricity globally, and the problem with that is it could affect even smaller systems. Then there’s also the coordinated cyber attack, which could be led by a narrow artificial intelligence computer virus, and then anything connected to the internet would be vulnerable, basically.

In these scenarios, at least the sun would still be shining. But we wouldn’t have our tractors, because basically everything is dependent on electricity, like pulling fossil fuels out of the ground, and we also wouldn’t have our industrial fertilizers. And so the assumption is as well that most people would die, because the reason we can feed more than seven billion people is because of the industry we’ve developed. People have also talked about, well, let’s harden the grid to EMP, but that would cost something like $100 billion.

So what we’ve been looking at are, what are inexpensive ways of getting prepared if there is a loss of electricity? One of those is can we make quickly farming implements that would work by hand or by animal power? And even though a very small percent of our total land area is being plowed by draft animals, we still actually have a lot of cows left for food, not for draft animals. It would actually be feasible to do that. 

But if we lost electricity, we’d lose communications. We have a short wave radio, or ham radio, expert on our team who’s been doing this for 58 years, and he’s estimated that for something like five million dollars, we could actually have a backup communication system, and then we would also need to have a backup power system, which would likely be solar cells. But we would need to have this system not plugged into the grid, because if it’s plugged in, it would likely get destroyed by the EMP.

Joshua Pearce: And this gets into that area of appropriate technology and open source appropriate technology that we’ve done a lot of work on. And the idea basically is that the plans for something like a solar powered ham radio station that would be used as a backup communication system, those plans need to be developed now and shared globally so that everyone, no matter where they happen to be, can start to implement these basic safety precautions now. We’re trying to do that for all the tools that we’re implementing, sharing them on sites like Appropedia.org, which is an appropriate technology wiki that already is trying to help small-scale farmers in the developing world now lift themselves out of poverty by applying science and technologies that we already know about that are generally small-scale, low-cost, and not terribly sophisticated. And so there’s many things as an overall global society that we understand much better how to do now that if you just share a little bit of information in the right way, you can help people — both today but also in the event of a catastrophe.

Dave Denkenberger: And I think that’s critical: that if one of these catastrophes happened and people realized that most people were going to die, I’m very worried that there would be chaos, potentially within countries, and then also between countries. But if people realized that we could actually feed everyone if we cooperated, then I think we have a much better chance of cooperating, so you could think of this actually as a peace project.

Ariel Conn: One of the criticisms that I’ve heard, that honestly I think it’s a little strange, but the idea that we don’t need to deal with worrying about alternative foods now because if a catastrophe strikes, then we’ll be motivated to develop these alternative food systems.

I was curious if you guys have estimates of how much of a time difference you think would exist between us having a plan for how we would feed people if these disasters do strike versus us realizing the disaster has struck and now we need to figure something out, and how long it would take us to figure something out? That second part of the question is both in situations where people are cooperating and also in situations where people are not cooperating.

Dave Denkenberger: I think that if you don’t have chaos, the big problem is that yes, people would be able to put lots of money into developing food sources, but there are some things that take a certain amount of calendar time, like testing out different diets for animals or building pilot factories for food production. You generally need to test these things out before you build the large factories. I don’t have a quantitative estimate, but I do think it would delay by many months; And as we said, we only have a few months of food storage, so I do think that a delay would cost many lives and could result in the collapse of civilization that could have been prevented if we were actually prepared ahead of time.

Joshua Pearce: I think the boy scouts are right on this. You should always be prepared. If you think about just something like the number of types of leaves that would need to be tested, if we get a head start on it in order to determine toxicity as well as the nutrients that could come from them, we’ll be much, much better off in the event of a catastrophe — whether or not we’re working together. And in the cases where we’re not working together, to have this knowledge that’s built up within the population and spread out, makes it much more likely that overall humanity will survive.

Ariel Conn: What, roughly, does it cost to plan ahead: to do this research and to get systems and organization in place so that we can feed people if a disaster strikes?

Dave Denkenberger: Around order of magnitude $100 million. We think that that would fund a lot of research to figure out what are the most promising food sources, and also interventions for handling the loss of electricity and industry, and then also doing development of the most promising food sources, actual pilot scale, and funding a backup communications system, and then also working with countries, corporations, international organizations to actually have response plans for how we would respond quickly in a catastrophe. It’s really a very small amount of money compared to the benefit, in terms of how many lives we could save and preserving civilization.

Joshua Pearce: All this money doesn’t have to come at once, and some of the issues of alternative foods are being funded in other ways. There already are, for example, chemical engineering plants being looked at to be turned into food supply factories. That work is already ongoing. What Dave is talking about is combining all the efforts that are already existing and what ALLFED is trying to do, in order to be able to provide a very good, solid backup plan for society.

Ariel Conn: So Joshua, you mentioned ALLFED, and I think now is a good time to transition to that. Can you guys explain what ALLFED is?

Dave Denkenberger: The Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters, or ALLFED, is a non-profit organization that I helped to co-found, and our goal is to build an alliance with interested stakeholders to do this research on alternate food sources, develop the sources, and then also develop these response plans.

Ariel Conn: I’ll also add a quick disclosure that I also do work with ALLFED, so I don’t know if people will care, but there that is. So what are some of the challenges you’ve faced so far in trying to implement these solutions?

Dave Denkenberger: I would say a big challenge, a surprise that came to me, is that when we’ve started talking to international organizations and countries, no one appears to have a plan for what would happen. Of course you hear about the continuity of government plans, and bunkers, but there doesn’t seem to be a plan for actually keeping most people alive. And this doesn’t apply just to the sun-blocking catastrophes; It also applies to the 10% shortfalls.

There was a UK government study that estimated that extreme weather on multiple continents, like flooding and droughts, has something like an 80% chance of happening this century that would actually reduce the food supply by 10%. And yet no one has a plan of how they would react. It’s been a challenge for people to actually take this seriously.

Joshua Pearce: I think that goes back to the devaluation of human life, where we’re not taking seriously the thousands of people that, say, starve to death today and we’re not actively trying to solve that problem when from a financial standpoint, it’s trivial based on the total economic output of the globe; From a technical standpoint, it’s ridiculously easy; But we don’t have the social infrastructure in place in order to just be able to feed everyone now and be able to meet the basic needs of humanity. What we’re proposing is to prepare for a catastrophe in order to be able to feed everybody: That actually is pretty radical.

Initially, I think when we got started, overcoming the views that this was a radical departure for what the types of research that would normally be funded or anything like that — that was something that was challenging. But I think now existential risk just as a field is growing and maturing, and because many of the technologies in the alternative food sector that we’ve looked at have direct applications today, it’s being seen as less and less radical — although, in the popular media, for example, they’d be more happy for us to talk about how we could turn rotting wood into beetles and then eat beetles than to actually look at concrete plans in order to be able to implement it and do the research that needs to be done in order to make sure that that is the right path.

Ariel Conn: Do you think people also struggle with the idea that these disasters will even happen? That there’s that issue of people not being able to recognize the risks?

Joshua Pearce: It’s very hard to comprehend. You may have your family and your friends; It’s hard to imagine a really large catastrophe. But these have happened throughout history, both at the global scale but even just something like a world war has happened multiple times in the last century. We’re, I think, hardwired to be a little bit optimistic about these things, and no one wants to see any of this happen, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a good idea to put our head in the sand. And even though it’s a relatively low probability event, say the case of an all-out nuclear war, something on the order of one percent, it still is there. And as we’ve seen in recent history, even some of the countries that we think of as stable aren’t really necessarily stable.

And so currently we have thousands of nuclear warheads, and it only takes a tiny fraction of them in order to be able to push us into one of these global catastrophic scenarios. Whether that’s an accident or one crazy government actor or a legitimate small-scale war, say an India and a Pakistan that pull out the nuclear weapons, these are things that we should be preparing for.

In the beginning it was a little bit more difficult to have people consider them, but now it’s becoming more and more mainstream. Many of our publications and ALLFED publications and collaborators are pushing into the mainstream of the literature.

Dave Denkenberger: I would say even though the probability each year is relatively low, it certainly adds up over time, and we’re eventually going to have at least some natural disaster like a volcano. But people have said, “Well, it might not occur in my lifetime, so if I work on this or if I donate to it, my money might be wasted” — and I said, “Well, do you consider if you pay for insurance and don’t get anything out of it in a year, your money is wasted?” “No.” So basically I think of this as an insurance policy for civilization.

Ariel Conn: In your research, personally for you, what are some of the interesting things that you found that you think could actually save a lot of lives that you hadn’t expected?

Dave Denkenberger: I think one particularly promising one is the turning of natural gas into single-cell protein, and fortunately, there are actually two companies that are doing this right now. They are focusing on stranded natural gas, which means too far away from a market, and they’re actually producing this as fish food and other animal feed.

Joshua Pearce: For me, living up here in the upper peninsula of Michigan where we’re surrounded by trees, can’t help but look out my window and look at all the potential biomass that could actually be a food source. If it turns out that we can get even a small fraction of that into human edible food, I think that could really shift the balance in providing food, both now and in the case of a disaster.

Dave Denkenberger: One interesting thing coming to Alaska is I’ve learned about the Aleutian Islands that stick out into the pacific. They are very cloudy. It is so cool in the summer that they cannot even grow trees. They also don’t get very much rain. The conditions there are actually fairly similar to nuclear winter in the tropics; And yet, they can grow potatoes. So lately I’ve become more optimistic that we might be able to do some agriculture near the equator where it would not freeze, even in nuclear winter.

Ariel Conn: I want to switch gears a little bit. We’ve been talking about disasters that would be relatively immediate, but one of the threats that we’re trying to figure out how to deal with now is climate change. And I was wondering how efforts that you’re both putting into alternative foods could help as we try to figure out how to adapt to climate change.

Joshua Pearce: I think a lot of the work that we’re doing has a dual use. Because we are trying to squeeze every last calorie we could out of primarily fossil fuel sources and trees and leaves, that if by using those same techniques in the ongoing disaster of climate change, we can hopefully feed more people. And so that’s things like growing mushrooms on partially decomposed wood, eating the mushrooms, but then feeding the leftovers to, say, ruminants or chickens, and then eating those. There’s a lot of industrial ecology practices we can apply to the agricultural food system so that we can get every last calorie out of our primary inputs. So that I think is something we can focus on now and push forward regardless of the speed of the catastrophe.

Dave Denkenberger: I would also say that in addition to this extreme weather on multiple continents that is made more likely by climate change, there’s also abrupt climate change in the ice core record. We’ve had an 18 degree fahrenheit drop in just one decade over a continent. That could be another scenario of a 10% food shortfall globally. And another one people have talked about is what’s called extreme climate change that would still be slow. This is sometimes called tail risk, where we have this expected or median climate change of a few degrees celsius, but maybe there would be five or even 10 degrees celsius — so 18 degree fahrenheit — that could happen over a century or two. We might not be able to have agriculture at all in the tropics, so it would be very valuable to have some food backup plan for that.

Ariel Conn: I wanted to get into concerns about moral hazards with this research. I’ve heard some criticism that if you present a solution to, say, surviving nuclear winter that maybe people will think nuclear war is more feasible. How do you address concerns like that — that if we give people a means of not starving, they’ll do something stupid?

Dave Denkenberger: I think you’ve actually summarized this succinctly by saying, this would be like saying we shouldn’t have the jaws of life because that would cause people to drive recklessly. But the longer answer would be: there is evidence that the awareness of nuclear winter in the 80s was a reason that Gorbachev and Reagan worked towards reducing the nuclear stockpile. However, we still have enough nuclear weapons to potentially cause nuclear winter, and I doubt that the decision in the heat of the moment to go to nuclear war is actually going to take into account the non-target countries. I also think that there’s a significant cost of nuclear war directly, independent of nuclear winter. I would also say that this backup plan helps up with catastrophes that we don’t have control over, like a volcanic eruption. Overall, I think we’re much better off with a backup plan.

Joshua Pearce: I of course completely agree. It’s insane to not have a backup plan. The idea that the irrational behavior that’s currently displayed in any country with more than 100 nuclear weapons isn’t going to get worse because now they know that at a larger fraction their population won’t starve to death as they use them — I think that’s crazy.

Ariel Conn: As you’ve mentioned, there are quite a few governments — in fact, as far as I can tell, all governments don’t really have a backup plan. How surprised have you been by this? And also how optimistic are you that you can convince governments to start implementing some sort of plan to feed people if disaster happens?

Dave Denkenberger: As I said, I certainly have been surprised with the lack of plans. I think that as we develop the research further and are able to show examples of companies already doing very similar things, showing more detailed analysis of what current factories we have that could be retrofitted quickly to produce food — that’s actually an active area of research that we’re doing right now — then I am optimistic that governments will eventually come around to the value of planning for these catastrophes.

Joshua Pearce: I think it’s slightly depressing when you look around the globe and all the hundreds of countries, and how poorly most of them care for their own citizens. It’s sort of a commentary on how evolved or how much of a civilization we really are, so instead of comparing number of Olympic medals or how much economic output your country does, I think we should look at the poorest citizens in each country. And if you can’t feed the people that are in your country, you should be embarrassed to be a world leader. And for whatever reason, world leaders show their faces every day while their constituents, the citizens of their countries, are starving to death today, let alone in the event of a catastrophe.

If you look at the — I’ll call them the more civilized countries, and I’ve been spending some time in Europe, where rational, science-based approaches to governing are much more mature than what I’ve been used to. I think it gives me quite a bit of optimism as we take these ideas of sustainability and of long-term planning seriously, try to move civilization into a state where it’s not doing significant harm to the environment or to our own health or to the health and the environment in the future — that gives me a lot of cause for hope. Hopefully as all the different countries throughout the world mature and grow up as governments, they can start taking the health and welfare of their own populations much more seriously.

Dave Denkenberger: And I think that even though I’m personally very motivated about the long-term future of human civilization, I think that because what we’re proposing is so cost effective, even if an individual government doesn’t put very much weight on people outside its borders, or in future generations even within the country, it’s still cost effective. And we actually wrote a paper from the US perspective showing how cheaply they could get prepared and save so many lives just within their own borders.

Ariel Conn: What do you think is most important for people to understand about both ALLFED and the other research you’re doing? And is there anything, especially that you think we didn’t get into, that is important to mention?

Dave Denkenberger: I would say that thanks to recent grants from the Berkeley Existential Risk Initiative, the Effective Altruism Lottery, and the Center for Effective Altruism, that we’ve been able to do, especially this year, a lot of new research and, as I mentioned, retrofitting factories to produce food. We’re also looking at, can we construct factories quickly, like having construction crews work around the clock? Also investigating seaweed; But I would still say that there’s much more work to do, and we have been building our alliance, and we have many researchers and volunteers that are ready to do more work with additional funding, so we estimate in the next 12 months that we could effectively use approximately $1.5 million.

Joshua Pearce: A lot of the areas of research that are needed to provide a strong backup plan for humanity are relatively greenfield; This isn’t areas that people have done a lot of research in before. And so for other academics, maybe small companies that slightly overlap the alternative food ecosystem of intellectual pursuits, there’s a lot of opportunities for you to get involved, either in direct collaboration with ALLFED or just bringing these types of ideas into your own subfield. And so we’re always looking out for collaborators, and we’re happy to talk to anybody that’s interested in this area and would like to move the ball forward.

Dave Denkenberger: We have a list of theses that undergraduates or graduates could do on the website called Effective Thesis. We’ve gotten a number of volunteers through that.

I would also say another surprising thing to me was that when we were looking at these scenarios of if the world cooperated but only had stored food, the amount of money people would spend on that stored food was tremendous — something like $90 trillion. And that huge expenditure, only 10% of people survived. But instead if we could produce alternate foods, our goal is around a dollar a dry pound of food. One pound of dry food can feed a person for a day, then more like 97% of people would be able to afford food with their current incomes. And yet, even though we feed so many more people, the total expenditure on food was less. You could argue that even if you are in the global wealthy that could potentially survive one of these catastrophes if chaos didn’t break out, it would still be in your interest to get prepared for alternate foods, because you’d have to pay less money for your food.

Ariel Conn: And that’s all with a research funding request of 1.5 million? Is that correct?

Dave Denkenberger: The full plan is more like $100 million.

Joshua Pearce: It’s what we could use as the current team now, effectively.

Ariel Conn: Okay. Well, even the 100 million still seems reasonable.

Joshua Pearce: It’s still a bargain. One of the things we’ve been primarily assuming during all of our core scenarios is that there would be human cooperation, and that things would break down into fighting, but as we know historically, that’s an extremely optimistic way to look at it. And so even if you’re one of the global wealthy, in the top 10% globally in terms of financial means and capital, even if you would be able to feed yourself in one of these relatively modest reductions in overall agricultural supply, it is not realistic to assume that the poor people are just going to lay down and starve to death. They’re going to be storming your mansion. And so if you can provide them with food with a relatively low upfront capital investment, it makes a lot of sense, again, for you personally, because you’re not fighting them off at your door.

Dave Denkenberger: One other thing that surprised me was we did a real worst case scenario where the sun is mostly blocked, say by nuclear winter, but then we also had a loss of electricity and industry globally, say there were multiple EMPs around the world. And I, going into it, was not too optimistic that we’d be able to feed everyone. But we actually have a paper on it saying that it’s technically feasible, so I think it really comes down to getting prepared and having that message in the decision makers at the right time, such that they realize it’s in their interest to cooperate.

Another issue that surprised me: when we were writing the book, I thought about seaweed, but then I looked at how much seaweed for sushi cost, and it was just tremendously expensive per calorie, so I didn’t pursue it. But then I found out later that we actually produce a lot of seaweed at a reasonable price. And so now I think that we might be able to scale up that food source from seaweed in just a few months.

Ariel Conn: How quickly does seaweed grow, and how abundantly?

Dave Denkenberger: It depends on the species, but one species that is edible, we put into the scenario of nuclear winter, and one thing to note is that the ocean, as the upper layers cool, they sink, and then the lower layers of the ocean come to the surface, and that brings nutrients to the surface. We found in pretty big areas on Earth, in the ocean, that the seaweed could actually grow more than 10% per day. With that exponential growth, you quickly scale up to feeding a lot of people. Now of course we need to scale up the infrastructure, the ropes that it grows on, but that’s what we’re working out.

The other thing I would add is that in these catastrophes, if many people are starving, then I think not only will people not care about saving other species, but they may actively eat other species to extinction. And it turns out that feeding seven billion people is a lot more food than keeping, say, 500 individuals of many different species alive. And so I think we could actually use this to save a lot of species. And if it were a natural catastrophe, well some species would go extinct naturally — so maybe for the first time, humans could actually be increasing biodiversity.

Joshua Pearce: That’s a nice optimistic way to end this.

Ariel Conn: Yeah, that’s what I was just thinking. Anything else?

Dave Denkenberger: I think that’s it.

Joshua Pearce: We’re all good.

Ariel Conn: All right. This has been a really interesting conversation. Thank you so much for joining us.

Dave Denkenberger: Thank you.

Joshua Pearce: Thank you for having us.