The far future argument for confronting catastrophic threats to humanity: Practical significance and alternatives

A lot can be done to prevent major global catastrophes without appealing to the benefits that would go to people living thousands, millions, or billions of years in the future.

Seth D. Baum, 2015. The far future argument for confronting catastrophic threats to humanity: Practical significance and alternatives. Futures, vol. 72 (September), pages 86-96.

Pre-print: Click here to view a full pre-print of the article (pdf).

Sufficiently large catastrophes can affect human civilization into the far future: thousands, millions, or billions of years from now, or even longer. The far future argument says that people should confront catastrophic threats to humanity in order to improve the far future trajectory of human civilization. However, many people are not motivated to help the far future. They are concerned only with the near future, or only with themselves and their communities. This paper assesses the extent to which practical actions to confront catastrophic threats require support for the far future argument and proposes two alternative means of motivating actions. First, many catastrophes could occur in the near future; actions to confront them have near-future benefits. Second, many actions have co-benefits unrelated to catastrophes, and can be mainstreamed into established activities. Most actions, covering most of the total threat, can be motivated with one or both of these alternatives. However, some catastrophe-confronting actions can only be justified with reference to the far future. Attention to the far future can also sometimes inspire additional action. Confronting catastrophic threats best succeeds when it considers the specific practical actions to confront the threats and the various motivations people may have to take these actions.

Non-Technical Summary: pdf version

Background: The Far Future Argument
Certain major global catastrophes could cause permanent harm to humanity. A large body of scholarship makes a moral argument for confronting the threat of these catastrophes based on a concern for far future generations. The far future can be defined as anything beyond the next several millennia, including millions or billions of years from now, or even longer. Given the moral principle of caring about everyone equally, including people in the far future, confronting threats of permanent harm should be a major priority. The paper calls this the far future argument.

Practical Significance
The far future argument says we should try to confront catastrophic threats in order to benefit far future generations. Unfortunately, many people do not care much about far future generations and thus do not follow the far future argument. Fortunately, the practical task of confronting the threats does not always require caring about the far future. This paper assesses the practical significance of the far future argument by examining the extent to which confronting catastrophic threats to humanity requires caring about the far future. The paper surveys a range of threats according to several criteria.

Catastrophe Timing
If a catastrophe could occur in the near future, then confronting it will have near future benefits. The sooner the catastrophe could occur, the easier it may be to convince people to confront it. Most types of major global catastrophes could occur in either the near or far future, and some could only occur in the near future. This makes for almost all of the total risk.

Co-Benefits And Mainstreaming
Co-benefits are other benefits of some action besides the target goal. Actions with the goal of confronting catastrophic threats can have other significant benefits. These other benefits can get people to confront the threats even if they donít care about the threats, let alone about the far future. Mainstreaming means fitting actions into established goals and procedures. Actions to confront the threats can be mainstreamed into a range of established goals and procedures. This makes it easier for people to take the actions. Actions with large co-benefits that are well mainstreamed will often be the easiest actions to take; these make for a good starting point for confronting the threats. However, some actions require large sacrifice, such that the only people who will take the actions are those who support the far future argument.

Far Future As Inspiration
Some people do support the far future argument, and more people can be inspired to do so. The far future can provide analytical inspiration, based on the quantitative significance of far future generations, as well as emotional inspiration, based on the beautiful future that could occur as long as no major catastrophe ruins it forever.

Created 4 May 2015 * Updated 14 Oct 2015