Last year, I joined some sort of day-long leadership retreat. First stop: the St Kilda botanical gardens. After an initial yoga session and nut-heavy breakfast, we formed a circle, and were invited to write about our ‘biggest fear for the future’. After four years working on global catastrophic risk, this is a question I had been reflecting on quite a bit. I realised then that I no longer feared the material collapse of civilisation itself, nor the deaths of billions, nor resource exhaustion. Writing about ecosystem collapse and asteroid impacts is a good vaccine against that. No, but my fear had gone deeper: what I was afraid of, was the moral and spiritual consequences of civilisation collapse.
The fear remains, amplifies even, as the pandemic sweeps across the planet. Oh, by global catastrophic risks standards, Covid-19 is a gentle caress – for it is highly unlikely that more than 2-3% of humanity will die, most likely far fewer people. That’s an order of magnitude smaller than the risks I have grown used to considering. But ethical and moral consequences – yes, I am concerned about.
For one, will we maintain a rational approach to solidarity, or fall for the national fallacy? A friend of mine was circulating a photograph of starving children on Facebook, a reminder that famine is a far greater killer than Covid-19 – but as older white people suffer far less from it, the media pays less attention. Will we, then, continue giving to charities assisting the poorest and most vulnerable on the planet? Will we direct our sanitary efforts where they might have the most impact, and save the most lives? Or as borders close, will we forget about the wider world, and let our concern extend no further than the limits of the state we live in?
Beyond this, I wonder – what do the current patterns of action and spending tell us about our priorities, and what will be the future consequences? Because we were able to – willing to – put the nation on hold to protect our health system and, with it, some of the weakest among us (disproportionately, that is the older part of the population), will we learn that we can demonstrate such solidarity, and will we rally with similar enthusiasm for the sake of the young and generations yet to be born, ensuring we protect our environment and their future? Or is our current collective behaviour, rallying as one to primarily save the lives of the older among us – not a form of generous solidarity, but another, deeper manifestation of short-termism? For now, we simply do not know.