Infinite risk

A new category of risk.

The Global Challenges Foundation (GCF) is a good example of a sustainability-focused think tank that also focuses on risk. Board members include Johan Rockström, whose pioneering work on the concept of “planetary boundaries” has been influential in sustainability. For this report, GCF worked closely alongside a similar outfit, the Future of Humanity Institute, based out of Oxford University and led by philosopher Nick Bostrom whose ideas continually reappear in these spaces.

As the report’s title suggests, they’ve focused on developing definitions of risk that include a new category; infinite risks. The term “infinite” here refers to their potential impact. As the formula below demonstrates, impact is part of how they are essentially “calculating” risk. This simple formula drives their approach, and it’s the kind of criteria-driven classification system we need for triage to occur.

Their argument is, at least partly, that impacts and probabilities are often “masked” by government and business policies, which typically under-report both parameters. Their more cold-blooded assertion is that:

RiskFormulaGCF
“A scientific approach requires us to base our decisions on the whole probability distribution.”[1]

This formula captures what is probably common sense thinking to most: A high probability event with low impact isn’t as risky as a low probability event with high impact. A 90% chance of a common cold isn’t a serious as a 1% chance of terminal cancer, right?

Yet, as the opening examinations of risk and sustainability highlighted, factors like probability rarely weigh into our everyday calculations of risk – we fear terrorists more than we do cheeseburgers, even though cheeseburgers are more likely to cause us harm.

If it seems odd for a bunch of serious thinkers, in a serious report, to be stating something so simple as the above formula, it’s because despite being both simple and true, this idea doesn’t get much traction in the real world.

Using the formula above it might occur to us that some “calculations” don’t quite boil down to numbers: the impact of some risks are essentially infinite. To illustrate this, the report starts with some history, and shows how that guides them today. It’s an interesting story, worth quoting in full:

It is only 70 years ago that Edward Teller, one of the greatest physicists of his time, with his back-of-the-envelope calculations, produced results that differed drastically from all that had gone before. His calculations showed that the explosion of a nuclear bomb – a creation of some of the brightest minds on the planet, including Teller himself – could result in a chain reaction so powerful that it would ignite the world’s atmosphere, thereby ending human life on Earth.

Robert Oppenheimer, who led the Manhattan Project to develop the nuclear bomb, halted the project to see whether Teller’s calculations were correct. The resulting document, LA-602: Ignition of the Atmosphere with Nuclear Bombs, concluded that Teller was wrong. But the sheer complexity drove the assessors to end their study by writing that “further work on the subject [is] highly desirable”. The LA-602 document can be seen as the first global challenge report addressing a category of risks where the worst possible impact in all practical senses is infinite.[2]

The idea from this opening scenario of us igniting the atmosphere is a great example of a risk where the impacts would be so far-reaching and devastating, they are effectively infinite. The end of Earth is not something we can quantify with a number[3], it is an impact with no upper limits – and therefore infinite, in the author’s minds.

This idea of infinite risk is useful to a triage model of sustainability because it is inherently focused on severity of impacts as a determinant of a risk’s importance. In this model, a broad range of threats is assessed using a new definition of risk, and then, using a criteria  (probability and impact) we determine what to prioritize. This is essentially that three-steps model of triage mentioned earlier at work, and the list of threats this model identified as important is notably different from something like the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Communications challenges.

Another notable point in the report is the way it approaches communicating sustainability and risk specifically. As mentioned elsewhere a risk-based model presents challenges to communicating sustainability, since it can often veer into negative messaging, which in turn can cause disengagement and other undesirable outcomes.

The authors clearly recognize this, and the report has a stated focus on turning challenges into opportunities:

The idea that we face a number of global challenges threatening the very basis of our civilisation at the beginning of the 21st century is well accepted in the scientific community and is studied at a number of leading universities. However, there is still no coordinated approach to address this group of challenges and turn them into opportunities.

The interrelationship between danger and opportunity is worth identifying and targeting, because it is arguably present in many sustainability challenges. The idea here echoes an old truism, famously stated by US President John F. Kennedy: ‘In the Chinese language, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity’[4].

Even though he’s not quite correct, the point here is that if it’s good enough for JFK, it’s good enough for me. A focus on positive messaging and finding opportunities from the crises ahead seems to me a better starting mindset than one focused on impending doom.

Of course, as a final note, this assumes we want to change people’s minds, or that we even have an ethical right to. This is a far stickier issue and gets its own examination at the end of this section on risk.


Footnotes

[1] Global Challenges Foundation. (2015). 12 risks that threaten human civilization – The case for a new risk category. Stockholm: Global Challenges Foundation.

[2] As above.

[3] As an aside: We see this argument echoed elsewhere, perhaps. Economic costings of environmental degradation are criticised at times under the notion that nature is “priceless”, effectively of infinite value and not reducible, once again, to numbers. This resembles arguments that some risks to the environment, such as igniting the atmosphere, are infinite and unquantifiable too.

[4] FK Library. (2019). John F. Kennedy Quotations. Retrieved from John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum: https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/life-of-john-f-kennedy/john-f-kennedy-quotations#C