Catastrophic risks are much greater than is commonly appreciated. Collision with an asteroid, runaway global warming, voraciously replicating nanomachines, a pandemic of gene-spliced smallpox launched by bioterrorists, and a world-ending accident in a high-energy particle accelerator, are among the possible extinction events that are sufficiently likely to warrant careful study. How should we respond to events that, for a variety of psychological and cultural reasons, we find it hard to wrap our minds around? Posner argues that realism about science and scientists, innovative applications of cost-benefit analysis, a scientifically literate legal profession, unprecedented international cooperation, and a pragmatic attitude toward civil liberties are among the keys to coping effectively with the catastrophic risks.
During his career as a federal appeals court judge, Posner has become a prominently outspoken commentator on a variety of legal and cultural issues. Reading Margaret Atwood's Oryx & Crake, for example, was the springboard for this reflection on the current lack of plans for dealing with large-scale disasters, like environmental upheavals, after which law and public policy would be open to blame for failing to keep pace with rapid scientific advancement. Those familiar with Posner's extensive writings will not be surprised when he advocates applying cost-benefit analysis to determine which catastrophic threats are worth tackling first, though other suggestions will likely spark controversy. Criticizing the "blinkered perspective" of civil libertarians hung up on constitutional law, he finds certain curtailments of freedom an acceptable trade-off for preventing terrorist attacks and offers a lengthy justification of torture as one such option. Posner also offers subtle insights into the psychology of disaster preparedness, noting, for example, that science fiction movies in which the world is routinely saved inure us to the possibility of facing such threats in real life, as well as create undue faith in the saving grace of scientists. And his call for increased scientific literacy among public policy leaders may be too pragmatic to fault. Though clearly not for general readers, this thoughtful analysis may trickle down from the wonkocracy. (Nov.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.