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Commentary: Paying the price of progress requires a new growth strategy

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts: It is always worth remembering that in the grand sweep of history, we are the fortunate ones.

Famed philosopher Thomas Hobbess description of life as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” was apt for most of human history. Not anymore.

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Famines and hunger have become rarer, living standards for most people have risen, and extreme poverty has been reduced substantially over the past few decades.

Average life expectancy at birth even in the least healthy parts of the world is above 60 years, whereas a British person born in the 1820s would have expected to live to around 40.

But, these fantastic improvements have been accompanied by catastrophic risks. Even if COVID-19 has shaken us from our complacency, we have yet to grapple with the dangers still facing us.

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READ: Commentary: The Philippines hopes lockdown buys time after half-hearted attempts at tackling COVID-19

INDUSTRIALISATIONS TRADE-OFFS

The improvements of the past 200 years are the fruits of industrialisation, made possible by our acquisition of knowledge and mastery of technology. But this process involved trade-offs.

Driven by the desire for wealth, firms and governments sought to reduce costs and boost productivity and profits, which led to disruptions that sometimes left hundreds of millions of people impoverished and unemployed.

For decades, workers in mines and factories were brutally coerced to eke out ever more output, until they managed to organise and secure some political power for themselves.

Thousands of people flock to the Myanmar jade mines in the hoping of finding an overlooked rock that could transform their lives. (Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu)

And, of course, the early industrial age encouraged slavery and the quest for access to natural resources, which led to massive wars and brutal forms of imperialist rule.

These excesses were neither an aberration nor inevitable. Many have since been corrected through the market economy, labour-relations reforms, state regulation, and new institutions.

But other significant unintended consequences of industrialisation have yet to be addressed, because no organised political constituency emerged to address them. The most pressing concern is catastrophic global risks, the most obvious being anthropogenic climate change – a prime example of how a process of enrichment can create an existential threat.

A second, somewhat related problem is biodiversity loss.

The estimated rate of species extinction today is anywhere from 100 to 1,000 times that of the pre-industrial era, yet there is still very little recognition of the risks created by such a radical destabilisation of nature.

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NUCLEAR WAR AND ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE

The third global risk is nuclear war. Splitting the atom exemplifies both our mastery over nature and the potential for profound misuse of science and technology.

Though nuclear technology has many peaceful applications (and may have a short-term role to play in addressing climate change), its most important consequence has been to inaugurate an era of mutually assured destruction.

As with climate change and biodiversity loss, we still do not appreciate the risks that nuclear technology poses to humanity; in fact, countries that have nuclear arsenals are now rebuilding and expanding them.

A fourth major risk is artificial intelligence, which could lead to technologies that we cannot control. In addition to the risk that superintelligent algorithms wipe out humanity, AI also has the potential to be deployed as an instrument of surveillance, paving the way to a new kind of serfdom.

READ: Commentary: Artificial intelligence and automation would actually benefit Singapore

Artificial intelligence systems picked up early clues about the coronavirus outbreak by scanning news images and social media posts from a market in Wuhan, China, where the first cases were detected. (Photo: AFP/HECTOR RETAMAL)

And governments are already developing AI and autonomous weapons that could be put to all kinds of nefarious uses, especially if they end up in the wrong hands.

Though no one can deny these risks, most peoples first instinct is to discount steeply the likelihood of a catastrophic scenario. But this is misguided.

NOT LETTING UP ON PROGRESS

During the twentieth century, the world came close to nuclear war on multiple occasions. Because we were lucky, we now assume retrospectively that the risk was never as high as it seemed.

But consider the counterfactual scenario. Where would we be today if all-out nuclear war had not been averted by the actions of Vasili Alexandrovich Arkhipov, a lone Second Captain who, at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, urged restraint when the other commanders aboard his Soviet nuclear B-59 submarine mistakenly believed they were under attack by the United States?

We certainly wouldnt be reading books about the supposed decline in violence over time.

On the other hand, those who do recognise the dangers posed by climate change and AI too often jump to the conclusion that economic growth itself is the problem.

They argue that reducing emissions, preserving nature, and preventing the misuse of technology requires a deceleration or reversal of production, investment, and innovation.

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