How Insurance Works

Existential Risk Researcher Dr Luke Kemp


welcome to this journey where we
dialogue with thought and heart leaders to share their reflections on human
condition and how to improve them. today we have with us Luke Kemp. Luke is a senior research associate at the Center for study of existential risk at the
University of Cambridge. Luke looks at the past civilizational collapses and
future climate changes and emerging technologies to guide policy in the
present. he’s an honorary lecturer in environmental policy at the Australian
National University and was previously a senior economist at Vivid economics. so
let’s just deep dive into into the conversation. “existential risk !!!” …the
center that that you’re a senior researcher at and you’ve been researching
there for a long long time are there any commonly accepted
definitions of existential risk across the world? The most common definition
comes from couple of papers done by Nick Bostrom who is a professor at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University and in these two papers he proposes the
definition which is roughly the idea that existential risk is the extinction or
end of life originating earth… actually it’s our earth originating life or it’s permanent
and drastic curtailment essentially think of this way it’s human extinction or
something that will permanently and drastically curtail the potential of
humankind. I think the latter part of that is actually quite difficult. it’s
really hard to know what is humanity’s full potential and there will be a huge
kind of moral and philosophical debate about what exactly is a potential. so I
actually think that the best and a sound scientific definition we can use
of existential risk is this purely the extinction of humankind.
we can then talk about things to learn about that like a global collapse or a global
catastrophic risk etc but to me the best and most coherent definition we can use
of existential risks is purely the extinction of humanity.
so I was thinking are there any common myths around existential risk in the
sense do have you come across with myths around mythology or myths around
extension risk ? yeah so existential risk is largely born from this the original
study we have on human extinction largely comes from eschatology which is
essentially the study of the end of humanity… in religion so think of revelations for
example in the Bible Ragnarok in north mythology… now these
are quite different so far as they don’t actually talk about extinction per se
they don’t think of humanity as a single kind of species and they often think
about potentially end of humanity in its physical existence but there’s something
a continuation in a spiritual or potentially post material existence.
what we have existential risk is quite different so far as being quite
discreetly that extinction is a phenomenon that happens to species and we don’t
really have any spiritual connotations to it. it’s very much a scientific
endeavor I think as it stands there are not so much mythologies as there are key
flaws in the study. so one of the issues I’d come across quite frequently in the
field is that when people say existential risk basically talking about what we
call a hazard… so the risk is usually broken up into three things vulnerability, your exposure and the hazard so think of it this way if you have a
tsunami you have to be exposed to it you have to actually be on the beach or
basically in any zone where tsunami actually hits. if you are on mountains
you can’t get hit by tsunami. there has to be the hazard itself so in
this case that will be the actual wave and thats the vulnerability. if your settlements for example is on really high stilts and actually can’t
get by the tsunami then obviously not vulnerable to it. on the other hand if you
have housing which is very easily destroyed and potentially people who
cannot easily recover from the losses of their livelihoods and homes, then you’re highly vulnerable to the risk. unfortunately way the study of
existential risk is often done is just purely in terms of the hazards. so when people
think of existential risks they think things like killer robots, misaligned
artificial intelligence, extreme climate change and those are all important
things to consider but we also need to think about what is it as a global
civilization that makes us vulnerable and how are we exposing ourselves to
these different risks in different hazards and I think those elements are
actually just as interesting if not more so and particularly when you look at it
through the lens of coronavirus for example where I don’t think it’s just
about the hazard it’s not just about that single strand of RNA which is
constantly mutating causing respiratory infections it’s also about the fact that
it could spread so quickly because we’ve built up such tightly coupled quick
networks of transport and trade internationally and we’re also
vulnerable because we’ve built up on Just-in-time supply chains and we have
built up also systems when justice where people essentially have to go to work
even when they’re sick on things like sick pay and we’re exposed because
unfortunately we’re creating ecosystems and habitats which are much more likely
to lead to zoonotic infections because of things like by biodiversity loss, wet
markets etc. so when you think from the lens of vulnerability so you get a much
richer appreciation of whats an existential risk and how exactly are we causing them.
so I think that is quite an elaborate and in a very precise way with you which
you addressed in a couple of things that stood out was this like a tight coupling
and the contagion you know them the two sides of the same going in substance one
gives you more efficiency more stuff which and the other is is a sort of a
risk that you that you that you have so in the in the recent past before the
common 19 or coronavirus when you would in to different policy makers or business
leaders and you would go and let this argument to them what are the kind of
arguments that you would get against you know against something something like
this when you’re trying to posit this as a thing? people always said “you’ll
lose efficiency”… that the optimized tightly coupled systems of supply,
international trade and transportation we have, they’re efficient… they work very
well from the standpoint of economic growth. these systems are optimized for
that and they’re very good in the good times but unfortunately they’re horrible
when things go wrong. it was often make an act to amplify a shock if it’s large
enough and of course because there’s no buffering in the system it means it’s
much more likely that if something does go wrong you have less time to
recuperate and more likely to vulnerability. so I think in many ways what we’re seeing
right now is a good indication of potentially how fragile how modern
hyper-connected world is?… I definitely wouldn’t call corona an existential risk
as i think its highly highly unlikely and this is some kind of really weird chain of
cause-effect which leads to a nuclear war …that Corona will be anyway a existential risk or even a global catastrophic risk but what i think this as is a
kind of warning shock…potentially a dress rehearsal… we’re starting to see
like how fragile our systems are but also how effective our responses are and
some ways perform quite well and I think in many other ways we are shown just how vulnerable we are interesting if we look at the if we look
at how decisions have been made the last two or three decades of this whole story
globalization we saw that there was a huge emphasis on the word efficiency
that you mentioned and the related of something called is valuation of of
shares and that never before in humanity you had this phenomena of valuing
something of the future in in a way which is budgeted in your current stock
market price but then you do not budget for future risk in that sense…
the way the way you you and your research center describes it do you see
the current crisi as you say this is a dress rehearsal would be good enough
shock for people to relook at valuations because those are them those are the
kind of things that drive business decisions and political decisions in a in a large sense oh it remains to be seen I think most
fundamental changes require some kind of lareg scale shock. this is something that
Milton Friedman the quite famous neo-liberal economist refer to them quite some
time ago though you do require the most severe shocks to create those fundamental
change and a change that occurs in those times is a reflection of what ideas are
lying around. I would hope the corona could potentially lead to a re-evaluation
not just of how we value stocks and how we reflect risks and taking large-scale
global risks both evaluation of stocks as well as how institutional investors
do their financing but a lot of other things how we pay our most vulnerable
frontline workers , things like universal health care… essentially a complete
shift in the way we think about work as well. unfortunately it remains to be seen. I’m
fairly skeptical that corona will be a large enough shock to actually do that
what you want is a kind of what I call Goldilocks shock something that is large
enough to create fundamental change but not too large that it actually drastically
dramatically destroyed your systems I think we’re unlikely to see this be a
Goldilocks that goes too far but there’s a good chance it may not go far enough
so it may not actually be strong enough to really bring that kind of political
shift. I think one thing that is useful is we actually do have the right ideas
lying around now. so back in the 2008 global financial crisis there wasn’t as
much of a civil society push for things like universal basic income and yet now
we already see Spain for example begin to pioneers that as a response to corona.
so I’m skeptical that will be strong enough but on the bright side at least
the ideas are there and if Corona doesn’t act as the the kind of shock or
the stimulus to crack put these ideas into implementation,
hopefully something else the future may although of course it’s a very sad state of affairs that we have to rely upon catastrophe to actually spur change. in terms of the
valuation problems I mean you pointed to it quite well and there’s also other
problems for example that often what companies will do is share buybacks they
essentially buy their own stock to overvalue their company . one of the
key things that we’ve been working on in the centre for existential risk is this
idea because a large amount of this stock mark rsts upon a couple of
very large scale institutional investors things like both large scale hedge funds
and pensions and the funny thing is we actually look at these institutions they
have such a good reason to think in long term and to really think that and take
seriously global risks so one of the big ones is that most of these firms were
founded in perpetuity they’re actually supposed to exist for a very very long
period of time if not perpetually. and because of that they have to take global
risk seriously. A global risk such as nuclear war or potentially a biological
engineered pandemic… some of the few shocks could potentially end them because they
rely upon a healthy world and a healthy stock market, healthy economy and on top of that we also know that when you look at previous investment movements so for
example both in climate change but all same for example South African apartheid
there’s very little reason to believe that investment from any firm causing
global risks will actually cause any kind of financial loss. all the studies
done here in bad the vast majority the studies done here in econometrics… in
Finance showed that a portfolio which is reflective of global risks and has a
kind of corporate social responsibility and as environmental social and
governance indicators built-in is actually just as profitable if not more
profitable than the same portfolio which also has things like tobacco also fuels
etc etc so there’s really no reason as to why institutional investors investors
and broadly should not be taking a global risk
seriously in the way they allocating the finance making decisions. interesting ! is
what BBC article the article that you wrote for the BBC had this had this tone
where you you talk about or what you deem as collapse and one of
the components you mentioned was the continuation of political state or some
kind of governance mechanism… if I just step back then as as as long as we can go
back to humanity where we have started organizing ourselves… we always have
this common decision-making body elected nominated hierarchical heredity
whatever you may call it and then as we progressed in civilization we had more
and more concentration of power in the hands of you …in some sense… do you see
that this shock that we are going through right now… we’ll have enough
voice for the people to be able to shake up the leadership to think in this
direction. so the way I like to think about collapse now is actually in two ways.
first of all I like to think of actually like what downfall and that’s the loss
of the state . most collapses do involve the loss of a central government system so
the actual system which is making most major decisions… is collecting taxation
and is essentially having some kind of monopoly on the means of violence over
its population. and when you think of most cases which are considered
collapses so for example Mayan or the West Roman Empire… most involved a loss of government whether in the case of Mayan it was a city state or in the case of the
West Roman Empire the actual Empire itself but most them usually involved the
political unit.. the state being lost and in from there if things go really
badly if the loss of state leads to a demographic collapse… a large-scale loss of population and a loss of social complexity then I think you can start to call that as true collapse. that means you’re going beyond that loss of government…
actually having a large-scale loss of so key social and ecological capital
actually… in terms of whether we can see this potential leading to great
democratization, it’s difficult to tell. many downfalls in the past have been
double-edged swords. they’re often led to people at the masses leading better
live,s because often have been freed from the yoke of very oppressive regimes. so if you were in a city-state in ancient Mesopotamia say
for example Babylon in the third dynasty of there’s a better-than-average
chance but there’s an odds chance that you were a slave most likely and if you
weren’t a slave you were essentially a wage slave and the loss of that state
and the ability – to go beyond the walls often then going back to a
hunter-gatherer lifestyle was often more healthy and beneficial. what we see is
historically over time societies tend become unequa.l they’d have a
great concentration of wealth in the hands of the few. and hence also a
greater concentration of oligarchy. more decision-making made by the few. until you hit something called a “great leveler”… this is a term from Walter
Scheidel. and he did a large-scale economic history of the world and essentially
found that inequality increases inextricably until you have one of four
major violent events and these are usually a mass mobilization war, a loss
of the states- a collapse or downfall, a pandemic or a revolution. a very lowly
one of that .so there is definitely a historical basis and foundation for
thinking that pandemic could lead to both great democracy and too great a
redistribution of wealth I’m skeptical against whether corona
will be that powerful. when we look at when this has happened previously it’s
usually been a pandemic in conjunction with something else… so the Spanish flu for example obviously occurred with world war 1 and world war 2 shortly afterwards, the black death was something that was disproportionate in terms of its outcome…
we had in some places in Europe after half the population wiped out …globally
potentially up to a third and Corona doesn’t look like it’s currently going to have
that kind of hit enforced to it. in many places we’re seeing a mortality rate of
some between 2-6 % but the latest evidence from Germany from at least one
study done in the Northland s Valley region suggests that the mortality rates
probably close to 0.3 percent. when you consider all people who have antibodies
in or aysymptomatic carriers. so Corona well terrible and catastrophic in many
ways potentially is I don’t think that probably not strong enough to actually
create that great level of that actually really shift things towards greater democracy and equality. I hope so that i would be fantastic that is the case because I
think to address most global risk in a more just world, but I’m skeptical that corona would be strong enough but I’d be happy to be proved wrong.
yeah as you were speaking I was I was was trying to see that if I if I look at
Corona and try to try to look at from a scale perspective then and if I can
formulate where we were, where we are, where we want to go?… then I can clearly
see that there are no consensus amongst masses of where we were here we are and
where we go but you see today if you look at the social media conversations
that are happening we can clearly see that they can be mapped or plotted
across four or five categories one is hailing the current governments, right so you have
a huge of people hailing and nodding their current government… then there’s
another army of people were opposing who are talking saying that the government’s
have not handled these crises in the right manner
the third the third category are people who are trying to connect it with
spiritual myths or you know the environmental activism where this is
this is most likely to happen if this is a nature’s call …there is a fourth
category just undecided in you know they don’t know what to do. so I see the
masses are divided across the spectrum and hence a coordinated response or even
a voice to the leaders is challenging tha.t would you agree with that ? roughly
yeah .so the way I like to think of this is there’s a couple of key categories or
dimensions and across each one you have a really wide spectrum of ideological
response here of what people want where they think we are and where we should go
so when you look at this from an economic lens you have on one hand a
very much leftist ideology which is that we should start re-nationalize major
industries particularly those who need to be bailed out and those who need to
be bailed out and are nationalized should be given really clear conditions
which are based upon a “green new deal” so that should require things like a
minimum wage, decarbonition and strong targets, greater policy towards both job
security as well as sick pay etc etc but the key idea being that this is an
economic wake-up call and we should use it to either bring large scale
corporations back under national control and at the same time force towards
conditions and terms which are more likely to help them lead the
decarbonization and efforts towards addressing major problem. on the other hand you
have essentially people who are quite happy just to bail them out as is and
want to see this being done is a kind of one-off stimulus before we’re going back
to business as usual back to a kind of normal baseline. when you look across a
different dimension so let’s take for example politics and democracy you again
see a small spectrum on the one hand you have people thinking that we should have
not just UBI, but a potentially a greater move towards the democracy in
order to address these problems… on the other hand you see both a lot of people
believing that this should be the basis for new
emergency powers to be enacted and are clear in places like Hungary where
Victor Orban has essentially given himself a blank cheque to bypass
Parliament, and put in place whatever legislative measures he sees fit to
address corona. essentially another step towards dictatorship. similarly in the
USA. we’ve seen you think believe the Supreme Court and I think was the
Department of Justice actually putting forward suggestions for measures which
would give new powers to law enforcement potentially to regional courts including
being able to detain people without a basis or warrant that hasn’t been passed
yet of course who else had places like Texas and Ohio actually pass measures to
ban most forms of abortion as kind of being non-essential. so what typically
happens in most crises in shocks is that they’re often used the basis for what
are called “emergency powers” or exceptional powers but unfortunately
emergency powers tend to be sticky and the exceptional becomes ordinary quite
quickly and we see this with things like in the u.s. after 9/11 we had of the
Patriot Act which gave wide encompassing new powers to police which essentially
didn’t get rolled back and we also saw the set up of new measures for a much
more empowered surveillance system and this echoes through to today and once
all the prisms project of the NSA which is what Edward Snowden had come about. so again there’s a
spectrum where some people think we can lead to this can lead to great democracy
and on the other hand we see really concrete moves by a number of states to
essentially use both contact tracing as an excuse for the use of surveillance
powers and use corona itself as an excuse for emergency powers. so again
going quickly to a reinvigoration democracy or it could lead to another
step down the slippery slope towards dictatorship. very interesting the way you frame this so
are there any things different this time there are you seeing any features which
are very different from past crises or past collapse? good question !!! I think
what’s actually most striking to me so far has been the similarities that spot
our supreme technological advancement and all the differences in terms of
global supply chains, politics and technology …the responses the modern age
are not entirely incoherent from /incongrous from the responses even made
during the Black Death for example. they also had similar issues such as cordon certain areas actually locked out and isolate entire population you had Pest houses for example which
aren’t so different to emergency hospital being set up where people who
basically cordoned off to large extent obviously what we have now is a much
more quick scientific response and I think this is one of the greatest demonstrations of a new capabilities but
also areas for hope and optimism is the fact that we managed actually to
provide the description of its genome quite quickly and we already started work on
vaccines and while that thing could take up to 18 months… that’s still a damn
slight quicker then how long could for us to actually find ways of eradicating
such a virus… our response in many case much quicker but at the same time the
political flavor and many of the technical responses are not so
different what we had as factor in the Black Death. it’s still things law like cordon
off areas, walking down, trade restrictions, travel restrictions etc.
interesting if we if we look at existential risks as a phenomena and
then you look at different units of our existence you know you have individual, you have family, you
have neighborhood, you have city, city you have state, you have nation, you have
international… and at each level people have a different feedback loop and with
it they keep working with it…do you think that the then people’s day to day treadmill that they have
that they have not been able to step back is also an inhibiting factor for
people to really maybe even make sense of what is going on in? in other words do you think cognitive capabilities are in a certain
direction is also a challenge in terms of managing such kind of crisis or an
anticipation of one?….. okay so what I was saying is if we look at our units of
existence the individual the family in the neighborhood the city in the state
the nation the international existence in some sense and then people have
different feedback loops to their behaviors to their belief system and
there would be certain inhibiting factors for people to really take this
absolute priority and work at it… what are the things that you think are
inhibiting factors for people to take this up as real real priorities at the
level of the centralized decision-making and the individual decision-making? I
think the biggest fact is a structural. they are the centralized decision-making
level. it’s hard to make addressing Corona your overriding priority if you
are living day to day trying to get a paycheck, try to pay rent, taking care of multiple kids. so I think the major factors we have here are
structural that it’s very difficult to expect people to be altruistic and to
active route allegiances if they’re living on the margin and if they’re
oppressed in so many different ways particularly. there are of course
individual ones as well so these often come down things like human biases so
people for example may not take the risk seriously particular they’ve heard from
different news sources or potentially loved ones and social circles that this
is virus and these is bad as common flu basically basically but even this often has a
structural flavor condition to it we know that most of the common narratives
or conspiracy theories that have been put forward to kind of disable the very
least… muddy the waters when it comes to the coronavirus response and often been
perpetuated by key government actors in particular Russia
so even misinformation is rarely this kind of like individual level flow
it’s almost always done from a structural level and obviously percolates down to the individual. so think of most of the problems we see even the individual
level they have very important interrelationships to the global level.
there are of course still some which are uniquely individual, and we will probably
I think grapple these increasingly in the huge degree if the lockdown has to
extend… it’s very difficult for a social primate to stay locked up and not to
have a large amount of social interaction. we know that for example
lack of social interaction can lead to both long sorry low life expectancy, high
rates of depression etc etc so if you’re actually expecting people to say locked
away and have limited contact of loved ones over period for time, that’s been very
difficult just because it goes against our biological response system. of course we do have a different world
now we have a digital world …we can do things like zoom Skype whatsapp and
countless multiuser platforms but it’s not quite the same as face to face
contact. we know that the human brain hormonal system responds differently
into face-to-face contact in capacity. also there’s definitely some large individual response in some way but I think they shouldn’t distract us
from the largest disablers of collective response and those are
structural… those are governmental… yeah so I remember your wonderful
conversation almost a year back and it’s sounds so coincidental with Robert Wright
because I think it was published around 30th April almost a year back…
yeah and you guys touched upon a lot of interesting things about the the
collective response or the collectively responsibility of collective
what do you think centers like you what can individuals like me and others were
interested in this subject could could do to work with centers and researchers
like you to ensure that this moves in that direction actually in different kind of
crises we have to bear in mind that the chance of zoonotic infection …emerging
zoonotic infection …or zoonotic global pandemic was known for many years in advance. we had we have reports from the World Bank I believe back in 2014 or
2015 essentially saying that an emerging zoonotic infection is inevitable. we had
plenty of warnings with SARS, avian flu swine flu etc. so I think people if they
can try to either support whether they be financially or even in terms of their
own career… the efforts of people working on biosecurity is quite vital but
honestly I think the biggest thing people can do both right now as well as
across global risks is organizing politically and helping each other. I
think one of the brightest spots we have right now when it comes to corona is the
fact that even in lieu of government actions, even for example in the UK, when
the government was essentially delaying its response we saw a bottom-up
collective self organization to address the problem. we saw lots of cooperatives
for example of young people volunteering to essentially get groceries and do
shopping for elderly people so they could minimize their exposure… being in the
sort of preventing coronavirus even seen people like lawyers for
example to pro bono work to help people who may be getting evicted from
the house for reason… so and this is actually something you often see
when it comes to large-scale catastrophe crisis is when the government doesn’t
act appropriately often the people will and I think that’s the best thing the
people can do right now when it comes to most global risks is to try to keep the
civil society networks strong so even in the case for downfall even the case for
government isn’t appropriately responding we can have backup systems
that will but beyond this as mentioned we need to start politically organizing
and mobilizing. so as I mentioned there’s a course across all these different
areas whether it’s health, economy or democracy a spectrum and where we have
majority opinion and where we have a kind of strongest political will of
course will fall towards that kind of response . so if we have the majority of
the elites supporting the use of AI to enact a new kind of high-tech
surveillance system in response to Corona and we have very few people who
are willing to democratically post them that’s probably what’s going to happen.
on the other hand if we have a large popular uprising to use this as a chance
to correct economic injustices, to have things like university because basic
income and they can push the rights towards elites in the right way towards
enabling that, then we’ll have a totally different income sorry outcome. so much
of this does eventually come down to a political organization mobilization. it’s
hard, it’s difficult, it’s messy. it’s something I think a lot of scholars
might feel don’t to deal with that if you’re looking towards saving the world
that’s we need to do. in one of your essays that you’ve written I think for
the ABC, the competition is both the Mother and a Reaper..in some sense.. you know what I also see in the response that you
mentioned … bottom-up response that we see lot of groups that are now self-organizing and
trying to respond to the different needs around, but there is also sort of
competition between them and the competition could be virtue signaling
the competition could be wanting more attention from the
administration or more resources …do you think that this is first of all it’s
natural but then how do you make huh are there any are there any guidelines
of how to organize them better so that they don’t cancel each other or you know
they don’t they don’t.. they optimize let me put it this way? hmm yeah it’s a
different one. I’m still in the nascent stages of trying to both research how
potentially competition drives many of the different forces that lead to
downfall and I’m still even more nascent in terms of thinking how do you actually
find a balance there, because ultimately I think it is about a balance. I don’t
think you want to have a world that is deprived of competition entirely. but I
think in most cases whether it be between individuals
between states or between classes, we have a system that is over primed towards
competition . and importantly we have a system where the competition is becoming
entirely asymmetrical. so we already do have a system of class warfare in most
countries and the problem is that the rich are winning by an incredibly large
margin. depending upon which study look at whether its Oxfam or it was USB
generally speaking the amount of wealth held by roughly the top 10% can be over
a half maybe thirty percent and more… the search more
on what half world’s population holds and as we look at competition between
states again most states do cooperate in many ways whether it be for example
trade but in general when it comes to things like high-level structural trend
as well as so what we actually choose to be doing through trade
don’t as long when it comes to military spending it’s quite clear that the
scales are tilted towards competition. so ultimately I think in most case that
comes down and trying to find that balance. in terms of how we do that to
some really quite unsure at the moment but I think in most cases actually that
“changing the goals of the system”… so if for example we had an international
system which didn’t take relative power seriously and which had a greater value
in the collective action of our sovereignty, then we may easily see a
system which it’s more likely to have cooperation as the kind of
fundamental characteristic rather military kind of competition.
likewise if we had a strong system of redistribution at a national level, where
the goal of the good life for those people is not to have a kind of status
competition that you win at all costs but rather was to have you know better
connection with friends and family to have better cultural and spiritual
expression etc…that is probably going to lead to more cooperation as well. so we know
this from lots of studies of complex systems but whatever the goal of the system is,
that has a very strong influence on how individual in the system behaves and operates.
so in many cases I think it may be that change in goals …of our economies… in our societies …and they’ll filter through in terms of what kind of behaviour we
exhibit . and unfortunately right now the goals in our cases are “growth”, and
growth is generally underpinned by some kind of a compared… competition imperative . interesting ! do you then foresee there could be… there could be … there is a need
for measuring some kind of adaptive competition and maladaptive competition, in some sense? yeah! so my easiest go-to responds would be
using an alternative GDP. and this has been with us for very long period time
ecology economists like Herman Daly for example Robert Costanza have been speaking about this since the eighties… the general idea here is that GDP only looks at a very tall
subset of economic activity so for example while does account of things
like a few services required after a car accident or locks being placed in your
house because you’re fearful of crime, it doesn’t account for a whole bunch of
things which really matter a lot that make life worthwhile. it doesn’t matter… it doesn’t make a
counter for example unpaid work to raise children… not even little things like
actually seeing the smile of a loved one or a child …it doesn’t count for things
like ecological capital …the fact that when I look outside and I see green
spaces and trees , I’m less likely to have depression and more likely to have a
good mental health. in general that’s something that’s not reflected in the
market for us so in those cases the idea of a GDP alternative is usually taking
in a whole bunch of additional indicators on top of GDP. so you still
keep GDP… kind of as a base of sorts but you adding things like ecological
capital …you add in things like measurements to happiness, you add in things
like measurements of social capital… how much the people in the community trust
each other. and when you take all of that into account
it gives it very different a picture of what is progress … and that gives a more
holistic idea of how exactly we should try to grow our societies and it tends to once
again lead to different behaviors not ones which are predisposed towards
competition and ruthless mentalities but instead towards empathy, altruism… it also gives a very different
indication of where countries stand right now… So, i mentioned Robert Costanza earlier… and he and a number of other scholars including Ida Kubiszewski… did
a study… think… if i remember five years ago where they looked at if you
use i believe it was direct general progress indicator, which is one of the typical
alternative GDP we have, if use that and actually measure country’s performance
over time, you find that the key countries such as the US have actually
plateaued ever since the 1970s and actually potentially gone down a little
bit. If your GDP has increased drastically, it’s come at the cost
of ecological capital, its come at the cost of social capital, trust amongst
communities, and it’s come at the cost of both the economic inequality and happiness of
its citizens. so it’s really a big question of has it been worthwhile !!!!
you’ve grown the pie, but it hasn’t been shared better and it’s led to
essentially everyone being hungrier. so I think that a huge amount of this does
come down to simply changing the way that we measure things …changing what
measuring, and that in turn changes what we think of and conceive of is the good
life. yeah great as you were speaking Luke, I was I was
thinking are there also challenges around the MEASURABILITY of things and
the consensus around???? and the consensus around it, and add to it the political
will which is currently polarized in so many ways???? of course ! yeah, I mean there’s
always going to be a vast amount of debate for the measurement because “measurement matters”…
what we measure we tend to act upon… but of course as we know know “not everything
that can be measured, matters!!! and “not everything that matters, can be
measured”. there have been criticisms of some of the alternatives to the GDP. BHUTAN has had
a gross national happiness measurement and that’s been criticized for a number
of different reasons one of them one of them is the fact that a lot of the
different areas they are trying to measure are difficult to measure. it’s relying often
on scarce data and difficult methodologies. but in most of these cases
we have the same thing of GDP as well. even with GDP we often don’t know what
exactly the growth in GDP was until a number of months afterwards… it’s
actually quite difficult to get a really complete clear and comprehensive
snapshot of an economy… it’s less about can we get a perfect
measurement measurement, and more about can we get a measurement that is better
than what we currently have? and given the woes and pitfalls of GDP and is
surely true, even if there are areas in general progress indicator…
what are the GDP alternatives which are difficult to measure or underpinned by
more of obscure methodologies ultimately our measurements still be
more comprehensive and a generally better math better measurement than GDP
will be… so we need to be careful “not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good” interesting I remember one of the conversation that
you were having with Robert Wright towards the end you mention mention I
think Harvard Biologist E O Wilson and and you mentioned that you quote… you
quote… that we are the Paleolithic emotions, and medieval institutions and
god-like technology …can you expand on that a little bit….? yes I think it
captures our milieu quite well . so the quote from E O Wilson is roughly
reminder that we have brains that are paleolithic… technologies were sorry…
institutions medieval and technologies which are god like…. I don’t
think that technologies are entirely godlike yet there’s still a long way to
go but that’s the risk right if we actually start to develop godlike
technologies and we still have medieval institutions we still have paleolithic brains
in many ways and that can cause huge problems and potentially ones which
could have eventually did lead to our extinction… and this is something we
already see very clearly when it comes to nuclear weapons… the fact that we created
an ability to actually split the atom and release an incredible fantastic
amount of energy and what we did was immediately both
weaponize it and then start to stockpile it between two powers in a Mexican
standoff that could have led down the dead end… to only something is wrong both
institutional as well as kind of biological level. there
and I think this is underpinning most of our problems when it comes to humanity
that we still in many ways an ice age hunter who is clever but seldom wise
that’s a good quote from Roland Wright and I think that’s often our problem is
that we’re very clever …we have amazing abilities to technologically and
technically circumvent different problems but we still haven’t solved
many of the most basic the climate and political and institutional problems and
I think this is a lot of our problems actually sorry said problems so many times actually…this is where the overarching one is this is that whenever we face a new
problem we think about the technological means to solve it and generally speaking
the technological solution often creates new problems and instead we should have
to be taking a step back and thinking what are the political and institutional
fixes here and I do hope this is something we start to do both with
corona but also in future crises as well that we don’t automatically think,
how can we get a vaccine a quicker although that is important, we also think
about what would the institutional and economic setups and structures which
actually made us vulnerable to this in the first place … any way fix those… that’s
much more difficult because politics unfortunately is often much more
difficult than science but it’s in many ways something is actually more
important. interesting! so would you would you then be siding with Joseph Tainter
when he mentions the diminishing return of complexity… do you think there is a way
around particular thesis that he has it is multiple ways around it… it’s it’s
a difficult thesis to grapple …grapple with sometimes because Tainter doesn’t
clearly define what exactly complexity is… this is often led to people using it
in different ways and you’re trying to define it and measured in different ways
as well I think and there’s also different
reasons as to why do you reach this finding diminishing returns on complexity… there
is it because you eventually run out of new innovations which are going to kind
of push the paradigm forward… I think a lot of it actually does come down in
inequality… this is a kind of working underlying hypothesis of mine …but when I
look at something like climate change I think there’s a really good example of
where we potentially reach diminishing returns on complexity well if I look at
Australia for example a ideal policy response to climate change is actually a
fairly simple one… will be built upon a couple of key policies both standards to
encourage energy efficiency as well as a very strong carbon price and a wholesome
government-subsidization for new emerging technologies …which
are likely to replace fossil fuels, particularly difficult to cover those areas. it’s
actually a fairly simple policy suite but instead in Australia what we have is
an incredibly Byzantine complex of different policies which have often been
chopped changed our nations are still going up… we are still incredibly where politics is down to lobbying is down to economy and I think often when we think
about diminishing returns on complexity, this is often the problem of think and that eventually leads.. but
not actually addressing the underlying problem and that leads to a system where we still
have the problems continue unabated but we also have all the additional
institutional quite on top of it and that in itself is both the problem of politics
and problem of inequality as well. there is a political fix here and it’s about
making sure you address problems in their eyes rather than trying to find
sessions to lobbyists which essentially mask the problem but don’t address it… but
that often requires a fundamental rethink of how we do democracy and how
do politics !!! there’s potentially more technocratic fixes so if you think
you’re hitting a point of diminishing returns on technology… potentially
can find a new area of technological development which is no longer
firing diminishing returns. so I think it’s the technological means to potentially get
past Tainter’s dilemma and there’s also political ones but I myself from the
bigger believer in the political ones and ultimately this all depends upon why are we
reaching diminishing returns on complexity and I think that’s still a fairly large
unknown. yeah so maybe we can reframe it as diminishing return of current
politics!!! yeah in some ways I mean a lot of it’s about diminishing returns on
your… and this sounds very kind of economistic and politics in many
ways is a negotiation about how we use and create new surplus capital…
interesting so towards the end Luke, how do you manage your daily inner life? and when you swamped by so much of data, so much of research,
interdisciplinary as well and and the the headwinds that you face every day…. I mean
first of all I wouldn’t use myself as a paragon of productivity in or of
equilibrium or anything like that but there are certain things I do found to
be very helpful to the personal level one is meditation… I do try to meditate
least an hour a day… I’ve been going to a number of their Vipassana Retreats over
the last two years… i find that’s incredibly helpful both in terms of
exploring your inner self… …not even the kind of self…but exploring your inner experience… exploring the nature of consciousness but also just
having a clear equilibrium when it comes to everyday life… when it comes to all
the challenges you face whether being work or personal relationships… I also
find is simply trying to think about your consumption of information as a
diet and basically practice clear reading in general I always try to read much
more literally at least twice or three times more from books than what I’ve
taken from things like on my media articles Twitter etc etc
books have a really good natural selection process but if someone’s going to spend
the time and effort to both rights, market and publicize a book …it usually
means that one has greater level of analysis is gone in…
in comparison, someone puts a blog it can often be reflective of couple of hours of work with
very little forethought going into it so books by nature usually much more robust
material and on top about you often have what’s called the Lindy effect and
that’s the idea that something has been around for a longer period of time is
more like likely be around for a longer period … so we still read the works of
Seneca, the ancient Roman philosopher and it’s like than a thousand years if we’re
still around, we will still read it. while if a book has been only out for a year or or
couple week, who knows it may not be read in a year’s time . so often trying to
rely upon the classics is a good selection process as well … but I think
the biggest one is just trying to keep a healthy media diet … you know… focus upon
the things that really matters that’s that’s wonderful. Luke. thank you
so much for your time and your insights and we’ll definitely soon connect once
again for for more more such insights sure ! it was delightful talking to you.


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