Current and future generations must flourish: Time for a long-term and global perspective on pandemic and other catastrophic risks

Dr Matt Boyd & Prof Nick Wilson*


This post covers the following:

  • The recent United Nations report ‘Our Common Agenda’ which calls for solidarity, concern for future generations, and collaborative action on global risks including pandemics.
  • The newly mandated Long-term Insights Briefings (LTIB) that Aotearoa NZ public sector organisations must prepare and some ideas for what could be included in the Ministry of Health’s LTIB.
  • Overview of our just published research paper calling for a well-resourced NZ Parliamentary Commissioner for Catastrophic Risks to help prioritise action and ensure a safe and flourishing future.

New United Nations (UN) Report: ‘Our Common Agenda’

In September 2021 the UN Secretary General (SG) released a roadmap to a flourishing future, ‘Our Common Agenda’. The report employed the language of long-termism, portrayed wide-ranging concern for future generations and had substantial focus on building immunity to catastrophic risks including pandemics and technological risks.

The SG identified the importance of global public goods, particularly in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, thereby setting the UN’s vision for the future and major priorities for the next five years.

The report acknowledges long-term challenges, including existential risks, that are evolving over the course of multiple human life spans. To ensure a thriving future, humanity needs solidarity and to work together for common goals. Institutional leverage can help humanity represent future generations and manage catastrophic and existential risks.

The report proposes mechanisms for protecting future generations and addressing risks:

  • Futures Lab for futures impact assessments, megatrend and risk reporting
  • Special Envoy for Future Generations to assist on ‘long-term thinking and foresight’
  • Repurposing the UN Trusteeship Council to represent the interests of future generations
  • Declaration on Future Generations
  • An Emergency Platform to convene key actors in response to complex global crises
  • A Strategic Foresight and Global Risk Report to be released every 5 years
  • A 2023 Summit of the Future to discuss topics including these proposals addressing major risks and future generations

Global Public Health

With respect to global public health the SG says the world must fund the governance of global public health, overcoming its siloed nature. The SG endorses the advice of the Independent Panel for Preparedness and Response and calls for a global vaccination plan and sharing of technology and know-how.

On pandemics generally, the SG writes:

‘[G]lobal health security and preparedness (particularly investment in pandemic preparedness, but also for a broader set of potential health challenges) need to be strengthened through sustained political commitment and leadership at the highest level.’

Funding must be made available for an empowered WHO, with systems to ensure early detection, an independent verification capacity, the containment of emerging pathogens, enhanced global health security, an urgent global vaccination plan, and universal health coverage addressing the determinants of health.

Furthermore, when new biological threats arise there must be:

  • Faster detection and reporting of a novel pathogen
  • Faster ramp-up of nonpharmaceutical interventions to contain disease
  • Faster vaccine development and greater manufacturing capacity
  • More equitable vaccine distribution

The report emphasises that action is needed broadly because:

‘[W]e do not know which extreme risk event will come next; it might be another pandemic, a new war, a high-consequence biological attack, a cyberattack on critical infrastructure, a nuclear event, a rapidly moving environmental disaster, or something completely different such as technological or scientific developments gone awry and unconstrained by effective ethical and regulatory frameworks.’

Overall, the report links concern about future generations with the effects of our generation that most imperil them — existential risks, such as those of nuclear war or engineered pandemics, which could spell the end for humanity. The SG highlights that some countries have established Committees for the Future or Future Generations Commissioners, and suggests that other countries could follow suit.

A detailed summary of the report with a focus on long-term thinking can be read here.

Long-term insights briefings

Given the UN’s call for a long-term and coordinated approach, how is NZ placed? On the one hand it is notable that the shortfall between the UN’s benchmark for overseas development assistance (0.7% of GDP for wealthy nations) and NZ’s actual contribution (less than half that), would easily cover NZ’s fair share of the US$100 billion needed to bring 67 low-income countries up to a minimum level of health security. Promising is NZ’s recent increase to overseas climate assistance.

On the other hand, the NZ Public Service Act 2020 has mandated that every departmental chief executive publish a long-term insights briefing (LTIB) that is independent of ministers every three years, which should cover medium and long-term risks.

The statutory purpose of the Briefings is to make available into the public domain:

  • information about medium and long-term trends, risks and opportunities that affect or may affect NZ and NZ society
  • information and impartial analysis, including policy options for responding to these matters.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet (DPMC) provides an overview of the Briefings, which must look at least ten years ahead and are to be tabled in Parliament in June 2022.

There is already some public consultation on the content and scope of the LTIBs. Notably the Ministry of Health (MoH) has not yet put forward proposals for public consultation. However, this means there will still be an opportunity for public input into the shape of the content. We list important opportunities and risks to include in the appendix below.

One possible weakness of the Briefings is that the subject matter doesn’t need to cover a department’s entire portfolio. The LTIBs are also not required to cover issues where there is already work underway. This possibly limits their potential impact.

However, these LTIBs are a significant opportunity for the NZ public and policymakers to articulate a long-term vision and plan for a flourishing rather than crisis-riddled future.

The Briefings appear to be very much the kind of local mechanism that the UN SG’s report envisions. However, there needs to be some kind of mechanism to independently aggregate these futures think pieces, prioritise action, and coordinate internationally on global issues.

A Parliamentary Commissioner for Extreme Risks

In a research paper just published by Policy Quarterly, we argue for exactly this kind of independent central coordination of risk and futures work across the NZ public sector. We propose a well-resourced Parliamentary Commissioner for Extreme Risks working in conjunction with a Parliamentary Select Committee. The argument in our paper proceeds as follows:

  • As the SG has identified, the world faces many large-scale risks. We describe these global catastrophic and existential risks and identify many challenges in governing the prevention and mitigation of such risks.
  • We then identify that risk reduction activity in Aotearoa NZ has not appropriately addressed these threats. For example, the NZ Civil Defence National Disaster Resilience Strategy retains a large bias towards natural hazards rather than strategic or anthropogenic risks. Additionally, the activities of the National Intelligence and Risk Coordination team within the DPMC are not sufficiently transparent and the National Risk Register is not open to public scrutiny.
  • On the basis of the challenges identified, we then deduce the desired features and functions of an entity for effectively governing risk mitigation approaches.
  • We argue the needed institutional entity must be: anticipatory, central/aggregating, coordinating, apolitical, transparent, adaptive, and accountable.
  • We offer structural options for such an entity and favour a Parliamentary Commissioner for Extreme Risks.

The fact that the National Risk Register is secret is particularly troubling because looking to the UK, which does have a publicly-facing version, there are oversights and biases (see the Appendix below for examples).

The secrecy is also troubling given published comments by Treasury that call for, ‘a whole-of-government and whole-of-society response… a multi-stakeholder coordinated approach to risk management and resilience-building… a strong relationship between the public, private and civil society sectors is pivotal’ (emphasis added). Similarly, the UN Global Assessment Report on Disaster Risk Reduction (2019) advocates, ‘increased access to risk information’ and that, ‘low risk awareness is one of the main challenges.’ Given that the LTIBs are intended to put risk and opportunity information in the public domain, the argument for transparency of the National Risk Register seems compelling.

A well-resourced, independent, apolitical Commissioner could objectively assess NZ’s approach to catastrophic risks, given that we now know ‘consistent with international best practice’ was nowhere near adequate for the risk of Covid-19. This Commissioner could also help overcome siloed orthodoxy and cognitive biases, through support for the public sector chief executives and the LTIBs process.

A Commissioner could also invest in a public facing interactive tool where users can adjust assumptions and see how various societal values and risk probability and impact assessments lead to different risk prioritisation. Such a communication tool is necessary to unpack some of the opacity of the risk assessment process and provide the language for independent peer-reviewers, stakeholders, and the public to engage with the government on risk mitigation.

To the credit of the UN SG’s report, Covid-19 is framed as an impetus to prepare not just for another pandemic, but for a range of global risks. Fortunately, most of the risk is contained in human activities such as biological engineering, uses of artificial intelligence, nuclear weapons, environmental manipulations, climate emissions, and so on (as per Ord 2020). This means that humanity has the power to vastly reduce the risk and secure a flourishing future.

However, there are key challenges to overcome when implementing these futures mechanisms. For example, we know that a suite of human cognitive biases such as groupthink, inattention bias, and difficulties with probabilistic and exponential thinking work against action to mitigate catastrophic risks. Former Chief Science Advisor Sir Peter Gluckman identified some of these in his report ‘Uncertain but Inevitable’, published earlier in 2021.

The LTIBs and other future oriented work can be leveraged to identify and plan to overcome catastrophic risk. However, the Briefings will not cover every risk, and may be focused on local rather than global threats. It is essential that a central aggregating and prioritisation mechanism exists with a view across the risks, seeing them as a set and seeing their interconnected and global importance.

The UN SG writes:

‘[t]his requires stronger legal frameworks, better tools for managing risks, better data, the identification and anticipation of future risks, and proper financing of prevention and preparedness.’

Hence there is a UN recommendation for countries to establish the sort of thing we are advocating in our paper. This is fortuitous because in our paper we suggest that the Commissioner for Extreme Risks could engage internationally and catalyse collaborative efforts, for example with Australia and Pacific neighbours.

If each country acts according to its strengths, then we can overcome these risks. NZ for example, as a temperate and remote island nation, is well-placed to resist catastrophic pandemics and winter-inducing scenarios such as nuclear war, supervolcanic eruption and comet or asteroid impacts. Policy could focus in part on these natural strengths with programmes aimed at enhancing self-sufficiency and demonstrating effective measures to other islands.

It is notable that many risk reduction activities, such as strengthening health systems, cooperating internationally, or enhancing food security will have tangible impacts here and now, regardless of future risks.

If every country plays their part as the inspiring call from the UN SG requires, then humanity can move more confidently toward a flourishing future, protected from pandemic disease, other biological threats to health and wellbeing and the suite of other catastrophic and existential threats.

This blog has been also syndicated by Public Health Expert

*Author details: Matt Boyd is an independent researcher of health, technology and catastrophic risk:,, @matt_adapt. Nick Wilson is a professor of public health at the University of Otago Wellington.

Further Reading

  • Beard, S., & Torres, P. (2020). Identifying and Assessing the Drivers of Global Catastrophic Risk: A Review and Proposal for the Global Challenges Foundation. Retrieved from Stockholm:
  • Boston, J. (2021) ‘Assessing the options for combatting democratic myopia and safeguarding long-term interests’, Futures, 125, 102668, doi: 10.1016/j.futures.2020.102668
  • Bostrom, N. and M. Cirkovic (Eds.) (2008). Global Catastrophic Risks, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Boyd, M., and N. Wilson (2021). Aotearoa New Zealand would benefit from anticipatory central governance for preventing and mitigating catastrophic and existential risks. Policy Quarterly.
  • Boyd, M., and N. Wilson (2020) ‘Existential Risks to Humanity Should Concern International Policymakers and More Could Be Done in Considering Them at the International Governance Level’, Risk Analysis, 40 (11), pp.2303–2312, doi: 10.1111/risa.13566
  • Boyd, M. and N. Wilson (2018) ‘Existential Risks: New Zealand needs a method to agree on a value framework and how to quantify future lives at risk’, Policy Quarterly, 14 (3), pp.58–65, doi: 10.26686/pq.v14i3.5105
  • Gluckman, P. and A. Bardsley (2021) Uncertain but Inevitable: the expert-policy-political nexus and high-impact risks. Auckland: Koi Tu Centre for Informed Futures. Retrieved from: (Accessed 31 July 2021)
  • Ord, T. (2020) The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity. London: Bloomsbury.


Long-term Insights Briefings: NZ Ministry of Health

Using the MoH as an example, the following might all be considered as part of a ten-plus year vision of opportunities and risks:

  • Pandemic preparedness
  • Bioweapons, bioengineering, synthetic biology and catastrophic risks
  • Climate disruption and health
  • Demographic transitions (age-groups, ethnic groups, migrants) and trends in health inequalities
  • Antimicrobial resistance
  • Health system infrastructure
  • Health workforce needs
  • Precision medicine
  • Artificial intelligence and health
  • Democratisation of healthcare
  • Remote service delivery
  • Malicious actors and cyber threats at health services

National Risk Register Shortcomings

Examining the UK’s public facing National Risk Register, there are some serious shortcomings including, but certainly not limited to:

  • The values and assumptions underpinning the summary risk matrix are opaque to a casual observer.
  • The magnitude of the threat from ‘emerging infectious diseases’ for the UK (ie, Covid-19-like organisms) was ‘up to 100 fatalities’ in the 2017 version, indicating an error of three orders of magnitude in the risk assessment.
  • Volcanism was only added to the register after the 2010 eruption of the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull, showing that key risks were not assessed.
  • The register has been criticised as over securitised and biased by vested interests.
  • The time horizon of 2–5 years is manifestly inadequate to plan for future risks.
  • Potentially rare events, such as supervolcanic eruption or nuclear winter, are excluded but may harbour substantial risk (as per work by Ord 2020).

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An Australian politician’s take on populism and existential risks

What's the Worst That Could Happen? | The MIT Press

In this post, I summarise and review the book What’s the worst that could happen?: Existential risks and extreme politics – by Australian politician Andrew Leigh (published 9 Nov 2021)

TLDR the TLDR: Populism enhances x-risks

TLDR: Andrew Leigh argues that the short-sighted politics of populism has enhanced existential risk. Populism is driven by problems of jobs, snobs, race, pace and luck. We can control populism by strengthening democratic systems and being stoic. However, Leigh says little about addressing the causes of populism itself. 

Intro and purpose of the book 

Australian Labour Party representative Andrew Leigh used his time during the Covid-19 disruptions to write a short book on existential risks to humanity (x-risk).

In the book, Leigh leverages longtermist thinking, describes the various x-risks (ie extreme pandemics, climate change, nuclear war, artificial superintelligence, environmental degradation, asteroid/comet impact) and couples this with observations about the rise of populist politics.

He concludes that not only does populism raise the probability of totalitarian dystopia, but it undermines our ability to prevent and mitigate x-risks generally. 

In what follows I outline his approach chapter-by-chapter and conclude with thoughts of my own. 

Why the future matters

The first chapter starts from the premise that a future utopia is inevitable if humanity survives long enough. This claim emerges by extrapolating a historical trajectory from our tough Iron Age existence through to modern comforts, and then beyond. Leigh rejects discounting the value of future lives, ‘discounting at a rate of 5 percent implies that Christopher Columbus is worth more than all 8 billion people alive today’ (p.8). Similarly, our lives today are no more important than those of future generations and we have a responsibility to those generations. 

Leigh notes, however, that our survival is not a given and points out that someone’s risk of dying from an extinction event is higher than many other common risks. He provides psychological (availability heuristic) and economic (campaign contributions) reasons why policy is biased against preventing human extinction. 

This situation is exacerbated by the rise of political populism. Leigh defines populists as those who claim to represent ‘the people’ in a challenge to ‘the elites’ who are painted as dishonest or corrupt. Populists can represent the left or right of the political spectrum, have little respect for experts, and tend to champion immediate priorities. They are ‘drivers distracted by back seat squabbles’ (p.14). 

Leigh’s use of accessible metaphors involving bar fights, stolen wallets, and football make this introduction simultaneously an easy read, and the most Australian work on x-risk to date. 

The next five chapters survey the threats from biorisks, climate change, nuclear war and artificial superintelligence as well as a chapter on probability and risk. Leigh describes each risk and canvasses a suite of standardly recommended policy options specific to them. For those not familiar with such background the chapters are an easy introduction to x-risks. 

‘For each of the existential risks we face, there are sensible approaches that could curtail the dangers. For all the risks we face, a better politics will lead to a safer world’ (p.15). 


Biological threats, both naturally occurring and human-created, are the focus of Chapter 2. Leigh uses historical examples (plague, cholera, pandemics, biological attacks), tabletop simulations (Clade X, Event 201), and popular culture, ‘someone doesn’t have to weaponize the bird flu–the birds are already doing that,’ says Lawrence Fishburne’s character in Contagion (p.22). Leigh calls out biological weapons programmes, those that skirted the law (the Soviet Union, Saddam Hussein) and acquaints the reader with the risks of synthetic biology. 

Repeatedly, Leigh refers to popular fiction to make his points. Anecdotally, biotech entrepreneur Craig Venter recommended the book The Cobra Event, to Bill Clinton and this influenced biorisk policy.

Leigh highlights Scott Galloway’s observation that since more people die from disease than war, it might be reasonable to trade the CDC’s $7 billion budget for the Pentagon’s $700 billion budget (this made me reflect on general criticism of the military-industrial complex as a driver of runaway military spending, based around lobbying and vested interests. One possible future sees Boeing and Lockheed Martin coaxed into healthcare technology, generating the same revenues but with new focus). The chapter ends with a catch-all summary of previously published strategies for minimizing biothreats. 

Climate change

Chapter 3 surveys the issue of climate change. There is only so much that can be said in 21 pages (compare the 40,000 people who attended COP26 recently, and the gigabytes of documents flying around). It is noted that likely increases of 3–4 degrees C will be experienced by 2100, but importantly modelling suggests a 10 percent probability of 6 degrees C. If various ‘tipping points’ and ‘carbon bombs’ (p38–39), lead us to this unlikely but possible destination, then things could get very bad. 

In this chapter Leigh really starts to escalate his hints that populist politics is exacerbating x-risk. He cites the actions of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. However, Leigh also notes that mitigations against climate change don’t hinge on longtermism, there are here-and-now economic reasons to act, as well as common ground across the political spectrum such as tree planting, and efficiency standards. 

Nuclear weapons

Chapter 4 conveys the precariousness of the nuclear stalemate. We read the stories of close calls such as the Cuban missile crisis and the role of Vasili Arkhipov in averting nuclear disaster. Tales from Dr Strangelove introduce us to mutually assured destruction (MAD) and the Russian ‘Dead Hand’ retaliatory mechanism.

Leigh argues that the increasingly many nuclear powers make it mathematically more likely there will be conflict. Nuclear conflict could also begin if a terrorist nuclear attack gave the appearance that a nuclear power had launched a strike. These scenarios could lead to a possible nuclear winter and agricultural failure. Again, the actions of populists such as Trump (withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal) tend towards further destabilisation. 

A survey of actions to minimize nuclear risk is given, with Leigh advocating a ‘Manhatten Project II’ (p.72), to denuclearize the world. Although, there is no mention of the economics of the nuclear weapon industry and how vested economic interests might sustain the number of weapons. However, Leigh wittily notes that, ‘By sending Dead Hand to the grave, Russia would make the planet a safer place’ (p.71). 

Artificial Intelligence

The chapter on AI again follows fairly standard exposition of the risks that superintelligence poses. Hooking the reader into the looming power of AI with further Aussie-as statements such as, ‘playing chess and Go against machines, humans have about the same chance of victory as a regular guy might have of winning a boxing match against Tyson Fury’ (p.76). We read about the ‘intelligence explosion’, the ‘control problem’, and the ‘King Midas’ problem. True to form as a former professor of economics and now politician Leigh notes that, ‘the problem of encoding altruism into a computer is akin to the challenge of writing a watertight tax code’ (p.78). 

Among several possible strategies for mitigating the risk of AI, Leigh introduces Stuart Russell’s notion that programmers should focus on, ‘building computers that are observant, humble and altruistic’ (p.84). Such machines would consult humans to learn what we want. As I’ve noted in a previous post, the problem here seems to be engineering the humans not the machines. In the end, Leigh suggests we may need enforceable treaties to ensure embedding of human values, banning of autonomous killing, and promoting collaboration over competition to manage the emergence of great intelligence, not if, but when it occurs. 

What are the odds?

Chapter 6 consists of a brief survey of other x-risks, as well as analysis of their probabilities when compared to a range of common risks. It is in this chapter that I felt like Leigh made two mistakes. 

Firstly, he expresses the probability of the risks discussed in Chapters 2 to 5 and other risks such as comet/asteroid impact, supervolcanic eruptions, and anthropogenic degradation of the environment, in terms of probability across a century, but then compares these to the ‘reader’s risk of dying from X, in the next year’. This comparison of apples and oranges is flawed for two reasons: 

  1. The probability of the anthropogenic risks, in particular, is non-stationary. For example, the risk of AI killing us all is not 1 in 1000 next year (as 1 in 10 ‘this century’) would imply. It is far lower at present, but likely to rise far higher, per annum, across time (until we control it or succumb to it). This reasoning does not necessarily apply to the natural risks, although see posts such as this one arguing that volcanic risk is rising.
  2. Psychologically, it makes more sense to compare per century risks of catastrophe with per lifetime rather than per annum risks to personal wellbeing. 

The second mistake I felt Leigh made is to introduce a hodgepodge of risks that have a greater probability in his estimation (which is based on Toby Ord’s), than some of the risks to which he has devoted entire preceding chapters. For example, cascading ecosystem failures appear to have a higher probability of causing human extinction than nuclear war. Arguably, there is some internal inconsistency of communication and emphasis in the book (though I certainly recognise nuclear threat as major). 

As an aside, I’ve always found it interesting that the number of humans killed by ‘all natural disasters’ (eg flood, storm, earthquake, volcano, tsunami), as reported by Our World in Data, is approximately 60,000 per year, whereas crude annualization of x-risk probabilities as gestured toward by Leigh (though not made explicit in the book) suggest that the following risks are all greater in expected fatalities than all natural disasters combined: unaligned AI (8 million annualised deaths in expectation), engineered pandemic (2.7 million), nuclear war (80,000), climate change (80,000), environmental damage (80,000). This seems to be another CDC vs Department of Defence situation. Where, really, should we be funnelling our resources?

Regardless of the rhetorical method, Leigh makes it clear that some unlikely risks, such as asteroid/comet impact are already receiving significant government attention. This, coupled with the argument I’ve just outlined, certainly indicates that national risk assessment (NRA) and national risk register (NRR) methodologies may not be fit for purpose.

The crux of the book

Leigh next turns to populism and its relationship to totalitarianism, a threat recognised by the x-risk community because it could permanently curtail the potential of humanity. 

We should probably pay more attention to these two chapters, and the penultimate one on democratic systems. This is because Leigh is a politician with over a decade of experience in the Australian House of Representatives. Therefore, we might infer some insider insight into the machinations of power and government, and it would be wise to grant him the floor to express his concerns. 

The populist risk

In the preceding chapter, Leigh began to hint at the risk of totalitarianism, but it is here in Chapter 7, the longest chapter, that this threat comes to the foreground. Reiterating the rise of populist politics in recent years, we are reacquainted with the populist’s quest to foster a conflict between, ‘a pure mass of people and a vile elite’ (p.103). Populists can arise from all sides of the political spectrum. Conceptually there are four quadrants: 

 Left (equality)Right (liberty)
InternationalistInternational egalitarians (Obama, Biden)International libertarians (Romney, Bush)
PopulistPopulist egalitarians (Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez)Populist libertarians (Trump, Palin) 

Leigh claims that certain ideas have historically been particularly contagious. These include communism, capitalism, and populism. Furthermore, the world is becoming more populist in recent decades. 

According to Leigh, there are five causes of this recent resurgence in populist politics:

  1. Jobs: low quality employment, work and wage insecurity
  2. Snobs: party elites who don’t take the populist threat seriously 
  3. Race: fear of difference, impressionable masses responding to racist rhetoric 
  4. Pace: rapid, disorienting, technological and cultural transformation
  5. Luck: some elections are very close and could have gone either way

On the issue of ‘snobs’, it certainly appears to me that elections have been stolen, but not as Trump claims, it’s by populists, from inflexible snobs! – see also Thomas Piketty’s arguments about the Brahmin Left and Merchant Right, left wing politicians now appeal to an educated class, rather than their traditional union base. 

With respect to ‘luck’, I’m left wondering if this is a one-way valve. Do many populists try their hand, but only a few succeed by luck? However, once they then have power, they tend to rig the system to maintain their control. 

Populism allegedly poses a threat to longtermism (and by implication x-risk mitigation), because populists:

  • reject strong science
  • reject effective institutions
  • reject global engagement
  • reject a sense of cooperation

However, the fact that populists are ‘anti’ these four things is the reason for their electoral appeal! Leigh proceeds to provide numerous examples of populists exhibiting these traits. Anti-internationalism in particular undermines hope of addressing x-risks, which by their nature may require global cooperation. Leigh argues that, therefore, the risk populism imposes on our future is greater than the risk it poses now. 

To reiterate, Leigh is arguing that five issues (jobs, snobs, race, pace, luck) have led to the rise in populism and that populism increases the risk from x-risks, due to its short-term focus and ‘anti’ emphasis. 

Totalitarianism – the death of democracy

In Chapter 8, we see the potential horror of widespread totalitarianism, which might emerge from the increasing hold that populism has around the world. Leigh says that widespread totalitarianism is, ‘not among [Toby] Ord’s top concerns, but does rank in mine’ (p.96). However, to me there is some equivocation over ‘totalitarianism’ in the works of Ord (The Precipice) versus the present book, with Ord focusing more on x-risk (permanently curtailing the future of humanity), whereas Leigh is more concerned with terrible national or regional states of affairs. 

We are led through the histories of Adolf Hitler, Hugo Chavez, and Ferdinand Marcos, in a search for commonalities. What we discover is that these populists initially came to power through fair democratic processes, before devolving their democracies into authoritarian regimes. Recently, in Hungary and Turkey populist outsiders similarly won elections (due to jobs, snobs, race, pace, and luck) then used their acquired power to attack institutions, often in imperceptible steps. 

Leigh catalogues ‘seven deadly sins’ (p.138) indicating that a leader is degrading democracy into an authoritarian regime. However, I felt that the inherent tension between the need for totalitarianism to be global for it to ‘permanently curtail the potential of humanity’ and the inward-looking nationalism of populists, seems to preclude populism as a pathway to a global totalitarian x-risk, although things could still get very bad, and populism can no doubt amplify other risks. 

Fixing Politics

Leigh’s roadmap to fixing politics is probably the most disappointing aspect of the book. This is because having identified populism as a driver of x-risk and having identified five causes of populism, he then focuses his remedy on building stronger democracies (presumably to resist degradation by populists) rather than focusing on the underlying causes. Populists win elections in strong democracies and then re-jig the rules to suit themselves. So it’s not so clear how creating better rules is the ultimate solution. 

Regardless, we are offered a suite of sensible democratic reforms, tinkering and strengthening of democracies particularly where the necessary continuous tinkering and strengthening has ceased (the last US constitutional amendment favouring democracy was 50 years ago). 

Leigh favours mass participation in elections, promoting the compulsory Australian system. He favours convenient voting methods, independent redistricting, and reform of electoral-college systems where the popular vote may not determine who wins. Leigh also favours controls on the export of technologies that can sustain totalitarianism, such as facial recognition systems. 

Many of Leigh’s proposals are positive steps, and I support a number, but none of them cut to the heart of the issue, which is the need to address jobs, snobs, race, pace, and luck so that populists cannot win free and fair elections in countries with strong democracies. In only one paragraph on p.153–4 (of 167) does the argument link proposed reforms to these five causes, and only two causes are addressed. 


A final chapter summarises the argument with reference to risk and insurance. X-risks are not a concern because they are likely, they are a concern because they would be unbearable. This is why we need insurance against them. To overcome the tendency for politicians to focus on the likely rather than the devastating, we must resist populism, strengthen democracy, and practice more wisdom. In Leigh’s mind, these traits are synonymous with the philosophy of Stoicism and the political philosophy of John Rawls. We need courage, prudence, justice, and moderation. 

‘A stoic approach to politics means spending less time caught up in the cycle of outrage and devoting more energy to making an enduring difference’ (p.164)

Perhaps it is through Stoicism that we address jobs, snobs, race, pace, and luck. 


I enjoyed this book, but mostly because it was such an accessible summary of things I’d already learned during seven years’ engagement with x-risk content and the x-risk community. The book provides an accessible, entertaining introduction to x-risks for those not already immersed in the field. It benefitted from the simple style, amusing metaphors and Australianisms. 

On the other hand, the solutions proposed, in my view, don’t really address the problems identified. We are offered an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. Or perhaps a more Aussie take might be that we are advised to piss on our houses to protect them from a bushfire. 

However, we often imagine that politicians are unreceptive to long-term issues. What’s the worst that could happen? demonstrates that there are representatives sympathetic to the issues of x-risk and future generations. We can try to leverage these politicians, amplify their voice, and connect such individuals with x-risk academic work via policy work on x-risks. Relevant examples of such work includes: 

I personally also think it is important to continue to develop arguments that demonstrate why x-risk is a priority here and now, not merely through a longtermist lens. Then we can cast the net as widely as possible, and convince those who will never be focused on the long term. Arguments that highlight flaws in national risk assessment and national risk register processes, and remedy these so that x-risk is rationally included under the extant scope of these devices are valuable, as are cost-effectiveness analyses grounded in the same short-termism standardly deployed in government. My back of the envelope calculations indicate this is an approach ripe for elaboration. 

However, the work should extend beyond specific policies addressing x-risks separately or in combination, to ways we can strengthen democracies, and perhaps more importantly, reduce the likelihood of populist leaders emerging in the first place by addressing the issues of jobs, snobs, race, pace, and the role of luck. I was disappointed that What’s the worst that could happen? didn’t finish this analysis, yet to be fair, this is a book that you can read in a day and is a worthy introduction to x-risk for the uninitiated. 

Future work and funding

Australia has a relatively new ‘Commission for the Human Future‘ and I have been in favour of similar initiatives in New Zealand.

Earlier in 2021 I unsuccessfully applied for funding to drive such an initiative and you can read my application to the Effective Altruism Infrastructure Fund here.

I’m very interested to talk with anyone who might like to collaborate on, or fund, such a project aimed at understanding and reducing x-risk from a New Zealand perspective.

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Covid-19 the Prequel: Lessons learned from a day-by-day account before the WHO uttered ‘pandemic’

Free Printable December 2019 Calendar

“COVID-19 has shown that assumptions about disease emergence and transmission and capabilities to respond to infectious disease threats are not only incorrect but pose a risk to global health security.”

A new article in the Lancet (8 November 2021) provides a peer-reviewed chronological analysis of crucial junctures and international obligations in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic.

What happened day by day, where, why, or why not?

The information was gathered by the Independent Panel for Pandemic Preparedness and Response. The Panel was co-chaired by former New Zealand Prime Minister the Rt Hon. Helen Clark, and Her Excellency Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former President of Liberia.

The following post blends the findings of this report with my interpretation of the early response to (future) pandemic-threatening outbreaks.

The article provides the following timeline of Covid-19 emergence (much more detail can be found in the Lancet article):

  • November 2019: human to human transmission was probably occurring in China (later evidenced by phylogenetic studies and epidemic growth rates)
  • 8 Dec 2019: a patient is symptomatic with atypical pneumonia in a Wuhan hospital
  • 24 Dec 2019: the patient’s lung fluid sent to a private laboratory in Guangzhou
  • 26 Dec 2019: a woman with fever and cough in Wuhan has a chest CT suggesting pneumonia of unknown origin
  • 27 Dec 2019: the woman’s husband and son have the same findings
  • ‘Late’ 2019: possible spread of virus outside of China (weak evidence from heterogeneous unverified studies)
  • 30 Dec 2019: Wuhan Municipal Health Commission issues first notices to hospitals with instructions not to share!
  • 31 Dec 2019: Finance Sina reports the story, a machine translated version of the story is published on an emerging diseases monitoring website and picked up by the WHO.
  • 31 Dec 2019: Taiwan and Hong Kong begin preparing interventions and screening travellers from Wuhan.
  • 31 Dec 2019: Wuhan Municipal Health Commission issues a public bulletin describing 27 cases of pneumonia of unknown origin (not sent to WHO!)
  • 5 Jan 2020: WHO notifies all country governments
  • 5–7 Jan 2020: Multiple sequences of viral genome completed
  • 8 Jan 2020: Case detected in Thailand by airport screening
  • 10 Jan 2020: PCR test for virus developed
  • 11 Jan 2020: PCR test for virus deployed
  • 14 Jan 2020: WHO tweet states there is ‘no clear evidence of person-to-person transmission… but “possible”’
  • 20 Jan 2020: confirmed human-to-human transmission (health workers infected)
  • 22 Jan 2020: WHO International Health Regulations (IHR) emergency committee convened
  • 23 Jan 2020: 581 cases confirmed including 10 outside of China
  • 23 Jan 2020: Strict public health measures in Wuhan (retrospective analysis indicates that 86% of cases were undetected at this point)
  • 24 Jan 2020: WHO recommends against travel restrictions
  • 30 Jan 2020: Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) declared by WHO Emergency Committee but travel restrictions recommended against, WHO director general states we must ‘protect weaker health systems’ (this perhaps implied that ‘stronger’ ones might not need to prepare much)
  • Computational models predict virus spread along air traffic routes (which could have allowed mass targeted surveillance testing)
  • 11 March 2020: the word ‘pandemic’ is used by the WHO Director General
  • 11 March 2020: First European country (Italy) enacts national lockdown

An interpretation of this timeline

My interpretation of this timeline goes something like this:

Given the extreme global threat of an out-of-control novel respiratory pathogen, in the future, cases like that admitted to a Wuhan hospital on 8 Dec 2019 should have samples taken immediately and any viruses isolated and sequenced. If the genome bears any remote similarity to respiratory pathogens of concern, then a public health emergency of international concern (or some similar alert) should be issued immediately (ie at least a month before it was for Covid-19).

The family cluster on Dec 27 is suggestive (though not proof of) human-to-human transmission. Given the extreme global threat of an out-of-control novel respiratory pathogen, in the future, human-to-human transmission should be assumed at this point, and the WHO informed. Given the retrospective analysis mentioned above, in the future, we must assume there are many more cases than data suggests at an early stage.

The question of whether the virus was spreading outside of China before 2020 is critically relevant. This is because strong public health measures can quash an outbreak like Covid-19 in its early stages, as measures in countries like Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia, and China have repeatedly shown. And with a limited number of identifiable outbreaks very strong initial measures would be justified to prevent a pandemic. However, with widespread and undetected escape of a virus like Covid-19 the argument for strong lockdowns is weakened.

Given the extreme global threat of an out-of-control novel respiratory pathogen, in the future, we should conduct very widespread and rapid initial testing worldwide (targeting transport hubs). In the future we must ensure:

  • A substantial supply of testing capacity (this will mean planning to develop and deploy a test at scale within days of outbreak notification)
  • Dispensing with ‘criteria’ for testing. With Covid-19 many probable cases were not tested because the criteria and case definitions targeted only travellers from Wuhan or those who had contact with travellers from Wuhan.

Speedy action is critical. As evidenced by the fact that Taiwan and Hong Kong had some of the best pandemic responses globally through 2020, and they acted weeks before the PHEIC was finally declared. Given the extreme global threat of an out-of-control novel respiratory pathogen, there is nothing stopping every country in the world acting at the same point in an outbreak (ie the equivalent of 31 December 2019 in the Covid-19 situation) and preferably earlier (as above).

In sum, it should be possible to identify a similar virus of concern at least 16 days earlier (testing on 8 Dec vs 24 Dec as above) and therefore prepare to act internationally on a date equivalent to 15 Dec 2019 (16 days before Taiwan and Hong Kong did). Extreme public health measures at the point of origin could then be enacted on the equivalent of Dec 27–30, when suspicion of human-to-human transmission emerges along with case series reports. This would be nearly a month earlier than Wuhan did in fact lockdown. This apparent ‘overreaction’ would be justified by the global health and financial impact in expectation, conditional on the finding of person-to-person spread of a SARS-like respiratory virus (see ‘cost effectiveness’ below).

Recommendations of the Independent Panel

On the basis of the timeline above the Independent Panel recommends reform of existing laws, governance systems, the IHR, and a pandemic treaty.

The Panel’s notes and recommendations include (a fuller discussion is found in the Lancet article):

  • That the IHR are less proactive and time-sensitive than is optimal in the face of a high-transmission respiratory pathogen.
    • Remove constraints on WHO reporting publicly prior to verification
    • Streamline the WHO verification process
    • Ensure open and transparent proceedings of the Emergency Committee
    • Presume assistance/cooperation of States Parties will be needed
  • There must be a ‘special urgency’ around coordinated, evidence-based, and international governance for zoonotic risk.
  • Rigorous translational activities, including the use of epidemic simulations that test capabilities, should be used to identify deficiencies to correct (this item seems particularly relevant to New Zealand given the general sense of playing catch up with public health capabilities even when future need is identified – had NZ simulated contact tracing 200 cases per day?)
  • Proactive global surveillance (not syndromic testing) when a respiratory pathogen suspected
  • Future outbreaks should be approached with a ‘rebuttable presumption’ of sustained human-to-human and asymptomatic transmission
  • Assume far wider spread than is evidenced by the data
  • Full and immediate reporting of any possible high-impact respiratory pathogen to WHO (through a process more expedient than the present IHR requires)
  • Full authority should be granted to WHO to investigate pathogens with cross-border potential
  • The WHO Emergency Committee should give greater weight to the potential costs of not declaring a PHEIC
  • A global pandemic treaty should be created centred on the principle of equity
  • Generally, much broader deployment of the precautionary principle


Some may question the cost-effectiveness of extreme initial public health measures, given the severe costs imposed by border closures and lockdowns. However, the cost-effectiveness must be seen at a global level. Extended and repeated extreme lockdowns implemented globally are clearly not cost-effective for a Covid-like virus (when using thresholds typical for health interventions, as a number of analyses have shown), but shorter lockdowns targeted to quash the outbreak in its early phases may well be highly desirable (when seen in a global context).

The total global cost of the Covid-19 pandemic is estimated to be well over US$20 trillion. Even if only 1 in 100 concerning outbreaks of respiratory pathogens with suspected human-to-human spread would in fact lead to a Covid-like pandemic, then it is rational to spend up to US$200 billion to ensure we stop each one. Some lockdowns in New Zealand were costing NZ$1 billion per week. Back of the envelope calculations therefore suggest the world could implement extreme public health measures for 6 weeks, across 30 or 40 locations of 5 million people to ensure strict control of an outbreak is obtained, and to do this on 100 separate occasions, and still be better off for it! The proof of concept is the success of even Wuhan’s (late) lockdown. Lesser measures might have worked if enacted a month sooner and simulations of spread via travel hubs points to where we should act.

However, given that the cost-effectiveness must be seen at a global level, there must be mechanisms enacted to ensure just and equitable impact across the world, so that regions that must necessarily undertake extreme public health measures to prevent a global pandemic are compensated for these measures. This is in the interests of all States and should be worked into the refreshed IHR.

However, the critical caveat is that strict public health measures will rapidly become cost ineffective if endlessly repeated during the same outbreak or continued for too long. We must take extreme measures initially but be prepared to rapidly reduce them if they fail. Some a priori public debate around cost-effectiveness of extreme measures, and in particular the value of life in pandemic situations is warranted.

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