Island refuges

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Island refuges could protect against existential risks

We think that appropriately prepared islands could ensure populations survive certain kinds of existential or global catastrophic threats.

More than that, we believe that well prepared island refuges could help accelerate recovery from extreme pandemics or nuclear war and reboot civilisation in a way that bunkers harbouring fewer people with more limited technology and expertise would struggle to do.

Human extinction might be avoided by protecting small hubs of human civilisation so that extinction threats cannot impact every last person, or by optimising the resilience of societies located in areas of comparative safety.

Some islands could thrive in pandemics and nuclear winter

Certain island refuges could protect large populations from devastating biological threats, such as pandemics due to engineered bioweapons.

  • Responses to the Covid-19 pandemic proved that some islands can avoid infection for long periods of time, and perhaps indefinitely with appropriate preparations.

Some islands appear well placed to survive even severe nuclear winters and are located far from likely attack sites.

  • With appropriate diversification towards resilient agriculture, alternative foods and well-managed fish stocks some islands might successfully cope with severe winter scenarios and flourish in a subsequent recovery phase.

Why aren’t bunkers enough?

Some people suggest developing self-contained bunkers or shelters to survive biological weapons attacks. We think that bunkers might be a good last resort, but we think that we should also attempt to maximise the chances of larger populations for the following reasons:

  • Islands could protect more people, providing a much larger and much more diverse founder population
  • With planning, this island population could harbour a wide diversity of cultures and languages
  • People inhabiting islands during ‘peacetime’ are living their usual lives unlike those rotating through bunkers
  • Islands already exist, and at scale, they just need optimising
  • Bunkers may be much more expensive per person protected
  • Bunkers by their nature will have a more limited ‘civilisation reboot package’ to leverage off in the recovery phase
  • Some bunkers might be ‘in the firing line’ for some threats
  • Islands offer the potential for persisting hubs of complexity with key technologies functionally sustained

We think that ‘civilisational recovery drills’ from core information stores are important to test, but we think it is much better to not lose civilisation in the first place.

Our work on island refuges to date

Border closure for island nations can be cost-effective in the face of severe pandemics, even non-existential ones. Our modelling studies explored some key scenarios:

Depending on the kind of threat, islands such as New Zealand, Australia or Iceland might be able to be self-sustaining and even flourishing through extreme pandemics.

Various kinds of threats might be mitigated by islands implementing refuge activity

Especially if we can learn from failures during previous catastrophes and improve our understanding of protective measures

Next steps to ensure humanity’s safety

Our work to date has been largely conceptual and theoretical, although we are currently undertaking an analysis of food exports in the New Zealand setting and the logistics of redirecting these locally, under circumstances of reduced yield, in a refuge situation.

Next we want to identify a range of concrete steps that specific islands can take to improve their resilience to global catastrophe, and examine the cost-effectiveness and ethical dimensions of these approaches.

We are actively seeking funding for the following work programme:

  • Identify criteria that islands might use when determining when to enter ‘refuge mode’ and temporarily isolate from the world (and hence the threat) until the risk has passed.
  • Identify border policies in the Covid-19 pandemic that were most successful in keeping the virus out, and stamping outbreaks out
  • Identify the failure modes that resulted in zero-tolerance jurisdictions suffering Covid-19 outbreaks and potential solutions to these
  • Undertake case studies of selected islands to determine what investments and developments are yet needed to ensure enduring self-sufficiency
  • Undertake case studies of promising island refuges to determine which key agricultural, industrial or fabrication technologies might be developed to maximise potential to reboot civilisation
  • Investigate the ethical aspects of island refuges, in particular stranded citizens, equity, representation of humanity, lifeboat ethics, and business harm from ‘false alarms’.
  • Determine the day-to-day benefits that might accrue to islands that address some of the above issues, eg improved public health, economic growth, and resilience to common natural disasters.
  • Undertake cost-effectiveness analysis of the most promising interventions

We aim to spread the idea that islands are well placed to survive some of the most devastating catastrophes. But more than that, we want to help ensure that some islands are prepared enough that their populations will flourish even under these seriously adverse circumstances.

Ultimately we envision a think tank directly addressing the issue of islands as refuge, an accessible maturity model (a play book!) of actions island societies could take to optimise resilience to pandemics and nuclear winter, and a global network of island policymakers sharing ideas.

Ensuring flourishing hubs of complex thriving society can protect the long-term flourishing of humanity.

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