[Paleopsych] NYTBR: (Posner) 'Catastrophe': Apocalypse When?

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'Catastrophe': Apocalypse When?
New York Times Book Review, 5.1.2

Risk and Response.
By Richard A. Posner.
322 pp. Oxford University Press. $28.

AN asteroid colliding with the earth could cause the
extinction of our species. Is this a risk worth worrying
about? More important, is it a risk worth doing something
about? Richard A. Posner, a judge on the United States
Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, who produces more
books in his leisure hours than most authors do working
full time, thinks it is.

We should also, he argues, be doing more about other
improbable catastrophes. Global warming could cause the
melting of icecaps, releasing huge amounts of methane that
accelerate further warming, forming a cloud layer so dense
as to block out heat from the sun and cause us to go into a
deep freeze. High-energy particle accelerators, used by
physicists to investigate the fundamental laws of nature,
could produce particles that create hyperdense ''strange
matter'' that in turn might attract nearby nuclei, thus
growing larger and attracting ever more nuclei, until the
entire planet is compressed into a sphere no more than 100
meters in diameter.

Not worried about these possibilities? Then what about the
prospect of bioterrorists genetically modifying an
incurable strain of smallpox that wipes out the human
species? That might seem a more realistic scenario.

''Catastrophe'' lives up to its title. But it is no sci-fi
potboiler, and there will be no movie. Posner made his name
defending an economically rational approach to the law, and
his new book is dense with complex calculations of the
expected costs of catastrophic events, and the amount worth
spending in attempts to avert them. The expected costs of a
future event are the costs of that event, if it should
happen, divided by the probability that it will happen.
Thus, if I offer you $1,000 if a tossed coin turns up
heads, the expected cost of my offer is $500. (Suppose I
offer you $100,000 if a card drawn at random from a full
pack is the ace of spades. Would you prefer that offer to
$1,000 tied to the toss of the coin? Anyone interested in
maximizing his assets would: the expected cost of that
offer to me -- and hence the expected value to you -- is

When a catastrophe is really catastrophic -- and Posner, it
should be emphasized, isn't writing about ''minor''
disasters like the terrorist attacks of 9/11 -- it can have
a significant expected cost, even if the event is extremely
improbable. Consider, for example, the risk that a
high-energy particle accelerator will produce a ''strange
matter'' disaster. The official risk-assessment team for
one of these accelerators, at the Brookhaven National
Laboratory, offered a series of estimates, one of which
puts the annual risk of a disaster at one in five million.
That seems a very small risk. But since the disaster would
kill six billion people, that estimate gives it an expected
cost of 1,200 lives per year. Even if the risk is estimated
more conservatively at one in a billion, it has an expected
annual cost of six lives. Would we build such an
accelerator if we knew that six people would die every year
in which it operates?

In the third and most difficult chapter of ''Catastrophe,''
Posner explores ways of calculating the costs of
catastrophic risks and of possible responses to them. He
rebuts the claim that it is not cost-effective to do
anything about global warming, an argument that invariably
relies on heavily discounting disasters that will not occur
for 50 or 100 years. We may wish to invest money to
generate wealth rather than spending it to avert gradual
global warming, but, as Posner suggests, the victims of the
warming are likely to be concentrated in poor countries and
will not necessarily benefit from the increased wealth
generated by the richer nations. (On the other hand,
abrupt, spiraling global warming that flips over into a
deep freeze could kill us all, and then increased wealth
will not do us any good anyway.)

Any economic discussion of the expected cost of catastrophe
must put a dollar value on human life. Some will object to
this in principle, but unless we can agree on a figure, it
will be impossible to decide what expenditure is worth
incurring, to build safer roads, say, or to keep minute
quantities of toxic chemicals out of our drinking water.
Economists working in this area usually investigate how
much people are willing to pay to reduce the risk of death
-- for example, by buying safety devices for their homes,
or preferring to work in a safer occupation for a lower
wage than they could get in a high-risk occupation. The
reduction in risk is then multiplied by the sum the average
person is willing to pay for it to arrive at the value
people implicitly place on their lives. Currently, most
government departments use a figure of around $5 million,
give or take a million or two.

One problem with this approach is that most of us assess
large risks differently from small ones. We may pay a steep
price to reduce a risk of one in a thousand to one in ten
thousand, but we are not much concerned about reducing a
risk of one in a million to one in a billion. Yet a
rational person who is interested in continuing to live
should be willing to pay something for this reduction in
risk. Clearly, these data show that while people appear to
be moderately competent at assessing large risks, they are
not very good at thinking about small risks. Posner,
however, mostly takes the data on their face, and suggests
that the value of a human life actually varies in
accordance with the degree of risk we are considering -- so
that the loss of each human life in a highly improbable
catastrophe should be valued only at $50,000 instead of the
$5 million that it would be valued at if we were
considering a more likely disaster. This is bizarre. The
real worth of our lives has nothing to do with the
probability of a particular cause of death.

IN short, Posner really has a much stronger case for saying
we should spend more to avert small risks of catastrophe
than his own calculations indicate. And the case gets
stronger still if we take into account some of the larger
ethical issues he rapidly brushes aside, especially the
question of how we should view the fact that the extinction
of our species would prevent the existence of all future
generations of human beings. Barring catastrophe, our
species may continue to exist for millions of years,
gradually overcoming our problems and achieving a level of
happiness, fulfillment and moral virtue -- including
concern for the well-being of other species -- that far
exceeds anything we have yet known. Arguably, this makes a
catastrophe that causes our extinction a much greater
tragedy than the ''mere'' death of six billion people.

Posner's practical recommendations seem calculated to
parcel out irritation to everyone. Physicists will not like
the doubts he casts on particle accelerators. Liberals will
be alarmed by his support for greater police powers to
counteract bioterrorism, including censorship of scientific
publications that could help terrorists devise new
biological weapons. Conservatives will dislike his support
for taxes on carbon dioxide emissions, and will be
apoplectic at his proposal that we hand over some of the
nation's sovereign powers to an international environmental
protection agency to enforce an improved version of the
Kyoto Protocol on global warming.

As for ordinary readers, they will most likely be annoyed
by the book's frequent repetitiveness, particularly in the
concluding chapter, and may wonder what the two pages
urging severe punishment for computer hackers are doing in
a book about catastrophes. (Did Posner lose part of his
manuscript to a computer virus?) Still, we would be well
advised to set aside such minor discontents and take the
message of this book seriously. We ignore it at (a small
risk of) our (very great) peril.

Peter Singer is a professor of bioethics at Princeton
University. His recent books include ''One World'' and
''The President of Good and Evil: The Ethics of George W.


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