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Event | 9 August 2023

New European Voices on Existential Risk (NEVER): Inaugural meeting

For the first meeting of our new NEVER network, held on the 31st of May, we held a panel discussion with Dr Toby Ord, Lord Des Browne and Professor Zeynep Alemdar to discuss existential risk, the challenges of bringing longtermist perspectives into government policies, and the value of bringing more diverse perspectives to bear on an existential risk discussion that is often dominated by Anglo-American viewpoints. We convened 53 people from 16 countries.

We introduced ELN as a network of security policy leaders focused on reducing the risks of existential conflict. Originally founded to reduce the risks of nuclear war, by promoting multilateral nuclear disarmament and supporting nonproliferation, the organisation is widening its focus to address wider existential risks stemming from or exacerbated by great-power competition. NEVER is a key part of this.

A recording of Lord Des Browne and Professor Zeynep Alemdar’s opening remarks can be found here.

Speaker one – Dr Toby Ord

  • Dr Toby Ord, author of The Precipice and a foundational thinker on the topic of existential risk, highlighted that the modern concept of existential risk originated from awareness of the enormity of the threat of nuclear weapons, and the discovery of the asteroid that resulted in the mass extinction event that wiped out the dinosaurs.
  • Humanity is a young species – we need to survive for another 3,000 centuries to hit the average “life span” of a species. We need to think of the long term and cannot afford to use trial and error when dealing with the long-term survival of humanity.
  • Effective Altruism came about through the need to create a community of advocates, policymakers and academics to jointly push for the creation of a safer world fit for the future.
  • As a society, we collectively need to stop neglecting and underestimating the impact of existential risk.
  • He welcomes the recent statements by the Elders and Centre for AI safety concerning artificial intelligence and the threat it poses to humanity.

Speaker two – Lord Des Browne

  • Short-termism is endemic in government. When Des was in government, they were unable to ensure funding would run in even three-year cycles.
  • Whenever Des was on the campaign trail, the most powerful campaigning tools were the nearest and most local concerns. The general public struggles to politically engage with long-term threats to life.
  • The scale of existential risk is overwhelming, but the world does have some frameworks to deal with it such as international nuclear treaties that should be replicated for other aspects of existential risk such as AI.
  • The international community needs to ensure we research the ethics of EDT as we research the technology itself, to create a regulatory structure. There are precedents, as with human cloning.
  • This is often neglected. There are many examples where risks are evident, but regulation comes retroactively, e.g., the UK’s Online Safety Bill.
  • A core issue spanning these themes is the lack of scientific understanding of many in the political class. An alliance between technology and politics is needed as was the case with science-led bio, chemical and nuclear diplomacy.
  • Young people need to argue for this.

Speaker three – Professor Zeynep Alemdar 

  • Zeynep Alemdar introduces the topic of diversifying the existential risk, foreign policy and security space by referencing an article written by Carol Cohn in 1987, “Sex and death in the rational world of defence intellectuals”. In this article, Cohn describes how gendered language is used to create a sense of distance from the topic of death which is innately woven into these discussions, and it reflects the importance of diversifying the language and people involved in discussions surrounding these topics.
  • A big element of why diversifying these discussions matters is in nurturing the empathy necessary for long-term policymaking. This empathy is essential as it’s easy to think “Why should this concern me, I’ll be dead!” otherwise.
  • Research on gender inequality and its links to exacerbating conflict/disrupting peace demonstrate why diversity matters when making policy in the security space. Countries with higher percentages of female legislators are more likely to avoid slipping into civil war.
  • Similarly, climate change is more likely to affect women as the gender dynamic is endemic to inequality.
  • Zeynep finished her talk by discussing how networks such as the ELN offer opportunities for young diverse professionals by giving them access to high-profile figures and levelling the playing field.

ELN Projects – Sir Graham Stacey

Some of the issues raised by participants for further discussion included

  • How can governments and societies be motivated to handle existential risks if they are not motivated by ethical concerns – if a society is privileging the violent, corrupt and stupid over peace, transparency and intellect?
  • Is there scope for security leaders to work alongside psychotherapists on existential risks, to produce a discussion that is not dominated by anxiety and fear?
  • Is it possible for the world to come together and create the necessary international treaties and agreements to deal with existential risk, when in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and rising disregard for international law, the diplomacy needed for efforts such as this seems distant?
  • How could the ELN and NEVER members best support those working on existential risk in the Global South?

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.