This is one of those books that I try to read in small portions, as I don't want it to end. Managed to keep it during most of 2012... I was thinking of writing a blog about each chapter, but it is when you read it all together that the book becomes powerful. It is encouraging to find a book that brings together world-leading experts to present some of the threats that basically could end human civilisation or even all human life. It is hard not to reflect on the distance between the discussions in this book and what media, politician, companies and even major NGO’s focus on. The fact that most of the threats that are discussed in this book are hardly ever mentioned in media or in political discussions is difficult to understand. Where are the major threats discussed? When the subjects are discussed, such as climate change, they are not discussed as the existential threats they are.
The fact that there are no dedicated fora with focus on global challenges is strange as any ex-politician or major business leader could establish a platform, supported by a high-level advisory board. No one could argue that it would not be a major contribution to humanity and that it could help inspire action.
There are a few weak chapters in the book, that I find incoherent and not very well argued. But I think these weak spots should be seen as inspiration for further work, rather than a reason to dismiss the book.
However, what I do feel is the serious weakness is that there is no overall framework, or even attempt to bring all these risks together. Now very different risks are lumped together in a way that I think most decision makers find confusing. With a framework that made it clear how that different risks are related to each other (risk level, time horizon, etc.) it would also have made the book more relevant for policy makers and other decision makers.
It is as if the editors did not understand that people get confused when threats on a million year scale and that we can do very little about today except start thinking about them (dying of the sun) is mixed up with threats that are actually of great importance and is a threat to humanity here and now (climate change, nuclear threats and even AI).
The fact that a book written by academic lacks an attempt to even produce estimates of all these risks is surprising to me. Maybe it is out of academic curtsy (to let everyone feel as important) or just lack of interest to move these challenges from academic discussions to real action. The fact that it is possible to get some estimation is shown by Bryan Caplan in the last chapter. Even if it is only rough estimations, it helps turn abstract ideas into something that can be used.
Regardless of the weak parts of the book, it is one of those that everyone should read. Taking a step back to get some perspective should be a priority in times like this.