How Much Should We Spend to Avert Our Own Extinction?

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There are a variety of ways the human race might go extinct. The ozone layer could collapse, exposing Earth's surface to dangerous levels of ultraviolet radiation. Supervolcanoes could erupt across the globe, depriving food crops of essential sunlight. Anarchists could concoct a lethal, highly contagious supervirus. A planet-killer asteroid could strike the Earth, wiping it clean of all life.

This nightmarish list prompts an accounting question: How much money should we spend to prevent our own extinction?

You might think that your life and the existence of the human race is priceless, therefore worth any amount of money and effort. On the other hand, you might rightly recognize that these cataclysmic events are exceedingly unlikely, so improbable in fact that you round their chances down to zero and go about your life relatively free from existential dread and financial burden.

Considering all of the distracting day-to-day problems most of us face, the vast majority of humanity understandably adopts the latter view.

But as science writer Bryan Walsh elucidated in his 2019 book End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World, we absolutely should heed the threat of our own extinction, and we should probably spend a lot more money to avert it than we are right now.

He particularly focused on asteroid strikes, since that's by far the most likely route to humanity's annihilation.

"Impacts from asteroids larger than about three miles across could plausibly lead to human extinction," Walsh wrote. "A hit from an asteroid that big is predicted to occur once ever 20 million years, which translates to a 0.000005% chance of it happening in any given year."

Those odds are low, but may be concerningly high when you consider that a potential outcome is the end of the human race. So how much should we spend to mitigate that risk?

"One way to determine how much should be spent to avert a risk is to multiply its expected cost by its probability," Walsh wrote.

We roughly know the probability of an asteroid strike, so what's the cost of human extinction? According to a report by the Global Challenges Foundation, the human race could expect to live for another 50 million years, enough time for 3 quadrillion future humans to be born. If all present and future human lives were valued at just $50,000 each, the monetary cost of human extinction would be $150 quintillion. Pricey, indeed!

According to Walsh, that means spending up to $750 trillion each year to prevent a cataclysmic asteroid strike would make economic sense. But at more than nine times the value of the global economy, $750 trillion is clearly a preposterous amount to spend.

Dr. Jason G. Matheny, an economist and Founding Director of the Center for Security and Emerging Technology at Georgetown University, offered a more realistic valuation in a 2007 analysis.

"Even if we expected humanity to become extinct within a generation, traditional statistical life valuations would warrant a $16 billion to $32 billion annual investment in asteroid defense," he concluded.

That's around twice as much as NASA's 2020 fiscal year budget of $22.6 billion and it dwarfs the $150 million currently alotted to planetary defense from asteroids.

There are, of course, other threats. An eruption of Yellowstone's Supervolcano, climate change, emerging pandemic diseases: these events may not wipe humanity off the face of the Earth, but they could upend civilization as we know it. And it's clear: we are not spending as much as we should to stop them from happening. In almost all arenas, preventing a negative outcome is almost always preferable to riding it out. Humans, however, struggle to realize this.

As Walsh wrote, "Human beings are terrible at evaluating risk – especially existential risk. We rely on feeling rather than fact, and privilege emotional memories over hard numbers."

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