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Catastrophe: Risk and Response [Hardcover]

Richard A. Posner
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)

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Book Description

November 11, 2004 0195178130 978-0195178135
Catastrophes, whether natural or man-made, that could destroy the human race are often dismissed as alarmist or fanciful, the stuff of science fiction. In fact the risk of such disasters is real, and growing. A collision with an asteroid that might kill a quarter of humanity in 24 hours and the rest soon after; irreversible global warming that might flip, precipitating "snowball earth;" voraciously replicating nanomachines; a catastrophic accident in a particle accelerator that might reduce the earth to a hyperdense sphere 100 meters across; a pandemic of gene-spliced smallpox launched by bioterrorists; even conquest by superintelligent robots-all these potential extinction events, and others, are within the realm of the possible and warrant serious thought about assessment and prevention. They are attracting the concern of reputable scientists--but not of the general public or the nation's policymakers.

How should the nation and the world respond to disaster possibilities that, for a variety of psychological and cultural reasons, people find it hard to wrap their minds around? Richard Posner shows that what is needed is a fresh, thoroughly interdisciplinary perspective that will meld the insights of lawyers, economists, psychologists, and other social scientists with those of the physical sciences. Responsibility for averting catastrophe cannot be left either to scientists or to politicians and other policymakers ignorant of science.

As in many of his previous books, Posner brings law and the social sciences to bear on a contemporary problem-in this case one of particular urgency. Weighing the risk and the possible responses in each case, Posner shows us what to worry about and what to dismiss, and discusses concrete ways of minimizing the most dangerous risks. Must we yield a degree of national sovereignty in order to deal effectively with global warming? Are limitations on our civil liberties a necessary and proper response to the danger of bioterror attacks? Would investing more heavily in detection and interception systems for menacing asteroids be money well-spent? How far can we press cost-benefit analysis in the design of responses to world-threatening events? Should the institutional framework of science policy be altered? we need educational reform? Is the interface of law and science awry? These are but a few of the issues canvassed in this fascinating, disturbing, and necessary book.

Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

During his career as a federal appeals court judge, Posner has become a prominently outspoken commentator on a variety of legal and cultural issues. Reading Margaret Atwood's Oryx & Crake, for example, was the springboard for this reflection on the current lack of plans for dealing with large-scale disasters, like environmental upheavals, after which law and public policy would be open to blame for failing to keep pace with rapid scientific advancement. Those familiar with Posner's extensive writings will not be surprised when he advocates applying cost-benefit analysis to determine which catastrophic threats are worth tackling first, though other suggestions will likely spark controversy. Criticizing the "blinkered perspective" of civil libertarians hung up on constitutional law, he finds certain curtailments of freedom an acceptable trade-off for preventing terrorist attacks and offers a lengthy justification of torture as one such option. Posner also offers subtle insights into the psychology of disaster preparedness, noting, for example, that science fiction movies in which the world is routinely saved inure us to the possibility of facing such threats in real life, as well as create undue faith in the saving grace of scientists. And his call for increased scientific literacy among public policy leaders may be too pragmatic to fault. Though clearly not for general readers, this thoughtful analysis may trickle down from the wonkocracy.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"We would be well advised to... take the message of this book seriously. We ignore it at (a small risk of) our (very great) peril."--The New York Times Book Review

"Catastrophe is worth the price of the book simply for Posner's lively and readable summary of the apocalyptic dystopias that serious scientists judge to be possible."-- Graham Allison, The Washington Post Book World

"A fine lawyerly analysis.... Posner's perspective, very different from those held by most scientists, is a welcome addition to considerations of catastrophic risks."--Science

"Will likely spark controversy.... subtle insights...[and] thoughtful analysis."--Publishers Weekly

"Once again, Judge Posner has added to our cultural dialogue in a useful and interesting way."--Law and Politics Book Review

"With a broad vision and powerful intellectual tools, Posner addresses issues vital to our 21st Century technological civilization. Catastrophe will make our world a safer place."--K. Eric Drexler, Founder and Chairman Emeritus of Foresight Institute, author of Nanosystems

"The scientific community should pay attention to Judge Richard Posner's Catastrophe. Posner reminds us that we continue to deny or avoid dealing with low probability, high consequence natural and man made risks to society such as asteroid collisions, biodiversity, and terrorism. One of America's preeminent scholars of social issues presents a compelling analysis of the problem of catastrophic risks and needed public policy response." --John M. Deutch, Institute Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"This book provides a balanced and immensely informative discussion of catastrophic risks to the planet, and makes a logical first stab at policy responses. It should stimulate far more attention to the growing threat of such catastrophes as bioterrorism, strangelet disasters from particle accelerators, and non-linear climate change, among the academic and policy community."--Ian W. H. Parry, Resources for the Future

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press (November 11, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195178130
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195178135
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6 x 1.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #922,434 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Richard A. Posner is a judge of the U.S. Court Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and a senior lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School. He is the author of numerous books, including Overcoming Law, a New York Times Book Review editors' choices for best book of 1995 and An Affair of State: The Investigation, Impeachment, and Trial of President Clinton, one of Times' choices for Best Book of the Year in 1999 and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize Finalist, 2000.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
17 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Measured Approach to the Apocalypse November 13, 2004
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I'm a big fan of the judge's books, but this one differs from the prior books in the breadth and gravity of its topic: avoiding extinction.

The book has a gripping description of several such threats -- asteroids, bioterrorists, nuclear meltdown ("strangelets"), sudden global warming, loss of biodiversity. The book is worth buying for the description alone.

The core problem in dealing with these extinction threats is the need to incur large present costs for only speculative future benefits, where the beneficiaries of today's investments will be unknown to anyone living today. Democracies, run by politicians who get voted into office promising benefits to the current voters, can't make such farsighted investments for the benefit of people not yet living (or more precisely, not yet voting).

The best line in the book (near the beginning, so I don't think I'm spoiling it) is that there are probably many billions of stars with planets around them capable of supporting life. Life therefore probably originated independently on many millions of those planets, many of them probably much earlier than here on Earth. So why haven't we been contacted by any of the earlier, presumably more advanced other civilizations?
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16 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Asks Important Questions, Needs Better Answers January 19, 2005
This book does a very good job of arguing that humans are doing an inadequate job of minimizing the expected harm associated with improbable but major disasters such as asteroid strikes and sudden climate changes. He provides a rather thorough and unbiased summary of civilization-threatening risks, and a good set of references to the relevant literature.

I am disappointed that he gave little attention to the risks of AI. Probably his reason is that his expertise in law and economics will do little to address what is more of an engineering problem that is unlikely to be solved by better laws.

I suspect he's overly concerned about biodiversity loss. He tries to justify his concern by noting risks to our food chain that seem to depend on our food supply being less diverse than it is.

His solutions do little to fix the bad incentives which have prevented adequate preparations. The closest he comes to fixing them is his proposal for a center for catastrophic-risk assessment and response, which would presumably have some incentive to convince people of risks in order to justify its existence.

His criticisms of information markets (aka idea futures) ignore the best arguments on this subject. He attacks the straw man of using them to predict particular terrorist attacks, and ignores possibilities such as using them to predict whether invading Iraq would reduce or increase deaths due to terrorism over many years. And his claim that scientists need no monetary incentives naively ignores their bias to dismiss concerns about harm resulting from their research (bias which he notes elsewhere as a cause of recklessness).
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars OK Survey, but focused for attorneys & politicos December 23, 2006
I purchased the book looking for interesting insights on catastrophes. I have to say I did not expand my knowledge of catastrophes much by reading the book. I did expand my knowledge of the relation between our legal/political systems and catastrophic defense/scientific research.

I thought Posner did a good job surveying different catastrophes and assigning rough estimations to them. However, I felt the key point of his book was promoting more attorneys learning about science so an intelligent discusssion could be made. I agree with the point...but it was such a recurring theme, it became dull for me, since I am not an attorney.

I had not read a book by Posner before. He is a judge, and I felt it read like a judge wrote it. I.e. in most areas he was very careful to be impartial. But then occasionally he would make a blanket opinion without any substantiation and move on as if he had proved some point. You can see examples of this in the other reviews below. I'll only point out I had different examples.

If you are soft skinned, conservative and liberal alike will probably find points of offense in the book. And I guess that is what surprised me the most, that this is a political book, not a scientific one.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Greatest Problems of the 21st Century...Solved! March 4, 2007
With the emerging trends in healthcare, many of today's young children will be alive in 2100. This would be a remarkable achievement.

Then again, sometime in the next 100 years perhaps the entire human race including all today's children will die violent deaths.

In Catastrophe, US Appeals Court Judge Richard Posner shows that humanity enters the 21st century with a greater chance of annihilation than at any time in human history. Mankind faces new perils that our institutions are not addressing.

Posner does not just warn of dangers. He proposes solutions we can enact today that would reduce risk and improve world security for the next 100 years.

His facts are well researched; his analysis is well thought out. Unfortunately, his writing is heavy. He uses large amounts of hard science, legal theory, and economic analysis.

His major theme is that rapid scientific progress has created perils that our leaders are not addressing.

In a short book, he addresses a large number of doomsday scenarios that would otherwise require years of study.

None of the risks he discusses are likely to happen this year or in any particular year. However, as a group they pose a disturbing risk when looked at over a hundred years.

He collects these horrific events into four groups

1) Natural disasters - This includes asteroids striking the earth, pandemic disease, and huge volcanoes and earthquakes. These have always been around and have caused mass destruction in the past.

The other risks are new to the 21st century.

2) Perils caused by Economic Growth - This includes global warming, resource depletion, loss of biodiversity, and population growth. Posner looks critically at each.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
2.0 out of 5 stars Casey at the Bat
These here's some tough times for us Global Warming skeptics. We've been tarred with the epithet "deniers," are assumed to be shills for the coal lobby and are generally regarded... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Keith Otis Edwards
3.0 out of 5 stars Proliferation of hazardous new technology threatens humankind
Wow, what a polymath! Posner is judge of the US Court of Appeals, 7th circuit. But on top of all that law he has learned science fairly well including probability theory and... Read more
Published 14 months ago by Willard Wells
3.0 out of 5 stars An academic way to talk about the end of the world
This is a very interesting book but it didn't quite grab me. It is a very academic book, almost like a text book. This book would make a better lecture. Read more
Published on June 16, 2008 by Thomas M. Magee
3.0 out of 5 stars A farrago of fear and frustration
The cliche of fearing only those who are afraid surely holds true for this book. Posner, a judge, wants lawyers to sit in judgement of which research should go forward and which... Read more
Published on July 1, 2005 by Stephen A. Haines
5.0 out of 5 stars "Preparing" For The Future
Looking out for future risk into the future. For example, asteroids pose a long-term risk hundreds and thousands of years into the future. Read more
Published on March 20, 2005 by G. Reid
4.0 out of 5 stars Not a Dog in these Catastrophes
Great Book, thoughtful and somewhat idiosyncratic analysis of how we should think about and respond to low probability but very large consequence events. Read more
Published on February 5, 2005 by R. C. Jennings
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