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Catastrophe: Risk and Response Hardcover – November 11, 2004

ISBN-13: 978-0195178135 ISBN-10: 0195178130
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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.
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"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


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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 1.2 x 6.2 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: #1,280,011 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

3.7 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 22 people found the following review helpful By John Thorne on 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 By Peter McCluskey on January 19, 2005
Format: Hardcover
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 4 people found the following review helpful By JBS on March 4, 2007
Format: Paperback
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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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Jasper Walker on December 23, 2006
Format: Hardcover
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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