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Catastrophe: Risk and Response

3.6 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews
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.
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 1.2 x 6.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,498,551 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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Format: Paperback
Description and analysis of the catastrophic risks constitute at once the centerpiece and the main strength of the book. Judge Posner helps the reader surmount -- at least conceptually -- the difficult valuation problems posed by catastrophic risks by applying helpful techniques to facilitate the relevant cost-benefit analysis. The book's central problem, however, is that it attempts to use an exposition of relatively piecemeal risks as a justification for fundamental changes in legal institutions, changes that would be better justified by proof of systemic problems in those institutions themselves. This flaw is likely a byproduct of Posner's attempt to have the book serve the divergent ends of detailing and expounding upon specific, diverse risks, on the one hand, and making general policy recommendations, on the other; but it's an astonishing flaw in light of Posner's own respect and preference for empirical support wherever possible. Posner's final analysis obscures the possibility that the efficient solution to failures to spend enough to prevent or mitigate certain catastrophes may be simply to spend more money within existing frameworks, rather than to revamp U.S. legal procedure, education, and institutions. Since the book's stated focus is only these catastrophes (p. 6), it fails to rule out more conservative solutions, casting some of Posner's broader suggested reforms in a speculative light.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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 evolutionary biology. He explains some human behavior in terms of instincts we evolved by the Darwinian process, an argument you rarely see. But this doesn't make a great book. Posner sees no need to write his judicial opinions in an entertaining style because interested parties will read them anyhow. He seems not to realize that writing popular books is a different game; people are far less motivated to read them. Oxford press did its part to discourage sales: the font is small and somewhat faint; words are divided at the ends of lines between the second and third letters; there are no pictures even though the topic cries out for them.

Posner chose four hazards to track throughout the book, and two of those choices are unfortunate. The first is an asteroid strike. The risk of that is miniscule simply because we have such a long history of surviving it. Humanity has not been seriously at risk for 70,000 years. (Genetics tells us that humanity was reduced to a small population about that time thus reducing genetic diversity.) So if the next natural catastrophe occurs in the next 100 years, that means that we are now living in the last 1/700 of the interval between them, and the probability of that is only about 1/700. By contrast, we are living with man-made hazards after only a decade or so of adaptation.

Posner makes a plea for various reforms to prevent catastrophe: international agencies, safety reviews of proposed science projects, new police powers, and so on. Posner never mentions that a major collapse of civilization would take out all the major threats to our species' survival.
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