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Future risks and the challenge to democracy
George Dvorsky   Dec 24, 2008  

As we prepare for the emergence of the next generation of apocalyptic weapons, it needs to be acknowledged that the world’s democracies are set to face their gravest challenge yet as viable and ongoing political options.

The continuing presence and increased accessibility of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) are poised to put an abrupt end to politics as usual. Technologies that threaten our very existence will greatly upset current sensibilities about social control and civil liberties. And as a consequence, those institutions that have worked for centuries to protect democratic and humanistic values will be put to the test – a test that may ultimate result in a significant weakening of democracy, if not its outright collapse.

The pending political situation is categorically different than that which followed the Manhattan Project and the advent of nuclear weapons. While proliferation was a problem in the decades proceeding The Bomb’s development, the chances of those weapons getting into the hands of a so-called ‘rogue state’ or non-state actors was slim to none (unless you consider the former Soviet Union, Cuba, China and Pakistan as being rogue states). Moreover, as we move forward we will have more than just nuclear weapons to worry about; future WMDs include bioweapons (such as deliberately engineered pathogens), dirty bombs, weaponized nanotechnology, robotics, misused artificial intelligence, and so on.

What makes these WMDs different is the growing ease of acquisition and implementation by those who might actually use them. We live in an increasingly wired and globalized world where access to resources and information has never been easier. Compounding these problems is the rise and empowerment of non-traditional political forces, namely weak-states, non-state actors and disgruntled individuals. In the past, entire armadas were required to inflict catastrophic damage; today, all that’s required are small groups of motivated individuals.

And the motivations for using such weapons are set to escalate. Political extremism begets political extremism; government clamp-downs (both internally and externally) will likely illicit radical counter reactions. There is also the potential for global-scale arms races as new technologies appear on the horizon (molecular assembling nanotechnology being a likely candidate). Such arms races could increase not just international tensions, but also instigate espionage and preemptive strikes.

Given these high stakes situations, democratic institutions may not be given the chance to prevent catastrophes or deal with actual crises.

21st Century realities

Politics and conflict in the 20th Century was largely centered around differing opinions about the redistribution of wealth. It was a time of adjusting to the demands of the modern nation-state, large populations and mature industrial economies. Responses to these challenges included the totalitarian experiments, World War II—and for those nations who resisted the radical urge, the instantiation of Keynesian economics and the welfare state.

The coming decades will bear witness to similar sorts of political experimentation and restructuring, including a renewed devotion to extreme measures and radicalism. It is becoming increasingly clear that 21st Century politics will be focused around managing the impacts of disruptive technologies, addressing the threats posed by apocalyptic weapons and environmental degradation, and attending to global-scale catastrophes and crises as they occur.

This restructuring is already underway. We live in the post 9/11 world—a world in which we have legitimate cause to be fearful of superterrorism and hyperterrorism. We will also have to reap what we sowed in regards to our environmental neglect. Consequently, our political leaders and institutions will be increasingly called-upon to address the compounding problems of unchecked WMD proliferation, terrorism, civil unrest, pandemics, the environmental impacts of climate change (like super-storms, flooding, etc.), fleets of refugees, devastating food shortages, and so on. It will become very necessary for the world’s militaries to anticipate these crises and adapt so that they can meet these demands.

More challenging, however, will be in avoiding outright human extinction.

Indeed,  the term ‘existential risks’ is beginning to take root in the vernacular. During the presidential debates, for example, John McCain used the expression to illustrate the severity of the Iranian nuclear threat against Israel. While McCain was referring to the threat on Israel’s existence, the idea that humanity faces a genuine extinction risk has returned to the popular consciousness. Eventually these perceived risks will start to play a more prominent role in the political arena, both in terms of politicking and in the forging of policy itself.

So much for the End of History and the New World Order

When the Cold War ended it was generally thought that major wars had become obsolete and that a more peaceful and prosperous era had emerged. Some commentators, like the political scientist Francis Fukuyama, declared that Western liberal democracy and free market capital systems had triumphed and that it would only be a matter of time before it spread to all regions of the planet. For Fukuyama, this equated to the ‘end of history.’

It was also around this time that George H. W. Bush proclaimed the advent of a New World Order. With the collapse of European Communism and the end of bi-polar geopolitics it was hoped that nuclear disarmament would soon follow and with it a global community largely free of conflict.

Today, however, we see that these hopes were idealistic and naïve. There is still plenty of strife and violence in the international system. In fact, the current multi-polar geopolitical arrangement has proven to be far more unstable than the previous orientation, particularly because it has allowed economic, political and cultural globalization to flourish, and along with it, the rise of asymmetrical warfare and escalating motivations for rogue nations and non-state actors to exert terrible damage.

Despite the claims of Fukuyama and Bush, and despite our own collective sensibilities, we cannot take our democracies and civil liberties for granted. When appraising the condition of democracies we must realize that past successes and apparent trajectories are no guarantees of future gain. Indeed, democracy is still the exception around the world and not the rule.

Historically speaking, democracies are an abnormality. As early as 1972 only 38% of the world’s population lived in countries that could be classified as free. Today, despite the end of the Cold War, this figure has only crept up to 46%. We may be the victims of an ideological bias in which we’ve assumed far too much about democracy’s potential, including its correlation with progress and its ability to thrive in drastically different social environments.

Catastrophic and existential risks will put democratic institutions in danger given an unprecedented need for social control, surveillance and compliance. Liberal democracies will likely regress to de facto authoritarianism under the intense strain; tools that will allow democratic governments to do so include invoking emergency measures, eliminating dissent and protest, censorship, suspending elections and constitutions, and trampling on civil liberties (illegal arrests, surveillance, limiting mobility, etc).

Looking further ahead, extreme threats may even rekindle the totalitarian urge; this option will appeal to those leaders looking to exert absolute control over their citizens. What’s particularly frightening is that future technologies will allow for a more intensive and invasive totalitarianism than was ever thought possible in the 20th Century – including ubiquitous surveillance (and the monitoring of so-called ‘thought crimes’), absolute control over information, and the redesign of humanity itself, namely using genetics and cybernetics to create a more traceable and controllable citizenry. Consequently, as a political mode that utterly undermines humanistic values and the preservation of the autonomous individual, totalitarianism represents an existential risk unto itself.

Democracy an historical convenience?

It is possible, of course, that democracies will rise to the challenge and work to create a more resilient civilization while keeping it free. Potential solutions have already been proposed, such as strengthening transnational governance, invoking an accountable participatory panopticon, and the relinquishment of nuclear weapons. It is through this type of foresight that we can begin to plan and restructure our systems in such a way that our civil liberties and freedoms will remain intact. Democracies (and human civilization) have, after all, survived the first test of our apocalyptic potential.

That said, existential and catastrophic risks may reveal a dark path that will be all too easy for reactionary and fearful leaders to venture upon. Politicians may distrust seemingly radical and risky solutions to such serious risks. Instead, tried-and-true measures, where the state exerts an iron fist and wages war against its own citizens, may appear more reasonable to panicked politicians.

We may be entering into a period of sociopolitical disequilibrium that will instigate the diminishment of democratic institutions and values. Sadly, we may look back some day and reflect on how democracy was an historical convenience.

George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.


Hi George,

I’m a surprised at your recent pessimism reflected in this piece.  It reminds me of something I might have written a few years ago in the early wake of 9/11.  However, in that time we’ve seen our society and it’s politicians go from one that was highly reactionary and willing to go along with just about any authoritarian proposal (ex: The Patriot Act, etc.), to an increasing call for political reform (i.e the closing of Gitmo, the end of secret rendition, and renewed action against telecom immunity, etc.)  Despite the action of leaders, the overall trend in the general world population has been moving towards equality, social justice, and personal freedom.  This is true of places like China and India, but most especially in places like Iran, Saudia Arabia, and the more affluent regions of the Middle East.

This is not to say that we won’t see another general trend towards more transparency, surveillance and monitoring of citizenry, which seems to be happening naturally and voluntarily as people digitize more of their lives (twitter, facebook, location-based services, etc), or as you mentioned a participatory panopticon.

Perhaps I am more optimistic than you, or perhaps I became far too pessimistic in the last few years, and I’m feeling that way in relation to where I was.

With Warm Cheers,

Paul Hughes

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