Ripples on the Great Sea of Life: A Brief History of Existential Risk Studies
39 Pages Posted: 7 Jan 2021 Last revised: 12 Mar 2021
Date Written: March 12, 2020
This paper explores the history of Existential Risk Studies (ERS). While concerns about human extinction can be traced back to the 19th century, the field only emerged in the last two decades with the formal conceptualization of existential risk. Since then, there have been three distinct ‘waves’ or research paradigms: the first built on an explicitly transhumanist and techno-utopian worldview; the second growing out of an ethical view known as ‘longtermism’ that is closely associated with the Effective Altruism movement; and the third emerging from the interface between ERS and other fields that have engaged with existential risk, such as Disaster Studies, Environmental Science and Public Policy. In sketching the evolution of these paradigms, together with their historical antecedents, we offer a critical examination of each and speculate about where the field may be heading in the future. This paper should be of interest to anyone interested in the field of ERS and how it became what it is today; however, our intention is also to help those working within the field to gain a more reflective and critical understanding on their own work and that of their colleagues.
Keywords: Existential Risk, Scientific Paradigms, Transhumanism, Effective Altruism, Systems Thinking
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