60 Pages Posted: 14 Sep 2022 Last revised: 5 Aug 2023
Date Written: April 2, 2023
Lawyers have played a central role in a wide range of social movements aiming to provide legal voice to marginalized communities. How is this tradition of social-change lawyering being applied in the effort to protect future generations—a population that cannot advocate for themselves? This is a pressing question in the movement to mitigate “existential risk,” which refers to events that would foreclose a meaningful existence for future generations either through human extinction or permanent dystopias. Over the past two decades, an Oxford-based academic community has been researching existential threats that could arise from emerging technology, such as engineered pandemics and advanced artificial intelligence. Although such events may be relatively unlikely in the near term, the list of existential threats appears to grow over time. Awareness of this issue has sparked the founding of dozens of non-profit organizations working to preserve the future of humanity. In just the past couple years, this movement has entered the realm of law and politics, where it has already helped establish new legal mechanisms addressing existential risk and the rights of future generations. At the same time, the movement has faced vociferous criticism for shifting attention away from current social injustices.
This article presents the first empirical study of the legal wing of this movement. It asks how the “existential advocates” approach the key questions faced by all social-change lawyering campaigns regarding: (1) efficacy, which is framed here as the question of how to impact such a large-scale, uncertain, and abstract issue; and (2) accountability, which is framed here as the question of how to faithfully represent the future generations who are silent stakeholders in the decisions we make today. Drawing on a qualitative study embedded in this community of legal advocates, the article describes the development of a distinct model of social-change lawyering—the “priorities methodology.” This model aims to maximize impact using formal processes for selecting goals and strategies while minimizing cognitive biases. The priorities methodology is an innovation within the tradition of social-change lawyering, although it faces some difficult points of tension when seeking to mobilize a broader movement of lawyers and other actors. The article concludes with recommendations for adapting this model as the existential risk community scales up and pursues more direct and high-profile legal interventions.
Keywords: existential risk
JEL Classification: K00
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation