2015 Year in Review: Is the World Getting More Fragile?

Through what lens do you understand the world’s hardest problems?

Arnold Kling’s Three Axis Model posits that conservatives understand the world on an anarchy-civilization axis, liberals understand the world on a oppressor-victim axis, and libertarians understand the world on a coercion-freedom axis.

I find this model useful, and for much of my life I understood the world on the oppressor-victim axis; over the past few years, the coercion-freedom axis has also become a frame of common use.

2015, however, was the year when I more fully adopted a new axis: the fragile-antifragile axis.

In short, while I find Three Axis Model useful in understanding how others think, I find it out of synch with my own values (none of this an attack on Kling, he was only describing the dominant camps).

Moreover, I read two books this year (War! What is it Good For? [non-fiction] and Nexus [fiction]) that reenforced the notion that the traditional three axis viewpoints did not reflect how I approached the world’s hardest problems.

The Fragile-Antifragile Axis

Quite simply: things that make the world more fragile are bad, and things that make the world less fragile are good.

Nassim Taleb wrote a book about it. There’s a lot in that book I disagree with, but I think the thesis is roughly right.

The Issues at Hand 

The following things are making (or have the potential to make) the world much more fragile: climate change, AI, weapons of mass destruction, Donald Trump becoming president.

The following things don’t really affect the fragility of the world: domestic gun policy, reproductive rights, tinkering with tax policy.

Now, all of these issues are important, and I care about all of them. But when viewed through the fragile-antifragile axis, some or much more important than others.

Moreover, some of these issues (weapons of mass destruction) cause me to be open to supporting policies that I would not support if I only viewed the world through the liberal or libertarian axises.

How to Make the World Less Fragile? 

I previously spent a few months worth of free time creating a pitch deck for an existential risk venture fund, whereby success would be measured in reduction of existential (fragile) risk rather than profits. I pitched it to a few high net worth individuals but got nowhere. Perhaps I got rejected because this is a bad idea.

But this year has seen the rise of two anti-fragile funds: Open AI and the Gates energy fund.

Also, Elon Musk has plans to make humanity less fragile by colonizing Mars.

And when you consider the Paris climate treaty, a taxonomy of antifragile tactics begins to emerge: innovation (Gates), knowledge equity (Open AI), exit (Mars), and coordination (Paris).

Is the World Getting Less Fragile?

This seems difficult to quantify. On one hand, given the size of our population and the advanced nature of our technology, we can survive many things that would have wiped our ancestors out.

On the other hand, these very two conditions – the size of our population and the advanced nature of our technology – also increase fragility. In a world where it becomes easy to build a virus that wipes out the world, it’s pretty dicey to have billions of people out there walking around.

It’s interesting to think about what was the least fragile time in human history (1890s?).

If I Had to Bet

My guess is that exit is the best strategy to reduce fragility.

And while I appreciate Musk’s strategy (humans on mars), my guess is that exit will be achieved via robots (less fragile bodies) all over space (less fragile geography).

Though of course I’m not sure.

Anyways, that’s my reflection on 2015.

2 thoughts on “2015 Year in Review: Is the World Getting More Fragile?

  1. apearson851

    Very interesting and thought-provoking. That said, it’s noticeable that your examples are all global-level risks. What might a non-cosmopolitan fragility-thinker have considered important in the past? The most obvious examples are a strong military, appeasement of deities, concern about increasing concentration of population… at which point it starts looking rather like a standard conservative position(?).

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  2. nkingsl Post author

    Thanks – yes, some echoes of conservatism, but I think you can come up with things that are against conservatism but for anti fragility – transhumanism comes to mind.

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