Title

The Big One

Document Type

Review

Publication Date

2007

Abstract

Richard Posner's Catastrophe: Risk and Response (Oxford University Press, 2004) examines four risks whose worst cases could end advanced human civilization or worse: asteroid impacts, a catastrophic chain reaction initiated in high-energy particle accelerators, global climate change, and bioterrorism. He argues that these all warrant more thought and response than they are receiving, and that they can usefully be assessed using a simple analytic framework based on cost-benefit analysis. This essay reviews knowledge of these risks and critically examines Posner's claims for a consistent analytic approach. While the conclusions that each risk merits more thought and effort appear persuasive, these rely on ad hoc arguments specific to each risk. The general analytic claims do not hold up well, as Posner develops his proposed framework thinly and applies it unevenly. Applying such a framework consistently to catastrophic risks would require engaging some fundamental problems that Posner does not address. The book's major contributions are to identify and describe these risks, highlight the inadequate attention they are receiving, and advance a persuasive argument for their more serious examination.


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