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If you only have 80,000 people left, they’re probably randomly all over the world and they’re probably not going to end up in one place that quickly.

So then things like earthquakes, they just won’t affect the different groups — it’s hard to have a thing that affects all of them. Climate effects plausibly get closer to affecting all of them, but even climate effects just don’t affect the whole world equally, basically, ever.

Luisa Rodriguez

If modern human civilisation collapsed — as a result of nuclear war, severe climate change, or a much worse pandemic than COVID-19 — billions of people might die.

That’s terrible enough to contemplate. But what’s the probability that rather than recover, the survivors would falter and humanity would actually disappear for good?

It’s an obvious enough question, but very few people have spent serious time looking into it — possibly because it cuts across history, economics, and biology, among many other fields. There’s no Disaster Apocalypse Studies department at any university, and governments have little incentive to plan for a future in which almost everyone is dead and their country probably no longer even exists.

The person who may have spent the most time looking at this specific question is Luisa Rodriguez — who has conducted research at Rethink Priorities, Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, the Forethought Foundation, and now here, at 80,000 Hours.

She wrote a series of articles earnestly trying to foresee how likely humanity would be to recover and build back after a full-on civilisational collapse.

In addition to being a fascinating topic in itself, if you buy philosopher Derek Parfit’s argument that the loss of all future generations entailed by human extinction would be a much greater moral tragedy than the deaths of even as many as 99% of humans alive, it’s also a question of great practical importance.

Luisa considered two distinct paths by which a global catastrophe and collapse could lead to extinction.

The first is direct extinction, where, say, 99.99% of people die, and then everyone else dies relatively quickly after that.

There are a couple of main stories people put forward for how a catastrophe like this would kill every single human on Earth — but as we’ll explain below, Luisa doesn’t buy them.

Story One:

Nuclear war has led to nuclear winter. There’s a 10-year period during which a lot of the world is really inhospitable to agriculture, and it takes a lot of ingenuity to find or grow any alternative foods. The survivors just aren’t able to figure out how to feed themselves in the time period, so everyone dies of starvation or cold.

Why Luisa doesn’t buy it:

Catastrophes will almost inevitably be non-uniform in their effects. If 80,000 people survive, they’re not all going to be in the same city — it would look more like groups of 5,000 in a bunch of different places.

People in some places will starve, but those in other places, such as New Zealand, will be able to fish, eat seaweed, grow potatoes, and find other sources of calories. Likewise, people in some places might face local disease outbreaks or be hit by natural disasters — but people will be scattered far apart enough that other groups won’t be affected by regional disasters.

It’d be an incredibly unlucky coincidence if the survivors of a nuclear war — likely spread out all over the world — happened to all be affected by natural disasters or were all prohibitively far away from areas suitable for agriculture (which aren’t the same areas you’d expect to be attacked in a nuclear war).

Story Two:

The catastrophe leads to hoarding and violence, and in addition to people being directly killed by the conflict, it distracts everyone so much from the key challenge of reestablishing agriculture that they simply fail. By the time they come to their senses, it’s too late — they’ve used up too much of the resources they’d need to get agriculture going again.

Why Luisa doesn’t buy it:

We‘ve had lots of resource scarcity throughout history, and while we’ve seen examples of conflict petering out because basic needs aren’t being met, we’ve never seen the reverse.

And again, even if this happens in some places — even if some groups fought each other until they literally ended up starving to death — it would be completely bizarre for it to happen to every group in the world. You just need one group of around 300 people to survive for them to be able to rebuild the species.

———

The other pathway Luisa studied is indirect extinction: where humanity stabilises things and persists for hundreds or thousands of years, but for some reason gets stuck and never recovers to the level of technology we have today — leaving us vulnerable to something like an asteroid or a supervolcano.

But Luisa isn’t too worried about that scenario either.

Luisa’s best guess for how long it might take to recover — given that we’d already have the knowledge that agriculture and even more advanced technologies are possible, as well as artifacts to reverse engineer — is a couple thousand years at the longest.

And because it seems like the natural rate of extinction for humanity as a hunter-gatherer species has to be pretty low — otherwise we probably wouldn’t have been around in one form or another for 100,000 to a million years — it just seems like humanity would probably have plenty of time to rebuild.

When Luisa started this project, she thought, “I don’t know how to do any of the stuff we’d need to survive — I couldn’t grow a potato if my life depended on it, let alone reestablish more complex technologies. We’d be doomed.” But some wild examples of human ingenuity from the past made her realise that maybe other people are a bit more practical than she is, such as:

  • During the Serbian bombing of Bosnia, people generated electricity by pulling engines out of cars and putting them into rivers in a way that generated hydropower.
  • After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba realised they were going to lose their access to trucks — so they spent years breeding oxen to manually plough fields, which allowed them to keep generating food.
  • In World War II, people in POW camps built radios out of things like gum wrappers and pennies — allowing them to listen to music and the news.

Even just the fact that two billion people alive today practise subsistence farming — and therefore already know much more than she does about producing food — made Luisa realise that while she might be especially poorly equipped to survive a catastrophe, that doesn’t mean everyone else would be.

And having collected all this knowledge, Luisa admits that she too will now be a valuable member of a post-apocalyptic world!

In this wide-ranging and free-flowing conversation, Luisa and Rob also cover:

  • What the world might actually look like after one of these catastrophes
  • The most valuable knowledge for survivors
  • What we can learn from fallen ancient civilisations and smaller-scale disasters in modern times
  • The risk of culture shifting against science and tech
  • How fast populations could rebound
  • Implications for what we ought to do right now
  • ‘Boom and bust’ climate change scenarios
  • And much more.

Get this episode by subscribing to our podcast on the world’s most pressing problems and how to solve them: type 80,000 Hours into your podcasting app. Or read the transcript below.

Producer: Keiran Harris
Audio mastering: Ben Cordell
Transcriptions: Katy Moore

Key points

What the world might look like after a catastrophe

Luisa Rodriguez: So regardless of the scenario, a thing that kept coming up as important was the fact that catastrophes will kind of inevitably be non-uniform in their effects. So I guess if you have a catastrophe that’s so big that it’s actually uniform in its effects and it’s really severe, it’s going to kill everyone. So that would be a catastrophe like an asteroid that actually really impacted the Earth. Or maybe actually like —

Rob Wiblin: It’s like even bigger than the one that killed the dinosaurs or something like that?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. So that is one where you can imagine having consistent mortality rates everywhere, consistent climate effects everywhere. But for the catastrophes that interest us — so the ones that don’t actually kill everyone at once, but leave some survivors — the reason that happens is because the catastrophe is going to have non-uniform effects. And I think for lots of catastrophes, they could just be very non-uniform, where you might get some entire continents that are much, much less affected than others, both in terms of population death and in terms of climate effects.

Luisa Rodriguez: So an example in nuclear winter that’s kind of well known is you have some continents where agriculture becomes near impossible, and then you have others where it’s like, maybe even a bit better, because it’s colder and otherwise it was too hot for agriculture. Mostly you wouldn’t get better. It just wouldn’t be quite as devastating as other places.

Rob Wiblin: So this non-uniformity is super central, if you’re thinking about if it will kill 100% of people. Because even if there’s just like 1% of people living in some place that’s largely unaffected, then that basically answers the question for you.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly. And I think sometimes it’s slight non-uniformity that makes a bit of difference — maybe isn’t decisive. So like with nuclear winter, you’ll have some areas that are cold and some areas that are slightly less cold. But some catastrophes would cause extremely non-uniform effects, where like even if you had really, really enormous population losses, and actually the collapse of society and political systems — all of these systems that we think of as critical collapsed on one continent, I think you might see society continue on others. And I think that’s something that I didn’t intuitively have in my head when I first started thinking about this, is just some places might really be kind of unfazed.

Rob Wiblin: Right. Thinking about New Zealand again, I suppose it’s also Tasmania… Are there any other things that we should have in mind? I guess it’s like Pacific islands.

Luisa Rodriguez: Pacific islands. Yeah, I think depending on the thing again… In some scenarios you really want coastlines because fishing is a key source of food. So like Chile looks kind of good in a couple of scenarios. I think those are the main ones.

Grace period

Luisa Rodriguez: I think just a really interesting emergent finding is that the number of survivors really does interact in a kind of funny way with other things. Where yeah, I think this applies to things beyond just supplies left. So supplies left is a good example, where if you have lots of survivors, the supplies go very quickly. But then on the other hand, if you have lots of people dying, which would be terrible in some respects, and makes it a bit harder to rebuild industry and harder to make sure that you… Well, ideally that you’d keep some of the necessary knowledge and skills — you’d want to at least eventually rebuild industry. When you are down to tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people, it’s less guaranteed that you’ll keep all of those skills. And so you just get these kind of tradeoffs. And I think, mostly, I felt like it worked in favor of survival.

Rob Wiblin: Okay. So this kind of relates to this concept that you have called the “grace period,” which I think you got from The Knowledge, right? So I guess the grace period is this temporary time after some disaster where a bunch of people are now dead, but I guess you still have this overhang of supplies from the pre-apocalypse world. And I guess other things like cars are around, other infrastructure, so this potentially helps you to stick around and then rebuild. Yeah, do you want to elaborate on that?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, sure. So again, it kind of depends on the catastrophe, but at least in some places in most catastrophe scenarios, you have maybe all of the infrastructure that you did otherwise: you have a power grid that still exists (even if it’s not working), you have grocery stores with food in them, you even have petrol stations that still have petrol in them and that you can siphon out pretty easily.

Luisa Rodriguez: So you have things that mean that you can kind of survive in a reasonably easy and accessible way. And just how long that period lasts, again, depends on how many people there are. But I think you’d be surprised how much stuff you can still access, with the limitations being the power grid will stop working. But even water will still run for at least a while, and even maybe for a long while in some places, where the water supply isn’t run by electricity and gravity.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, so the more people you have, the more people you have to try to rebuild stuff, but the less supplies you have per person. And then like the reverse in the other case: if most people are dead, then you’re potentially short of the expertise that you might need to get things running, but the grace period is longer. Yeah, is there any way of giving a sense of how long it is, or what kind of stuff might we run out of first?

Luisa Rodriguez: So if you have 50% population loss, I think that, theoretically, if you actually allocated all of the supermarket food and grain stocks and water — kind of literally rationed it — then it would only last days, like under a week. If you actually just divide the US, China, some of the really big food suppliers, over everyone.

Luisa Rodriguez:. We used to have a much greater volume of food stocks than we do now, especially during the Cold War, kind of unsurprisingly. But currently, lots of countries have about six months of grain reserves, and then lots have basically none. And so it seems to come out to a week or a couple of weeks for grain.

Rob Wiblin: Okay. So that means that if you have a situation where 99% of people suddenly die, then now you can last years with that kind of food.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. So it’s years if you make a few assumptions about how you prioritize the order, basically, in which you eat things.

The most valuable knowledge for survivors

Luisa Rodriguez: Luckily, there is kind of an inverse correlation between how valuable knowledge is and how few people have it. This isn’t perfectly true, so there are some things that would be really useful for survivors to know, like… What’s a common one? I guess there are some weird things about telecommunications that like six people know. And so we’ll probably lose those facts.

Luisa Rodriguez: But mostly, like, even though there are many fewer brain surgeons than general practitioners or something, brain surgery is just less important than all the knowledge that general practitioners have. And that just does a lot of work. So we’ll lose lots of sophisticated knowledge of some types of medicine, but it’s hard to imagine why we’d lose germ theory, and even some basic things that will make maternal health better during childbirth, for example. And even that will be a huge improvement on where our ancestors were at similar population levels.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. How many people know things like how to keep a car running or how to run a power station, or how to run the electrical grid, or get that back up and running? Things that kind of stand out, as maybe there’s not enough people in that group?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Those were good candidates for… I called them “critical skillsets,” and I guess it’s just kind of hard to think about. One reason it’s hard is no single person knows how to run a power grid — it’s really distributed knowledge. And leadership at a plant might have more knowledge of the bigger picture, but it’s still distributed — not just in the many individuals who know the different steps, but also it’s going to be in manuals and some of those will survive.

Luisa Rodriguez: So it’s hard to think of really critical knowledge that’s super concentrated in a couple of people. And I tried to do some back-of-the-envelope calculations to be like… What is concentrated and what could we lose? And I would love for someone else to try doing this research in a way that produces more interesting results than what I did. I ended up doing things like, maybe… Like we think advanced chemistry would be really nice to have. So I was like, “How many PhD chemists are there?” and try to think of it this way. And when you think of it that way, and you just make some naive assumptions about where they live, you still have lots of PhD chemists, even in a world where 99% of people have died.

Luisa Rodriguez: That’s where you start to hypothesize. I think I just don’t know enough about how critical infrastructure works to be like, “What’s the job? What’s the one job that’s scarce, but super critical?” But you can think about it just theoretically, like, maybe there are some jobs like that, and you do get to the 99.99% population loss level before you start thinking that there are jobs like that that you’ll definitely lose.

Luisa Rodriguez: I think maybe there’s some evidence that when you get really small populations, when you try to pass down skills between generations… In a way you’re making copies of information, and when you try to teach it, if the number of people learning it is small enough, the copies will get lower and lower fidelity.

Luisa Rodriguez: The more people you have, the more people innovate, and then you get improvements that make up for losses in the basic skill. But yeah, I think the way you can think of it is if someone’s teaching you to shoot an arrow, lots of people will be worse at it than the master, and you need enough people learning it to have some people exceed —

Rob Wiblin: So that in the next generation, there’s someone as good as the best person in the previous time.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. And so, some examples of knowledge degrading over time that were interesting, I think one was Polynesian Islanders lost the ability to build boats and then got stuck. And apparently this is the way in which at least one group of Tasmanians lost the ability to build fire.

Would people really work together?

Luisa Rodriguez: I guess I do feel a bit “peace and lovey” when I talk about this, but I think you even pointed me to the research on how people react to crises, according to sociologists who have looked into post-crisis response. And again, this is hard to generalize from because it’s not actually a case where maybe the world’s going to end; it’s sociologists looking at how individuals and groups respond to tsunamis and hurricanes. It’s just almost unanimously not violent. Like looting is a kind of famous trope, but almost never happens. Same with people fighting over resources.

Luisa Rodriguez: I think it did feel intuitive to me that there would be lots of violence because people would be facing death. But not only does that not look like the case empirically, it also just doesn’t look like a very… I mean, it looks like a strategy that might help some individuals survive if you just think about it theoretically, but it really doesn’t seem like a strategy that would be good for the majority of people to take on.

Luisa Rodriguez: Because most people will really benefit from cooperation that lets them grow more food — like an individual will have a very hard time producing enough food for themself. And there’s a reason that we live in cities, it’s because we specialize and produce more stuff for the number of people, and so cooperation has these clear benefits, especially in the context of agriculture.

Luisa Rodriguez: And insofar as there will be some selection for survival strategies, it seems like lots of people would benefit from taking this cooperation-y strategy, and that there will be some cheaters or people who use violence to get a bunch of resources. But on the whole that’s not going to be a very persistent survival strategy, because you’ve got to have someone to steal from.

Rob Wiblin: Are there other case studies that we can point to where people cooperated to a surprising extent?

Luisa Rodriguez: So both Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered just horribly. I don’t think I fully understood before looking into the details, but basically, a third of the population died. I think the population started around 400,000, and maybe a quarter of those people died instantly. And then another set of tens of thousands of people died from radiation poisoning in the weeks after. So that already was horrible, of course, and shocking to learn, and especially to learn about the details. And then I just remember being really surprised that 90% of the city’s buildings were either totally incinerated or reduced to rubble. So just like this huge infrastructure loss.

Luisa Rodriguez: And then at the same time, I also learned that the recovery was just shockingly quick. So the analogy doesn’t totally work, but if you kind of imagine these as cities whose societies basically collapsed — how quickly they were able to recover is just really astounding to me. I think power was restored to at least homes that weren’t completely destroyed within like a month or so. Water pumps were restored within… I think it was just a few days. Actually, maybe what surprised me even more was some intermediate services were back within the next two or three days.

Luisa Rodriguez: Trains running on like day two. I remember learning that the bank, there was a bank where I think… God, this is awful. I think literally all of the employees were killed immediately. But the bank was able to reopen a few days later. And those services were actually just really important to getting things up and running again. Other things too… like telecommunications, so they had phones back I think on day two or three.

How fast could populations rebound?

Luisa Rodriguez: So population growth is an example of how hard it is to grasp, or how hard it is to intuitively understand, how quick compounded growth is. But if you think the population would grow at the fastest level that it ever has — which is in the 1960s, that was about 2.2% per year — then you’d get about a tenfold increase in population every 100 years. So if you lost 90% of the population, you’d be back to current levels within 100 years.

Luisa Rodriguez: And then if you think that population is going to grow slower, so maybe the level it did when humans were just agriculturalists, then you could recover a population from 90% population loss to current levels in about 240 years. Which is still really, really fast.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It’s kind of shockingly fast. It seems like it should take ages, but yeah, I suppose just the magic of exponential growth means that it doesn’t take quite as long as you’d think.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly. Yeah. So even the most pessimistic scenarios we thought of were if 99.999% of people died, which is a huge number of people dying. Then at that 1% population growth — so agriculturalist-level of population growth — you’d still expect the population to reach current levels in about 1,200 years.

Rob Wiblin: Okay. So I suppose we could compound all these scenarios into an even more pessimistic one where you have 99.9% gone. And you’re only growing at the hunter-gatherer level, which was 0.1%… We would get back to the original population in 7,000 years. But I guess maintaining a 0.1% population growth rate the entire time just seems very strange. It seems like it should either be below zero or more above zero than that. That’s just like knife-edge level.

Luisa Rodriguez: It would be really surprising if at six billion, we were still going at hunter-gatherer levels of growth rates.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. But even then, 7,000 years, it’s not so long such as that, even in a very negative-case scenario, it’s still very, very, very possible to rebuild. How would you be most likely to be wrong?

Luisa Rodriguez: In general, I think I’m biased toward optimism. So I’m more likely to think that if something is technologically possible, it will also be what happens — especially if it seems intuitively advantageous for it to. And that’s not always the case. Yeah, so I guess something like, in some systematic ways, the survivors are much worse at taking advantage of all the things working in their favor than I’ve predicted.

Boom and bust climate change scenarios

Luisa Rodriguez: So the boom refers to using a bunch of fossil fuels, which translate to high emissions and high temperature effects and other climate effects. And then the bust at least broadly is referring to, for some reason, not being able to bring carbon in the atmosphere back down to make those climate changes tolerable, mitigated.

Luisa Rodriguez: Specifically, Will MacAskill and John Halstead came up with two ways that that could happen. So in one scenario, I think Will calls it the “rise and fall scenario” — I think he’s alluding to Rome — where there’s no single catastrophe that means that we don’t have climate-mitigating technologies. It’s just that our technological progress on climate mitigation stagnates before we’re able to get to the level necessary to get to carbon neutral, and then to suck more carbon out of the atmosphere to get temperature levels even lower, if we’ve already gone up higher than we want to be. So that’s one.

Luisa Rodriguez: The other one is a bust caused by some kind of catastrophe. And I think Will calls this one a “double catastrophe,” with a first catastrophe is something like… I think his best guess at how this happens is something like there’s a great power conflict that is both demanding of technological innovation and attention — so brain power. I think basically he’s imagining a scenario where much of our resources are being devoted to developing new military technologies to basically win some arms race. And because arms races are super energy intensive, we’re also burning maybe even more fossil fuels than we would otherwise. And at the same time, that conflict is so politically charged that we are not following through with climate agreements. So basically we just stopped trying to bring carbon levels down and in fact are increasing them.

Luisa Rodriguez: And then maybe that particular conflict becomes a hot conflict, by which I mean war actually erupts — could be a nuclear war, could be use of bioweapons — but something causes society to collapse more significantly in like a single event. And then in that scenario, you’ve had all this carbon being released into the atmosphere, making everything hot and without a way to take it out. So things are just going to keep getting hotter.

Luisa Rodriguez: And you’re now in a collapse scenario where we don’t have the technology we’d need to, again, pull it out. And I think because we don’t have the technology to pull it out, I guess the idea there is it’s basically too hot in almost all areas of the world to exist without air conditioning as humans, but also to have livestock without air conditioning, and then also to grow some types of crops. And we don’t have air conditioning technology. So we’re really in a tricky spot.

Implications for what we ought to do right now

Luisa Rodriguez: We should think more about where we want to conserve both physical resources and information, given the types of catastrophes that we think are likely. Like maybe a nuclear war between Western countries or just countries in the Global North. Think about what things we want to keep. So the Svalbard seed bank does a great job of keeping heirloom seeds, which are seeds that do produce viable seeds when grown, prioritizing those seeds. Keeping, in like a similar vein, stocks of things that would be both useful to use and also useful to learn from in a more intentional and curated way. Like on the same theme of banks, like what do we want them made of?

Rob Wiblin: Technology banks or something. Here’s tons of artifacts, all nicely conserved. They’re going to last quite a long time. And next to each thing is a book describing how it works.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly. And then just being deliberate about distributing those globally.

Rob Wiblin: Sticking them under mountains and places that can still be accessed.

Luisa Rodriguez: Making sure they get preserved. I would love one on a sub. I’d love one in Antarctica, who knows. Yeah. So something a bit more strategic there.

Luisa Rodriguez: I think there are concrete things that can be done to make infrastructure more resilient. And there are organizations and cities trying to make their infrastructure more robust to things like cascading power outages caused by weather or something. And probably there are really targeted things you could do to make infrastructure have fewer interdependencies.

Luisa Rodriguez: Some components of the project would be maybe interviewing experts to see what kinds of technologies you’d want stored. Thinking about the types of knowledge, so like which books you’d want to have. Maybe going back and reading Lewis Dartnell’s The Knowledge and thinking of more examples of things like heirloom seeds or yeast or things that would just be kind of a leapfrog… Save you some trouble to have stored somewhere.

Luisa Rodriguez: So like thinking of the things is one step, building the things is obviously a costly step, deciding where to put the things I think would be really achievable. I think in general, you can’t go wrong with like, distributed all over the world. And then there’s some pretty clear other factors that might push you toward certain places that don’t… Yeah, that I think you could just work out places that seem like they’d be more likely to have survivors.

Luisa Rodriguez: And then governments have plans that you can download online that are like, “What should I do if there are massive disasters that force me to leave my home?”, and basically maybe there aren’t services for a long time. I can imagine advocating for something to be inserted into those plans, that’s like just a location of where these vaults are or something. Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: I think David Denkenberger talked about food stocks. We used to have way more. It’d probably be good if we had way more again. It’d probably be good if more countries had more, and I don’t know how hard that’d be to advocate for, but yeah, it’s something that we’re doing worse on than we were even 40 years ago. So it just seems like we could improve upon that again. I guess in general, I’m in favor of all the research being done into alternative foods.

Articles, books, and other media discussed in the show

Luisa’s work:

Mitigating the risks and effects of civilisational collapse:

Book and movie recommendations:

Other 80,000 Hours Podcast episodes:

Transcript

Rob’s intro [00:00:00]

Rob Wiblin: Hi listeners, this is the 80,000 Hours Podcast, where we have unusually in-depth conversations about the world’s most pressing problems, what you can do to solve them, and why freshwater reservoirs will be the post-apocalyptic Tinder. I’m Rob Wiblin, Head of Research at 80,000 Hours.

I expect this interview is slated to become a fan favourite that people will be mentioning to me for years to come.

It’s information dense, almost to a fault, and because Luisa Rodriguez and I are friends, it’s also particularly conversational.

Luisa has conducted research at Rethink Priorities, the Future of Humanity Institute, and the Forethought Foundation, as well as for Will MacAskill’s upcoming book, and I’m happy to say she has now brought her considerable intellect to the 80,000 Hours research team.

We cover so much substance in this interview that it’s worth laying out the structure at the beginning.

The main question we try to address is whether a global catastrophe that didn’t immediately cause everyone to die — such as an especially terrible pandemic — would be temporary setbacks, or would permanently curtail what humanity can ever accomplish.

We discuss two different mechanisms by which this could happen.

The first is that humanity quickly bungles its attempt at recovery and everyone remaining dies within decades.

The second possibility is that humanity stabilises things and persists for hundreds or thousands of years, but for some reason gets stuck and never manages to recover to the level of technology we have today.

We try to give some thought to disasters that kill anywhere between 50% and 99.99% of people alive today. We also want to envisage cases where most infrastructure is destroyed, as well as cases where most infrastructure is unaffected.

As you can imagine, this represents a vast question that requires us to draw on all the social sciences, history, engineering, various bits of natural science, war studies, and many more. As a result, the conversation bounces between different considerations and historical anecdotes at a rapid pace.

A few times I refer to 99% of people dying but then us quickly rebounding to where we are today as “humanity being OK,” which might be a bit confusing (not to mention morbid). To be clear: I’m strongly against having a 99% chance of dying in a global apocalypse. However, in this interview, we’re looking at things through the lens of humanity as a species that has already persisted through many past natural catastrophes for hundreds of thousands of years, rather than thinking about any of us as individuals.

The last 25 minutes are something completely different, because I ask about Luisa’s fascinating personal backstory of reconnecting with her father, who raised her as a small child but then disappeared from her life for over a decade.

You’ll be able to hear how much fun I had doing this interview and I hope it’s as fun for you in the audience.

Without further ado, here’s Luisa Rodriguez.

The interview begins [00:02:37]

Rob Wiblin: Today I’m speaking with Luisa Rodriguez. Luisa studied sociology and anthropology at Carleton College before doing a master’s in sustainable international development at Brandeis University. After that, she worked in a series of global development roles, interning at GiveWell and Innovations for Poverty Action, before a stint as an analyst at the charity evaluator ImpactMatters.

Rob Wiblin: She then switched focus, investigating various global catastrophic risks at Rethink Priorities, and as a contributing researcher at Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute. She then moved on to the Forethought Foundation for Global Priorities Research, where among other things, she has been doing research for Will MacAskill’s forthcoming book, What We Owe the Future. But the best news is that last month she came to her senses and is joining us as a researcher here at the greatest place to work in the whole world, 80,000 Hours itself. Thank you for coming on the podcast, Luisa.

Luisa Rodriguez: Thank you so much for having me, Rob.

Rob Wiblin: I hope we’ll get to talk about historical disasters and how hard it would be to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. But before that heartwarming stuff: what are you working on at the moment, and why do you think it’s important?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Well, I just started 80,000 Hours about a month ago, and I’ve been working with Ben Todd to revamp 80,000 Hours key ideas homepage. We’re hoping to make it more digestible, more appealing to readers, so that more people can get on board with our key ideas.

Rob Wiblin: Cool. Any early reactions to what 80K is like?

Luisa Rodriguez: Oh my gosh. It’s great. It’s, yeah… What is 80K like? I think I had this image that 80K was this utopia where employees were really productive and really thoughtful and cared a lot about their mental health, and it just is true. Really productive and really thoughtful and really good at thinking about mental health. So, very happy to be here.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. What’s the mental health stuff? If you’re willing to talk about it.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I guess I already had this experience working at other effective altruism organizations, where it seems like people try to be open about mental health, and especially supportive about taking measures to make mental health better. But I think more than anywhere, 80,000 Hours is… Like my check-ins with my manager Arden, many of the questions are very targeted questions about things that relate to my kind of psychology in particular and things in particular I struggle with. So, like one of my questions is, “Are you finding any communications with a team member that you find intimidating, especially aversive right now? If so, let’s send them a message together.”

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: And that’s just like, yeah, I just get to be really open with Arden about things I find hard or scary or unmotivating. And that’s very embedded into our communications and management. And then we just troubleshoot things much more quickly than I ever have at other places.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess it’s not many workplaces where people talk about, like, what antidepressants they’re on on Slack.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right, exactly.

Rob Wiblin: Or share recommendations on what drugs to take.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. So like I have been switching antidepressants a bunch lately because they have lots of side effects, and it’s annoying to find the right one. And I just get to tell Arden, “This is the week I’ll be on the new one, and it’s going to be kind of hard for me because maybe I’ll be nauseous.” And Arden is like, “Great, you should work a bit less, and then tell me when you’re feeling better.”

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: And that’s pretty special.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It’s deep pragmatism. I guess we’ve added to our meetings — or my meetings with Howie — it’s like a thing: “Are you avoiding doing anything this week because you’re scared of doing it?” Especially like things that you haven’t done because you’ve been —

Luisa Rodriguez: Totally.

Rob Wiblin: — I guess like a lot of people fall into this trap sometimes, “Oh, I haven’t done things for longer than I thought that I should, and now I hate to think about them, and so I just stopped doing them.”

Luisa Rodriguez: Absolutely. Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: Fortunately, it’s not like as much of an issue as it used to be, but I think that it’s good to be honest about it.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. And I do just find that there are really effective solutions. You have to like jump through the embarrassing hoop of being like, “I’m avoiding this very small thing for a bad reason.” But as soon as you do… Like Arden will just sit next to me and just hold my hand almost literally while I do the aversive thing. She’s like, okay, let’s just write the email to the person and I’m just going to watch you and I can even help you draft it if you want. And then it just is solved, when like in your head it can be impossible.

Rob Wiblin: It’ll never be fixed, yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, yeah.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, I can’t remember the last time, I guess Keiran’s listening in, and he might recall some time when I think I was just like, “Oh, I just can’t bring myself to do this thing.” And I think Keiran just did it for me basically.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yes, totally! Yeah, I’m all about trading aversive tasks. Just like offering my time —

Rob Wiblin: It’s like, I’ll file your taxes and like —

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly, exactly. It’s sooo much easier.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Yeah, maybe someone else can do the call with that annoying family member.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. Just pretend to be me.

Rob Wiblin: So what’s the story behind how you ended up in this paradisiacal 80,000 Hours?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, so I like this story, I’m proud of this story. Well, so I was working in global development, I guess three and four years ago, right after graduating from university. And I had read [The Life You Can Save(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Life_You_Can_Save) and a few other effective altruism books, and was super convinced that I should try to do the most good. And at the time I was mainly convinced that I should do the most good to help people alive today, especially in poor countries.

Luisa Rodriguez: So I was for a while doing research for Innovations for Poverty Action, which does the randomized control evaluations of global poverty interventions. So I thought of myself as a researcher in global poverty and then slowly became convinced of the arguments for longtermism. And basically that was hard and scary, because that meant maybe changing my whole career, but I applied for advising from 80,000 Hours.

Luisa Rodriguez: And I don’t think I even did a formal advising call, but I did talk to Brenton Mayer, who had some ideas for ways to get experience, but mostly actually was just like, “I think Rob Wiblin might want to hire researchers. Do you want me to introduce you and see if he is hiring?” And so he did, and I think I did some job tasks for you and then ended up trialing. I think this is three years ago now.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: And then, I was super new to longtermist research and to being actually professionally working on EA topics. And also I was just feeling really impostery during the trial, so it was a very stressful trial. And it sounds like I was, I don’t know, promising maybe, but clearly didn’t have as much experience on the thing. And so I think you recommended I try to get research experience elsewhere.

Rob Wiblin: And then come back.

Luisa Rodriguez: And then maybe come back. So at the time I had a job offer from Rethink Priorities, and you suggested if I could do longtermist research there, that might be a good way to get experience. And so I tried that, and I worked on nuclear security there. And then while there I went to FHI — Future of Humanity Institute — and did some of the collapse and recovery stuff there, and then did some of that for Forethought and Will MacAskill as well. And somewhere in there, I think you and Arden maybe like read up on —

Rob Wiblin: “These posts are good!”

Luisa Rodriguez: [laughs] Yeah, yeah.

Rob Wiblin: “Maybe we should have hired Luisa.” [laughs]

Luisa Rodriguez: Well, maybe not at the time, but yeah. But I guess kind of, dream come true, you ended up writing, and a couple years after I’d originally trialed, you made the job offer. So that was a year ago, and then I only just started because I think at the time you made the job offer, I had been RAing for Will MacAskill, who is writing a new book on longtermism, and felt like doing that for a full year was a valuable thing to do.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: So I stuck with that and now finally, three years later, made it here.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, yeah. How do you feel about the decision to keep working on the book?

Luisa Rodriguez: I mean, I definitely feel good. I think the book is hopefully going to be impactful and important and persuade lots of people of longtermism. And I guess there was clearly urgent stuff to be done at 80K, but I think me working on the book for that year, as opposed to Will having to scramble to hire someone new during a very busy period — when we knew we worked really well together, and that the 80K stuff could probably wait — ended up feeling kind of right. And then I also just think I’ll learn a lot at 80K, but I think I learned a ton about specific content matter and got exposed to more different “flavors” of longtermism. So I just feel much better informed than maybe I would’ve if I’d just been at 80K? I’m not totally sure.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, I was sad you couldn’t come join right away. But I guess, well, prepping for this interview, I’ve got to read some of the book and I’m really enjoying it, it’s very fun —

Luisa Rodriguez: I think it’s going to be good.

Rob Wiblin: — and I think it might well be a big hit. So that was probably a year well spent making it even better.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, I hope so.

Rob Wiblin: It seems like it would’ve been very hard for Will to find someone at your level, and who was already deep in the topic. Would have left him in the lurch.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right, yes. And I think Will and I knew we worked well together and we just had momentum and I’m glad we kept that going.

Recovering from a serious collapse of civilization [00:11:41]

Rob Wiblin: All right. So the big thing we’re here to talk about is this series of articles you’ve written — I guess in part but not exclusively for the book that Will’s writing — on the probability of humanity ultimately recovering and building back from a serious collapse of civilization. I guess not many people have, as far as I know, considered that in a sober way. It seems like an area where there’s a lot of loose talk and maybe not a lot of hard talk. How did you first get into this topic?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. I got into the topic because, after thinking about nuclear war where I’d done this big project, thinking about whether a nuclear war would cause a nuclear winter and whether a nuclear winter could cause human extinction. And I ended up feeling like it causing human extinction was pretty impossible — it’s just really hard to tell a story of how that actually happens.

Luisa Rodriguez: Or I guess it still seemed bad to me if nuclear winter caused civilizational collapse, but then even when I reflected on that, collapse isn’t necessarily as bad as human extinction, at least on its face. And then I realized I actually just had no idea if it was as bad as human extinction. I didn’t know if it would necessarily lead to it. I didn’t know if it was completely implausible that it would lead to it. And then it just started to feel like this gaping hole in a lot of these global catastrophic risks — that get you part of the way to extinction, lots of people die and it’s horrible. But I couldn’t find any really possible stories, at least right away, for thinking that it was as bad.

Luisa Rodriguez: And then that felt like maybe a reason to prioritize it a bit less. And so I guess Will MacAskill and I had talked a bit about nuclear stuff and we talked a bit about this, in part because he was kind of forming some of his views in preparation for his book on longtermism. I guess whether civilization could recover from collapse — but not an extinction event — felt important to him in trying to figure out what to actually recommend longtermist work on.

Rob Wiblin: Okay. Yeah. So I guess he had to figure out how worried to be about things like nuclear war, or very bad climate change, or I suppose even like a massive traditional war or something like that.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly.

Rob Wiblin: So this question has floated around for a while. As far as I know, people have been like, “If half of people died in a pandemic, would that lead to the collapse of civilization?” And then they’re like, “I guess it doesn’t seem like it would,” and then they’ll chat about it at lunch.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly.

Rob Wiblin: And then that’s kind of the level that it’ll get to and people will be like, “Eh, I don’t really see why it would.” And I guess you can push it on further, like what if 99% of people died in some sort of pandemic, would we rebuild? And it seems like, yeah, it doesn’t seem like there’s any reason why we wouldn’t. But it wasn’t going beyond lunchtime conversation very much. And then finally, this provided the opportunity for someone to spend actual months looking into this and thinking through the different issues at stake.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I think that’s right. I have a feeling that some people thinking about grantmaking in EA, I think they had worked out views on this. But I’d never seen any and they didn’t feel public and maybe they didn’t feel well organized. So it felt like at least some value came from this thing being organized in a… I don’t know if I’d say linearly, but organized a bit more, and put in a public place that people could talk about it.

Existing literature [00:14:52]

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So when you started looking into it, and I guess asking people, did they have a Google doc about this? What was the state of the literature?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I never got a Google doc shared with me. I did interviews with people who think a lot about global catastrophic risks, to see if there just were common stories. And yeah, I guess I got plenty of people putting hypotheses forward, but no one pointing at papers or even like internal docs. And then there are a couple of pieces of the puzzle that had been published actually, just mostly outside of EA.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Well, I’m curious to know what… I mean, I would think that almost most of the conversation about this would be outside of the existential risk and effective activism communities, just because we’re very small.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Right.

Rob Wiblin: Was there much?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. So there was some about climate change and whether climate change would cause collapse, but again, it all felt very speculative. It felt like usually the best — or not the best — I found was like “think pieces.”

Rob Wiblin: Like New Scientist–level and not like —

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly. People, I guess, saying plausible things, but no one having much evidence other than their intuitions or something.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. There’s The Knowledge, right?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. So that was I think one of the coolest things I found, which is, again, just a piece of the puzzle. So what The Knowledge by Lewis Dartnell did was just assume that there was a catastrophe where… I don’t remember exactly if he assumed a certain percentage of the population died, but he assumed that infrastructure was left standing. I think maybe he hypothesized it could be something like a pandemic, where potentially billions of people died. He kind of lays out this catastrophe scenario, and then the rest of the book is basically going through all the pieces of information, individuals, and groups we’d need to have to rebuild. First very basic needs, so basic agriculture —

Rob Wiblin: How to start a fire.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. How to purify water. Just like survival. And then goes progressively through, how do we get to the rudimentary versions of the technologies we have today? So it even goes to like, how do you make fertilizer using certain types of rocks and chemistry? So it ends up kind of giving you the information you’d need, that’s beyond survival but also pre-industrial. I mean, it’s mainly I think just meant to be very interesting, but I think theoretically he liked the idea that if someone found it in the post-catastrophe society or if someone had —

Rob Wiblin: They might find it handy.

Luisa Rodriguez: — intentionally put it somewhere, people would at least survive. Or maybe in addition to that, be able to recreate photography and other rudimentary technologies.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It seems like the kind of question where… I don’t know, I feel like if I ask someone random on the street, “Do you think that any academic, like some researcher somewhere, has spent a lot of time looking into this question of, if 99% of people died in a war or pandemic or whatever, that humanity would rebuild?” It’s like a glaringly obvious question — especially, you’d think, during the Cold War or something like that, when people were talking about nuclear winter.

Rob Wiblin: But it seems like it’s just fallen through the cracks a bit. I guess there’s no university department for like Disaster Apocalypse Studies. That sounds a bit silly to them somehow, and it’s like no one’s particular responsibility, it’s not the earth sciences people’s responsibility or the physicists’ or the engineers’ even. Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, that’s a really good point. I did come across… I think Princeton has an interdisciplinary working group that has conferences every once in a while — the acronym is PIIRS. It’s definitely trying to think about collapse studies and it brings in physicists. But it is, one, just not at all very practical, and two, I think it’s not actually thinking about reasons collapse might lead to extinction. It’s more like, “Might the power grid go offline if there’s a certain level of war or pandemic or something?” I guess it’s more on this question that is like, “What kind of catastrophe would cause a collapse?” and not on whether humanity would survive or recover from a collapse itself.

Rob Wiblin: I see, more focused on the first step and then less —

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. And then just like nothing on the second, that I found.

Rob Wiblin: I guess there’s not much business value in it, is there? I guess you have lots of Goldman Sachs, like business analysts, trying to figure out what companies are good. But there’s just not much money to be made I guess in forecasting what would happen after all of the bank accounts are empty.

Luisa Rodriguez: True. Yeah, and just like, it is really intractable. I mean, it’s not totally intractable, but it’s hard to like…

Rob Wiblin: You feel a bit lost, I suppose, if you’re used to more rigorous things.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I imagine a physicist being like, “I don’t know how concretely I can say very true things about this; I’d just be guessing.”

Rob Wiblin: I feel like economists might —

Luisa Rodriguez: That’s true.

Rob Wiblin: — might have the boldness and the arrogance to comment on it.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Maybe they should.

Rob Wiblin: You think that’s true? Did economists have much to say or not especially?

Luisa Rodriguez: Not really.

Rob Wiblin: No? Oh, well. Do you reckon there’s classified military stuff? Because I mean, the US government has this interesting continuity of business plan where they’re trying to figure out if Washington, DC is whacked off the map, where are they going to send everyone to keep doing their business? I think a very high priority for them is getting people to pay taxes again very quickly, which is quite funny, but because it is necessary, so…

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I wouldn’t be surprised — especially Cold War era — and then I would guess that it kind of bottomed out at the level where you still have governance. So maybe they’re really going to be trying to tax people again quickly. But if you, as some people think you might, lose that level of governance, then I would guess like —

Rob Wiblin: It’s not a plan.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. They’re not planning for like, “When there’s no leadership, how will –”

Rob Wiblin: When we’re back to pre-industrial, or when we’re back to subsistence agriculture.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly. “…then what should the former Americans who are no longer members of a state do?”

Fiction [00:20:42]

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I mean, it’s super interesting, right? I had the sense that there is tons of fiction or lots of science fiction stuff on this. Which is like, some of it might be a bit harder and some of it might be a bit more fantastical, but have the creative writers maybe done the most cutting-edge research on this?

Luisa Rodriguez: I think probably. I mean, to be fair, it’s like any work on this will be kind of imaginative by its nature, so that probably is just some of the best work that can be done, and these are some of the people best at imagining weird worlds.

Rob Wiblin: How people would react.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah exactly. So yeah, there’s plenty on it, it’s very interesting. I read sci-fi about post-apocalyptic —

Rob Wiblin: What’s good?

Luisa Rodriguez: Ooh, what’s really good? Um…

Rob Wiblin: I suppose you want something like The Martian, where it’s actually trying to figure… Someone who has engineering experience.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly. I mean, I actually think, this is not sci-fi, but I think The Knowledge was… He is a chemist and physicist, Lewis Dartnell, so I think he really was coming at it from a scientific perspective. So I definitely had some books that I really liked. I don’t know that any of it felt like, “Oh yeah, this is what would happen.”

Rob Wiblin: “Finally. The answer.”

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, “They’ve solved it.” But I mean, The Road is very dark.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I decided not to watch that. I just want to watch happy things.

Luisa Rodriguez: I mean, I used to like this topic more until I started having to think about the fact that this —

Rob Wiblin: What it would be like.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, yeah.

Rob Wiblin: In The Road, are there any insights that you can remember that are fun to mention? Because it focuses a lot on food access, right?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, it does. Which is I think common and mostly what comes up when people actually really try to think of ways or like how extinction happens. I don’t know if there’s anything particularly fun from The Road.

Rob Wiblin: Okay, sorry. A broad sense of fun.

Luisa Rodriguez: A very broad sense of fun.

Rob Wiblin: Interesting I guess.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, interesting. So basically in lots of fiction about post-apocalyptic worlds, one of the main drivers of plot is conflict between groups. And I guess it’s just not as interesting a book to read about people slowly starving to death where —

Rob Wiblin: Cooperatively.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. All trying to…

Rob Wiblin: Well, the happier story would be like people banding together to make bigger groups in order to cooperate in order to reestablish agriculture —

Luisa Rodriguez: Right, and slowly rebuilding society.

Rob Wiblin: Where you’re like, well, the more people, the more agriculture we can do and the more we can specialize.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right.

Rob Wiblin: Which I guess could be interesting, but it sounds like a harder book to write than a story about people fighting.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. It definitely has less obvious plot dynamics and ways to draw people in.

Types of disasters [00:23:13]

Rob Wiblin: All right. Well, enough about fiction, we’re going to try to do better than that. Get onto the substance of these different kinds of sub-questions that you’ve tried to get through. I guess, in part we want to share some of the historical examples that you’ve dug up, and various other considerations that people have raised that you’ve tried to be like, “Really, is this right? What actually is it when you think about this more analytically?” But I suppose you’ve worked on this for about a year, right?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. About a year, half time.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, so this is not the most exhaustive possible research project that someone could do.

Luisa Rodriguez: Definitely not.

Rob Wiblin: And hopefully other people will come along and do more.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly.

Rob Wiblin: But, it seems like the broad story is you’ve gone out looking for stories that people could tell, some explanation for why these things would cause us to go extinct, and come up a bit empty. You just keep finding that they’re not that persuasive, the narrative isn’t that compelling. And so, you’re not saying it’s impossible that this stuff would happen, you’re just like, no one has explained why. So it’s a bit of, the unknown unknowns are maybe the thing that is most problematic.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I think that’s exactly right. A couple of things seemed like the most likely options, but mostly… Especially surprising to me was the fact that the really common explanations people would give, like starvation or violence, just never ended up… I was like, okay, let me just concretely make this into a story. And it just felt like there was no story that made any sense.

Rob Wiblin: It falls apart in your hands.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Exactly.

Rob Wiblin: I guess my hope is that people will listen to this and come away with the sense that… Well, it seems like lots of people have been scared away from this topic, from the fact that not many people have looked into it. So maybe at least some of them thought it was a hopeless enterprise — that, how can you think about something that’s so different from what we have now? But I think, reading your stuff, I’m like, no, people can think about this. You can interrogate the specific claims that people make or think about these stories. And sometimes it’s just sufficiently clear that they don’t make sense that you can make progress, or at least your forecast of things can move up and down pretty substantially with some thought.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. That is how I felt. I definitely, like you said, don’t feel like I settled any of these questions. But I at least felt like I went from, “I don’t know, some of these things seem plausible” to like, you can force it if you want — but most of the explanations I was coming up with didn’t feel so solid that I felt like I could even endorse the previous position I had, which was like, “Maybe.” So I think I at least moved from, “Maybe, who knows?” to like, “I don’t know…” Like sure, maybe, in a way that like you said is unknown unknowns.

Rob Wiblin: Can’t rule it out.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. Can’t rule anything out. But everything I’ve come up with feels kind of flimsy.

Rob Wiblin: All right. Well with that in mind, what sort of different disasters did you analyze?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. So I found that it did kind of matter, the type of disaster that you’re talking about, to… One, how likely it is that civilization would even collapse. But then also, two, how likely it is that civilization would recover from collapse. So I tried to take a few examples — just to keep the scope narrow enough to even think about — that got at some of the key parameters or something of a catastrophe. And I didn’t quite hit all of the ones I wanted, but the main three I considered were a scenario where 50% of the population dies. You can imagine it as a pandemic. So you have high population loss — not extremely high, but much higher than, for example, COVID — but then no loss of physical infrastructure.

Rob Wiblin: The houses are still here.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, yeah. And basically the climate is the same and there are no lasting environmental effects too. So that’s one case where you’re just kind of toggling up and down on population death.

Luisa Rodriguez: Another that I thought about was adding in infrastructure damage, and because nuclear war seems like a plausible catastrophic risk, I went ahead and just tried to think about nuclear winter in particular. So for that one, I thought the parameters would be something like, maybe 90% population death, through both the initial war, and then famine in the very immediate aftermath of the nuclear winter. And then I also thought there would be something like five to 10 years of environmental effects, but then those would go away. So that was another one.

Luisa Rodriguez: And then the last one I thought about was… I was trying to come up with basically a set of catastrophes that might make the story look worse. And the thing that I’ve actually written up and posted, I ended up thinking about nuclear war and biological weapons. And so in that scenario, I ended up assuming that population death would be much higher — so 99.99% — which I think leaves you with 800,000 —

Rob Wiblin: 1 in 10,000? Okay. So 800,000 people left globally?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yep. And then you still had the infrastructure damage and you still had the environmental effects that were temporary. And so that was one of the worst cases I could think of.

Luisa Rodriguez: And then one that I’ve thought about since writing publicly about the topic, so maybe a fourth one, is what happens if you have a nuclear war that kills lots of people, but then you also have climate change or climate effects that do last for a really, really long time — on the order of not a decade, but thousands of years.

Luisa Rodriguez: So those are the main parameters I see being important: how many people die, whether stuff is left standing (so infrastructure is standing), whether there are environmental effects, and how long all of these effects last.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Nice. So there’s I guess the number of people dead, there’s the infrastructure destruction, and there’s how long is the environmental damage lasting. That adds a lot of permutations and we can’t… I guess in your essays or various documents, you go through all of these and think about the various different kinks of each one, but we can’t be quite as thorough here. So we have to be a little bit more broad-brushed. But I guess people can go away and read the documents that we’ll link to if they want to be more precise. Don’t @ me.

What the world might look like after a catastrophe [00:29:09]

Rob Wiblin: Are there any facts about what the world would look like after some of these disasters that are non-obvious, that are useful to keep in mind when we’re visualizing the situation that people would face?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I do think there are a few. So regardless of the scenario, a thing that kept coming up as important was the fact that catastrophes will kind of inevitably be non-uniform in their effects. So I guess if you have a catastrophe that’s so big that it’s actually uniform in its effects and it’s really severe, it’s going to kill everyone. So that would be a catastrophe like an asteroid that actually really impacted the Earth. Or maybe actually like —

Rob Wiblin: It’s like even bigger than the one that killed the dinosaurs or something like that?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. So that is one where you can imagine having consistent mortality rates everywhere, consistent climate effects everywhere. But for the catastrophes that interest us — so the ones that don’t actually kill everyone at once, but leave some survivors — the reason that happens is because the catastrophe is going to have non-uniform effects. And I think for lots of catastrophes, they could just be very non-uniform, where you might get some entire continents that are much, much less affected than others, both in terms of population death and in terms of climate effects.

Luisa Rodriguez: So an example in nuclear winter that’s kind of well known is you have some continents where agriculture becomes near impossible, and then you have others where it’s like, maybe even a bit better, if not —

Rob Wiblin: Because it’s colder, or…?

Luisa Rodriguez: Because it’s colder and otherwise was too hot for agriculture.

Rob Wiblin: I see. Before, yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: And that’s probably… Mostly you wouldn’t get better. You’d just get —

Rob Wiblin: It wouldn’t be quite as devastating as other places.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. It would still be possible. And then you get the same for pandemics. Maybe in pandemics, it’s more for political reasons, but even thinking about the COVID variation.

Rob Wiblin: Well, I guess you have islands, right?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly.

Rob Wiblin: We’re talking about New Zealand or I guess other small islands. I guess if something is very contagious, it could be quite hard, or that’s the case where maybe it would be more uniform. But you’d think in a scenario where half of people were dying of a disease that… At least if it was a respiratory disease, we’ve kind of learned that if you are willing to be insanely strict about forcing people to stay at home, then it seems like you can suppress a disease. And people were very motivated to stay at home. Maybe almost to a fault — potentially it could be problematic that people are unwilling to go out and do anything.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. If you make a couple assumptions about the type of pathogen, it’s just really hard to get the transmission rates to stay high enough to really keep killing people.

Rob Wiblin: Given that people will respond.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly.

Rob Wiblin: And I guess also, people thin out, right? So that’s one problem that the disease starts facing is —

Luisa Rodriguez: That’s it. You just won’t encounter as many people, if it’s human-to-human transmissible.

Rob Wiblin: So I guess you get to the case where 90% of people are dead, and then… I guess we’ve just seen this with other pandemics — even very contagious ones — that they tend to burn out after a while. And I guess we’ve never actually had a pandemic… Well, the very worst was all of the diseases going to the Americas.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly.

Rob Wiblin: Where I think we don’t know exactly how many people died, but it wasn’t more than 90%.

Luisa Rodriguez: No. I think there are some high estimates that are maybe as high as 90%, but they’re for like communities, and not for —

Rob Wiblin: Ah, rather than the whole continent.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. So I think some islands might have been that high. And even then, the data we have on that is just horrendous.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. And I guess with nukes as well… So Europe, we’ll be in a pretty bad situation in London.

Luisa Rodriguez: Pretty bad.

Rob Wiblin: But New Zealand, again, this damn New Zealand.

Luisa Rodriguez: I know.

Rob Wiblin: They’ll be having a great time.

Luisa Rodriguez: They’ve got it all, yeah. So they’ll be fine with the pandemic, they’ll be fine from the nuclear war.

Rob Wiblin: What are the other scenarios? Like conventional war, I guess we can consider that almost just a subset of the nuclear war, just like not as bad.

Luisa Rodriguez: I think so, yeah. Yeah, I think different types of climate change will be differentially affecting.

Rob Wiblin: So people talk about how climate change could potentially be good for Siberia or for places that are really far north and far south.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Very cold.

Rob Wiblin: And so again, I guess New Zealand might be all right.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. New Zealand ends up looking really good.

Rob Wiblin: Or otherwise Russia might be.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, Russia too. Well, in some of them. Sometimes Russia does well, sometimes it doesn’t.

Rob Wiblin: So this non-uniformity is super central, if you’re thinking about if it will kill 100% of people. Because even if there’s just like 1% of people living in some place that’s largely unaffected, then that basically answers the question for you.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly. And I think sometimes it’s slight non-uniformity that makes a bit of difference — maybe isn’t decisive. So like with nuclear winter, you’ll have some areas that are cold and some areas that are slightly less cold. But some catastrophes would cause extremely non-uniform effects, where like even if you had really, really enormous population losses, and actually the collapse of society and political systems — all of these systems that we think of as critical collapsed on one continent, I think you might see society continue on others. And I think that’s something that I didn’t intuitively have in my head when I first started thinking about this, is just some places might really be kind of unfazed.

Rob Wiblin: Right. Thinking about New Zealand again, I suppose it’s also Tasmania… Are there any other things that we should have in mind? I guess it’s like Pacific islands.

Luisa Rodriguez: Pacific islands. Yeah, I think depending on the thing again… In some scenarios you really want coastlines because fishing is a key source of food. So like Chile looks kind of good in a couple of scenarios. I think those are the main ones.

Nuclear winter [00:34:34]

Rob Wiblin: So, let’s maybe focus on the nuclear winter one first. So you get massive nuclear exchange. I guess, in order to really get the worst cases, we have to imagine some time in the future when there’s many more nukes on high alert than is currently the case. Because I guess, compared to the Cold War, there’s I think a tenth as many nukes, maybe even less than that, on high alert to actually be used. Because there’s been various agreements.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I think there were something in the 70,000 range, and now they’re something in the 10,000.

Rob Wiblin: Oh, 10,000? I think —

Luisa Rodriguez: Oh, I think worldwide.

Rob Wiblin: Oh, okay. Right. Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: US, it’s something like 2,000. And Russia too.

Rob Wiblin: Okay. So like, a worse nuclear war than would be possible right now. In that case, as I understand it, the dust or all of the stuff they’re worried about causing the nuclear winter doesn’t spread very easily to the Southern Hemisphere, right? A bit maybe trickles down there, but it’s a lot less. And I suppose also, if you’re a coastal area or a place that has a lot of water around, then your temperature change is much reduced, because you have this stock of something that doesn’t change temperature very easily and it keeps you at about the same level.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yes. Yeah. That’s exactly right.

Rob Wiblin: And how much would New Zealand suffer from the inability to import stuff? I guess they don’t have an oil industry, right? And so their cars might stop working or they won’t be able to get replacement computers, I suppose. So that could be awkward.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. So very specific things like computer chips that are only made in some places, especially will be impossible to get. And then probably things like fossil fuels will be harder for them to get.

Luisa Rodriguez: I tried to make kind of a predictive index that looked at a bunch of different features or facts about a country or a continent, and like score them on how good they looked. And one of the criteria was whether they were net importers or net exporters. And New Zealand was quite net importing, so that did make it look worse. Australia is very net exporting.

Rob Wiblin: Oh, what kinds of things? Well, I guess coal, right?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Plenty of coal, and they net export food. So, I think I was especially interested in some very basic necessity things to start, and Australia’s great on —

Rob Wiblin: A bunch of them?

Luisa Rodriguez: — a bunch, yeah. They also are net exporting on different energy sources.

Rob Wiblin: Hmm. Oh, Australia doesn’t have much oil, right? But I guess it has gas —

Luisa Rodriguez: It does have gas. I don’t know actually about oil, but —

Rob Wiblin: Okay. Do we have any indications of like, would the New Zealand political system hold up? Would we still have Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the post-apocalyptic hellscape?

Luisa Rodriguez: Oh, great question. Yeah, I mean, I would be musing about that. Which… I can try.

Rob Wiblin: If you want to. Yeah, I suppose I don’t know. My intuitive thing is, I’m not sure why not.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. I mean, it would be I think in the population’s interest to continue to be supported by the state, and all the things the state provides, including defense to other countries. And then also, I don’t know if it’s maintaining infrastructure, but like all of the things that keep things going — the state is so involved that people should want it to exist. And so I guess the main reason I think it might fall apart is if they were invaded.

Rob Wiblin: I see. Ah, interesting. So if other people wanted to come to New Zealand because it’s so good?

Luisa Rodriguez: That’s all that’s coming to mind. What about you?

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I mean, it seems like during disasters, I guess especially in the situation with New Zealand when you’re like, “Well, we’re still fed and things are still running and nobody in particular has died. We just don’t have imports. And now we’re going to have a very rough time for many decades, possibly centuries as the world rebuilds.” It seems like in that kind of situation, people tend to pull together, if anything. It’s like, you could see it improving approval ratings and people’s interest in coordinating.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. You’d think if everyone knew that the status quo was in their favor — where everywhere else in the world was doing terribly, but they’d managed to keep things together — it would not be in their favor to try to mix things up. But I suppose, maybe if leadership were seen as doing something really irresponsible, maybe they’d get opposition. But even then it seems like maybe there’d be a transition of power, but it’s hard to imagine New Zealand being —

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. What’s the coup? Or why would people support a coup?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Like an actual —

Rob Wiblin: Or I guess disintegration is more troubling, but again it’s… Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Maybe there’d be a coup and no one would be that excited about a bunch of violence. So, either work and hopefully not be super violent, or not. But disintegration, like you said, it seems really hard to imagine why anyone would support —

Rob Wiblin: Try to make that happen.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. ‘Cause it’s just like, they’re in a reasonably good place.

Stuff that might stick around [00:38:58]

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Yeah. Okay. All right. So this was all under the umbrella of non-uniformity of the impacts. Are there any other important salient facts that people should keep in mind?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Kind of still under that umbrella, but a bit more specific. So some types of things that might stick around depending on the catastrophe. So there are food stocks in different countries. The US is known for having a lot. Lots of countries have food stocks and that’s like grain and grain silos. And you also have all sorts of infrastructure that has goods that will be sitting in it. And some of them will rot, but some of them won’t.

Luisa Rodriguez: So if you’re in a scenario where you have infrastructure — which I think some places would when you have this non-uniformity — then at least some populations will still just have access to stuff. Maybe not to ongoing production of stuff, but to some stuff.

Rob Wiblin: Okay. So we’ve got food in supermarkets, we’ve got food in warehouses that supply supermarkets. I guess we’d have food in the fields that’s potentially still growing or could be harvested. We’d have livestock that are still alive. Yeah. What other kinds of supplies do we have?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, so there are like really basic ones. It gets kind of specific. But if you have grocery stores, you have access to either actual yeast colonies or alcohol with yeast in them, and that helps you. If you’re just trying to make your own yeast, that would be kind of hard. But if you wanted to make bread eventually, then you’d have access to places where you could get yeast. Or even things just like warm clothes — clothes do wear out very quickly, and if it’s really cold, you want —

Rob Wiblin: You want to wear a lot of clothes. Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: — to be able to get durable and warm clothes. All sorts of things can be used to purify water.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, what do you use to purify water?

Luisa Rodriguez: You can use iodine tablets, which you can get in some specific places, but you can also build your own water purification systems. You can even just leave clear plastic bottles in the sun for long enough, and that will kind of work, until the water bottle starts to degrade. So that’ll —

Rob Wiblin: Can you use a normal water bottle for that? Can I go grab a bottle of Coke and empty it out and then fill it with water and stick it in the sun?

Luisa Rodriguez: I think that the answer is yes, for a bit, and then if you use it for a really long time, you’d start to maybe get cancer.

Rob Wiblin: Okay. Yeah. That’s tomorrow’s problem.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly. You’ll already have cancer from the radioactive fallout.

Rob Wiblin: Okay. So, we got the water stuff, clothes, food. I guess a super salient thing here is how many survivors are there? Because it’s a funny one where you get this balancing thing, where if almost everyone’s dead, then they’ve got an enormous amount of stuff to use. And if almost everyone’s alive, then you have a lot more resources to try to keep producing stuff, but your stockpiles aren’t going to last very long.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I think just a really interesting emergent finding is that the number of survivors really does interact in a kind of funny way with other things. Where yeah, I think this applies to things beyond just supplies left. So supplies left is a good example, where if you have lots of survivors, the supplies go very quickly. But then on the other hand, if you have lots of people dying, which would be terrible in some respects, and makes it a bit harder to rebuild industry and harder to make sure that you… Well, ideally that you’d keep some of the necessary knowledge and skills — you’d want to at least eventually rebuild industry. When you are down to tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people, it’s less guaranteed that you’ll keep all of those skills. And so you just get these kind of tradeoffs. And I think, mostly, I felt like it worked in favor of survival.

Grace period [00:42:39]

Rob Wiblin: Okay. So this kind of relates to this concept that you have called the “grace period,” which I think you got from The Knowledge, right?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Yeah, I did.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So I guess the grace period is this temporary time after some disaster where a bunch of people are now dead, but I guess you still have this overhang of supplies from the pre-apocalypse world. And I guess other things like cars are around, other infrastructure, so this potentially helps you to stick around and then rebuild. Yeah, do you want to elaborate on that?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, sure. So again, it kind of depends on the catastrophe, but at least in some places in most catastrophe scenarios, you have maybe all of the infrastructure that you did otherwise: you have a power grid that still exists (even if it’s not working), you have grocery stores with food in them, you even have petrol stations that still have petrol in them and that you can siphon out pretty easily.

Luisa Rodriguez: So you have things that mean that you can kind of survive in a reasonably easy and accessible way. And just how long that period lasts, again, depends on how many people there are. But I think you’d be surprised how much stuff you can still access, with the limitations being the power grid will stop working. But even water will still run for at least a while, and even maybe for a long while in some places, where the water supply isn’t run by electricity and —

Rob Wiblin: Gravity?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Rob Wiblin: So I guess you face… Yeah, so the more people you have, the more people you have to try to rebuild stuff, but the less supplies you have per person. And then like the reverse in the other case: if most people are dead, then you’re potentially short of the expertise that you might need to get things running, but the grace period is longer. Yeah, is there any way of giving a sense of how long it is, or what kind of stuff might we run out of first?

Luisa Rodriguez: So if you have 50% population loss, I think that, theoretically, if you actually allocated all of the food and water — kind of literally rationed it — then it would only last days, like under a week.

Rob Wiblin: Oh, wow. Really?

Luisa Rodriguez: So that’s if you —

Rob Wiblin: This is supermarket food or something?

Luisa Rodriguez: This is supermarket food and grain stocks.

Rob Wiblin: Really?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: Oh, so little. Okay.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I mean, lots of countries have them and some countries don’t. And so, if you actually just divide the US, China, some of the really big food suppliers, over everyone. We used to have many more, or a much greater volume of food stocks than we do now, especially during the Cold War, kind of unsurprisingly. But currently, lots of countries have about six months of grain reserves, and then lots have basically none. And so it seems to come out to a week or a couple of weeks for grain.

Rob Wiblin: Okay. But I guess, so that means that if you have a situation where 99% of people suddenly die, then now you can last years with that kind of food.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. So it’s years if you make a few assumptions about how you prioritize the order, basically, in which you eat things. So you’ll have to consider perishability, and at some point —

Rob Wiblin: It seems like people would do that.

Luisa Rodriguez: It seems like they would.

Rob Wiblin: To some extent.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I mean, in the first couple days, they’ll probably like —

Rob Wiblin: Eat whatevs.

Luisa Rodriguez: Go into the pasta before the tomatoes, which would be a mistake. But it will probably not be the factor that determines whether they survive the catastrophe. But it’s basically like, eat the perishables first, and then at some point in the year’s timescale, things rot and you can’t eat them anymore. So that’s actually the limit you hit before food per person.

Rob Wiblin: Right. In the scenario where lots of people are, yeah —

Luisa Rodriguez: Most people have died, and there are thousands of survivors left. At some point, the grain will just not be edible anymore.

Rob Wiblin: Huh. Is there anything you can do to make it last a lot longer?

Luisa Rodriguez: Good question.

Rob Wiblin: Stick it somewhere really cold, underground…?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, really cold, I guess. Yeah. Or process it.

Rob Wiblin: Dry it.

Luisa Rodriguez: Dry it. Yeah. Which is, I suppose I hadn’t really thought about this, but there’s tons of livestock in some countries, and I suppose I’d actually just assumed that once we ate what we could, kind of immediately, we’d lose a lot of edible biomass. But I suppose if there were like a campaign to dry all of this meat right away, maybe that’s more salvageable. So that would make it look better.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. What other stuff might be in short supply?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. So certain medications will run out super quickly, but most people don’t actually rely on medications to live, so it wouldn’t be definitive. Power would be gone almost immediately, except in a few places that have really well-designed hydroelectric dams. GPS apparently would survive a couple of days, but then the satellites’ orbits would slowly start shifting out of place, so GPS would stop being accurate.

Rob Wiblin: Do people have cars? Will cars still work?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, so cars will work. They’ll eventually break down, as they would in normal times. Gas, like diesel gas, lasts about 10 years if it’s just sitting under a gas station. Non-diesel gas, the gas that most cars run on, lasts more like five, at which point it degrades. Technically you could make it usable again, but you’d have to —

Rob Wiblin: It’d be hard.

Luisa Rodriguez: — be a chemist. Yeah, do some chemistry. But then you could pretty easily, for the first basically five years, run cars by either figuring out how to generate power to power gas stations, or siphoning it out more mechanically. You could just pull the gas out, put it in the car, and the cars would run until the things broke down. And even then you’d have plenty of people mixing parts to keep cars running for even longer.

Examples of human ingenuity in tough situations [00:48:33]

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess, there’s case studies of this, right? Because there’s various countries where, I suppose, like Myanmar, like Cuba, places that had —

Luisa Rodriguez: Cuba is a good one.

Rob Wiblin: — import restrictions, where they did manage to keep cars running for a surprisingly long time.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. And it did rely on kind of… Like, mechanics in Cuba, it’s more prestigious to be a mechanic in Cuba —

Rob Wiblin: It’s a tough job.

Luisa Rodriguez: — because it’s a really valuable skillset, to be able to keep them running.

Rob Wiblin: So basically, I suppose they combine cars over time, by combining the working parts of each of them, and then find other replacement things that aren’t exactly the part that was originally intended, but keep the car moving.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. And I think the things that get hard are like tires. You’ll have tires for a long time, but once you do run out of tires, it’s extremely hard to make tires from rubber. But a lot of other things you could plausibly —

Rob Wiblin: Originally, I don’t think we used rubber tires. We used stuff that was full of hay or… Yeah, it was weird sorts of tires. I mean, they were very unpleasant, I think, because they had no bounce in them, but yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Good point. And I don’t know how hard it would be to retrofit a car with some non-rubber tires, but maybe we’d have cars even longer than I thought.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Do electric cars keep running without the internet?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I can’t think of a reason they wouldn’t. I don’t actually know that much about electric cars.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I think that they’re meant to break down a lot less. So they might have that benefit. I suppose it might be harder to get electricity than access to oil.

Luisa Rodriguez: I think so. I think it would be. Though another case where we see real ingenuity is in, again, places that have seen a lot of conflict. So during the Serbian bombing of Bosnia, there were cities that were completely isolated from the rest of the world for a period of years, while they were being basically attacked and supplies were being restricted. And people generated electricity by pulling engines out of cars and putting them into rivers in a way that created like a water —

Rob Wiblin: Oh wow. They turned them into hydropower.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. But then also just by pulling generators out of just a bunch of different appliances that have generators in them, and then jury-rigging them to other things to just —

Rob Wiblin: Do you know how they got fuel?

Luisa Rodriguez: I don’t know. I can guess where I would think to get fuel, now that I’ve read about this, but I don’t actually know in that scenario what they were doing there.

Rob Wiblin: I guess in the future, it seems like if there’s tons of solar panels all over the place, that could be a big advantage here. I suppose it would be very intermittent, but that’s not the key issue if you’re trying to charge your phone. I don’t know. I can imagine phones, at least in some places, being surprisingly important. Or I guess, yeah, basic food cooking or something like that.

Luisa Rodriguez: Totally. Yeah. And solar panels, I think they, I mean, they definitely degrade. I think they degrade at a rate of like 1% efficiency loss per year, which just gets you a lot of time.

Rob Wiblin: It’s not so bad. Yeah. I’ve definitely read that some solar panel manufacturers are insuring their things for up to 30 years now. Which, some people are skeptical — they think that this might be a bad move, because they’re going to fail.

Luisa Rodriguez: They’re gonna lose money, yeah.

Rob Wiblin: They feel cocky about the performance of their solar panels. So maybe they are getting up to a level of technological sophistication where they could last quite a while.

Luisa Rodriguez: Cool. Yeah. That will be helpful. So there would be ways to generate power and people would probably figure them out, because people have really diverse skills. This is now just an aside, but I do think one thing, this kind of fallacy I had, when starting this project was like, “I wouldn’t know how to do any of this stuff. So we’d be doomed.” And then the issue here is that I don’t know how to do almost anything, but lots of other people do have many clearer, harder skills than I do. I’m probably at the bottom percentile of useful skillsets in the apocalypse.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It’s possible that you know something that you haven’t recognized how useful it might be.

Luisa Rodriguez: Sure, sure. Yeah. But just because I can’t figure out —

Rob Wiblin: People are going to need career advice in the post-apocalyptic hellscape.

Luisa Rodriguez: There you go. They’re going to need —

Rob Wiblin: “I recommend that you become the engine hydro converter guy.”

Luisa Rodriguez: Right! I, at the very least, will know that it’s possible and that will be helpful.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Yeah. Well actually, you have really useful skills now.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Knowing what’s possible did feel like an important consideration.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It seems like another thing is it’s easy to underestimate how hard people try when their lives are on the line — to do stuff, how many things they will try. Yeah, are there other examples that you can think of?

Luisa Rodriguez: I mean, I also had this intuition of like, I couldn’t possibly grow food. But of course I could figure out how to grow food. There are a couple of things… Like, not everyone would be able to figure out how to grow food, and there are some random facts that you’d need to know or figure out. So for example, most people don’t know that you can’t just take crops that are grown in the fields and get viable plants from them. They just don’t produce seeds.

Rob Wiblin: Is that true everywhere? Or just about?

Luisa Rodriguez: It’s basically like 99% of agriculture doesn’t produce viable seeds.

Rob Wiblin: Seems bad.

Luisa Rodriguez: Seems bad.

Rob Wiblin: But what can you do?

Luisa Rodriguez: So you’d have to know that heirloom crops produce seeds.

Rob Wiblin: Where do they get the seeds from now? Are there special laboratories where they make the seeds that work?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. It’s like genetically modifying plants to be super productive also means modifying them to not waste energy on making seeds.

Rob Wiblin: On reproduction?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. On reproduction.

Rob Wiblin: Oh. So it’s not like some Terminator, they want to try to protect patents. It’s that they’ve engineered them to not produce anything other than the food.

Luisa Rodriguez: It’s probably a mix.

Rob Wiblin: Okay. Oh, they might be happy as well, if you have to keep buying the thing, but…

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Yeah, I think that is part of it.

Rob Wiblin: So farmers currently get it from special places that produce the seeds that they use and I guess…

Luisa Rodriguez: And you get new seeds every year.

Rob Wiblin: Okay. And they must have some like precursor plants that are producing these seeds, so you could potentially get them. And then, yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, so you could get them. I mean, when I was doing this project, I had an urgent “get list” on my phone. I was just like, in the event of an apocalypse, the first things I would get included heirloom seeds. You can get them from gardening stores, you can get them from lots of places. It would be much more niche than getting water or existing food. But if you knew to get it, you’d be able to.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. And I guess, well, one story you might imagine is, oh, there’s people like you who go and grab all the heirloom seeds and then go and run their farm and leave everyone else to die. But you would actually need a whole lot of other people —

Luisa Rodriguez: I would need people.

Rob Wiblin: — you’d be leading a whole team of people to go do it, right?

Luisa Rodriguez: Totally.

Rob Wiblin: So, one person who knows this could probably, at least if it was possible to find other people… Then it seems like the more the merrier by and large with this stuff.

Luisa Rodriguez: Absolutely.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. There’s other examples of people being super clever in various things that you’ve written. I guess, so another one with Cuba is they —

Luisa Rodriguez: Good one.

Rob Wiblin: Okay. So Cuba keeps coming up, huh? Yeah, so with the fall of the Soviet Union, they lost their access to lots of fertilizer and trucks that they were using for agriculture and stuff like that. And rather than sit on their hands, they realized they weren’t going to have trucks. So they bred tons of oxen in order to plow fields. Is that right?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. This is a wild story. So they did have, I forget how many years’ notice, maybe it was like just a year or two of notice that they were going to lose access to their main supplier of all of these key inputs to their agriculture system, their industrial agriculture system. And so they basically were like, we won’t be able to make food unless we can… And for some reason the main bottleneck was plowing fields, like you said. And so they spent years breeding oxen to manually —

Rob Wiblin: They must have had a lot of oxen to start, right? Because oxen can only make so many oxen, right?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I don’t know if that involved importing while they still could. I don’t know that part of the story.

Rob Wiblin: So they managed to get like tens of thousands or something of the oxen and then I think they did have food rationing, and the 90s were not a great period for Cuba, but there was not mass starvation or anything like that.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I mean, the record is that it worked.

Rob Wiblin: It largely worked. Okay.

Luisa Rodriguez: I mean, they were massively less productive than they would’ve been with machinery, which is unsurprising. But they made food.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Another one is people in POW camps in World War II, coming up with radios out of pencil graphite and various wire that they found. I guess they knew more about how radios worked then, perhaps — typical people did. But they were managing to communicate and listen to radio programs.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. I don’t actually, off the top of my head, remember the precise materials they used to make these radios, but it was things like gum wrappers and pennies. Everyone kind of knew the assembly instructions. And as far as I know, you could only listen. I don’t remember —

Rob Wiblin: Ah, you couldn’t broadcast.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I mean, I’m sure that they were figuring out ways to broadcast, but not like foot soldiers, who were doing things like putting these radios together, both to get news and also just to listen to music. And this was just like, most people would do this. It wasn’t hard. And that’s another one where I’m like, “What? A radio is magic.”

Rob Wiblin: Magic. Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: “Surely you couldn’t make one with random bits.” But things are not magic.

The most valuable knowledge for survivors [00:57:23]

Rob Wiblin: Okay. Considering less materials now, more like know-how. I suppose in the situations where there’s far fewer people — like 99% of people dead or something like that — how much will we struggle to access knowledge about, say, medicine? Or other topics where it’ll be really potentially useful to remember stuff from the pre-apocalypse?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. So I suppose, luckily, there is kind of an inverse correlation between how valuable knowledge is and how few people have it. This isn’t perfectly true, so there are some things that would be really useful for survivors to know, like… What’s a common one? I guess there are some weird things about telecommunications that like six people know. And so we’ll probably lose those facts.

Luisa Rodriguez: But mostly, like, even though there are many fewer brain surgeons than general practitioners or something, brain surgery is just less important than all the knowledge that general practitioners have. And that just does a lot of work. So we’ll lose lots of sophisticated knowledge of some types of medicine, but it’s hard to imagine why we’d lose germ theory, and even some basic things that will make maternal health better during childbirth, for example. And even that will be a huge improvement on where our ancestors were at similar population levels.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. How many people know things like how to keep a car running or how to run a power station, or how to run the electrical grid, or get that back up and running? Things that kind of stand out, as maybe there’s not enough people in that group?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Those were good candidates for… I called them “critical skillsets,” and I guess it’s just kind of hard to think about. One reason it’s hard is no single person knows how to run a power grid — it’s really distributed knowledge. And leadership at a plant might have more knowledge of the bigger picture, but it’s still distributed — not just in the many individuals who know the different steps, but also it’s going to be in manuals and some of those will survive.

Luisa Rodriguez: So it’s hard to think of really critical knowledge that’s super concentrated in a couple of people. And I tried to do some back-of-the-envelope calculations to be like… What is concentrated and what could we lose? And I would love for someone else to try doing this research in a way that produces more interesting results than what I did. I ended up doing things like, maybe… Like we think advanced chemistry would be really nice to have. So I was like, “How many PhD chemists are there?” and try to think of it this way. And when you think of it that way, and you just make some naive assumptions about where they live, you still have lots of PhD chemists, even in a world where 99% of people have died.

Rob Wiblin: I guess it might be getting down if you’re at the 99.99%?

Luisa Rodriguez: That’s where you start to hypothesize. I think I just don’t know enough about how critical infrastructure works to be like, “What’s the job? What’s the one job that’s scarce, but super critical?” But you can think about it just theoretically, like, maybe there are some jobs like that, and you do get to the 99.99% population loss level before you start thinking that there are jobs like that that you’ll definitely lose.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It could be an interesting thing to contract, I suppose, a power grid company or someone who runs a power plant, or I guess British Telecom or whatever, to be like… “Imagine that there’s only two of you left in British Telecom…”

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah! “What could you figure out?”

Rob Wiblin: What could they get running in London? What could you get them to run?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I actually tried really hard to get in touch with power companies for this.

Rob Wiblin: They weren’t keen to chat?

Luisa Rodriguez: They were not keen to chat.

Rob Wiblin: Busy. Okay.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. They thought I was really weird, to be honest.

Rob Wiblin: Oh really? They thought you… Huh.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I would get to their media teams and be like, “It’s totally speculative questions, but would you be up for chatting? You don’t even have to be on the record.” And just no one wanted to, they thought it was really, really strange.

Rob Wiblin: It feels like you need maybe some government resiliency office to get in touch with them and say, “We are doing a review of critical infrastructure in these cases; can you explain how resilient your stuff is?”

Luisa Rodriguez: Right, exactly. Totally.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. My guess is, they wouldn’t initially know a lot of these questions. Well certainly I could think where it’s like, “Okay, now 99% of your staff aren’t coming into work.”

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. And I know we talked about how limited the research in this general area is, but there are some nonprofits that their mission is to improve resilience of critical infrastructure and to point out —

Rob Wiblin: Bottlenecks.

Luisa Rodriguez: — weaknesses, basically. Yeah, and I never found anything that felt super show-stopping, in terms of like a thing that would be really hard to recreate or a thing that would be really hard to relearn or something. But probably, those are the type of researchers that would come up with a better answer to this than I could.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I suppose in a world where such a large fraction of the population is gone — like 99 and 99.99% — the infrastructure you need is wildly less ambitious than what we presently have. So in that scenario, now we’re talking about only 6,000 people being alive in Britain or like, I don’t know, 600,000, let’s say. So realistically, what you want is one power plant back up, and then to connect it to one place where everyone’s going to congregate, or at least that’s the place where you’ll be doing the electricity and industrial stuff again. And that seems a lot more plausible, that a few electrical people or a few people who knew about the power grid could go there and get the least-damaged power plant running and then connected to this one city.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. Exactly. And it’s another example of this tradeoff between having more people versus fewer people. In this case, more people means you keep more of the power grid on, but fewer people means you just need way less sophisticated systems to create enough power.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Did you learn anything about the internet, or how hard it is to get the internet running again?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I felt pessimistic about the internet, but I didn’t look that hard into it, because it didn’t seem super critical.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I suppose that’s fair. I’ve heard that it’s meant to be, it was designed to survive a nuclear war, or… Yeah, you hadn’t heard this one?

Luisa Rodriguez: I haven’t.

Rob Wiblin: So you could have the internet be far more centralized, but the US, when they were designing it originally, it was for military purposes. They were like, no, we’re going to have it organically reroute everything based on what is still running. So I think, for example, New Zealand could have its own internet continuing, without necessarily needing contact with the rest of the world.

Luisa Rodriguez: Wow.

Rob Wiblin: Maybe that’s no longer true, or maybe they will have messed something up and it would be, in practice, hard to keep it running. But it was designed to outlast a nuclear war, originally.

Luisa Rodriguez: That’s so cool.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess, thinking about it, it seems like so many of the computers would be gone or the computers would eventually break, and so I’m not sure how long the internet would be centrally useful. But, maybe it would be quite useful for people to find one… like in the initial stages, to share information.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly.

Rob Wiblin: Would be quite key.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I mean, even if you had one, and printed things, that would be pretty good. Just being able to selectively pick out things to keep indefinitely and put them somewhere deliberately, and just have information.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Printers famously last for years without technical problems. So we should be pretty secure there.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yep. That’s got to be a new intervention: making printers more robust.

Rob Wiblin: What about water? You’re saying in some places, water is stored in reservoirs and it comes down through gravity. Other places it’s pumped, I guess the pumps are probably mega complex. But water stands out for like, you die quite fast without water. So that’s maybe even before food, that’s the thing that you are struggling to get.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I mean, so water… Again, there’s geographic non-uniformity.

Rob Wiblin: Variability.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, there you go, so this again is a theme. Some places will just have fresh water nearby, so that’ll be the easiest scenario. And it’s really not very hard to… I mean, you can drink fresh water and not get super ill without doing anything to it, and then by doing a little bit more, you won’t even get ill. And then if you are super unlucky and have no access to fresh, relatively clean water, then there are still… So I even did a back-of-the-envelope calculation that was like, “How long could people survive with just the water bottles in grocery stores?” Which is not that long, but I didn’t feel like the first thing people would be dying of was thirst — water bottles feel like they buy you some time.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I mean, we’re mashing together lots of different scenarios here, and just thinking about water in general, what’s the deal with water? But I guess it’s pretty different in the climate change versus the nukes versus the pandemic.

Luisa Rodriguez: True.

Rob Wiblin: But yeah, continuing to mash them together… It seems like if water is your main concern, then you move to a place where there’s more water. I suppose like Saudi Arabian desert is maybe a challenging one, but there’s other places… Like in Britain, where maybe there’s places where there isn’t a lot of fresh water, but there will be other places where it rains more.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right.

Rob Wiblin: Because it kind of rains a lot everywhere here, but you’re closer to a reservoir or something.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. That was my answer to several potential scary scenarios: people will still move. Sometimes they will even move in cars and trucks, but at the very least they will move on foot, maybe on bike.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Maybe the cleanest one to imagine, or the easiest one to envisage to me, is a pandemic goes through incredibly quickly, 99% of people die, but then the rest are left. They’ve either survived it or they’re immune, or the pandemic’s gone away. And now, so the infrastructure is all here, they’ve got quite a long time. In that case, I mean, they can go and look at all the maps and be like, all right, where’s the reservoirs? Where’s the main agricultural regions here? And then be like, where is the housing? And there’s so many fewer of them that they could just go and occupy the places that seem most promising from a reconstruction point of view.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right.

Rob Wiblin: And depending on how much is still working, you can try to get everyone in the country to move to this region where you’re like, “Hey, we’ve got the power station, we’ve got the water, we’ve got the food.”

Luisa Rodriguez: And even if things weren’t working, they would be attractors whether or not they could communicate. And that’s also just helpful, because in a world where you lose lots of population, some people start to worry about genetic diversity and just keeping large enough groups to be able to keep growing new people.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess you’ve got all the single people, they haven’t got Tinder anymore.

Luisa Rodriguez: How are they going to meet?

Rob Wiblin: You have to go to the water reservoir to find a partner.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly. Yeah. So there are going to be these attractors that are going to mean people aren’t randomly scattered across different land masses — they’re going to be really interested in getting to former cities or…

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Let’s talk about the finding one another thing for a minute. I guess it’s like being isolated is itself in a sense a threat. You’re like, I’m alone — completely alone, or there’s only 10 of us, and we’re really not qualified to be taking this on by ourselves. So you can consider that kind of like a challenge in general. You had this amazing stat about how concentrated human population is.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. So it turns out that 95% of the world’s population lives on just 10% of its land area, so 7.5% of the land area could be home to millions or even billions of people.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess I’m familiar with this as an Australian, where it’s a huge continent, but then basically everyone lives in a handful of cities.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly.

Rob Wiblin: I suppose globally it’s a bit different, but it’s not so different. So this thing of like someone having to trudge across Siberia in order to find other people. Even if like 99.99% of people are dead, you could imagine that major cities like London, or I guess India and China, these places would be potentially relatively crowded with the survivors.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. I think this gave me pause for a second, when I was like, “If people randomly meandered across continents, how probable would it be that they’d come across each other?” And then I was like, “No, they will be following roads, and the roads will lead to cities, and there aren’t that many cities. I think they’d just find each other pretty easily.”

Would people really work together? [01:09:00]

Rob Wiblin: I suppose it’s something we haven’t talked about, which is amazing, is this movie Threads. You haven’t seen this one?

Luisa Rodriguez: No.

Rob Wiblin: Okay. All right, so this is from the 80s, there was a pair of movies… Actually no, three of them I think. One made in the Soviet Union, one made in the UK, and one made in the US, which all detailed in gruesome, realistic detail what would happen in the buildup to a nuclear war. Then during the nuclear war, most people die, and then there’s a bunch of survivors, and then like, what would they do in order to survive? And the UK does especially bad in the nuclear war situation, because of how concentrated it is. So both the fallout and the direct blast kills a much larger fraction than in the US, for example.

Luisa Rodriguez: That makes sense.

Rob Wiblin: It also gets very cold because of this location, so this isn’t a great place to last out the nuclear winter, unfortunately. However…

Luisa Rodriguez: 80,000 Hours should not have its offices here…

Rob Wiblin: [laughs] Right, right. In the movie, now this is kind of realistic, it’s like they’re broadcasting stuff out. So there’s still radio towers that operate, and so they basically send out mass messages being like, “Here’s where to congregate.” And like, there are still food stocks, and basically the military takes them over, and is like, “You have to farm in order to… or you have to do work in order to produce food in order to get access to the food supplies.” Which is a somewhat more aggressive scenario. I suppose in that case, they’ve been building up to a war the whole time. So they had a big plan for what would they do in this case that involves the military very heavily.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Which again, maybe they have.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, maybe that does exist. But yeah, basically people came together relatively rapidly. You even see people crowding in the hospitals in the immediate aftermath, where obviously, most people can’t be saved, but there is still some ability to do medicine after.

Luisa Rodriguez: Sure, yeah.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I can definitely recommend that. I mean, it’s a brutal viewing. It actually apparently helped to persuade Reagan and Gorbachev, I think they actually watched this and were like, “This would be really bad” —

Luisa Rodriguez: Wow. Right.

Rob Wiblin: — “The nuclear winter thing seems rough.” And they became more excited about arms control. Both the result of the general thing about nuclear winter, and then about the specific thing of playing out this scenario for people, and it had a big effect on public perception. It’s kind of interesting that it’s fallen out of public conversation, but there’s a bunch of stuff on Wikipedia about this episode where these movies were all produced in quick succession, and what effect they had on people.

Rob Wiblin: So some people might be disagreeing with our general take here, because we have this like “peace in the world,” like everyone holds hands and gets together and like, tries to cooperatively farm. And I think the typical story, as we were talking about, is more like people are at one another’s throats, or killing one another. It’s like zombie apocalypse almost, where it’s like the last person surviving gets all the food supplies. Yeah, what reasons do we really have to think that people would strive to get along and find one another?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I guess I do feel a bit “peace and lovey” when I talk about this, but I think you even pointed me to the research on how people react to crises, according to sociologists who have looked into post-crisis response. And again, this is hard to generalize from because it’s not actually a case where maybe the world’s going to end; it’s sociologists looking at how individuals and groups respond to tsunamis and hurricanes. It’s just almost unanimously not violent. Like looting is a kind of famous trope, but almost never happens. Same with people fighting over resources.

Luisa Rodriguez: I think it did feel intuitive to me that there would be lots of violence because people would be facing death. But not only does that not look like the case empirically, it also just doesn’t look like a very… I mean, it looks like a strategy that might help some individuals survive if you just think about it theoretically, but it really doesn’t seem like a strategy that would be good for the majority of people to take on.

Luisa Rodriguez: Because most people will really benefit from cooperation that lets them grow more food — like an individual will have a very hard time producing enough food for themself. And there’s a reason that we live in cities, it’s because we specialize and produce more stuff for the number of people, and so cooperation has these clear benefits, especially in the context of agriculture.

Luisa Rodriguez: And insofar as there will be some selection for survival strategies, it seems like lots of people would benefit from taking this cooperation-y strategy, and that there will be some cheaters or people who use violence to get a bunch of resources. But on the whole that’s not going to be a very persistent survival strategy, because you’ve got to have someone to steal from.

Rob Wiblin: Right. Yeah, that’s true. So yeah, I think I’ve given something like this rant on the show before, where it’s like, people have this perception. And you heard this in like February, March, April last year, some people were like, “Oh, there’s going to be a crime wave because of COVID-19,” or “People are going to be at one another’s throats over all this stuff.” I guess in the US, you got political polarization over some things like wearing masks, but that seems to be about as far as it went. Actually, crime went down in most places, and the level of coordination and cooperation and, frankly, self-sacrifice in order to contain the pandemic was much larger than I think folk wisdom would suggest.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I mean, there was some hoarding that… Like, I did buy more toilet paper than I wish I had.

Rob Wiblin: Just goes to show that you would shove a knife into the person next to you in the post-apocalypse to get access to toilet paper.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly, those are equivalent.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So it’s almost like we have this empirical fact about that. Are there other case studies that we can point to where people cooperated to a surprising extent? I mean, this is partly about cooperation, but about other things as well, but the story of Hiroshima is interesting.

Luisa Rodriguez: So both Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered just horribly. I don’t think I fully understood before looking into the details, but basically, a third of the population died. I think the population started around 400,000, and maybe a quarter of those people died instantly. And then another set of tens of thousands of people died from radiation poisoning in the weeks after. So that already was horrible, of course, and shocking to learn, and especially to learn about the details. And then I just remember being really surprised that 90% of the city’s buildings were either totally incinerated or reduced to rubble. So just like this huge infrastructure loss.

Luisa Rodriguez: And then at the same time, I also learned that the recovery was just shockingly quick. So the analogy doesn’t totally work, but if you kind of imagine these as cities whose societies basically collapsed — how quickly they were able to recover is just really astounding to me. I think power was restored to at least homes that weren’t completely destroyed within like a month or so. Water pumps were restored within… I think it was just a few days. Actually, maybe what surprised me even more was some intermediate services were back within the next two or three days.

Rob Wiblin: Trains, I think?

Luisa Rodriguez: So they had trains running, yeah. Trains running on like day two. I remember learning that the bank, there was a bank where I think… God, this is awful. I think literally all of the employees were killed immediately. But the bank was able to reopen a few days later. And those services were actually just really important to getting things up and running again.

Luisa Rodriguez: Other things too… like telecommunications, so they had phones back I think on day two or three. And all of this was —

Rob Wiblin: It kind of beggars belief. But I mean, yeah, you’ve checked the sources on this. It’s like…

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I think the thing that makes it less generalizable is obviously the fact that they just had tremendous support from very nearby cities. And those volunteers would’ve come in and literally, in some cases, hauled in new pieces of equipment.

Luisa Rodriguez: And then, I think population levels reached the levels from before the detonations within a decade for both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And I want to say that infrastructure reconstruction was completed in much less than that — so on the scale of a few years. But I could be remembering that wrong.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. All right, so that’s an amazing one that perhaps speaks more to the fact that you can maybe get infrastructure back on surprisingly easily. Or at least localized disasters, perhaps you can rebuild much faster than you expect. I guess we had this actually — sorry, we’re just jumping all over the place here, but I hope you don’t mind too much — in general, Germany was destroyed to such an incredible degree. Like massive amounts of death, massive infrastructure destruction. Likewise with Japan, like Europe in general. And yet there was a postwar boom, right?

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly.

Rob Wiblin: The economies did fine; GDP recovered to previous levels and exceeded them within decades. Population got back to previous levels before too long, despite this being the most devastating war. Okay. So the Soviet Union suffered perhaps even worse than Japan and Germany in the end. I mean, in terms of population loss, it was a third of the population. But the Soviet Union went on to be this massive threatening thing that was like a superpower that could take on the US within decades — within less than decades.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. I mean, Germany and Japan were economic miracles. And yeah, I think there’s an interesting study that I’m sure is not perfect, but looked at Vietnamese cities that had been bombed. When you looked 10 years beyond what was really the complete destruction of many cities in Vietnam, poverty, trade, all the indicators that you’d look to were at least as good as comparator cities, and as you would’ve predicted if you’d just drawn a line from the trajectory those cities were on. Some cities were doing quite a bit better, because when you spend money on investing in infrastructure, it actually has some economic benefits. And so it’s really not obvious that massive physical infrastructure damage will wipe a city off — in fact, there can be a real momentum in rebuilding that can lead cities to be even bigger.

Rob Wiblin: Now these things aren’t quite analogous to the nuclear war apocalypse case, or even like the pandemic that kills 99% of people case. But I think the thing that I take away from this is that capital is cheap, infrastructure is surprisingly cheap. If you have the know-how and you have the people, and you have the culture and the cooperation, like the institutions, if that stuff persists, you can rebuild a house real fast. You can start rebuilding, I don’t know, like manufacturing… I guess cars are pretty hard to manufacture, I won’t say that. But maybe electricity grids, like surprisingly easy to get back up and running, despite massive damage.

Luisa Rodriguez: I think that’s right. And I think that’s exactly what I got from it too. Not like we’d rebuild civilization in days after the worldwide collapse of everything. But it is just that physical stuff, we’ve built it very slowly over time, and so we have this image of it as having needed all of that time to be built. But I think that’s just not right at all, if you imagine like a massive amount of resources just being thrown at it all at once. I think you can just get really quick. Oh, a fun fact actually: I think China builds the equivalent of a new Rome every day. I think that’s the fact. I think it’s like they have so much construction each and every day.

Rob Wiblin: In terms of like, sheer number of buildings or something?

Luisa Rodriguez: Something like that, I forget exactly what the metric is, but…

Rob Wiblin: Wow. Because Rome had a million people at its peak.

Luisa Rodriguez: Maybe it’s like a week, but… [Editor’s note: it’s every two weeks (which is still crazy)!]

Rob Wiblin: I wonder if this is something where they’re doing a GDP value of all of the infrastructure?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, I didn’t dig in super hard to that fact.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. But I mean something in that order kind of makes sense. Another interesting historical analogy that doesn’t quite fit, but speaks to the fact that people don’t turn on one another that much, is mass aerial bombing in World War II. Which has come up on the show previously, I think in the episode with Daniel Ellsberg, where we talked about how there was this big theory in the military in the 30s and 40s that if you bombed a city a lot — like London, like Dresden, like Tokyo — that people would lose their morale and they would lose the will to fight the war, and it would cause the other country to surrender.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right.

Rob Wiblin: Nothing could be further from the truth; it had like no effect like that. Do we remember the Blitz in London as the time that people lost interest in fighting the Nazis? We do not, nor is that the case in any of the other countries that were bombed. They pulled together and they felt extremely angry with the people who were fighting them, and in fact, they coordinated more than ever in order to overcome this adversity. Something that’s unique about that case, I guess, something that’s different about that case is that you’re specifically fighting an enemy, an external enemy.

Luisa Rodriguez: Sure.

Rob Wiblin: But we saw some of that with the pandemic and in the war cases, which are some of the most destructive. Then you would have this thing, you could imagine in the post-nuclear apocalypse thing, that people would feel an enormous sense of comradery with their fellow citizens who have suffered this immense catastrophe.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. We are all suffering because of the same thing, whether it’s a nameable entity or another state or a pandemic. The other thing I have about this is, even if you get some groups where for whatever random reason there happens to be more violent people or something, and you actually do get some set of factors that means there’s violence.

Luisa Rodriguez: I guess this only applies if you have isolated groups, at least somewhat isolated groups. But it doesn’t really make sense to think of it as a single pool of survivors. If it’s many survivors, there’ll be geographic variation in what culture is like, just like there is now. If there are few survivors, they’ll probably be in groups that actually don’t contact each other that much, because like one’s trapped in Australia. I mean, maybe not trapped, but they’ve settled in different places and they’re not really exchanging much. And then I guess you have to think it’s a really dominant outcome that none of these groups will end up being cooperative.

Rob Wiblin: You always just disintegrate.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. And I guess, I mean, you could have that view. It’s a really dark view. You have to believe that human nature is just really… But it just does not seem strategically robust.

Rob Wiblin: Other data points.

Luisa Rodriguez: Go on.

Rob Wiblin: At some point we have to flip this around and try to steelman the position of the other side…

Luisa Rodriguez: Totally, you’re right.

Rob Wiblin: But so, even historically, when you have a very aggressive group that tries to attack another one, they almost never try to exterminate the group that they’re conquering — they want to tax them almost always. And so it’s like, even if you’re a marauding group in the post-nuclear war world, what you want to do is get people into your control. So they farm and then you tax some of the agricultural surplus that they’re producing, ideally. The scenario where descent into conflict and just total strife and lack of coordination potentially makes sense is one in which there are no productive opportunities, where there’s no ability to farm or make food or really do anything.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. But then you’re dead anyways.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, probably dead. I guess you could have this thing where that was true for a particular amount of time, and if only you’d managed to coordinate better, then you could have made it through to the… So in the nuclear winter case, if you’re in a place where it’s just like, it’s impossible to collect or produce any food, then it looks more like the war scenario where you have a siege on a city — where there’s a fixed amount of food and no one can really do anything about the siege, or the great majority of people can’t. And there you do get people turning on one another towards the end when they’re at the point of starvation, typically.

Rob Wiblin: But I think that’s an inaccurate model of what the… So certainly in the case where the infrastructure isn’t destroyed, and you don’t have like a sufficient climate disturbance that agriculture becomes impossible. In fact, people will see productive opportunities all around them to scavenge things, to try to grow things, to move to a place where you can grow things. Even in places where it’s incredibly cold, and you can’t grow wheat or whatever, you can still do fishing.

Luisa Rodriguez: You can still grow potatoes.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, grow potatoes.

Luisa Rodriguez: Or if not, fishing. Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: Okay. So I think that might be where the folk sense of, “We would just descend into Mad Max” comes from, is the idea that there’s nothing that you can make. But I think that is empirically unlikely.

Luisa Rodriguez: That makes sense to me.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Is there any other evidence that we can point to in favor of the pro-conflict view?

Luisa Rodriguez: I mean, I will always probably bottom out on… Like at some point, there’s an equilibrium where the number of people left match the resources left. And unless it’s at like four people left, those people will stop killing each other, because they’ll have enough food and water.

Rob Wiblin: Now they’ve got to learn to get along.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. So I usually end up there, even if I can get to some reason to think that there’d be lots of fighting. There are some studies actually that I looked into ages ago during my trial with 80K, that suggest there’s some link between climate variation and war. So I think in particular a lot of the studies seem to show that drought leads to more conflict, at least at the… And my memory is that it is the case that it increases civil war, but it’s not clear if it’s the case that it increases interstate war. But I guess even increasing civil war would be some evidence.

Rob Wiblin: That’s consistent with the… Yeah, so you can’t engage in agriculture as much, or there’s not enough food, and so people start…

Luisa Rodriguez: The theory was basically that the opportunity cost of war is lower, because you can’t use people as productively to grow food. So like to take up arms, you might get something beneficial, like some other resource, by taking it with your winnings. But you don’t have much opportunity to grow things yourself because the climate’s too inhospitable. And I guess that’s just kind of the scenario you’re describing, or you did a few minutes ago, that was like, if resources are so limited that there’s nothing to be gained.

Rob Wiblin: The alternative is starvation, yeah. And yeah, there’s no benefit from cooperation, or at least it’s vastly reduced.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. My like, internal model of the food scarcity, like in a normal society where everyone is still surviving, is that people just become very dissatisfied with the social order, and so they’re more inclined to say, “Oh, the government is failing us.” And so they’re more inclined to revolt in order to try to change the government. But if they don’t have a good understanding of why there’s not enough food, then they could just end up overthrowing the government and disagreeing about what the new structure should be.

Luisa Rodriguez: What to do next.

Rob Wiblin: And then fighting, like it’s not useful. So this is a case where it’s like, if you think that your food is very expensive because the government is failing, then it’s rational to do what you’re doing. But if that’s a mistaken model, then you’ve caused conflict without a personal benefit.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. And there you need to believe something like the survivors’ models of the government and food production are wrong. And that seems possible. It doesn’t seem crazy that people would misjudge whether a coup would be helpful.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess the conflict thing seems actually more probable in a scenario where there’s more people surviving potentially.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Right. And then I again get to a place where I’m like, once you get to fewer people, it stops making as much sense. So it does equilibrate or something before zero or anything close, but yeah, I think that’s right.

Radiation [01:27:08]

Rob Wiblin: One thing we haven’t talked about yet that might be on people’s minds is how many people would die of radiation and fallout and all that stuff after a nuclear war? How inhospitable, how uninhabitable is the land afterwards?

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. Yeah. So one thing is that again, some geographies would be probably just completely free of radiation. So countries not involved in nuclear war — of which probably the whole of the Southern Hemisphere wouldn’t be, at least given current geopolitics. Maybe in 300 years, the whole world has nuclear weapons, and then there’s radiation everywhere. But if you take now as your starting point, plenty of places won’t have any radiation at all, and lots will have some radiation, but not radiation that makes it impossible to survive.

Luisa Rodriguez: So you might get higher rates of cancer, you might get higher rates of miscarriages. But even in plenty of places in North America or some places in East Asia or… Europe would probably be pretty terrible. But some places you’d have lower fertility rates, but still clearly be able to build a population. And just, you’d survive.

Rob Wiblin: I see, so it’s bad for health, but not I guess… So you’re suggesting it’s somewhat localized to where the bomb goes off, and it also disappears after a couple of… or it declines quite quickly?

Luisa Rodriguez: It does decline very quickly, and here I found it really useful to look up exact radiuses of actual deadly radiation levels and areas. The area around a nuclear bomb that is actually deadly was just a bit smaller than I thought. And then I do think, and this — again, I should actually just do a bunch of jogging my memory about this — but I think that radioactivity declines super quickly, and that even areas that are initially… I mean, Chernobyl you can walk through, so it’s at least, it’s like decades.

Luisa Rodriguez: There is something else, so there’s some reason to think that radiation would be localized just because of the constraints of where the war is, and who the targets are. But Lewis Dartnell, who I was chatting to about this, suggested that maybe nuclear power plants all over would melt down as —

Rob Wiblin: People don’t show up to work.

Luisa Rodriguez: — their safeguards basically failed, yeah.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. What happens with a…

Luisa Rodriguez: So there are safeguards that would mean that even if all of the power went away, the thing would shut off safely as soon as it detected a power failure. And so you wouldn’t get, like, I think when he first brought this up, I was like, “Oh my gosh, they’d all melt down as soon as the power grid went down.”

Rob Wiblin: They’re designed not to do that, ideally.

Luisa Rodriguez: They are, yeah. But eventually there’s a bunch of coolant that gets released into the core of a reactor that is basically the safe mechanism, if I remember correctly. And that’s housed in concrete basically, and at some point concrete can deteriorate. And so if we’re talking about long enough time scales, you would have random meltdowns that would happen just as the infrastructure breaks down, unless people didn’t find some way to either bring them back online or keep them safe. That would basically just happen kind of randomly. Some of them are really big, and would have really significant…

Rob Wiblin: So nuclear power plants work by having lots of material that’s releasing neutrons close to other material that’s releasing neutrons, and the neutrons prompt more release of neutrons from neighboring material. But it seems like you should be able to stop them from operating as nuclear power plants by moving the stuff apart, by separating the blocks of, I think they have uranium concrete mix or something. Yeah, I’m not a nuclear engineer, but it seems like ideally we should have some system for them dispersing the material if they’re just —

Luisa Rodriguez: Right, in like a stable way.

Rob Wiblin: — if just nobody comes to work, I don’t know. But I guess we didn’t set them up this way potentially.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. My memory is that. And again, I think actually Lewis Dartnell, who I was chatting about this with, is also not a nuclear physicist. But he seemed to really think that at least some of the designs could eventually lead to —

Rob Wiblin: Are not safe to —

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. To just like time.

Rob Wiblin: Okay. Yeah. Maybe that’s a task for someone at work there, is to like, go around and play with the buttons and figure out how to turn them off.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly. Yeah, that’d be great. Even when looking into that, there aren’t enough nuclear power plants to have this be a major worry, but some people would have a nuclear power plant maybe randomly melt down near them, and that would be bad.

Rob Wiblin: Add insult to injury, really.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly.

Learning from the worst pandemics [01:31:40]

Rob Wiblin: Okay. So we’re almost through going through the major underlying considerations, or things that people have to get online or get access to in order to not die. I’m maybe keen to just think about a couple more historical analogies, and see if we can learn anything from them. I guess none of them are going to be quite the same, but maybe there’s something. I guess the worst pandemics that have ever been, I think it’s the Black Death that killed about half of Europe.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yup.

Rob Wiblin: There’s the great Americas pandemic that resulted from Europeans bringing many diseases all simultaneously into populations that were there that didn’t have immunity, which I think we were saying killed up to like 90% of people possibly, or in some areas.

Luisa Rodriguez: In some areas.

Rob Wiblin: Is there anything that we can learn from that, I guess at least about the pandemic case?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I mean the Black Death is really interesting, because it’s really unclear what the effects of the Black Death were on all the metrics we care about, like poverty and life expectation. When you zoom far out enough, there are even some hypotheses that the Black Death was a precursor to the Industrial Revolution, where the argument is that you had so many people die that there was a shift in… Basically capital became cheaper relative to labor, and so you paid people higher wages to use the capital super well. And so you had all these incentives to make capital more productive, and you did that with machines. I think that’s how that story goes, something like that. And who knows if that’s right?

Rob Wiblin: If it prompted the Industrial Revolution, or if it arguably did, then it doesn’t seem like its immediate-term effects could have been that negative on society as a whole.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. It seems like when you zoom out long enough, certainly Europe did reasonably well within a few hundred years of 50% of the population dying. So whether there’s something causal…

Rob Wiblin: Was there like societal… Was there anything on this conflict versus people-get-along thing? I haven’t heard of people fighting during the Black Death.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. No, I haven’t heard of anything like fighting. I’ve even heard the Black Death improved social conditions for the very poor. Because again — maybe related to this hypothesis that maybe we put stock in, but don’t know for sure if it’s right — labor became in such short supply that the very poorest got to demand higher wages, and they got to demand more rights. So there were really weird laws that said that the poor weren’t allowed to wear certain types of fabric.

Rob Wiblin: Sumptuary laws.

Luisa Rodriguez: Sumptuary laws, yeah. So these supposedly went away because poor people were empowered by the fact that they could demand more things, because they were more valuable.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. “I’ll wear purple if I want to, goddammit!”

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Apparently.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Okay, interesting. So I guess in the Black Death case, people’s incomes went up because the amount of land per person roughly doubled, basically. I guess we’ve kind of already said this, but in the cases where much larger fractions of people die, even in nuclear winter, one thing that you might underestimate is that, say, 90% of people are dead. Then now each person can farm in principle 10 times as much land and you can also just use the most fertile land or the amount of… You can just divide the very best spots among the remaining people. I guess also, presently in a country like the UK, only a few percent of people work actively on farming. Whereas in this new world, basically 100% of people in principle —

Luisa Rodriguez: Everyone does.

Rob Wiblin: — could go to subsistence agriculture. So there’s a lot of flexibility to go from where we are. I guess there’s also barriers, like none of us know how to do it.

Luisa Rodriguez: None of us know how to do it. Yeah, I mean, 25% of the population is subsistence farming.

Rob Wiblin: Across the world.

Luisa Rodriguez: Across the world.

Rob Wiblin: So in those places they might do a whole lot better.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. At least in the initial… Yeah, basically more people alive today can do subsistence farming than I think, in the late 1800s.

Rob Wiblin: I see.

Luisa Rodriguez: So we’d have at least the potential for lots of people surviving that way. I think the limitation there actually becomes, is there still arable land where… Yeah, so I think that there’s a study where someone tried to work out what the carrying capacity of the Earth is for subsistence farming, where you don’t use basically any kind of industrial equipment. And it was in the hundreds of millions of people, though there are big error bars.

Rob Wiblin: Is that using modern plants? Because obviously they’re massively… Like the apples we have now and the wheat we have now is so different than what people had even centuries ago.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, I think it is using modern plants. I think the framing of the study, I think it was actually throwing a bit of shade at the movement of —

Rob Wiblin: Go back to the land.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly.

Rob Wiblin: Just saying, “Well, sure we could do that, but I guess most of us will have to cease to be.”

Luisa Rodriguez: But only a hundred million of us could do it.

Rob Wiblin: Ah, okay, interesting. Okay, so in that kind of scenario, we’re still imagining the great majority of people dying, but it doesn’t go anywhere near zero.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right.

Learning from fallen civilizations [01:36:30]

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Okay, a different train of thought is, is there anything that we can learn here from falls of civilizations in the past — like the Roman Empire, you’ve got the Khmer Empire, other great disintegrations of coordinations across societies?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, yeah. I think, I mean, one thing that stuck out to me about the fall of the Roman Empire is we think of it as one of the greatest disintegrations of society. And yet, there were still large other groups — not only in the Eastern Roman Empire and in the geography of the Roman Empire but just not Romans — that not only existed but thrived in the aftermath of the fall. There are also civilizations in other areas of the world that continue to thrive.

Luisa Rodriguez: I guess the disanalogy there is right now, the world’s systems are much more interconnected. But at some point, there again seems to be this kind of tradeoff where if you’ve got lots of people surviving and you have this very interconnected web of critical systems, lots of them will collapse because they’re kind of interreliant on each other.

Luisa Rodriguez: But at some point, we’ll have regressed to the point where we’re more isolated groups. And at that point, we actually just do look more like pre-industrial societies with more minimal contact, more minimal interconnected system-ness. Maybe we go back to having some trade, but it’s not systems that will break each others’ if they themselves are broken. So it actually stops looking quite so disanalogous. It’s like, complexity does break, but there’s a cap on that when you start getting groups that have more rudimentary technologies again.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, so I think it’s something like when you get to these smaller groups, they become much more decoupled and decorrelated. And then even if terrible things happen to some of them — like there is a natural catastrophe, like an earthquake that might seriously harm one, or a blight that might — some of these groups will just get unlucky, but it will no longer be the scenario where a thing that affects one population will trickle through to all populations. They’ll be much more decorrelated, which in a way will make at least civilization as a whole, or human society, more robust in a similar way to pre-industrial societies.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, interesting. Because yeah, it does feel reasonably different. Especially I guess fall of the Western Roman Empire was quite a gradual process in a way, where they kept moving the capital —

Luisa Rodriguez: That’s true.

Rob Wiblin: — and they just became poorer and less organized and the army wasn’t what it used to be.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right, right. It’s almost a misnomer.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, yeah. I think the population did decline.

Luisa Rodriguez: It did.

Rob Wiblin: Because agriculture, I think, was less productive because they weren’t as organized. And they probably lost some of the technical skill that they previously had.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. Yeah, but it was more of a mix of… I think I’ve had it in my head that everyone died.

Rob Wiblin: Oh yeah. It’s like, yeah, well who’s killing the last one? It’s always this thing that keeps coming back up.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right! But yeah, that’s not quite what happened. And also sometimes people just moved away from cities. Like the city of Rome declined, but it was…

Rob Wiblin: I think the city of Rome had actually already become not a very important city by the time of the supposed fall of the Roman Empire.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right, that’s totally true.

Rob Wiblin: I suppose, yeah, what can we learn about… One thing is just how much they managed to accomplish at that time with technology that we think of as pretty rudimentary. They didn’t really have like, that much paper, couldn’t travel quickly. It’s like, most people are illiterate and yeah, they managed to coordinate in order to accomplish stuff that’s really remarkable.

Rob Wiblin: In some ways it’s like, I wish that our government sometimes worked as well as the Roman government did in terms of just ease of dealing with it. I don’t know, that’s a glib joke, but it is impressive how much you can accomplish on a practical level with engineering that is far worse than what we have now.

Luisa Rodriguez: Definitely, yeah. I think that’s right. And I think you get decreasing returns to complexity. And so losing some complexity, if we don’t lose all the complexity, doesn’t lose us proportionally as much of the productivity or something. That does seem important.

Rob Wiblin: Maybe another example of this stuff that people managed to do in the past, without the technology we have now, that blows my mind, is that we managed to get to basically all the Pacific Islands. People were… I don’t know, as I understand it, the group that originally went and colonized a lot of the Pacific Islands originated in Taiwan and they just kept kind of island hopping.

Luisa Rodriguez: Hopping, yeah.

Rob Wiblin: But what is going through these people’s minds? Because they’ve reached some island where they’re presumably doing all right. And they’ve got a bunch of people and they’re like, “Let’s build a boat and sail out east and see what’s there.”

Luisa Rodriguez: And you don’t know what’s there.

Rob Wiblin: I don’t know how much people have tried to look into this, and exactly what the motivation was. Maybe they were struggling for food at the time or they had overcrowding, or perhaps they were just such good sailors that they could tell there were islands there for one reason or another. People talk about birds or —

Luisa Rodriguez: Right, or at least they could get back if they needed to.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, or they knew how to get back. But just incredible, the level of human ingenuity. I suppose, I feel like people alive today probably don’t have quite that level of grit, but maybe even so, we’ll be more numerous anyway.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, yeah, exactly.

Rob Wiblin: Is there anything else we can learn from the ancients?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I guess one interesting thing, so Rome had these amazing achievements and lots of them left physical artifacts, and not all of them were recreated by people living in the same region or other regions for a very long time afterward. When you might have thought that just by seeing the things around, someone would’ve been inspired to try to recreate it or at least try to understand the technology and see if they wanted that technology for something else.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, what’s an example of that?

Luisa Rodriguez: One example is concrete. So concrete is amazing and one of the most useful things for construction that we have, and is everywhere and all the time. The Romans had Roman concrete, and that’s pretty similar to the concrete we have today, and they used it to build these amazing architectural feats, and those structures obviously stay standing. So, we had this idea that they were —

Rob Wiblin: Had the example.

Luisa Rodriguez: — that they were possible. It was there. We could take pieces of it and look at it.

Rob Wiblin: “What’s in this?”

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, try to work it out. And no one bothered. And the first modern use of concrete wasn’t until like 1800 — just many centuries later.

Rob Wiblin: So, well in the meantime, was there some rubbish concrete that people were using?

Luisa Rodriguez: I don’t know for sure. It seems like probably there was a substitute that was good enough. Because we built some pretty good stuff. But portland concrete is —

Rob Wiblin: A big step forward.

Luisa Rodriguez: — amazing, I think, relative to more rudimentary forms of concrete. And given that we had figured it out and used it extensively and that it had major benefits over the next best thing, I think it’s pretty surprising that no one tried, or at least no one succeeded.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Any other examples?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. That opened this thread of, how does knowledge like that persist over time? Does it degrade? Does it get taught? When it gets taught, do we lose some important bits? And so, some examples of knowledge degrading over time that were interesting, I think one was Polynesian Islanders lost the ability to build boats and then got stuck.

Rob Wiblin: That’s a big problem.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yes. Yeah. So that one is, I think maybe there’s some evidence that when you get really small populations, when you try to pass down skills between generations… In a way you’re making copies of information, and when you try to teach it, if the number of people learning it is small enough, the copies will get lower and lower fidelity, people are like —

Rob Wiblin: Because there’s not enough people to cross-reference and correct mistakes, maybe?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, I think that’s part of it. And another one is the more people you have, the more people innovate, and then you get improvements that make up for losses in the basic skill. But yeah, I think the way you can think of it is if someone’s teaching you to shoot an arrow, lots of people will be worse at it than the master, and you need enough people learning it to have some people exceed —

Rob Wiblin: So that in the next generation, there’s someone as good as the best person in the previous time.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly.

Rob Wiblin: Otherwise it just gets gradually worse.

Luisa Rodriguez: Gradually worse.

Rob Wiblin: Or the state of the art gets gradually worse.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. So, apparently this is the way in which at least one group of Tasmanians lost the ability to build fire. Though in that case, it seemed less stakesy because they were able to go get fire from their neighbors, but they had to go light fires and then bring them back to their —

Rob Wiblin: I see, interesting. Okay. I suppose I’ve heard of the Tasmanian cases. I think actually the sea rose and then they were disconnected from the rest of the mainland. I think the population, now you’ve got a pocket there that has a much smaller population in aggregate than you previously thought. You cease exchanging information as much with the rest of Australia. Then the technology degraded basically through this population-is-too-low mechanism, that you can no longer sustain what you had before.

Luisa Rodriguez: And that’s fire?

Rob Wiblin: I think fire among other things.

Luisa Rodriguez: Okay, wow. Other things. I hadn’t heard about other things.

Direct extinction [01:45:30]

Rob Wiblin: All right. I guess we’ve just finished laying out the cards here. I suppose we’re a couple of hours into this. A lot of the considerations we’ve canvassed and figured out: what are the main worries and what are some ameliorating factors? Let’s try to bring it together now a little bit and think about the direct extinction case.

Rob Wiblin: So there’s two different paths to collapse leading to extinction that you considered separately. One is that 99.99% of people die, and then relatively quickly, the rest of them also die. So I guess you call that direct extinction?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: And then there’s another path, which is we get a collapse of industrial civilization. We go back to some agricultural, conceivably even pre-agricultural level of technological development. And we stay there for a long time, such that then something like a hundred years, a thousand years later — before we manage to recover, let alone get off of Earth — something else like, I don’t know, a comet, supervolcano, something else, manages to drive us to extinction.

Rob Wiblin: Let’s do the first one first. What is a story that people tell, if they tell any story, for how even, say, 99.99% of people dying in some kind of cataclysm — so we’ve got 800,000 or so people left — how then all of them would end up dying as well?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I think probably the stories people tell most often are like, it’s a nuclear winter. There’s a 10-year period where a lot of the world is really inhospitable to agriculture and it takes a lot of ingenuity to come up with alternative foods. Like in some places, if you can’t grow traditional crops, maybe growing mushrooms or something. I know you’ve talked about that before on the show. So those things feel possible but hard, and so if there are few enough people and fewer people means less creativity and resourcefulness, I think.

Rob Wiblin: Not many mushroom farmers left or something.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly, exactly, yeah. You’re less likely to happen to have gotten someone who knows all about algae and fishing. Then they just aren’t able to figure out how to feed themselves in the time period. And there’s not much of a buffer because a bunch of crops froze and it’s so cold in some places that you can —

Rob Wiblin: People die of cold.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, you die of cold, you can’t —

Rob Wiblin: Not easy to migrate.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly.

Rob Wiblin: Okay. Why is that wrong?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I think that’s wrong in part because of this non-uniform distribution of effects thing. So people in some places will have basically that experience and then people in other places will be able to fish and they won’t have to migrate. And unless you got some disaster that by some weird coincidence happened to kill everyone in the areas that would be more hospitable to agriculture — even though that’s not where any of the nuclear war was — you’d have to just get exceedingly unlucky for all of the negative effects to be in the right places. And it’s hard to think of a story where they’re concentrated that way.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, yeah. Okay, so it seems like it fails on multiple different levels. One is, it seems like a misunderstanding of the nuclear winter scenario, where it doesn’t last that long or is quite as bad as that, and it’s not global to that extent. It varies a lot.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I think that’s the first way it fails. There are other ways it probably could fail, but I’d have less confidence.

Rob Wiblin: Misunderstanding, I guess, of different ways that people can feed ourselves and how many different sources of calories there might be, especially if the number of survivors is small.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So even lots of organic material, even frozen, will still be consumable. So, that’s one. I mean, there are just all sorts of ways you could feed yourself, at least in relatively small numbers. I think when people point out holes in alternative foods, it’s more because it’s hard to scale, which is true. So if you’re trying to feed lots of people, it could be really, really, really challenging and maybe lots of people would die, but it’s hard to get to the extinction level.

Rob Wiblin: How much uncertainty is there about how bad a nuclear winter would be? Is there some right tail of… we’ve totally misunderstood and maybe it’s just going to be way colder than we imagine?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, that’s not my understanding. And my guess, if there were any kind of directional bias in the nuclear winter research, is the research that’s been done, again, is talking about a nuclear war that’s much worse than one that we’d see today.

Rob Wiblin: Because it was done in the 80s when the stockpiles were so much larger.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly, yeah. And the nuclear bombs themselves were many times bigger than the ones that are in our stockpiles now. Then on top of that, I think the research that we have came out of a time when it was especially beneficial to have lots of research that suggested that nuclear bombs were terrible. So, while I think the nuclear winter hypothesis could totally be right and hold up, if there’s any bias at all, I would guess it’d be in the direction of overstating how bad it would be. If that was true, it’d be like implicit bias and I would expect none of it was intentional, but it wouldn’t be shocking if some —

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, shocking if was like —

Luisa Rodriguez: — of the research that came out of that era were…

Rob Wiblin: I think people could understand and think, “Well, it’s better to err on the side of saying that this could be really bad rather than giving people a false sense of security about it, given that there’s lots of uncertainty.” Because it seems like it’s worse to… Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right, yeah, yeah. That definitely seems true.

Rob Wiblin: I guess just as it behooves us to assume the worst and try really hard to avoid it.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, right. It may have even been really good for the world. Yeah, I’m trying to think if there’s anything about the models that makes me think it could be much colder. I guess there’s just one reason it’s really hard to model nuclear winter is that some parameters in climate models are apparently just insanely hard to get right. Apparently clouds are really hard to model.

Rob Wiblin: They’re the big X factor.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. So to the extent that the model could be wrong in the direction of clouds would make it much colder, for example. I think the research has had —

Rob Wiblin: I think one more way that doesn’t get you to extinction —

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, go ahead.

Rob Wiblin: — is you just still have the food from the sea thing, which I think it’s just so hard to prevent that from being accessible, in some places somewhere, because the sea’s not going to freeze and certainly not in the tropics. Or, I think plankton can still do photosynthesis in quite low light and then you get some fish —

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, I think photosynthesis is the hardest thing. But even that…

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, so we can still have our fish and mussel diet, and sea, and… Yeah. Okay, is there another story? Because the thing that we’ve alluded to is that people imagine that people just kill one another until there’s almost none of them left. Is there anything to be said for that?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, I guess maybe… Let’s see, one thing that I’ve heard is people saying that it’s not that you’re killing every last person in conflict, but it’s that you are wasting the grace period and all these other advantages that you have, like food lying around. If everyone’s really violent because they’re hoarding these resources, but they accidentally just eat through a bunch of it because they’re wasting time fighting each other instead of cooperating. They could just misjudge their own tradeoffs and —

Rob Wiblin: Oh, they could become too short-term focused because they’re just thinking about surviving, I guess, other hostile forces.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. Rationally, they’d stop fighting at some point because food’s getting low and they should focus on finding more food. But if they’re not able to accurately predict or calculate how much food they need and how long it will last and how easy it will be to grow new food, maybe they just incorrectly keep fighting.

Rob Wiblin: I see, yeah. Wasting time that they could have been using to reestablish agriculture.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: Interesting. Yeah, it seems like it kind of requires this misjudgment. If people are so good at coordinating to fight one another, why don’t they set down roots, start creating food and then defend themselves?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, it is hard for me to imagine any reason that they don’t. But I do think that’s a story I’ve heard.

Rob Wiblin: Okay, yeah. So I suppose you have to say something like people are all at one another’s throats in small groups. Groups that are small enough to create trouble and fight one another, but not big enough that they think that they can make food or find a reliable source of food and they just keep fighting. And I guess at some point, enough people die or they get hungry enough, that they now wish they’d been investing in getting food, or they’ve run out of stocks or something but now it’s too late. They don’t have time to reorient themselves towards fishing and so they die before they come to their senses.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right, maybe it just takes a really long time to learn to fish, plant the crops, and learn how to have planted the crops in the first place. So by the time they realize they’re really hungry, it’s actually just a year away from having a lot of food.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Is there any other criticisms to make with that? Other than that it’s a series of things that each individually seem either unlikely or foolish happening one after another?

Luisa Rodriguez: I mean, it just doesn’t seem like we see that. I feel like I can think of examples where conflict peters out because basic needs aren’t being met and people transition to meeting basic needs.

Rob Wiblin: But not the reverse.

Luisa Rodriguez: But not the reverse. I think wars in Europe subsided, at least to some extent, during the Black Death. Yeah, it just seems like people aren’t often making this huge mistake, but maybe the big difference here is no one’s ever had to learn agriculture from scratch in this way, so they actually just don’t have the requisite knowledge to judge how long it will take to learn.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, yeah. I suppose another criticism it raises is that this has to happen everywhere. So, not just in the North Island of New Zealand, but also the South Island of New Zealand, and also Tasmania. So there has to be some very strong attractor towards this kind of behavior, which would just be so peculiar given that we basically can’t think of historical examples where this seems to have happened.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. If it was going to happen, you’d really think it would’ve happened. We’ve had lots of resource scarcity throughout history and we’d —

Rob Wiblin: Yet here we are.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Again, it goes back to this idea that if groups get small and isolated enough, they start getting really decoupled. So maybe this happens in some places, but to think that every group will have this happen is weird.

Rob Wiblin: I guess once the population gets low enough, now just fighting other people, it’s a massive commute. Who wants to be traveling so far?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, you can’t find anyone.

Rob Wiblin: I mean, I think this actually does become potentially an issue once we’re talking about really small groups. So how low does it have to get before you hit some death spiral where there isn’t enough genetic diversity?

Luisa Rodriguez: I mean, I think it’s the Ashkenazi Jews who do have higher rates of many diseases, but clearly are fine and probably could repopulate the Earth with a viable population. I think their ancestors numbered in the… I think 300 is the number?

Rob Wiblin: 300, okay.

Luisa Rodriguez: I think it’s 300.

Rob Wiblin: So, people look at the level of genetic diversity there and they try to back out. Well, what was the bottleneck they must have gone through? I guess it wasn’t just one moment in time, it’s more of like, there’s 300 ancestors who produce basically all of it, all of the genetic material.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, I think that’s it. Yeah, which maybe is different.

Rob Wiblin: And basically that’s led to a bunch of, I guess, recessive genetic things, where you have two faulty genes and that’s more common, when you have very little diversity.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly.

Rob Wiblin: But nonetheless, it doesn’t seem to have been a decisive impediment.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right, right. I mean, incest happens and people have kids all the time that are very close relatives, and that’s because you have to get unlucky to get an actual thing that prevents reproduction, or that causes the child to die.

Rob Wiblin: Well, I guess cousin marriage is quite common in some places now, and especially historically. And people cite that as a cause of potential social problems or health problems. But again, it’s definitely not decisive by any means.

Rob Wiblin: Are there any examples of two animals producing offspring that then reproduce… In other species?

Luisa Rodriguez: I think the smallest number that successfully repopulated was a group of forty tigers. And they actually needed a lot of help from humans, but that still seems helpful.

Rob Wiblin: Wow, okay. Anyway, the numbers are low, real low.

Luisa Rodriguez: The numbers are low. They seem to be in the hundreds for some confidence.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I suppose this is a problem that potentially gets worse over time, I think. Because obviously in the first generation, two is enough to produce the next generation — we know that from individual families. The issue is then going again and again through this cycle, where I think you actually lose material potentially because you get more copying over. You even lose the genetic material of the two over time.

Luisa Rodriguez: The two, yeah.

Rob Wiblin: But over these many generations, potentially you’re reuniting with people in other parts of the world. So potentially you just need like 300, it sounds like globally even, if they can eventually all reconnect within a period of generations.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, generations. Yeah, I do think 300 globally isn’t crazy.

Rob Wiblin: Isn’t crazy. Okay, okay. So, it really does have to get… 800,000 is more than enough.

Luisa Rodriguez: Definitely. You’re not hitting on genetic bottlenecks at all there.

Rob Wiblin: Okay. What about if you have the nuclear winter, you get down to 800,000 — or some other similar catastrophe? Do you basically need some other very improbable, very severe catastrophe after that, that comes in quick succession?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, so for the direct extinction, it still felt really hard to me to tell this story. So let’s say that you have 800,000 people — let’s say that you have 80,000 people. They’re probably not in one place, especially if you had these non-uniform effects. If you only have 80,000 people left, they’re probably randomly all over the world and they’re probably not going to end up in one place that quickly.

Luisa Rodriguez: So then things like earthquakes, they just won’t affect the different groups — it’s hard to have a thing that affects all of them. Climate effects plausibly get closer to affecting all of them, but even climate effects just don’t affect the whole world equally, basically, ever. So it’d have to be like, for some reason, maybe they were all in one region of the world. Which isn’t crazy. Maybe they’d all be in Australia or New Zealand.

Rob Wiblin: Hold on. Everyone in South America died?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, right, exactly.

Rob Wiblin: Everyone in Africa died?

Luisa Rodriguez: I know, I know. You don’t even have like 2,000 people in South America? It does seem —

Rob Wiblin: How incompetent are you saying these people are?

Luisa Rodriguez: You’re right, you’re right.

Rob Wiblin: Well, yeah, yeah. But it is very interesting when you try getting really concrete like that.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly.

Rob Wiblin: Why didn’t they move to the place in South America that’s most conducive… Maybe they find it hard to migrate but it’s so… People are everywhere. People are everywhere.

Luisa Rodriguez: People are everywhere and you wouldn’t… Yeah, 80,000 people. On the one hand, if you think about it abstractly, 80,000 people is a small city. It’s easy to imagine a small city getting wiped out. But that’s just not what it looks like — it looks like groups of 5,000 in a bunch of different places. They all just are facing very different environmental and climactic and all sorts of conditions.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, yeah. I suppose as you get down to 80,000 people, then you have a massive supervolcano that compounds the climate problem, or you have a serious asteroid impact — but it does start to feel like now just the prior on that happening at that most inauspicious moment is so low that we don’t have to super worry about that scenario playing out in the first place.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right, so that’s actually the main reason I distinguish between direct extinction and this longer non-recovery. Because the longer non-recovery scenario is, the way I’m thinking of it is just like: if you give it long enough, you will have a supervolcano erupt and then that could kill everyone. But basically, something completely unconnected from the first catastrophe happening, that would kill the 80,000 survivors scattered all over the planet, is exceedingly improbable.

Luisa Rodriguez: The only way that happens, in all likelihood, or in the vast majority of likelihood, is that it takes longer. I’m basically thinking of… Yeah, if you don’t go extinct, maybe you don’t recover immediately. Maybe you delay the time of perils, this period where all sorts of things like asteroids and volcanoes could cause extinction. Maybe those happen. But for those to be likely enough to happen that we actually worry about them, you need a much longer time scale than the 10 years after the first catastrophe.

Indirect extinction [02:01:53]

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Okay. So let’s turn now to the indirect possible route to extinction, which is that civilization collapses — we don’t have industry anymore, maybe we don’t even have proper agriculture. And we get stuck in some not very impressive state for such a long time that something like an asteroid, supervolcano, whatever, does us in. I guess there’s no definitive answers — there’s no particular timeline where it’s like, “Well, we have to do it by like this specific date, otherwise we’ll be done in.” It’s more just like this risk that gets worse and worse the longer we happen to take.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right.

Rob Wiblin: And I guess we don’t know what that risk is, because nature never actually did drive us to extinction. But it seems like, as we’ve talked about on, say, the episode with Toby Ord and I think some other times on the show, the natural rate of extinction for humanity as like a hunter-gatherer species has to be pretty low. Otherwise we probably wouldn’t have been around in one form or another for like 100,000 to a million years.

Rob Wiblin: So it seems like there’s a pretty good chance that even if it took us 10,000 years, we would probably still be fine because we’ve lasted much longer than 10,000 years. I guess we’ve had agriculture for 14,000 years. I think like a million years ago there was something that was similar to Homo sapiens, but it was somewhat different, I guess. There’s this ambiguity about at what point did we become the same species.

Rob Wiblin: But anyway, in broad strokes it seems like we could say, if we could get back to where we are now or get off the planet or something in 2,000 years, then the odds of us having been whacked out in the meantime by some other cause is pretty low. We’re talking maybe like single percentage points.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. My best guess at a range of how long it might take — based on how long it took us to get to agriculture in the first place from early humans just doing hunting and gathering, and then again to get from agriculture to industrialization — that takes maybe tens of thousands of years.

Luisa Rodriguez: But considering that you will already have the knowledge that these things are possible — or at least some like vague passed-down memories that these things are possible — and you have things just lying around. Like some things will decay beyond recognition, but things like some agricultural technologies — including just a shovel — will take a very long time to degrade. Some materials last a long time, and people will find them and experiment with them in all likelihood. And then I think that will speed up progress toward industrial-ish-level agriculture.

Luisa Rodriguez: Beyond that… Yeah, I think you get to something like maybe it would take a couple of thousands of years at the longest, and then you just clearly have plenty of time. And so the only thing I worry about here is if it happens to be the case that humanity has a really hard time getting beyond current levels of technology, and we’re not able to drive any of these risks low enough that they don’t happen in a kind of recurring way, where we basically get into a cycle of collapse and then recovery. But then we don’t solve things, and we collapse again, because we have some other… we have another war with a different kind of bomb this time. And then this goes on and we just burn down the clock. And at some point we’ll stop having enough time before we get really unlucky or we just have run down the clock so far that it was about time that some natural catastrophe will do us in. But that has to happen a bunch of times before we get to that clock.

Rob Wiblin: That probability becomes high, yeah.

Rapid recovery vs. slow recovery [02:05:01]

Rob Wiblin: Let’s maybe come back to the cyclical thing in a minute and instead just canvass considerations in favor of rapid recovery versus very slow recovery.

Luisa Rodriguez: Sure.

Rob Wiblin: How much of a benefit do you think we would get from having these artifacts and libraries, and possibly cultural memory as well, depending on how much is passed down? I’m guessing that there’s historical analogies here where knowledge has been forgotten and we can see how quickly people redeveloped it.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. So I mentioned the example of Roman concrete, which is centuries of a lost technology. So there’s a case where people can see a thing and not necessarily be inspired to make it or use it or figure out how it worked. There are mostly lots of examples of people finding technologies or being given technologies, but not shown how they work, and pretty quickly figuring it out and innovating on them. So that’s like guns during some periods of history.

Luisa Rodriguez: And I think the only example I could find where there was a technology that one group wanted, that they had evidence existed and had some sense of how it worked, but they couldn’t reproduce, was the Cold War era missile designs. So it seems like for the most —

Rob Wiblin: It’s quite technical.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. Super technical. I think it was like, spies found the blueprints for a particular… I forget exactly what the technology was, but then their country wasn’t able to recreate it. But for the most part, it seems like with examples and the motivation… Which maybe the motivation is the questionable bit.

Rob Wiblin: It’s the likely factor. Did you learn anything interesting about how long books and libraries and information would last? Or how long these artifacts would take before they… I think like rust might become an issue on cars, even the shovels you’re saying would last a long time. But some of them, at least if they weren’t kept properly, eventually they would become a bit hard to reverse engineer.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, that’s true. So different… I mean, I did just Google around for how long different materials take to degrade.

Rob Wiblin: “How long for car to rust dot com.”

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. Yeah, I mean, it was basically that.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Yeah. Makes sense.

Luisa Rodriguez: So it’s like wood can last for years or decades, depending on how it’s treated. Metal can last longer — also depends on the metals and how it’s treated — but still that’s maybe decades. And I think there are different levels of degradation. So there’s like, is it usable? And then there’s also like, is it recognizable? And both of those are useful, though one more than the other. But then some things are just really long-lasting. So concrete lasts probably many decades or hundreds of years in some cases.

Rob Wiblin: A thousand.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Many, many hundreds of years. And steel lasts a really long time. And then yeah, those kind of physical materials.

Rob Wiblin: Plastic famously lasts a long time.

Luisa Rodriguez: Plastic lasts such a long time. Yeah, annoyingly, you can’t really… Well, actually you can melt a lot of plastics down and just remold them.

Rob Wiblin: Oh, really?

Luisa Rodriguez: Depends on the kind. And Lewis Dartnell in his book, actually, you can just look up which kind of number of plastics you can actually reuse. So if you’re ever in the post-apocalyptic world and need plastic, you can read his book — if it lasts. So you also asked about libraries and books and how long they might last. And basically it’s, again, kind of related to variability across geographies. So in some geographies where it’s very wet and there’s lots of humidity, books would probably disintegrate super, super quickly, within years.

Rob Wiblin: Really? So in like tropical areas, libraries and books only last years? I’d think decades maybe.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: I suppose maybe they do a whole lot to dehumidify the air and things like that in order to prevent books from getting too wet and degrading.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I think there are things like, they’ll also just get so moldy and just have things growing on them that they’d be only partially legible or something.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, that’s interesting. I remember reading that people who study ancient Indian history have a real hell of a time of it because they basically only have stone artifacts and metals and things like that.

Luisa Rodriguez: Wow.

Rob Wiblin: Because yeah, all of the written records disappeared because it is quite a humid place and things would rot. Some works of literature were passed down, but they had to be copied very frequently, which means that there actually were like more errors introduced more quickly and more frequently. The author would be like, “Yeah, I don’t like this. I’m going to change this.” So they evolved more quickly in the intervening time. It’s a little bit hard to know whether they’re the same as they were 2,000 or 3,000 years ago.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. That’s so interesting.

Rob Wiblin: Of course this is also true in Europe to some degree. Like I think a lot of the Roman stuff, some astonishing amount of Roman records that we have are actually only preserved because they were stored in parts of the desert in Egypt that are extremely dry.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, yeah.

Rob Wiblin: And like a lot of the stuff that would’ve been in Italy wouldn’t have made it.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. Yeah, exactly. Which goes right to the next point, which is that some areas have really great climates for storing paper, and there’d be super arid climates where books could last… I think it’s centuries, but I would want to double-check.

Rob Wiblin: Interesting. Yeah. I mean, I think it’s bonkers with the papyrus stuff in Egypt because —

Luisa Rodriguez: That’s true. That’s true. That is a great example.

Rob Wiblin: Like in southern Egypt, they’re just like digging up and being like, “Oh, here’s a receipt for someone’s coffee back like 2,500 years ago.” And it’s basically fine, or it’s totally readable. I guess that’s a very unusual climate; it’s like completely dry.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. And I think my memory is that modern books would do a bit worse than that.

Rob Wiblin: I see. Papyrus is like, yeah, a better material.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly, exactly. But still, lots of modern books would last hundreds of years in some climates. And then I did a little back-of-the-envelope calculation to try to estimate, would we have to get really lucky for libraries to survive? Or like stores of information, like libraries, to survive? And I think I felt fine about that. Or I didn’t feel like that was going to be show-stopping.

Luisa Rodriguez: Even if you get lots of infrastructure damage, that’s going to be non-uniform — it’s going to be where nuclear bombs are dropped. And so then you have all of the libraries in the Southern Hemisphere, or like a third of them, and then some of the climates in the Southern Hemisphere will be hospitable enough. And it does get whittled down to fewer libraries than you’d like, but there are clearly dozens, hundreds, or more surviving.

Rob Wiblin: I think you cite the number of libraries in the world, and it’s quite large. It’s like in the hundreds of thousands I think.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I think it’s 120,000.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, okay. And they’re spread around, obviously, basically everywhere. I suppose they’re concentrated in richer countries.

Luisa Rodriguez: They’re definitely concentrated in rich countries, yeah.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess an interesting thing is, if we’re thinking about this over hundreds or thousands of years, then the thing that determines maybe how many books would make it is how expensive is it to copy them.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: So that could become quite important: how quickly do we get printing presses going again? Because the issue in India wasn’t that… Like, if everyone had been re-diverted to copying books, then they could have sustained a much larger corpus by copying it again and again. But reproducing books was so expensive then. You had to have someone who’s very educated and literate, copying it out word for word and checking it. And so the more expensive it is because the more frequently you have to do it, because the wetter it is, the more important the book has to be to bother keeping it around.

Luisa Rodriguez: Totally.

Rob Wiblin: And so the corpus becomes narrower.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: But I guess as long as we can get… Like we will have printing presses. Printing presses are like very noticeable big machines of metal.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, yeah, yeah. They don’t —

Rob Wiblin: And so hopefully like within 100 years or 200 years, someone would figure out how to do typesetting again. And then that’s just like giving you the potential to keep copying decaying books at some reasonable rate.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, that sounds right.

Rob Wiblin: The other thing is, I guess cars rust surprisingly quickly — within decades they can become pretty unrecognizable. But you would hope that even if there’s only 80,000 people left somewhere, they’d be like, “Well, let’s just take this car and stick it somewhere that’s not extremely wet. And maybe we can’t reverse engineer this right now, but this seems like it’ll be useful in the future.” Yeah. I guess it’s just if we had… How stupid are these people going to be?

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly.

Rob Wiblin: But I mean, it’s an open question. Maybe they’ll just be so focused on the here and now that they’re not very interested in preserving things for the future. But it seems like even in the past, people had museums and they cared about retaining cool artifacts from the past.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Individual variation even will mean that some people might not care about this, but some probably will. And there are just lots of different ways to preserve information. I mean, you can store the car somewhere. You can also try to make detailed diagrams. That’ll be a lower-fidelity copy, but it will still accelerate the future reinvention of cars. Yeah, I do feel pretty comfortable with the amount of knowledge and the types of knowledge preservation that they’ll be able to do.

Rob Wiblin: Because one thing that seems like it might be challenging to get back up to is computers. It seems like we can store a laptop. I’m just looking at my MacBook over here — it’s a piece of aluminum with some plastic. It seems like if you stuck that in a basement somewhere, it could still be pretty recognizable in hundreds of years, but it’s going to take a long time before we have enough people — like the industrial base required — to be manufacturing laptops again, or probably any really sophisticated electronics.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: I think maybe that’s one thing where it’s like, we’ve had this transition to these new materials that we’ve embedded in every goddamn thing that we don’t really know… Like almost no one really knows how to make them or how they work, at least not people that I know. And this has created this sense of mystery about how the world functions that probably people didn’t have 100 years ago. I guess I’m sure they had lots of advanced things, but like far more items would have been recognizably… Understand how they work, understand how you would make them in principle.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I think that’s right. And I think we’d be much less likely to get some of those technologies back. I think again, there’s kind of a correlation between how recognizable the thing is and how useful it is. And even though we’ve replaced some really useful technologies with really complicated versions… Like, I don’t know, harvesting combines or something.

Rob Wiblin: There’s a much simpler version that does the job kind of.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, and they do. It’s not like they don’t exist anymore. We still have lots of people around the world pulling crops out of the ground with more rudimentary tools. And they would survive to some extent. I guess maybe the thing doing the work here is there’s just currently a lot of variation in the technologies used to do important things. And so while lots of places have complex technologies that have been substituted for simpler ones, lots of places are still using simple ones.

Rob Wiblin: Another thing that’s not going anywhere is glass. Or it doesn’t break down that fast, and is super valuable for science — I guess really a useful material for a whole lot of stuff.

Risk of culture shifting against science and tech [02:15:33]

Rob Wiblin: So I suppose we have good reason to think that there’ll be quite a lot of written records around. There’ll be quite a lot of artifacts around that people could admire and copy. I guess perhaps a bit more of an X factor is we don’t know what culture this group might establish. It seems like there’s been quite a range of how motivated different societies have been to copy things from the past or to copy their neighbors. And how motivated they are by science, especially when it gets hard or is perhaps a bit less directly practical. Is there much that we can learn from history about what’s the possibility of people voluntarily being stagnant through their culture?

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. Yeah. So I guess one response is that there will just be a diversity of cultures, as there were kind of the first time around. And you might think — though it doesn’t have to be true — that there’s advantages to being a more technologically exploratory society. And so maybe there’ll just be some selection for those societies. But even if not, by chance and variation, just like how it happened the first time, you’d think that some would be more exploratory than others.

Luisa Rodriguez: And then examples from the first time around of cases where societies truly seemed extremely motivated to adopt technologies that they saw modeled in other cultures — a really good one is Japan famously had the Meiji Restoration, where they just decided, after not having adopted technologies that had been around for centuries. I think they were using swords to fight duels instead of guns, which had existed for a long time. So they were just very technologically stagnant for political reasons — that was the preference.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. As I recall, the Emperor, was it Emperor of Japan at that point? Yeah, whoever was leading it, they were not keen on Japan copying other countries. They were like, “Japan, we’re the best, we’re going to close ourselves off and keep things the same.”

Luisa Rodriguez: “We have tradition.” And yeah, yeah, exactly. It was a very —

Rob Wiblin: Selective choice.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. The culture valued tradition. So there’s an example of culture really valuing non-technological progress. And then they decided they did want to modernize, I think, inspired by seeing war fleets of other countries and realizing they were really at risk of being invaded.

Rob Wiblin: I think, oh yeah. I recall this amazing historical episode where… So the Japanese didn’t want to trade with anyone, basically. I think there had been some temporary development of trade with Europe and then they were again like, “No, we don’t like you guys. Go to hell.” And I think the Americans along with… Maybe it was just the Americans, they sent their navy basically into the Bay of Tokyo and were like, “You’ve got to trade with us, or we’re going to attack you in the Bay.”

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. We’re really big.

Rob Wiblin: Like, “Here’s a treaty, you’ve got to sign it. Our navy is just vastly better than yours.”

Luisa Rodriguez: Right.

Rob Wiblin: And they were forced at the point of a gun to agree to trade with the rest of the world so that America could make money.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Yes.

Rob Wiblin: Anyway, they signed it. They weren’t fans of it. So then they changed their mind, or they changed their approach.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. And they decided they wanted to become as technologically advanced to become a comparable power. And the thing that I found really interesting is that, one, there was like a cultural shift, that’s kind of interesting. But the way they modernized so quickly is in part by sending Japanese scouts to European countries to observe different technologies in all sorts of different industries — so not just weapons — and literally bring some of the technologies home to be disassembled, better understood, and then recreated.

Rob Wiblin: And it worked, right?

Luisa Rodriguez: And it worked. And they modernized extremely quickly.

Rob Wiblin: I guess it seems like that’s a standout case. It seems so surprising for a culture, for a whole country, to turn on a dime here and go from maximum tradition to “We’ve got to modernize.” I suppose there was a lot of military external pressure requiring it. I guess it’s possibly a cultural stereotype or maybe that’s too salient here, but I guess it’s like a very cohesive society that might have found it easier to orient around a national mission being set.

Rob Wiblin: And maybe even if they weren’t using advanced industrial technology, they had the necessary social technology in a sense of coordinating people in very sophisticated ways, and institutions that perhaps allowed them to modernize more quickly than otherwise. But anyway, the broader point is they took a bunch of artifacts, they pulled them apart, and they figured out how they worked.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. If anything, the point I can imagine taking from the fact that they turned on a dime is more like, it took a lot of social coordination to maintain the traditions they did for as long as they did. That seems like the surprising thing.

Rob Wiblin: That’s the weird one.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Everyone else was slowly developing new technologies, like individuals in other societies were, because it’s actually really hard to suppress. Or whatever, that’s my… My view of it is something like, innovation was happening.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So I suppose it suggests that if one place is innovating, then over time they either become more powerful relative to others, or other people have to copy.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. And that’s the kind of selection argument I was pointing out earlier.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So you would need lots of humanity to converge around a less pro-progress approach.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly.

Rob Wiblin: Seems hard to fathom. I guess I’m reminded of a thing from Dune where they have the war. So in the Dune series, I think I’ve only read a tiny fraction of it.

Luisa Rodriguez: I like, started it.

Rob Wiblin: It’s a long, arduous book.

Luisa Rodriguez: So long. It really is.

Rob Wiblin: I hear there’s a movie coming out. I was saving myself for the movie. But anyway, I think long before the books start, there’s like an AI war, I think called the Butlerian Jihad, from memory. And basically this is like AI apocalypse war, where the humans win and defeat the AI, and then they ban computers forever.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yes. So that’s a main story here for why culture would be averse to technological advancement.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: And that just seems like for all humans that survived to indefinitely —

Rob Wiblin: Coordinate.

Luisa Rodriguez: — coordinate to suppress innovation, just seems really like a hard story to tell, again. It’s like all the individuals need to either agree, which seems hard, and has never happened. Or you need the individuals who do agree to keep power, even though they’re like… I guess you could think that they have access to a bunch of technology that allows them to maintain power.

Rob Wiblin: I mean, a big problem here is… Well, I don’t know, in my imagination I’m thinking, let’s say there’s a colony in South America — Northern Hemisphere is a write-off, but there’s a colony in South America, like some people in Africa, and some people in New Zealand slash Australia.

Rob Wiblin: Over time, certainly over hundreds of years, they’ll be spreading north. They’ll be going back to these new places and… Necessarily, the whole point is that the technology isn’t such that it’s super easy to get to these places or to coordinate, or to have the internet. So it’s like, these places are going to become more… It’s not going to be possible to be controlled from, like, Christchurch.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right, right, right.

Rob Wiblin: Because now you’ve got the same kind of fragmentation that we had through almost all of human history until the very modern era.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. It’s just really hard to imagine: either universal agreement or universal control. We just haven’t seen it.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. And it would be understandable perhaps if a very strong culture developed against nuclear weapons, for example. And then there was a huge fight over whether to redevelop nuclear weapons or perhaps a massive effort to destroy them.

Luisa Rodriguez: That seems totally consistent.

Rob Wiblin: But even in the Dune story, they get rid of AIs, but they don’t get rid of… I don’t know, cars.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right, exactly.

Rob Wiblin: Or spaceships, as it turns out.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Technology is in some ways not a cohesive concept. Where like, because one thing caused this terrible thing to happen to civilization, it wasn’t all of technology.

Rob Wiblin: It wasn’t the plow.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly.

Rob Wiblin: But in a deep sense, maybe it was the plow.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right, right. Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: It requires a lot of restraint to not use plows because of the long-term consequences.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yes.

Resource scarcity [02:23:07]

Rob Wiblin: All right. So we’ve discussed how there would likely be a whole lot of artifacts that would give our descendants a big boost in the post-apocalypse, and there’ll be lots of information lying around that would help them out. And that it’ll be pretty unlikely for everyone to avoid pursuing science and technology for a really extended period of time — the kind of thing that would involve lots of coordination and culture not changing over time.

Rob Wiblin: I think the last major reason that people raise for why we might recover slowly, or not at all, is resource scarcity — us having used up things like fossil fuels and that being a big impediment to redevelopment. Why aren’t you convinced by that argument?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, so it is true that we’ve used lots of fossil fuels. There still are tons. It’s also true that lots of the ones that are left — while there are tons — are much harder to access without the kinds of technology we have now. But there is at least a lot of coal that seems pretty accessible. So for example, there’s a mine in, I think it’s Montana, that has more coal — and it’s surface coal, so it’s coal that you could just dig out with a shovel — than was used in the first, I think 60 or 70 years of the Industrial Revolution, from like 1770 to 1830. Which is just already getting you a chunk of the way to then being able to harvest a bunch more, maybe slightly harder-to-access fossil fuel.

Rob Wiblin: Okay. So coal there’s still a lot of. I can’t remember how much we’ve used of all the coal that we think is out there. I think it’s like closer to 10% than 100%.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, I think that’s right.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Okay, so coal isn’t such a big problem. I guess if push came to shove, we could use coal as a fossil fuel as an alternative to oil. I guess there’s benefits of liquid fuels, but again, it’s hard to see that that would be absolutely make-or-break for industrial civilization developing.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly. Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: And I think there are methods for converting coal into oil, but —

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, I think that’s true too.

Rob Wiblin: — it’s a bit messy, but yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yep.

Rob Wiblin: I guess this raises the question… Well, we’re going to talk a bit more about climate change later, but I suppose people might then worry that future groups rebuilding on the back of coal exclusively would end up doing themselves in, by burning so much coal. And I guess yeah, that actually seems kind of plausible if you… back-of-the-envelope suggests that if you burn like two or three times as much coal as we’ve used so far again, then we’ll be in deep, deep trouble. Yeah, any comments on that?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, I think it basically is plausible. It seems like that’s one possible outcome. I guess one thing pushing in the other direction is like, while on the one hand I feel reasonably confident that there are enough fossil fuels to kind of restart things, there will be less, and that will put even more pressure on recovering civilizations to switch to alternatives. And that will be a bit harder because at first there will be worse technology, but then it’ll also be a lot easier because we’ll already have examples of renewable energy technologies lying around.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: And there are also just some more renewable forms of energy that we aren’t using much — that don’t require much technology at all — that different countries rely much more on than Western countries. So Brazil, for example, makes tons of charcoal, which burns cleaner than fossil fuels and is just enormously efficient. And we don’t use it because it’s harder to grow all the forest necessary to cut down the trees that you need to make into charcoal, which you do by pyrolyzing wood.

Rob Wiblin: What’s pyrolyzing?

Luisa Rodriguez: It’s a form of converting a wood or bark that has a certain carbon structure into a much denser carbon structure.

Rob Wiblin: Like you kind of dehydrate it and turn it…

Luisa Rodriguez: You basically dehydrate it.

Rob Wiblin: You dehumidify it and then turn it into coal basically. Or something like coal.

Luisa Rodriguez: Basically an equivalent to coal, yeah. And that could easily supplement the industrial revolution. And if there was scarcity with fossil fuels, then there would be even more incentive to use charcoal. And maybe that would even put us in a better place relative to where we are now. Yeah. That’s just like one alternative. The situation you suggested also sounds totally plausible to me.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah I guess…

Luisa Rodriguez: Especially, I guess if there’s like, memory of the threat of climate change, it’s not… The first time around, we kind of didn’t know what we were doing. The second time around, maybe we’d have more…

Rob Wiblin: We’d have a heads up.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess we’ll come back to this, but I can see maybe three scenarios. One might be that they make the same mistakes that we did, and don’t do enough to reduce their reliance on coal soon enough, just because they’re foolish. So it was possible, but they didn’t do it.

Rob Wiblin: Another scenario would be that actually they just do: they’re able to switch over to, I guess oil and gas, maybe they’ll be able to extract that again before too long. You’ve got examples of wind and solar that they can then copy. And then before too long, they’re in a similar situation to where we are. Which is bad, but not necessarily catastrophic.

Rob Wiblin: And the third category would be, well, actually we’ve now used up so much of the easily available oil and gas, say, and it turned out to be really hard to reinvent, say, all the electronics that go into solar and nuclear and so on. You actually just need an enormous population, say, in order to be able to sustain those industries. That then it actually is impossible for them to reach a low-carbon energy system, or at least not practical in the real world.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So I guess I feel the pessimists are getting a bit of a point here.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Yeah. I completely agree. Yeah. That seems like one of the most plausible routes to something like stagnation or a kind of…

Rob Wiblin: Oscillation.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. That we can talk more about in a bit.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Okay. Any other resources other than coal that are worth mentioning?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. So people worry about phosphorus, which is in a lot of fertilizers and is really important for the levels of crop yields that we have today. And originally we got it from I think guano.

Rob Wiblin: Bird poop.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, poop.

Rob Wiblin: That built up on islands over very, very long periods of time.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly. Exactly. And yeah, I’ve been told that that’s been basically harvested, so we’d basically be relying on phosphorus already in the environment. So we’d have to use dead plants, like let them decompose and then use them as fertilizer, which is definitely less efficient. Eventually we’d get to the point where we are now, which is we invent technology again to be able to put phosphorus back into fertilizers more easily.

Rob Wiblin: Okay. So not having these piles of phosphorus lying around would be inconvenient, but again, it seems like agriculture can work without extra phosphorus. It did for most of history.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. It did for most of history. Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: And so it’s, again, an inconvenience, something that might slow us down a bit. But how can this be make-or-break? The access to additional supplies of phosphorus, given that there already is phosphorus in the environment, in the soil. Possibly we’ll have to be more choosy exactly about where we farm. But yeah, it shouldn’t be the end of the world again.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. I think this is basically true of lots of resources that you can try to think of that might be limiting to a successor society, or the recovering society. And basically it’s like, there are a few things that seem pretty important and that we’d either need to access again or find good substitutes for. There are lots of things that are really important to the level of abundance that we have today, but that exist at levels that are easily accessible, that would be enough to get recovery going.

Luisa Rodriguez: And then we could reach the level of technological sophistication we have to get back up to these levels of abundance. So that includes things like phosphorus, but also nitrogen. Currently we have really complex and energetically intensive systems for fixing nitrogen, which we’d lose. But we just still have environmental sources that would be, again, more limited, but enough to grow crops.

Rob Wiblin: Enough to get by.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Okay. So we’ve got energy, which is kind of flow resource. I guess phosphorus and nitrogen are also kind of flow resources. Because we concentrate them or we extract them and then we let them dissipate.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, yeah.

Rob Wiblin: So it’s very hard to concentrate them again.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. That’s exactly right.

Rob Wiblin: Or it takes a lot of energy, and I guess nitrogen and… I’m not sure exactly how we do it with phosphorus, but it’s presumably some way. I guess there’s another class of materials which are like stock materials, like steel or iron or aluminum. Other stuff that we use, but then it’s still there.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: It’s just in our buildings now. And maybe it’s a pain in the ass to access it again. But I guess it was often a pain in the ass to get rods of steel and iron and so on out of the ground in the first place.

Luisa Rodriguez: Totally. Yeah. Yeah. So there’s variation in exactly how hard it would be to reuse resources like that, that are lying around. So for example, I think… yeah, I should check which, but some metals that will exist in cities, for example, you can just remelt. This is true for some plastics too. Basically like some things would just be like: make heat, melt the thing, make a new thing with the material. And then others are like… I think rubber is an example where you can’t melt it down and remake the same thing; heating it changes its structure or something in a way that changes the properties you’re looking for, and for those we basically have to…

Rob Wiblin: Go again.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: I see.

Luisa Rodriguez: Which is definitely annoying.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: I mean, things like blast furnaces and basically all of the methods we use for metalworking, they’re kind of complicated, but also have existed for at least a millennium in some societies. So they don’t seem show-stopping to me.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I’ve seen these videos on YouTube of this guy. He never speaks, but he manages to go from having no resources whatsoever in a forest to making a furnace of sorts that I think he can…

Luisa Rodriguez: Wow.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Where he’s able to, for example, fire ceramics. And I think I haven’t gotten to this video yet, but I think he does start melting down metals and extracting metals, using this kiln, and he literally has gone out into the forest with nothing except the knowledge that he has in his head.

Luisa Rodriguez: Wow.

Rob Wiblin: I guess it’s probably not at the level of a blast furnace, but suggests that people… I mean, I think people did figure out that they could use heat to extract stuff from the ground pretty early on.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: So that was an early step.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. Yeah. I think that’s right. And yeah, Lewis Dartnell, going back to his book, The Knowledge has a chapter on harnessing heat. I think that’s the unifying theme. But he basically describes how to build a kiln. And the great thing about a kiln is it holds heat so well that you can get to like 1500 degrees or something. Extremely high temperatures. And then once you have those temperatures, you can make things like cast iron or things that you basically can’t make over a fire.

Luisa Rodriguez: But the way he does this is by… First you have to build the bricks, and the bricks have to be able to sustain that heat. And the way you build the bricks is also by, I think it’s by creating a somewhat more makeshift kiln that can also reach temperatures high enough to fire bricks. And so it’s basically this process of…

Rob Wiblin: It’s like a success spiral.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. And there are similar examples in metalworking. There are kind of cool books and videos actually, similar to the one you’re talking about, where a skilled metalworker shows how with scraps of metal, he can create a whole metalworking shop just by first building tools like screws and lathes, basically. And then by building the rudimentary things, you can build much more complex things.

Luisa Rodriguez: And I think it really demystified… Yeah. I can’t imagine what it’s like to build a blast furnace, but all of these processes do kind of happen in incremental steps. And each one, once I learned a bit more about it, I was like, “Oh, I can imagine going to that from the thing before. That sounds very doable to me.”

Rob Wiblin: It makes a lot of sense.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Yeah. You don’t have to like, reinvent complex technologies. You invent small things. Maybe you find the small things like screws lying around and that means you go even faster, but it is much more incremental than I think I intuitively had in mind.

Rob Wiblin: Are there any other resources that are worth mentioning that you looked into at least briefly?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. So I did think about glass. Basically, you make sand incredibly hot to make glass. And the first glass ever was, lightning would strike sand and it would create these shards of glass that could then be worked at high temperatures. And basically that’s just how people realized glass was a thing and began to use it. And that gets you to some pretty advanced technologies like lenses for viewing really tiny things, lenses for making eyesight better. It also allows you to make windows. So glass doesn’t seem like a scarce resource. Though, I’m not sure… I haven’t thought much about whether you could melt it down from existing windows or something, but I think it’s something that would like…

Rob Wiblin: It doesn’t seem necessary.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Exactly. Exactly.

Rob Wiblin: Silicon’s underrated. It’s highly rated, maybe just an underrated element. So many uses.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yes. Really, really.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. The little building block that could. Anything else worth mentioning, or should we move on?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: It seems like a lot of people talk about this resource scarcity thing as being an impediment. And maybe at first blush it sounds plausible, but then it just seems like it’s another one that the more you inspect it, the more it melts away into air.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. That sounds right. I think fossil fuels are the most plausible, especially in a scenario where it’s like the 10th collapse catastrophe, maybe even more than 10th. I could look back; I did a few calculations to be like, “At what point would we just actually have run out of fossil fuels if we repeated the exact same process several times in a row?” But it just looks like we at least have another go, if not many more go’s.

Rob Wiblin: Several. Interesting. I guess there are still some oil wells that produce oil relatively straightforwardly. And I guess we’re imagining them rebuilding with a much lower population than we have now. So they could at least get started with that kind of thing.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly. Yeah. You either have large enough populations that you’re not losing nearly as much technology and you’re pulling things out more easily, or you have tiny populations and you don’t need much.

How fast could populations rebound [02:37:07]

Rob Wiblin: Okay. So we’ve discussed all of the main streams of reasons that people offer for why we might, even in the long term, not really recover to where we are today. We’re kind of skeptical about all of them. Taking now the assumption that we’re right about that, and indeed we would recover, how fast could we expect the population to rebound if things go well?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. So population growth is an example of how hard it is to grasp, or how hard it is to intuitively understand, how quick compounded growth is. But if you think the population would grow at the fastest level that it ever has — which is in the 1960s, that was about 2.2% per year — then you’d get about a tenfold increase in population every 100 years. So if you lost 90% of the population, you’d be back to current levels within 100 years.

Luisa Rodriguez: And then if you think that population is going to grow slower, so maybe the level it did when humans were just agriculturalists, then you could recover a population from 90% population loss to current levels in about 240 years. Which is still really, really fast.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It’s kind of shockingly fast. It seems like it should take ages, but yeah, I suppose just the magic of exponential growth means that it doesn’t take quite as long as you’d think.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly. Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: If people can keep having kids at a decent clip.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly. Yeah. So even the most pessimistic scenarios we thought of were if 99.999% of people died, which is a huge number of people dying. Then at that 1% population growth — so agriculturalist-level of population growth — you’d still expect the population to reach current levels in about 1,200 years.

Rob Wiblin: Okay. So I suppose we could compound all these scenarios into an even more pessimistic one where you have 99.9% gone. And you’re only growing at the hunter-gatherer level, which was 0.1%.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, that’s right.

Rob Wiblin: Do you mind if I just have a go?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Please. How long would it take?

Rob Wiblin: We just paused the recording and did the calculation, and we would get back to the original population in 7,000 years.

Luisa Rodriguez: Wow.

Rob Wiblin: I guess maintaining a 0.1% population growth rate the entire time just seems very strange.

Luisa Rodriguez: Really implausible.

Rob Wiblin: Well, it seems like it should either be below zero or more above zero than that. That’s just like knife-edge level.

Luisa Rodriguez: It would be really surprising if at six billion, we were still going at hunter-gatherer levels of growth rates.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Yeah. But even then, 7,000 years, it’s not so long such as that, even in a very negative-case scenario, it’s still very, very, very possible to rebuild.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yep.

Rob Wiblin: I don’t have a great intuition for whether we should expect population growth to be fast or slow in the rebuilding stage, relative to what it was historically. I suppose on the one hand, you’ve got all of the chaos and problems created by the original catastrophe, which presumably would hold people back, at least in the immediate term. On the other hand, they’d be recovering all of these technologies potentially really a lot faster than we invented them the first time around.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right.

Rob Wiblin: And at the same time, we’re in this massive disequilibrium with the number of people relative to the size of the Earth, and especially if we had like massive population loss — like more than 90%, 99 or 99.9% — then there’s just so much space for people to spread out. It’s like everywhere is a frontier to go and do much more farming.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly.

Rob Wiblin: Unless we’ve somehow completely trashed the earth. But I think even nuclear war doesn’t reduce long-term farming capacity really hardly at all.

Luisa Rodriguez: No, no, not beyond a decade.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So I guess it’s possible that the regrowth rate could be faster than 2.3%.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: Maybe instead we should look at the population growth rate among farmers, say, settling an area where they were able to just kill everyone who was already there and then just like settle it themselves.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right.

Rob Wiblin: I don’t know how fast that was. But I mean, I think the population growth in the early United States was extremely fast.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I was going to say the Americas would probably be a good case study to look at. And I don’t actually know exactly what the population growth was there, but I think you’re totally right. I mean, on the one hand, there might be some cultural pressures against having kids… It’s just, like, sad.

Rob Wiblin: I guess they could invent birth control earlier.

Luisa Rodriguez: That’s true. I guess even then, you have plenty of societies that have birth control today that still have much higher birth rates than other countries with birth control.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. And so then we’re back to this argument that even if most, even if the mainstream of society developed a culture that doesn’t support having more than two children, say, then some subgroups will have that culture.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly.

Rob Wiblin: And then eventually they will end up being most of the population before too long.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Yeah. All that has to happen is that not everyone agrees to have as few kids as possible, or not have very many kids.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Okay. I think that’s enough on population regrowth rates. So people can go and check out your blog post if they want even more permutations of different scenarios and how long it would take. Maybe just to wrap up this section on indirect routes to extinction, how long it would take to recover, and the problems in the meantime… What’s the biggest doubt you have about the lines of argument that you’re pursuing here that like… How would you be most likely to be wrong, perhaps?

Luisa Rodriguez: In general, I think I’m biased toward optimism. So I’m more likely to think that if something is technologically possible, it will also be what happens — especially if it seems intuitively advantageous for it to. And that’s not always the case. Yeah, so I guess something like, in some systematic ways, the survivors are much worse at taking advantage of all the things working in their favor than I’ve predicted. I guess another, which we’ll talk about soon, is most of the scenarios we’ve talked about so far have effects that are kind of limited to a time period. And if there are catastrophes that have effects that last thousands, or tens or hundreds of thousands of years…

Rob Wiblin: Like the disaster doesn’t go away?

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly. Yeah, if it’s just… the world’s just worse now. And like maybe humanity can’t rebuild agriculture because it’s just forever going to be too cold or forever going to be too hot or forever going to have acid rain.

Rob Wiblin: And we can’t learn to adapt to it somehow or evolve to be able to cope with it.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. And so I think that’s kind of a known unknown set of scenarios.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess just the other stream of doubts might be something that we haven’t thought of. Once again, it doesn’t seem like these arguments are very persuasive. I guess some of them get some weight, but maybe there’s some other argument that hasn’t been raised yet. Because there’s a lot of arguments that one could make in this space.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. Yeah. It feels endless. Yeah. Maybe an example of that is just the resources. Maybe there really are some show-shoppers without substitutes that I haven’t thought of.

Rob Wiblin: Could we rebuild without Netflix? Inquiring minds want to know.

Luisa Rodriguez: [laughs] Yeah.

Implications for what we ought to do right now [02:43:52]

Rob Wiblin: Okay. Pushing on, let’s talk about whether this has any implications about what we ought to do in the here and now. This wasn’t at all the focus of the project — here you were just trying to kind of produce a forecast. But it’s possible that incidentally, you’ve thought of some things that might be helpful for us to do now. Do you think there’s any low-hanging fruit that we should engage in to try to make it easier, perhaps, to recover in a future after a severe catastrophe?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. So there are the advantages that I talked about — this is stuff flying around and examples of useful technologies that’ll be left over I think will be helpful. But there are ways to just make it easier to just hand them to survivors. And I haven’t thought that much about what these are, but like a great example of this already being thought of and existing is the seed bank in Norway.

Rob Wiblin: In Norway I think. Svalbard.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yes, Svalbard, exactly.

Rob Wiblin: I think London has a pretty good seed bank as well.

Luisa Rodriguez: Oh really?

Rob Wiblin: Although I guess that one’s going up in smoke in the nuclear scenario, but…

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Right. So actually kind of in that vein, thinking more about where we want to conserve both physical resources and information, given the types of catastrophes that we think are likely. Like maybe a nuclear war between Western countries or just countries in the Global North. Yeah. Thinking about what things we want to keep. So the seed bank does a great job of keeping heirloom seeds, which are seeds that do produce viable seeds when grown, prioritizing those seeds. Keeping, in like a similar vein, stocks of things that would be both useful to use and also useful to learn from in a more intentional and curated way. Like on the same theme of banks, like what do we want them made of?

Rob Wiblin: Technology banks or something. Here’s tons of artifacts, all nicely conserved.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly.

Rob Wiblin: They’re going to last quite a long time. And next to each thing is a book describing how it works.

Luisa Rodriguez: A plaque or… A book — even better. Exactly. And then just being deliberate about distributing those globally.

Rob Wiblin: Sticking them under mountains and places that can still be accessed.

Luisa Rodriguez: Making sure they get preserved. I would love one on a sub. I’d love one in Antarctica, who knows. Yeah. So something a bit more strategic there.

Luisa Rodriguez: I think there are concrete things that can be done to make infrastructure more resilient. And there are organizations and cities trying to make their infrastructure more robust to things like cascading power outages caused by weather or something. And probably there are really targeted things you could do to make infrastructure have fewer interdependencies.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: So that it’s easier to bring back online if one part failed. But yeah, this is something on the level of city governments, or even state governments, having to think this through. But again, currently we’re doing great things on infrastructure resilience, but only for types of disasters that are pretty small scale — so storms, basically. And if we just thought a little bit harder about these large-scale disasters, there might be some low-hanging fruit. But I don’t know all about what they would be.

Rob Wiblin: The electrical grid resiliency we’ve talked about at least once on the show before with David Roodman, because he was looking into the solar storm stuff.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: I think since that interview, there has been a bit of talk about this and there are some people doing experiments trying to design… I guess it’s transformers are one of the weak points.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. Yep.

Rob Wiblin: There’s discussion among electrical engineers and people who run these grids about this kind of thing. I suspect relative to what’s optimal, it’s not enough. But if you were someone who had relevant expertise, that’s a group that you could potentially try to join in on that conversation of how to protect ourselves against EMPs or against solar storms.

Rob Wiblin: I guess, the project to distribute technology and information into lots of locations, convenient locations around the world, and then make sure that people know that they can go find that information there, should the worst happen… That seems like something that a listener among us, if they don’t have a job, they could potentially get going on that. I suppose it would cost some money to actually implement it. It would cost a bunch of money to have to, I don’t know, build a vault or whatever.

Luisa Rodriguez: Build bunkers.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, exactly. But to start producing the plans and start producing the materials in order to then be able to say, “Well, this is what we would put in there. And I want to make a pitch that this is worth doing to some big philanthropists or a government.” Yeah. It seems surprisingly easy perhaps to just start working on it basically. And then maybe other people could join in.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I basically think that’s right. Yeah. Some components of the project would be maybe interviewing experts to see what kinds of technologies you’d want stored. Thinking about the types of knowledge, so like which books you’d want to have. Maybe going back and reading Lewis Dartnell’s The Knowledge and thinking of more examples of things like heirloom seeds or yeast or things that would just be kind of a leapfrog… Save you some trouble to have stored somewhere.

Luisa Rodriguez: So like thinking of the things is one step, building the things is obviously a costly step, deciding where to put the things I think would be really achievable. I think in general, you can’t go wrong with like, distributed all over the world. And then there’s some pretty clear other factors that might push you toward certain places that don’t… Yeah, that I think you could just work out places that seem like they’d be more likely to have survivors.

Luisa Rodriguez: And then governments have plans that you can download online that are like, “What should I do if there are massive disasters that force me to leave my home?”, and basically maybe there aren’t services for a long time. I can imagine advocating for something to be inserted into those plans, that’s like just a location of where these vaults are or something. Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: Really, I think there’s just actually quite a lot of abandoned vaults out there in the world. And as I understand it, Switzerland has just enormous space in its vaults.

Luisa Rodriguez: Interesting.

Rob Wiblin: They had some plan where all of Switzerland was meant to be able to fit in vaults, like simultaneously, if there was a nuclear war.

Luisa Rodriguez: That’s wild. I’ve never heard that. Amazing.

Rob Wiblin: Maybe you should go fact-check that. But I think it’s, yeah, it’s absolutely bananas, the amount of space that they have.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, I think the reason that the stockpile of knowledge and materials feels like it’s something that hobbyists could work at is perhaps because it’s not going to expire. If you could come up with a great plan for that now, and then you kind of put it on ice for 10 years, it seems like the plan would probably still be quite reasonable 10 years later. So you don’t have to bring together all of the aspects of it simultaneously. As long as people who are going to take that project forward in future realize that there’s a prior art it’s been done, that they should just grab in the first place.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Right. Yeah. You could design the vault and come up with an inventory for everything in it and you just have that and then someone else could implement it and maybe add two technologies that we’ve come up with since. And that’d be pretty great.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. For those who are curious, we discussed an even more extreme case of this in the second interview with Paul Christiano where we talked about how would you leave a message, not just for a hundred or a thousand years away, but a million years in the future. And that turns out to be a lot more challenging, but Paul Christiano had some ideas for how you might do it.

Luisa Rodriguez: Oh, that’s so cool.

Rob Wiblin: On the other stream you are raising, about making things more resilient now or making things have less interdependencies… Because you know, California and the EU, they actually regularly pass rules about criteria that electronics have to meet around privacy or around interconnectivity. I wonder whether there should be a rule that, say, all cars or all of these devices have to be able to continue operating without the internet.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. That’s a great idea.

Rob Wiblin: Because you don’t want all of these things to disappear. Like suddenly start malfunctioning after some period of time in an unforeseen way because they lost internet.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I mean, lots of the interdependencies are just financially advantageous — you get huge gains in efficiency when you… Basically you’re adding in complexity and the complexity’s buying you efficiency. And so it would just take a bit of regulation to be like, “You can’t have that much complexity. It makes the system too fragile.”

Luisa Rodriguez: And then I can totally imagine a ballot campaign in California, that’s like, “Make the power grid robust” to like two important disasters that seem reasonably plausible. And maybe it involves some trip wires that make it so that a blackout in one place doesn’t cause a blackout in another, which very plausibly would happen given most current cities’ infrastructures.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I think I can imagine a California ballot initiative. I think that might become a joke line after a while. It seems like you can pass almost anything on a California ballot initiative at this point.

Luisa Rodriguez: [laughs] Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: But yeah. I mean maybe that’s part of the beauty of ballot initiatives, is it allows specific states to try all kinds of wacky stuff that sounds good to people.

Luisa Rodriguez: Totally. Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So any other low-hanging fruit we should potentially consider that you’ve struck on?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I think David Denkenberger talked about food stocks. We used to have way more. It’d probably be good if we had way more again. It’d probably be good if more countries had more, and I don’t know how hard that’d be to advocate for, but yeah, it’s something that we’re doing worse on than we were even 40 years ago. So it just seems like we could improve upon that again. I guess in general, I’m in favor of all the research being done into alternative foods. I don’t know exactly what will work. I know ALLFED works on this.

Rob Wiblin: I’m actually interviewing him next week.

Luisa Rodriguez: Are you? Great, I’ll leave it to him. Yeah. Perfect. Perfect. But I basically think it would be great if there were some blueprints for how to make food if it’s really cold or really hot.

Luisa Rodriguez: Anything else…? I don’t know. We used to joke morbidly. When I was looking at the absolute worst-case scenarios — where we’re down to tens of thousands of people — I was looking for ways that those people might be systematically worse at rebuilding society than larger groups that are more randomly selected across the world. And I was like, “Okay, who are the people if we’re down to 10,000?” Maybe it’s people in submarines, maybe it’s people disproportionately in the military, or maybe the opposite. But I joked with some colleagues that if it was submarines that made up disproportionate numbers of survivors, we’d have, I think a ratio of like one woman to 99 men. So I don’t actually know if this is like low-hanging fruit worth plucking, or something to take seriously, but women on submarines —

Rob Wiblin: Having a more equal gender ratio on nuclear subs.

Luisa Rodriguez: — could be good from multiple perspectives.

How this work affected Luisa’s views [02:54:00]

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Someone on Twitter had this question for you. “How has Luisa’s research on civilizational collapse affected her views on longtermism or intra-longtermist cause prioritization?”

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Nice. I guess the main way is that for the most part, relative to where I was before looking into it, I think relatively fewer resources should go to catastrophes that would cause something like collapse, but not extinction. And so I guess maybe that includes nuclear war and maybe natural pandemics. I still think more should be going to those things than are currently going to those things. It’s not that I think longtermists shouldn’t think they’re important, but relative to something like AI risk or even just, there are some speculative causes, like making sure that technology doesn’t stagnate and that we actually realize the potential of sentient flourishing or something and —

Rob Wiblin: Well, perhaps our values don’t stagnate.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, yeah, values is the other one. Yeah. Making sure that if we do last for a really long time, we don’t do so with really horrible values or that we at least don’t miss out on some amazing ones.

Luisa Rodriguez: So I guess those just seem a bit more important to me, but I do worry that this might be interpreted as meaning that I don’t think it’s great for people to work on catastrophes that would cause collapse. And I think I still, if there’s a great position for you in one of those fields, and that seems like your comparative advantage or something, that you’d be especially good at working on, that seems amazing. And yeah, again, want more resources on all of these problems on the margin.

Rob Wiblin: I guess there’s two factors there. Although we feel pretty good about our chances of recovering, we can’t be sure. We’re like 90% confident, even 99% confident, that might not be as positive in terms of what you ought to decide to do with your career. And as we talked about recently in the episode with Carl Shulman, there’s other reasons, other moral values that you might have for wanting to prevent 95% of people dying, other than it prevents the long-term future of humanity going to space and things like that. We might just not want that to happen for all kinds of other reasons.

Luisa Rodriguez: Maybe it would just be terrible if 7.7 billion people died. That does seem unimaginably awful.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It does still seem like the recovery, collapse, recovery, collapse cycle still seems like a live option. And actually we’re about to talk about the boom and bust climate change stuff in a minute, which does leave open this option that even if we don’t go completely extinct, we might fail to achieve humanity’s full potential due to a collapse, or a series of them.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, I think that is still a live option, and there are some scenarios, and again, the unknown unknowns, that give me pause enough that these still seem terrible. And it would be terrible to be wrong in a bunch of different ways. Would not want to find out I’m wrong because we, in fact, go extinct.

Rob Wiblin: Well, you wouldn’t be there to find out.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly. But maybe I’d be one of the final five and I’d be like, “Darn it, I should have told people to invest more in this.”

Rob Wiblin: “Should have put my money in phosphorus.”

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly.

Boom and bust climate change scenarios [02:57:06]

Rob Wiblin: Cool. All right, let’s push on and talk about climate change for a bit. I guess we’ve been teasing this over the last half hour, but I think people are going to really enjoy this section.

Rob Wiblin: So I saw a preview of this longtermist book that Will is writing, and that you’ve been a major contributor to. And he spends some time trying to come up with worst-case scenarios for climate change, I guess as part of his project of thinking about what if longtermism as a moral view is an important point, but we’re not in an especially urgent moment right now. Say, you know, we shouldn’t expect AI to revolutionize things anytime soon.

Rob Wiblin: And in that case, it seems like climate change is going to be high up on the list of things that we’ll be talking about from a longtermist point of view. Of course, one variable is how responsive the climate is to carbon emissions — that is to say, how many degrees of warming you get if you double CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. But the part of the book that I saw focuses on a slightly different angle, which Will and you call “boom and bust cycles.” Can you explain in brief, what is the underlying structure of a boom and bust scenario? And then what were the two possible ways that that could happen that you all envisaged?

Luisa Rodriguez: Sure. And I’ll just give lots of credit to Will, of course, and then also to John Halstead, who I think was probably more involved than me on this.

Luisa Rodriguez: So in brief, boom and bust refers to… Well, the boom refers to using a bunch of fossil fuels, which translate to high emissions and high temperature effects and other climate effects. And then the bust at least broadly is referring to, for some reason, not being able to bring carbon in the atmosphere back down to make those climate changes tolerable, mitigated.

Luisa Rodriguez: Specifically, Will and John came up with two ways that that could happen. So in one scenario, I think Will calls it the “rise and fall scenario” — I think he’s alluding to Rome — where there’s no single catastrophe that means that we don’t have climate-mitigating technologies. It’s just that our technological progress on climate mitigation stagnates before we’re able to get to the level necessary to get to carbon neutral, and then to suck more carbon out of the atmosphere to get temperature levels even lower, if we’ve already gone up higher than we want to be. So that’s one.

Luisa Rodriguez: The other one is a bust caused by some kind of catastrophe. And I think Will calls this one a “double catastrophe,” with a first catastrophe is something like… I think his best guess at how this happens is something like there’s a great power conflict that is both demanding of technological innovation and attention — so brain power. I think basically he’s imagining a scenario where much of our resources are being devoted to developing new military technologies to basically win some arms race. And because arms races are super energy intensive, we’re also burning maybe even more fossil fuels than we would otherwise. And at the same time, that conflict is so politically charged that we are not following through with climate agreements. So basically we just stopped trying to bring carbon levels down and in fact are increasing them.

Luisa Rodriguez: And then maybe that particular conflict becomes a hot conflict, by which I mean war actually erupts — could be a nuclear war, could be use of bioweapons — but something causes society to collapse more significantly in like a single event. And then in that scenario, you’ve had all this carbon being released into the atmosphere, making everything hot and without a way to take it out. So things are just going to keep getting hotter.

Luisa Rodriguez: And you’re now in a collapse scenario where we don’t have the technology we’d need to, again, pull it out. And I think because we don’t have the technology to pull it out, I guess the idea there is it’s basically too hot in almost all areas of the world to exist without air conditioning as humans, but also to have livestock without air conditioning, and then also to grow some types of crops. And we don’t have air conditioning technology. So we’re really —

Rob Wiblin: Really in a tricky spot.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly.

Stagnation and cold wars [03:01:18]

Rob Wiblin: So broadly, the story here is that you’re searching for the ways that climate change could be the worst. Because if climate change went extremely badly, and if it was complemented with another disaster as well, then the people who were trying to recover from this disaster could find themselves with such an inhospitable climate that it really slows them down, or maybe just prevents them from getting back to where we are.

Rob Wiblin: So we’re on the search for how could things get worse? And then setting aside the climate responsiveness to carbon — which is kind of just a scientific fact that’s out of human control, or is not affected by geopolitics — then we need to think, what are ways that the next 200 years could go, so that we emit a hell of a lot, and then at the end of it, we don’t really have much to show for it.

Rob Wiblin: And in scenario one, we’ve got a long-term stagnation where productivity growth is pretty low. So humanity’s not really advancing, AI turns out to be pretty lame, doesn’t actually accomplish all that much. And maybe green technology turns out to be… all our solar and wind turns out to be very hard to integrate into the grid, for example. So we turn back to fossil fuels more than ever, while at the same time not really getting that much of an economic boost from it, because we’re not inventing new things that make life better or make us able to do more. And then I guess at the end of that, you could just have kind of any disaster. Or plausibly we’ve just emitted so much carbon now by burning a large fraction of all the coal that is there in pursuit of trying to make our lives better, despite technological stagnation, that now we’ve got 17 degrees of warming and we’re pretty toast. That causes just a gradual decline of humanity. And then it’s very hard to rebuild because we can only live comfortably on the Antarctic.

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly.

Rob Wiblin: In the second scenario, we’ve got a cold war potentially between two large powers, I’ll let the audience guess which is most likely. And in order to keep up with one another, they’re saying, “Well, climate change, that’s a problem for next century. We are going to just burn, burn, burn all of this stuff in order to keep up, rather than wasting money building solar panels.” And then most of the scientists working on green power are instead building new weapons. And then maybe they do go to war eventually, and now we’ve got an enormous amount of carbon emissions from before hanging over us, while at the same time massively reduced population and infrastructure.

Rob Wiblin: How likely do you think these things are? Did you get more worried working on this chapter?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, I think I did. I don’t know how likely they are, but they’re plausible, which is not a place I got to with most of the other attempts I made at telling these stories for how we could actually get to extinction. So I guess with the rise and fall scenario, which is the one where we keep emitting — we think technology is going to help us get out of it, but it doesn’t. And then we’re basically just in a hotter, hotter world and we’re not getting more technology out of it because it’s for some reason too hard, and maybe there are lots of reasons at play there.

Luisa Rodriguez: Then I guess we get lower and lower levels of economic growth and this lasts a really long time. I’m trying to imagine… I guess population you’d think would start to decline, because you’d have a lower and lower quality of life and people’s quality of life would just get lower. They’d have fewer kids and then eventually, probably there’d be a kind of catastrophe or starvation. Or not necessarily starvation, but famine — I imagine this is more of a slow petering out and not necessarily people dying of starvation. But at least for a while, population declining and declining and declining because no one’s willing to use their resources to have kids.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, I’m trying to figure out how we get all the way to extinction from that. Do you have ideas?

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess extinction is a high level, but I suppose you can imagine a scenario where population is way down on where it was. With 17 degrees of warming, then we really are just confined to such a small area that maybe the population isn’t at the level where you can support a sufficient industrial base to be doing things like leaving Earth.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. I can’t really imagine extinction, but you can easily imagine if it just stops technological progress, such that it basically rules out most of the potential for human civilization. Then that’s just about as bad.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess we could imagine these humans stuck on Antarctica. If we’re talking for a very long period of time, wouldn’t they eventually have an interest in doing geoengineering or something in order to reduce the temperature? But I guess I haven’t really put any thought into that. So that feels a little bit far down in the scenario I’m envisioning.

Rob Wiblin: So with both of these — I guess we can call them the “low productivity growth” and the “cold war” scenarios — each of the component pieces is plausible, but maybe like all of the pieces to go together, it’s a bit of a conjunction that doesn’t seem very likely. So I don’t think that it’s very likely that we’ll see low productivity growth over the next 100 or 200 years. And probably over that length of time, Will probably doesn’t either — though he’s more pessimistic about artificial intelligence than I am.

Rob Wiblin: So it has to go on for quite a long time. Then we also have to think that we’re not close enough now to coming up with substitutes for coal. And so coal is going to continue to be cost competitive or the cheapest thing for many decades, possibly a century or something. That also seems a bit unlikely to me. It seems like we’re already on the cusp of these other options being better in a bunch of different ways.

Luisa Rodriguez: Competitive, yeah. And it’s not only climate change that is causing people to move away from coal. The fact that it’s incredibly bad for health is making countries like India and China, as well as the US and Europe, want to get rid of coal as soon as it’s practical to get an alternative that isn’t horrifically expensive.

Luisa Rodriguez: That sounds right to me. There are lots of stories for why we might expect technological stagnation: ideas getting harder to find, and a unit of progress taking many, many more researchers than it used to. But you do just have to believe that it’s going to take an extremely long time to get the gains from AI that we think we’ll get, and that all of the terrible climate change things will happen before we get back to higher productivity. Which I personally don’t believe, but I don’t feel confident ruling it out.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess biotech also has to be a bust, which would be…

Luisa Rodriguez: That’s true.

Rob Wiblin: So neither of those things seems likely, but neither of them seems super, super implausible either. Yeah. So it’s worrying, I guess? One more on the stagnation one is that we also don’t figure out how to do geoengineering in a way that’s tolerable. And also we go past five degrees of warming and we just continue to do the same thing. We still don’t come to any sort of agreement. Again, those two things are also plausible individually, but then now we’ve added four different criteria.

Luisa Rodriguez: And the more criteria you get, the less likely it seems.

Rob Wiblin: The conjunction seems less likely.

Luisa Rodriguez: It’s a good point about geoengineering, given that it seems a bit unsettlingly easy to come up with ways to do geoengineering, even for small groups.

Rob Wiblin: Certainly at the point where we’re talking about warming on that level, where it’s causing a 90% loss of carrying capacity, it seems like now really the lesser evil is the geoengineering. It’s hard to tell a story where people wouldn’t give it a crack.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I agree with that.

Rob Wiblin: Then on the cold war scenario: again, a lot of tension between the US and China seems very plausible. At the same time, the US and the Soviet Union I think had a much more intense cold war than I would expect between the US and China, because the US and Soviet Union had far more conflicting ideologies and priorities and designs for the planet as a whole. Whereas it seems like the US and China, they have tension over a bunch of different issues, but they don’t have fundamentally conflicting goals. The US doesn’t think that it wants to take over China, ideologically or otherwise, and China doesn’t feel that way about the US.

Rob Wiblin: So how long can they really be at one another’s throats? And even during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union, it’s not as if they burnt all of the coal that they could, or diverted anywhere near 100% of GDP towards military stuff.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, I used to know these facts.

Rob Wiblin: We’ll maybe go take a look at a graph of military spending as a fraction of GDP for the US and the USSR. But as I recall, it capped out somewhere around 10% and then came down from there once they built up their nuclear stockpiles. So it’s a lot of resources, but the US spends 17% of its GDP on healthcare now. So it’s not like it’s completely revolutionary and I don’t really see much appetite — even now with all the saber-rattling about China — for going even from 4% to 8% of GDP on military spending or anything like that.

Rob Wiblin: It also seems like the kind of conflict they’ll be in would not be one that is primarily about material, or primarily about sending lots of tanks against one another, or things that require burning tons of fuel. It seems like they’re more concerned about strategic things — it’s like missiles, it’s fighter jets, it’s cyberspace stuff.

Luisa Rodriguez: That sounds right to me. Also, do you happen to know what country has spent the greatest percentage of its GDP on war at one time?

Rob Wiblin: I think this might have been in your notes somewhere.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, I thought it was.

Rob Wiblin: I think it was Japan.

Luisa Rodriguez: I think it’s Japan. And I think it was really high.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Japan, during World War II in 1943, 1944 — where their backs were gradually getting put up against the wall and they saw that they were going to lose — I think they were spending more than half their GDP. That’s very abnormal, that’s like a total war at the point where you are just about to lose.

Rob Wiblin: It’s hard to see how they would sustain such an intense rivalry for decades, long enough to burn all of this coal. And then it’s hard to see if they actually got into a fight, how the fight would last long enough, because they’ve got such weapons that they would quickly cease to be functional countries.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right, right. Yeah. It’s hard to imagine the cold war bit, both being that energy intensive and that prolonged, that climate change would get significantly, significantly worse.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. So anyway, this is the skepticism that I was bringing to it. Although again, I don’t think… If you were talking about unlikely but possible things, this seems like it should certainly be on your list, which is I guess why it ended up in the book. Are there any reasons that we haven’t mentioned to think that it’s plausible that we could have technological or economic stagnation in the 21st or 22nd century?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. So I think it’s Tyler Cowen who talks about the possible “Great Stagnation,” which maybe we’re already seeing signs of, where basically incremental technological progress takes a lot more research person-hours than it used to. Possibly because the low-hanging fruit of insights and inventions have been plucked, and so now we’re just working on much harder problems.

Luisa Rodriguez: So empirically there’s some evidence for this. Let’s see, I think there’s some in agriculture where additional improvements to agricultural yields take many times more researcher-years than they did several decades ago. And so several decades ago, there were really promising new technologies that a couple of people could discover. Whereas now we have teams and companies and —

Rob Wiblin: I guess it’s harder to get teams to work together well, or yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, and just like, we found the really intuitive technologies and the next technologies that might be out there are just —

Rob Wiblin: Don’t jump as easily to the human mind.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. So there’s one reason. It’s also the case that, relative to several decades ago, when a large percentage of the population was undereducated, mostly the population is about as educated as some of the best educated. So before we could buy additional researchers by doing baseline education interventions for people who weren’t getting nearly as good educations, and then you —

Rob Wiblin: Lots of people weren’t going to high school, so that was a lot of low-hanging fruit by just getting people to learn the basic stuff.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, just go to high school. And then there were so many people who weren’t educated that you just get new people with much higher ability to have insight. And that’s a pretty cheap intervention. But now additional education, first of all, probably just gets you fewer returns. So sending people for a PhD, relative to college, probably buys you fewer insights, per additional year of education, and then also most people are getting about as much education as they want.

Rob Wiblin: I think in the US, the average person ends their formal education around 21 or 22. A substantial number are doing degrees, the number of people dropping out of high school is fairly low, and a non-trivial number are doing postgraduate work.

Luisa Rodriguez: Totally. Right. So if the government were like, “We want more experts,” it’d be starting from a really high point.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. How many of those people who are not doing PhDs are interested on the margin of doing PhDs?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Do you know of other reasons?

Rob Wiblin: Those may be the main ones. Oh, one reason why it might be that it seems like technological progress has slowed down the last 40 years could just be this issue that it’s getting harder to find useful stuff that we haven’t already thought of. Some other people have suggested other reasons, like they think we’re doing science grant funding much worse than we were before. That we used to fund young people with exciting ideas; these days it’s so bureaucratized that we basically only fund older mature scientists who are maybe not as innovative as they were when they were in their 20s or 30s. And so theories or ways of thinking about things that are misguided take longer to be overturned.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. That makes sense. I have heard some arguments like that, like about patent structures and how disincentivizing that is.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. But whatever it is, I suppose the question is, will it change? If the trend is towards more bureaucratized science funding, it might just be that we won’t fix that and it will just get worse over time. So that could make things even more sclerotic.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. That’s true. And then, there’s room for disagreement here, but I expect it will change. I expect that there are still lots of gains from technology — especially AI — that are going to make new knowledge and insights much cheaper or something to buy. But I guess if you don’t, then maybe you should be more worried than me.

Rob Wiblin: Well, at some point we’re surely going to have an episode about this “stagnation and progress studies” cluster of thinking. So we could deal with this properly then. One thing I always want to point out to people who think that we’re currently stagnant, economically or technologically, is that global GDP growth has actually been fine. It’s just that it’s mostly happening through catch-up growth. So we’re seeing lots of growth in countries like China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and so on. And the way they’re achieving economic progress is by scaling up what we already knew how to do, more of that rather than inventing new stuff. And I guess that maybe means that we should be worried that we’re not inventing new things. So eventually they’ll hit the kind of technological frontier and then they’ll get stuck as well.

Rob Wiblin: But I think it’s plausible that there’s been basically a redirection of effort away from inventing new things, towards bringing up all of these countries that were far away from the technological frontier and just needed to build up the institutional ability, build up the technological know-how, and that was all that was necessary to get much richer. And given that there was so much low-hanging fruit there in just the catch-up stuff, maybe there wasn’t as much pressure to be coming up with completely new inventions. And so possibly, as these countries, as more and more places get as rich as we know how for humans to be with our current level of technology, we could see that stagnation reverse.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. Where the next lowest-hanging fruit is back to being thinking of new ideas.

Rob Wiblin: It seems like China’s getting to this point to some extent, where they’re now, at least large parts of it, are very wealthy, very technologically advanced, in many ways superior I think to places like the UK or US. And that means that those places are motivated — the people who are there, the best and brightest in China — are now potentially motivated to be inventing new things in order to build new companies, rather than doing transfer learning.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. Yeah. That makes sense to me.

Rob Wiblin: We’ll have Will on to talk about this book when it comes out, so he can discuss how likely he thinks these different scenarios are. Maybe one that I’m interested to pull on and possibly do a different interview on is this question of, should we expect solar, wind, nuclear, possibly geothermal, other green technologies to be integrated into the grid rapidly?

Rob Wiblin: I feel like my intuition is to be very optimistic, just looking at the price curve reductions — both for those energy-generation technologies and the energy storage — but there are smart people out there who are skeptical. They think there’s going to be technological hurdles that will slow it down much more than people imagine, that even though solar panels themselves are quite cheap, adding everything that we need to the grid and the storage and integrating it into how we actually use energy, given the intermittency, could be quite challenging. So it’d be good to get to the bottom of that at some point. That’s a question mark for me.

Luisa Rodriguez: Not my area, but I look forward to the interview.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess if that’s true, then we should be more worried about climate change on the margin, because we could be massively polluting for a whole bunch longer.

Luisa Rodriguez: That sounds right.

Rob Wiblin: Okay, so we’re going to move on from the extinction stuff completely now. That was the boom and bust climate change scenarios, which are among the more plausible ways that things could go super wrong. So anything you want to say to maybe wrap up everything that we’ve been talking about the last few hours?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, sure. So overall my takeaway is like, lots of plausible scenarios, at least on their faces, didn’t seem to pan out. The climate change ones do seem more plausible to me, though like you said, they’ve got lots of steps that themselves don’t seem super likely. And then when you put them all together, the overall scenario still seems even less likely, but very much can’t be ruled out, and I think is a great reason to worry more about especially worst-case scenario climate change outcomes.

How Luisa met her biological father [03:18:23]

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Okay, let’s move on from all of this kind of dark tragic stuff. On a totally different topic, you’ve got quite an interesting story about going out of your way to try to find and meet your biological father, which over the years I’ve heard fragments of, but not the whole thing. Yeah, what’s the historical setup there? Why hadn’t you known your father and his family earlier on?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, my mom grew up in Latin America, and her parents were basically diplomats and did some international development work. And so she loved Latin America. She also felt strong pulls toward altruism. In her 20s… Well, she lived in Latin America at various points, and then, when figuring out how she wanted to do good with her career, she ended up becoming an immigration lawyer in DC. She was working with asylum seekers from Central America to try to help them flee conflict. There was loads of terrible conflicts in Central America in the late 20th century. My father was actually one of those immigrants that had fled El Salvador. He was basically very much on the left in a country where the right was in power and causing a lot of… Well, basically killing lots of people on the left, or “disappearing” them, as it was called.

Luisa Rodriguez: My father did things like read leftist newspapers over the radio from closets so that he couldn’t be found. He was a musician or kind of an activist musician. He’d play concerts with songs that he’d written about, basically oppression, and how messed up the current government was. He was just generally… I don’t have a sense of like, yeah. I think he thought of himself as very much an activist trying to push back against the really oppressive government. He started getting threats and at one point, I think was pulled into a van and had his clavicle broken and was basically being threatened. And so he fled the country. Yeah, the canonical story of my family is that he fled the country with a $100 bill — or maybe it was a $20 bill — in his shoe, and basically went through Guatemala and Mexico to get to the US, where he crossed illegally and so then needed asylum help. Which he got from my mom who then… Yeah, they just fell in love.

Luisa Rodriguez: When I was a toddler, I think the main thing it came down to is they had really different parenting styles, where I think he had like a very authoritarian parenting style and that just really bothered my mom. So they separated and then soon after divorced. After I was about two, I just didn’t have contact with him.

Luisa Rodriguez: He, I think pretty soon after that, felt safe going back to El Salvador. He also just didn’t have many connections in the US, and so it was very hard for him living there. And so he went back, and for reasons I don’t totally understand, didn’t keep in touch. My understanding is that my mom really encouraged him to stay in touch. I think my kind of conjecture-y understanding of what he’s like as a person is, he’s very present and he’s very… I don’t know if he’s impulsive, but he’s passionate and driven and cares a lot about people in his immediate proximity. Then I think not in proximity, he’s less conscientious and attentive or something.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Good at a party, but maybe not going to get back to you really quickly on WhatsApp?

Luisa Rodriguez: Totally. Yes. That’s my impression.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. So my mom actually remarried when I was five or six and my stepdad was amazing and loving, and I had a really happy childhood. But I did have this kind of angsty… I think it was just kind of interesting to think that I had this El Salvadorian parent who was, I mean, a big part of my genetics and a big part of my mom’s history.

Rob Wiblin: And had been there the first few years as well.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. True. Yeah. And that I had a bunch of siblings because he’d had a bunch of kids before meeting my mom and then actually had more kids after meeting my mom. There was just this world of genetic linkages that existed and I found that really interesting. I did have this, “Well, why didn’t he reach out?” feeling that really didn’t cause me many issues, especially with two loving parents that were very present, but I don’t know…

Rob Wiblin: Escalated over time?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. And when I gave it some thought, I was like, “That’s kind of sad,” and did kind of want an explanation.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I guess over time, the motivation to go and find your dad grew. What was around the age when you decided to actually take action?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. It was really opportunistic. I’d always been drawn to Latin America in part because my first language was Spanish, because of Joaquin. And so that was just an easy and convenient place to travel. Then, I guess, just also the mythology made Latin America really appealing, and especially Central America. So when I went to college, I had a vision of studying abroad in Central America. I chose a program basically just on this basis, which ended up really leading to a lot of other things. It was a sociology program. I don’t think I would’ve studied sociology if I hadn’t gotten on this program.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: Anyways, this program was in Guatemala. I knew Guatemala was a neighbor of El Salvador and I don’t know if I had a great sense of how quick it would be to get there. I think I did. I think I noticed at some point, “Oh, a bus would be six hours to El Salvador where my father lives. That’s crazy to think about. Usually he’s been in another universe.”

Luisa Rodriguez: So I kind of sat on that. I also just started looking for them all on Facebook, which I’d never thought of before — so my father and then any of my siblings. I knew their names and thought maybe I’d recognize them. And even found my sister Febe, who’s kind of close to my age — she was four years older — and messaged her and just never heard back. So I was like, “Oh no, maybe this is doomed.”

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. At this point, are you in Guatemala?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I’m in Guatemala and I think it’s just triggered by the fact that I’m so close. I’m just thinking a lot about this. Yeah, I thought maybe I’d get in through my sister, she didn’t respond. Then I decided maybe I’d just try to go to the place that my mom lived there with him.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Did your family back in the US suspect anything at all, or were they completely clueless about this?

Luisa Rodriguez: I actually did tell my mom and then soon after, tell my stepdad, Jim. I thought really hard about how I wanted to tell him, and try to make it really clear that I feel loved, I feel like I have a dad. There’s just this other mystery thing that I’d like to learn more about.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. This is before you went?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, before I went. This was like, “I’m considering doing this. I also kind of want my mom’s help, so I guess I have to tell you.”

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: But I did try to be really sensitive. And yeah, I think they were like, “This is both a terrible idea, but also totally get why you would want to do it.”

Rob Wiblin: “It’s not our place to stop you.”

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, yeah, yeah. Kind of libertarian about it. And yeah. I think my mom especially appreciated the… Yeah, she’s got an adventurous side to her. So she, I think, was like, “Yeah, this will be an experience. I don’t know if it’ll be good or bad, but you’re welcome to have it.”

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, tell us about the day or the week where you tried to go do it.

Luisa Rodriguez: Well, I really had no idea. I’d never asked much about where he lived or where he and my mom had lived together. I knew that they had spent some time in El Salvador. I knew that my mom was pretty connected to his family, or had been. I asked her if she had an address. She was like —

Rob Wiblin: Or phone number or something, yeah?

Luisa Rodriguez: Well, yeah. Her response was basically like, “They don’t have addresses in the town where we would’ve lived.”

Rob Wiblin: Ah, right.

Luisa Rodriguez: They don’t… I mean, maybe they have phones, but this would’ve been the early 90s, and I don’t think my grandmother would’ve had a phone.

Rob Wiblin: Not a big phone user?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Yeah. I was like, “Can you tell me where they live?” and she’s like, “Not really, but I can describe it.” She basically pulled up Google Maps and we used the Street View.

Rob Wiblin: Oh, Street View. Yeah, yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. She was like, “Oh, I recognize this church. I think it’s in this neighborhood. I recognize that this looks out onto a lake, kind of like a cliff onto a lake. I think it was one of these streets and it had a turquoise door.” I was like, “Okay. I can… It’s not a very big town.”

Rob Wiblin: “Hopefully they haven’t repainted.”

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly. Yeah. Yeah. I was riding a lot on them not repainting.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: So I took a bus, went to the town. It was actually just shockingly easy once I got there.

Rob Wiblin: Huh.

Luisa Rodriguez: I immediately saw the church. The first street I went down, I saw the turquoise door. There was an old woman in the door and there was someone walking down the street and I think I asked them, “Do you happen to know if this is where this person lives?” And they were like, “That’s her right there.” That is how I met my grandmother.

Rob Wiblin: That’s your grandmother, okay. Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Yeah. As soon as I walked up, I guess she was confused for like 30 seconds. Then I kept saying my name and my mom’s name and Joaquin’s name, and then she pulled out stacks of photo albums of me.

Rob Wiblin: Oh wow, really?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Yeah. As a toddler. And was just really moved.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. How did she react? She was happy to see you?

Luisa Rodriguez: She was really happy to see me, yeah. She thought she never would. She really was close to my mom while my mom and my dad were together. So she wanted to hear all about her.

Rob Wiblin: So this was your grandmother’s house?

Luisa Rodriguez: My grandmother’s house, yeah.

Rob Wiblin: Were there other people living there you also got to meet? I don’t know, it sounds like quite an awkward situation in a way. Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: Totally. Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, it was super awkward. Part of me was like, “Why am I doing this? This is just really uncomfortable.” I mean, it was uncomfortable. It’s not like we had loads of natural conversation flowing.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: It was like, we had a couple of people that we both knew that were, I mean, genetically linked. She knew my mom well. There wasn’t quite a language barrier. I mean I spoke Spanish and so did she, but her native language was an indigenous one.

Rob Wiblin: Ah, right. El Salvadorians have such strong accents. I find it so hard to follow El Salvadorian Spanish.

Luisa Rodriguez: Totally. Yeah. I mean, we just kind of struggled and had an awkward couple of meals together.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. But she was living alone?

Luisa Rodriguez: She’d remarried and lived with her partner, who was lovely. Who was actually really, really lovely and happy I was there.

Rob Wiblin: Okay. Yeah. But presumably you’re still interested to meet your dad, right?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Yeah, she had his phone number on a crummy little cell phone. We spent the day trying to call him and kind of on brand, he was super hard to get a hold of. She knew the town he was living in and probably they saw each other a couple times a year, but he was a good four hours away.

Rob Wiblin: What year was this, by the way? I’m trying to imagine what technology we’ve got here.

Luisa Rodriguez: This is 2014. I was 20. Yeah. I mean, they’re also just like, they’re poor. I had a lovely —

Rob Wiblin: They weren’t on iMessenger?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. She got in touch with him and he asked to meet. He basically agreed to meet halfway at a little fast food restaurant. It was also just extremely awkward. But yeah, he…

Rob Wiblin: What did you talk about? Yeah. What do you say first? It’s like, “Hey, I’m your daughter.”

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. It was really, really strange. Well first of all, he rode up on a —

Rob Wiblin: Because he was a total stranger to you, I guess.

Luisa Rodriguez: Totally.

Rob Wiblin: You weren’t a total stranger to him. He had met you, but it’d been a while. It had been a minute.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly, exactly, before I had conscious thoughts really.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, he was like, what was the first thing? It’s funny, you don’t say things like, “I’m your daughter, you’re my father.” You say like, “Hey, how was your trip getting here? Do you want to order food?”

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: Which is, in some ways, bizarre.

Rob Wiblin: Got to start somewhere.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Yeah, he was just really interested in what my life was like and really interested how my mom was. Yeah. I mean, it was a lot of like, “How is everyone doing?” He had remarried and had really young children. He had an eight-year-old and his wife was pregnant.

Rob Wiblin: He would have been mid-50s at this point?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, late 50s.

Rob Wiblin: Late 50s? Okay.

Luisa Rodriguez: He was a decade older than my mom.

Rob Wiblin: Right. Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I think this was his ninth child. Yeah, what else did we talk about?

Rob Wiblin: He’d lived a full life, I guess.

Luisa Rodriguez: He did live a very full life, yes. A very full and Catholic life without birth control.

Rob Wiblin: Was he still political?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. He was super political.

Rob Wiblin: That seems like it could have been a common interest.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. It totally was. Altruism in general was a common interest. At that time, I think I was planning to go into international development, and he was clearly really proud. So that was a really good feeling.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I guess it both was a good feeling, and then also I realized I cared a bit less about what he thought than I expected. I was like, “Yeah, I definitely am more glad that my stepdad is proud of me than I am that he’s proud of me.”

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: But I think there was something like, he and I really share altruism and trying to make the world better. We think about it really differently, but I really valued knowing that he has intense empathy.

Luisa Rodriguez: But yeah, so he rode a motorcycle to meet up with me. Then he invited me back to stay with him and his wife for a few days, which I did. I rode on the back of his motorcycle and met them. And I mean, it was just a lot of small talk. It was a bit harder to go deeper. There were a couple of things in common, like my mom and my life and his life. And I really liked meeting his wife and daughter. They were really, really sweet. The most serious stuff we talked about then was probably like, we really cared about how our lives had gone and how everyone in them was doing. We kind of cared to some extent — not superficially, but kind of shallowly — about altruism. But a lot of it was awkward.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. I imagine.

Luisa Rodriguez: We just were strangers.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Did you find you had any, like, similarities? Similar, I don’t know what you call them, mannerisms and so on?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, actually. I mean, we look identical.

Rob Wiblin: Okay.

Luisa Rodriguez: The first picture we have together as adults is just like —

Rob Wiblin: Uncanny?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. It’s a bit disturbing, because people have always told me I look like my mom, but we just were identical.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: I don’t know about mannerisms. He had some effective altruism-ish ways of thinking. He talked a lot about effective and ineffective ways of doing political advocacy, and kind of about cost effectiveness.

Rob Wiblin: Huh.

Luisa Rodriguez: He didn’t use that language. He was basically like, “This works a bit better, but per resource basically it looks worse.” He’s pretty rational. Yeah. I guess I feel like I get something like… I do feel like I get a lot from my mom, but I wondered where something like maybe curiosity and ambition came from. He seemed kind of romantically curious and intrinsically driven to learn things. He was only educated through primary school, but basically later on got a high school diploma and was better read than I was, including in English.

Rob Wiblin: That’s impressive.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Really, really impressive. It’s not exactly that I was like, “Oh, that’s where I get my curiosity from.” It was more like, “Oh, it’d be nice… I’d love to have that trait from him.” There are some things I saw that I would be proud to share.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Did you connect with any of your sisters in particular? I suppose you had eight of them.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, I do.

Rob Wiblin: I’m sorry, eight brothers and sisters. Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Yeah. So soon after that, I actually only ended up connecting with a sister and brother, who I’d actually lived with for my first year or something. My sister was living with my mom and Joaquin while they were together. Her name is Febe and yeah, she actually —

Rob Wiblin: She’s the one who didn’t reply, right?

Luisa Rodriguez: She didn’t reply at first, but through everyone else that I did meet, we got her phone number. And she was thrilled to hear from me, wanted to meet up. I ended up staying with her for more like a week. Yeah, she’s actually a more… it feels like more of a win. We met soon after. Just immediately, we just were very good friends. She’s got really cool views and basically she’s very feminist and she’s an advocate for women being allowed to have abortions, which is extremely politically charged in El Salvador. Yeah, I was just like, “You’re so cool.” And is also very well-read in feminist literature. She speaks English and Spanish, so we had even more fluent conversations. Yeah. Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: Why didn’t she reply, because she hadn’t seen the message?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I asked her.

Rob Wiblin: Had it gone to, was it the Facebook Messenger spam filter thing, because you guys weren’t friends already?

Luisa Rodriguez: Exactly.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah, okay. Classic. Classic.

Luisa Rodriguez: As soon as we were friends, she was like, “Oh my God. I see the message.”

Rob Wiblin: “Now I can see the message.”

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. She actually was really emotional that she hadn’t seen it earlier. I think there was a four-month gap or something, which I guess isn’t that long in the scheme of things.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Listeners, you can find instructions on Google for how to find this special inbox that Facebook hides from you, because it thinks that it’s spammy messages because they’re people you’re not already connected with.

Luisa Rodriguez: Totally. Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: I think it produces this pretty often where it’s like, someone’s trying to reconnect with someone who they don’t have other social connections with and Facebook is like, “Nope.”

Luisa Rodriguez: “Nope. Sorry. You’re a bot.”

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, so she and I just really get on, and we still do and we’re in regular touch. I haven’t visited her obviously in the past few years because of the pandemic. Before that, we visited each other every few years. She came to my college graduation, and yeah, I feel very close to her. So that was a huge win. My father, basically as soon as I left, it kind of fell back into, if you’re not there, he’s not a very good communicator.

Rob Wiblin: Not a huge correspondent, yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. We weren’t in touch again, but I did feel like I had this, “Cool, I know what he’s like. I know where he is. If I really needed to, I could probably get in touch now.” I do have his phone number and email. It might be kind of hard, but I didn’t really try, which felt fine, and he didn’t really either, which also felt fine.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: Then he ended up, again, being kind of threatened by… I think this time it was not the government, but it was more gangs in his city.

Rob Wiblin: This was less political?

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. I mean it’s probably kind of all interconnected, but yeah, it was more like gang violence in El Salvador has been getting really bad.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: He again tried to seek asylum in the US. Reached out to me to see if I could help. And so we were kind of reconnected that way. And he did end up moving to California a few years ago. And I saw them once, and actually this is when I think I did feel closer to him.

Rob Wiblin: So he brought his family as well?

Luisa Rodriguez: He did. He brought his wife, his daughter, and his new baby. I did see them, we went and took a hike in a redwood park, I forget which one. Yeah, this time I think… I don’t know what was different, but we did talk about some more deep things. It’s kind of interesting, because his wife is super religious and I don’t know to what extent they’ve discussed this, but he asked me in English, he was like, “Do you believe in God?” I was like, “Not really, but I believe in doing good and that motivates me a lot.” He was like, “Yeah, I once read that God is the opiate of the masses.” Yeah. I just feel like I just learned a lot about how really well-read he was, and how nontraditional some of his views were, relative to the social environment he was in.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. He’s a nonconformist.

Luisa Rodriguez: I think he wouldn’t have said that to his wife.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Sounds like that might not be prudent.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I think he’s actually just kind of rogue and thinks for himself or something. Nonconformist, like you said. Yeah, we did talk more just about philosophies. We talked about effective altruism. He thought it sounded great.

Rob Wiblin: Cool. Got to get him to listen to the show.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah. Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: His English must be pretty good, I guess.

Luisa Rodriguez: It is pretty good. It got a bit worse, but it’s still pretty good. He still reads, and yeah, it’s good enough to read complicated books in English.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. [In Spanish: Hola Joaquin, I hope you get to this point in the podcast.]

Luisa Rodriguez: [laughs] Yeah. Hola.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. It’s an amazing story. Thanks so much for sharing it.

Luisa Rodriguez: Sure.

Rob Wiblin: I’m glad to hear it all laid out at once.

Luisa Rodriguez: Pretty good outcome.

If Luisa had to change careers [03:40:38]

Rob Wiblin: All right. We’ve covered a lot of ground, and it’s time to come to the end. I suppose one final personal question Keiran and I had for you is: I guess you’re working at 80,000 Hours now, but if you had to completely change careers and you gave up all of this altruism business that you’ve been interested in for so long, became indifferent to making the world a better place, what would be the most self-indulgent or most personally enjoyable career for you to pursue in place of all of that?

Luisa Rodriguez: I actually totally have an answer for this. Yeah, and I kind of fantasize about doing as much good as I can and then in my retirement or something, retraining as a therapist.

Rob Wiblin: Ah.

Luisa Rodriguez: I find my own therapy with my two therapists really fascinating. Just look forward to it, get tons out of it, and have read just loads of books on mostly cognitive behavioral therapy, but also some more psychotherapy stuff. I basically just find it really basically fun to talk to people about… I guess it’s often things that are going wrong and could be going better, but also just about how they work, what their thought patterns are like, what parts of their personality are driving tiny behaviors.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: Just find it really, really interesting. And then yeah, find it very, kind of emotionally satisfying to sometimes help people challenge negative thought patterns or reframe negative parts of their lives or something.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Guess that makes sense. You’re building a very deep connection with a stranger quite suddenly.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: I guess it’s also very curiosity-arousing, and you get to kind of solve the puzzle of the things that are going right and wrong in their life.

Luisa Rodriguez: It’s super puzzle-y. Yeah. I find that bit really satisfying. When someone feels understood about something that varies a lot between people, you kind of feel like, I don’t know, a magician. They seem to really get a lot out of that.

Rob Wiblin: Do you think most therapists enjoy their work? I guess my intuition had been that therapists are dealing with heavy stuff a lot of the time. If I was a therapist, I’d probably need a bunch of therapists to help me deal with the heavy nature of the subject matter.

Luisa Rodriguez: Right. Totally. Totally deal with it, yeah. Yeah. I can imagine that it would be really hard. I think I like, more than lots of people, help my friends process things that are hard about their lives and do sometimes find that really tiring. I think I probably would work really well with some types of clients. I don’t know if it’s weird to say, but I think working with someone like me who’s motivated and introspective would probably just… Well, who knows, I could be saying this and then be really disappointed, but I would expect that that would just feel more motivating, if someone’s motivated to make progress. I imagine I’d have a really hard time working with clients who weren’t sure that things in their life could be improved. Yeah, I guess I’m probably also underestimating how hard it is to talk about the most traumatic of things. Maybe that would be much harder to do on the day-to-day.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah.

Luisa Rodriguez: I know that the therapists I work with cap the number of sessions they have per day at two or three.

Rob Wiblin: It’s quite draining, yeah. I imagine.

Luisa Rodriguez: Really emotionally intense.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Well yeah, I imagine you’d make a great therapist and I suppose —

Luisa Rodriguez: That’s sweet.

Rob Wiblin: — if you ever take it on more seriously, I imagine you’ll become even better.

Luisa Rodriguez: Ah, that’s really, really kind. Yeah. Maybe in 40 years.

Rob Wiblin: Yeah. Yeah. It doesn’t feel much of a retirement plan, but I suppose it could be a great thing to dedicate your time to once you feel like you’ve done the most good in the core part of your career.

Luisa Rodriguez: Yeah.

Rob Wiblin: My guest today has been Luisa Rodriguez. Thanks so much for coming on the 80,000 Hours podcast, Luisa.

Luisa Rodriguez: Thanks for having me. It was really fun.

Rob’s outro [03:44:20]

Rob Wiblin: Alright, you’re already three and a half hours into this one, so why not stick around a minute more for me to mention some other 80,000 Hours services you might well find useful.

First off, the 80,000 Hours team has been releasing a lot of new and updated pages lately, including a report on “China-related AI safety and governance paths” and the post “Be more ambitious: a rational case for dreaming big (if you want to do good)“.

You can find our new written work at 80000hours.org/latest, or sign up to get email updates about our latest research every few weeks at 80000hours.org/newsletter.

Second, our job board currently has 676 available vacancies and study opportunities, across all the various problem areas we discuss on this show, and including some for undergraduates as well as people who are already well into their careers. There’s more remote roles than in the past, 147 currently, which may make it easier to find relevant options if you’re not in a major US or UK city.

You can check out those roles and filter them down to options that are right for you at 80000hours.org/jobs.

Finally, there’s our advising team who are speaking with more people than ever about how they can have more impact with their work. The service is free of course, and you can find out what our advisors can and can’t do for you and apply to speak with us at 80000hours.org/speak.

Alright, the 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris.

Audio mastering is by Ben Cordell.

Full transcripts and an extensive collection of links to learn more are available on our site and put together by Katy Moore.

Thanks for joining, talk to you again soon.

About the show

The 80,000 Hours Podcast features unusually in-depth conversations about the world’s most pressing problems and how you can use your career to solve them. We invite guests pursuing a wide range of career paths - from academics and activists to entrepreneurs and policymakers — to analyse the case for and against working on different issues and which approaches are best for solving them.

The 80,000 Hours Podcast is produced and edited by Keiran Harris. Get in touch with feedback or guest suggestions by emailing [email protected]

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