Existential Risks and the Law NOTE: the course is cancelled in the autumn semester 2017

Course content

“It happened that a fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to inform the public. They thought it was a jest and applauded. He repeated his warning. They shouted even louder. So I think the world will come to an end amid the general applause from all the wits who believe that it is a joke.” Søren Kierkegaard

Human history is full of tales of the world’s annihilation, and of humanity’s destruction. Yet, the world still approaches so-called existential risks with a certain hesitance. This is in spite ‘The Doomsday Clock’ (of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists) being set at three minutes to midnight for the past two years: this is the same level of existential risk as the nadirs of the Cold War.

In recent years, however, a significant body of research has taken these tales out of the realm of scifi and religion, and transformed them into realistic near-future scenarios. A rapidly growingacademic and policy field has coalesced in response to these threats, prominently at the Oxford Martin School and the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge. But despite the broadly interdisciplinary reaction to existential risks, the roles played by the law both in empowering and mitigating these risks remain largely unexplored.

This course aims to fill this gap by engaging law students in developing legal solutions to the most pressing existential risks that confront humanity, and with catastrophic risks which fall short of this threshold but nonetheless would significantly impair humanity in the long term. We aim to explore the literature on existential risks, and bring those concerns within a context of legal policy. Thus, the aim of the course is to provide the students with a deeper understanding of existential risks and of law’s (in)ability to solve social, political and ecological problems: that is, of legal innovation.

The overarching questions explored in this course are:

  • What role can the law play in saving humanity?
  • Does existing law channel humanity towards its own demise?
  • How might legal concepts be developed towards minimising existential risks?
  • Are existing legal precepts appropriate in the context of existential and catastrophic risks?
  • What are the limits of law in mitigating existential threats?

 

As this course investigates how the law may create or expose humanity to vulnerabilities as well as how the law might mitigate existential and catastrophic risks, it will be structured around the ten greatest threats to humanity as case studies. Thus, the course will address, both at a theoretical and a practical level, the law’s ability and efficacy in facing the challenges for human society at different levels: those beyond human control, those within certain parameters of human control, and those that are self-induced. The students will be invited to work creatively with their legal knowledge, and test it in an interdisciplinary context. The teaching will be student- and problem-driven, and each class will have compulsory materials (readings, videos, and case-materials) most relevant to the topic to be discussed, and be supplemented by a number of recommended/voluntary activities, including movie screenings.

The students shall as conclusion to the course define, develop and defend a legal solution toward mitigating a catastrophic risk or existential risk of his or her choice. The exam consists of developing two written products: (1) a two-page policy brief providing concrete recommendations to initiatives that could be adopted to mitigate a given catastrophic/existential risk and (2) a tenpage academic paper elaborating upon the development of the policy recommendation, with special attention paid to both the recommendation’s efficacy and avowed limitations. The policy briefs will be forwarded to the Danish Emergency Management Agency, who we hope will also feature in session 14.

The course is structured in the following way:

A. Introduction: Developing legal policies towards existential risks

1. Overview of the course, themes, methodology and exam

2. Risk(s): Predicting the Future

3. Legal Innovation: Thinking creatively with Law

B. Cases: The Ten Biggest Threats Against Humanity

4. Space (major asteroid impact, alternative lifeforms)/Major geological events

5. Unknown unknowns

6. ‘Natural’ Disaster and Climate Change

7. Ecosystem collapse/Ecocide

8. Synthetic biology/Nanotechnology

9. Pandemics

10. Technology/Artificial Intelligence

11. Nuclear War

12. Global Economic Collapse

13. Institutional inertia: inequality, migration and revolt

C. Solutions and Policy Briefs

14. How to create a good policy brief

15. Problem workshop: Creative solutions to complex problems

16. Policy brief presentations for the rest of the class

Learning outcome

The course aims at making sure that the students acquire:

- knowledge of existential and catastrophic risks.

- knowledge of the interplay between law and risk in general, and existential and catastrophic risk in particular.

‐ knowledge of legal policy development and innovation.

‐ knowledge of law’s ethical dilemmas.

‐ skills to construct and de-construct legal arguments.

‐ skills to analyze social phenomena, e.g. existential risk.

‐ skills to understand and apply interdisciplinary input.

‐ skills to analyze law’s ability to meet real-world challenges.

‐ skills to identify and limit legal, historical, sociological and philosophical problems.

‐ competence to develop legal policies.

‐ competence to communicate and disseminate in a precise language, hereunder communicate legal problems and solutions to non-lawyers.

‐ competence to write a policy brief.

‐ competence to assess and critically discuss law’s potential to and limitations in addressing pressing social problems.

‐ competence to acquire knowledge in a non-native language.

The teaching will be student- and problem-driven, and each class will have compulsory materials (readings, videos, and case-materials) most relevant to the topic to be discussed, and be supplemented by a number of recommended/voluntary activities, including movie screenings.

Readings will be approximately 750 pages. The course materials will comprise of videos, reports, radio-podcasts and more.

An example of Readings.

Seminar 1: Course Overview

Martin Rees, Is This Our Final Century? TEDGlobal (2005) (18 minutes): https://www.ted.com/talks/martin_rees_asks_is_this_our_final_century?language=en

Nick Bostrom, Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards (2002) 9(1) Journal of Evolution and Technology (37 pages): http://www.nickbostrom.com/existential/risks.pdf

Selected Sections from:

Martin Rees, Our Final Century: The 50/50 Threat to Humanity’s Survival (2004) Cornerstone.

James Martin, The Meaning of the 21st Century (2007) Transworld.

Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress (2006) Canongate Books.

Optional, but engaging:

Margaret Atwood, Oryx and Crake (2003) McClelland and Stewart.

Film Screening: Surviving Progress (2011) First Run Features

Seminar 2: Risk(s): Predicting the Future

Graeme Laurie, Shawn Harmon and Fabiana Arzuaga, ‘Foresighting Futures: Law, New Technologies, and the Challenges of Regulating for Uncertainty’ (2012) 4 Law, Innovation & Technology 1 (34 pages): http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ep.fjernadgang.kb.dk/ehost/detail/detail?sid=0128c89f-95d7-4699-89b9-0207c8f2aa05%40sessionmgr111&vid=0&hid=124&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=77698166&db=a9h

Franco Accordino, ‘The Futurium—a Foresight Platform for Evidence-Based and Participatory Policymaking’ (2013) 26 Philosophy & Technology 321 (13 pages): Http://search.proquest.com.ep.fjernadgang.kb.dk/docview/1418352214?OpenUrlRefId=info:xri/sid:primo&accountid=13607

Deryck Beyleveld and Roger Brownsword, ‘Emerging Technologies, Extreme Uncertainty, and the Principle of Rational Precautionary Reasoning’ (2012) 4 Law, Innovation & Technology 35 (32 pages): http://web.a.ebscohost.com.ep.fjernadgang.kb.dk/ehost/detail/detail?sid=1eec1e6c-28eb-4bfa-9b7f-90479305fef8%40sessionmgr4003&vid=0&hid=4214&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=77698167&db=a9h

- knowledge of law’s ethical dilemmas.
- skills to construct and de-construct legal arguments.
- skills to identify and limit legal, historical, sociological and philosophical problems.
- competence to communicate and disseminate in a precise language, hereunder communicate legal problems and solutions to non-lawyers.
- competence to acquire knowledge in a non-native language.

ECTS
15 ECTS
Type of assessment
Written examination
Individual written assignment
Marking scale
7-point grading scale
Censorship form
No external censorship
  • Category
  • Hours
  • Seminar
  • 69
  • Preparation
  • 343,5
  • English
  • 412,5