Catastrophe: Risk and Response

Catastrophe: Risk and Response

by Richard A. Posner

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Catastrophes, whether natural or man-made, that could destroy the human race are often dismissed as alarmist or fanciful, the stuff of science fiction. In fact the risk of such disasters is real, and growing. A collision with an asteroid that might kill a quarter of humanity in 24 hours and the rest soon after; irreversible global warming that might flip,…  See more details below


Catastrophes, whether natural or man-made, that could destroy the human race are often dismissed as alarmist or fanciful, the stuff of science fiction. In fact the risk of such disasters is real, and growing. A collision with an asteroid that might kill a quarter of humanity in 24 hours and the rest soon after; irreversible global warming that might flip, precipitating "snowball earth;" voraciously replicating nanomachines; a catastrophic accident in a particle accelerator that might reduce the earth to a hyperdense sphere 100 meters across; a pandemic of gene-spliced smallpox launched by bioterrorists; even conquest by superintelligent robots-all these potential extinction events, and others, are within the realm of the possible and warrant serious thought about assessment and prevention. They are attracting the concern of reputable scientists--but not of the general public or the nation's policymakers.

How should the nation and the world respond to disaster possibilities that, for a variety of psychological and cultural reasons, people find it hard to wrap their minds around? Richard Posner shows that what is needed is a fresh, thoroughly interdisciplinary perspective that will meld the insights of lawyers, economists, psychologists, and other social scientists with those of the physical sciences. Responsibility for averting catastrophe cannot be left either to scientists or to politicians and other policymakers ignorant of science.

As in many of his previous books, Posner brings law and the social sciences to bear on a contemporary problem-in this case one of particular urgency. Weighing the risk and the possible responses in each case, Posner shows us what to worry about and what to dismiss, and discusses concrete ways of minimizing the most dangerous risks. Must we yield a degree of national sovereignty in order to deal effectively with global warming? Are limitations on our civil liberties a necessary and proper response to the danger of bioterror attacks? Would investing more heavily in detection and interception systems for menacing asteroids be money well-spent? How far can we press cost-benefit analysis in the design of responses to world-threatening events? Should the institutional framework of science policy be altered? we need educational reform? Is the interface of law and science awry? These are but a few of the issues canvassed in this fascinating, disturbing, and necessary book.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
During his career as a federal appeals court judge, Posner has become a prominently outspoken commentator on a variety of legal and cultural issues. Reading Margaret Atwood's Oryx & Crake, for example, was the springboard for this reflection on the current lack of plans for dealing with large-scale disasters, like environmental upheavals, after which law and public policy would be open to blame for failing to keep pace with rapid scientific advancement. Those familiar with Posner's extensive writings will not be surprised when he advocates applying cost-benefit analysis to determine which catastrophic threats are worth tackling first, though other suggestions will likely spark controversy. Criticizing the "blinkered perspective" of civil libertarians hung up on constitutional law, he finds certain curtailments of freedom an acceptable trade-off for preventing terrorist attacks and offers a lengthy justification of torture as one such option. Posner also offers subtle insights into the psychology of disaster preparedness, noting, for example, that science fiction movies in which the world is routinely saved inure us to the possibility of facing such threats in real life, as well as create undue faith in the saving grace of scientists. And his call for increased scientific literacy among public policy leaders may be too pragmatic to fault. Though clearly not for general readers, this thoughtful analysis may trickle down from the wonkocracy. (Nov.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
This collection of 17 essays provides a detailed discussion of torture and whether it is ever morally justified. Including scholarly contributions from both Americans and Europeans, it is divided into four parts. First, Henry Shue, Michael Walzer, and Jean Bethke Elshtain discuss whether torture is ever allowable and, if so, under what circumstances. The second part presents John H. Langbein on the legal history of torture in Western law, plus essays by Jeremy Skolnick and Mark Osiel on the use of torture by American and Argentine security services. In the third part, John Parry, Miriam Gur-Arye, Finonnuala Ni Aolain, and Oren Gross discuss attempts to outlaw torture in international law. Also appearing in this section is the text of a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court outlawing the use of specific interrogation practices by that country's security services. In the final section, Alan Dershowitz and Richard Posner argue for the establishment of guidelines allowing torture to gain information under specific circumstances, while Elaine Scarry and Richard Weisberg maintain that torture is not allowable under any condition. Closely argued, well written, and quite readable, these essays jointly constitute a valuable contribution to the field. Recommended for all libraries.-Stephen L. Hupp, West Virginia Univ., Parkersburg Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
From the Publisher
"We would be well advised to... take the message of this book seriously. We ignore it at (a small risk of) our (very great) peril."—Peter Singer, The New York Times Book Review

"[Posner] addresses what can be done to improve the assessment of...catastrophic risks and of the possible responses to them. [Catastrophe] examines a number of possible institutional reforms at the law-science interface that may aid in coping with [these] risks."—Journal of Economic Literature

"Catastrophe is worth the price of the book simply for Posner's lively and readable summary of the apocalyptic dystopias that serious scientists judge to be possible."— Graham Allison, The Washington Post Book World

"Interesting and is well worth reading."—The Federal Lawyer

"A fine lawyerly analysis.... Posner's perspective, very different from those held by most scientists, is a welcome addition to considerations of catastrophic risks."—Science

"Will likely spark controversy.... subtle insights...[and] thoughtful analysis."—Publishers Weekly

"Once again, Judge Posner has added to our cultural dialogue in a useful and interesting way."—Law and Politics Book Review

"A valuable contribution to the study of risk control and management."—Natural Resources Journal

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Product Details

Oxford University Press, USA
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