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The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity

4.22  ·  Rating details ·  1,458 ratings  ·  222 reviews
If all goes well, human history is just beginning. Our species could survive for billions of years - enough time to end disease, poverty, and injustice, and to flourish in ways unimaginable today. But this vast future is at risk. With the advent of nuclear weapons, humanity entered a new age, where we face existential catastrophes - those from which we could never come bac ...more
Hardcover, 480 pages
Published March 5th 2020 by Bloomsbury Publishing (first published March 3rd 2020)
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Average rating 4.22  · 
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 ·  1,458 ratings  ·  222 reviews

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Stefan Schubert
Feb 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book conveys the Future of Humanity Institute world-view; the result of 15 years of research. It's a whole new way of looking at the world and what our priorities should be. The book is meticulously argued, rich in facts and ideas, surprisingly accessible, and beautifully written. ...more
Fin Moorhouse
Mar 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
The book discusses the risks of catastrophic events that destroy all or nearly all of humanity’s potential. There are many of them, including but not limited to the Hollywood scenarios that occur to most people: asteroids, supervolcanoes, pandemics (natural and human-engineered), dystopian political ‘lock-in’, runaway climate scenarios, and unaligned artificial general intelligence. The overall risk of an existential catastrophe this century? Roughly one in six, this author guesses: Russian roul ...more
Mar 05, 2020 rated it it was amazing
The idea of the whole existence of humanity being threatened got so much attention in sci-fi that for many people it's somewhere in the vicinity of "aliens landing", if not "zombie apocalypse".

Toby Ord convincingly argues that this is not the case, the chances that humanity may go extinct in near future are not that small. Actually I think the likelihood of dying because of some global catastrophe is larger than e.g. the risk of dying because of a traffic accident. Taking this seriously could b
Apr 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
The following excerpt from Toby Orb's book is from his estimated probabilities that within the next 100 years our entire species will go extinct, or our civilization will collapse to irreparable degree:

“Existential catastrophe via: Asteroid or comet impact
∼ 1 in 1,000,000

Existential catastrophe via: Supervolcanic eruption
∼ 1 in 10,000

Existential catastrophe via: Stellar explosion
∼ 1 in 1,000,000,000

Existential catastrophe via: Total natural risk
∼ 1 in 10,000

Existential catastrophe via: Nucle
Otto Lehto
May 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
From the opening words to the closing paragraphs, you can sense the urgency at the tip of the author's tongue. Mild mannered though his philosophical style may be, there is a sense of apocalyptic poetry in the channeled desperation that drips from the pages like molten candle wax. Even in good times the feeling of existential anguish is no stranger to any sane persons' sensibility. Bad times all the more weigh heavily on our hearts. The extra blanket of terror that has settled down on humanity a ...more
Ryan Boissonneault
Humanity is currently living in its infancy; barely 200,000 years old, our brief span of time on earth pales in comparison to both the billion-year history of the earth and universe that came before us and to the hundreds of millions of years (or longer) that potentially lie ahead of us.

At the same time, while humanity is relatively young—with the potential for its greatest discoveries, inventions, and moral progress ahead of it—we have also reached a threshold where we have achieved the potent
Ben Chugg
May 02, 2020 rated it really liked it
It has taken me some time to sort through my feelings on this book. Toby Ord is smart, articulate, and makes a compelling case for longtermism: The thesis that future generations deserve moral patienthood and that they should be factored into our moral calculus; that we should take their welfare seriously, and ensuring that the future goes as well as possible should be one (if not the largest) of our moral concerns. Clearly, the consequences of adopting this worldview could result in a reshuffli ...more
Vidur Kapur
May 16, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: philosophy, science
This is a beautifully written work that calls on humanity to secure its longterm future, reflect on what it wants to achieve once secure, and then go on to fulfil its potential. It's rigorous and well-sourced, with a huge proportion of the book being taken up by appendices and endnotes. It contains mathematics, but it's accessible to an educated non-specialist.

Overall, it makes a strong case for the proposition that there are "possible heights of flourishing far beyond the status quo", and that
Tony Milani
Apr 23, 2020 rated it it was ok
This book is generally optimistic about the future potential of humanity, and provides some useful historical context on past events that represented possible existential risks that turned out (obviously) to not fully materialize. If this weren't published and read at a time of global crisis where institutions around the world, including those Ord places as central to the safeguarding of humanity's future, are collapsing or otherwise revealing their lack of concern for knock-on effects related t ...more
Luke Freeman
Mar 09, 2020 rated it it was amazing
How will our species survive and thrive?

This is one of my favourite non-fiction reads to date. I love how Toby Ord leaves hype behind and uses sound reasoning to lay out the case for existential risk reduction. He has very strong arguments and a enjoyable writing style. He makes the case that existential risks are some of the the most important and neglected problems we face.

He covers major risks from nuclear and biological weapons to climate change, pandemics, artificial intelligence, asteroid
Apr 03, 2020 rated it really liked it
Solid, scholarly work that provides a helpful framework for thinking about ‘existential risk’ – major and irreversible damage to humanity’s potential (ie extinction or permanent civilisational collapse). Covers topics like nuclear war, climate change, pandemics and unaligned artificial intelligence. The book’s coverage of the last two are particularly interesting, and Ord believes the latter to be quite significantly the most dangerous of the risks presented (to an extent which surprised but mos ...more
May 22, 2020 rated it it was ok
Shelves: good-non-fiction
Precipice nicely catalogs existential risks. It does a commendable job in separating the genuine extermination events from others that could be catastrophic but won't result in our complete annihilation.

That said, neither of the two things that the author attempts results in a lasting impression or change for ordinary readers:

The author lists about a dozen different things that could wipe out humanity. Expectedly, most readers are likely to be well aware of all these nightmares. The individual s
Apr 23, 2020 rated it really liked it
I have never thought about the future in terms of millions of years ahead - now I do. Toby Ord's book made a lucid, well-argued case that now is the time to think about the future of humanity, it we want it to stay on the right tracks. Yet, I found myself struggling to accept Ord's idealistic view, which felt romantic, and over-idealised, to me. Bottom line - the only thing stopping us from achieving this glorious future is temporal discounting. Once we free ourselves from this bias and start co ...more
Dan Elton
May 02, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I'm not sure what I can add beyond what many other reviewers have said - but I wanted to give this 5 stars and weigh in.

There are shockingly few books that tackle this important subject. My friend Phil Torres has a book (called "The End") but it's outdated, isn't as extensive, contains many tangents into religious eschatology, and doesn't lay out the moral argument as clearly as Ord.

The book is not as long as you might think (I've encountered people put off by the apparently long size). It is on
Mar 31, 2020 rated it really liked it
4.25 Stars - This really is a cracker of a book!!! From the moment I picked up Toby Ord’s nonfiction on the state and future of humanity, I knew full well it was going to be something to sink your teeth into.. But was I wrong.. because it’s more than that, it’s to behold, to intrigue, to ponder and cogitate with at nights & then most of all it gives the urge for one to immediately share, share with as many as you possibly can, as the more that read this modern literally stunner the more that see ...more
May 13, 2020 rated it it was amazing
A well written book by Australian researcher, Toby Ord (works and lives in England, in Oxford), about potential, existential risks which humanity could experience. Really interesting, a rich book, heaps of references and appendices, an easy read, I found it very disturbing. A useful book, everyone should read it, especially now, after coronavirus pandemic.
Mar 05, 2021 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
I think I missed the point of this book. For a book that seems to take itself seriously and is on a serious topic - existential risk - there’s no science behind any of it, and all of it could be re-written as ‘problems humanity has to deal with or things may get bad.’ But we already know that. Nothing in here is new - literally not one page of it. Moreover, his solutions contradict themselves.

He says nukes are scary and we should have fewer of them - every kid over the age of 10 agrees. He says
Patrick Kelly
Apr 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
The Precipice
By Toby Ord

- [ ] An effective altruism book
- [ ] We have time but it is running out
- [ ] Is there hope? Toby is optimistic but worried
- [ ] In all areas literacy, life expectancy, quality of life, standard of living, etc. There have been dramatic improvements across the history of the human species. Each revolution (agricultural, scientific, industrial, technological) has brought about these improvements. Before the industrial revolution 19 out of 20 people lived in less than $2/
May 03, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: philosophy

Interviewer: Suppose that your life's work ended up having a negative impact. What's the most likely scenario under which this might happen?

Ord: [...] I think people underestimate how easy this can happen. [...] The easiest way this could happen is your work crowding out something that is better. I thought a lot about that when writing this book. I really wanted to make sure that there wasn't anyone else who should write this book instead of me, I talked to a lot of people about it. Because even
Apr 04, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This is one of my favorite books. Delightfully written, inspiring, and lots to learn even for folks well-read around the incredibly important issue of longtermism - how civilisation can not only make it through the 21st century but go on to flourish.
Julian Schrittwieser
Apr 12, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Very timely book, chock full of appendices and notes if you want to dig deeper.
James Giammona
Apr 27, 2020 rated it really liked it
A clear and compelling introduction to the philosophical arguments and scientific research on existential risks. I enjoyed the exploration of understanding existential risks from various moral frameworks, the calculations of asteroid risk, supervolcano risk, and general natural existential risk implied by the longevity of mammalian species or the observation of mass extinction events. His examination of anthropogenic risks was also quick but good.
I appreciate that Toby gives his current beliefs
Dec 06, 2020 rated it liked it
It's a well-written book that in a very approachable way covers the problem of existential risks. I like the style, although sometimes (especially at the beginning) it was pushing the point a bit too hard, using types of arguments that anyone who read Cialdini will recognize. I also don't like that with existential risks we focus only on human beings and not all sentient beings. I would love to see non-anthropocentric perspectives on the risks described, that do affect more than one species of a ...more
Andrei Khrapavitski
Jun 01, 2020 rated it it was amazing
The topic of existential risks is not foreign to moral philosophy. You can find articles and notable inclusions of the subject in books by Nick Bostrom, William Macaskill, Peter Singer and others.

One of the most famous thought experiments related to this topic was formulated by Derek Parfit in one of my all-time favorite philosophy books Reasons and Persons:

Consider three outcomes:
1) Peace
2) A nuclear war that kills 99% of the world’s existing population.
3) A nuclear war that kills 100%.

In Parf
Jun 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
It was a really welcome break reading something so optimistic about humanity’s ability to transcend its own current reality, and to plan sufficiently far ahead so as to create time & space for a more ambitious future. Ord makes a lot of really good, intuitive points (world as exists today would have seemed as unimaginable for people 800 years ago as the realities of interstellar travel would for us today - if not more so).

But it’s still hard to avoid feeling that his premise is just too optimis
Connor Charchuk
Lots of redundancy and repetitiveness. Felt like it should have been a 10,000 word essay, not a book.
May 28, 2021 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
My best friend regularly refers to Toby Ord's The Precipice as “the most persuasive and impactful book I’ve ever read.” This attitude evoked a lot of eye-rolling and protestation on my part, but I eventually gave in when he was kind enough to buy me a copy. Now that I’ve read it, I’m happy to admit that this is one of the finest and most important philosophical works of the 21st century, and perhaps of any century in human history.

If you’re like me, you’re thinking that the above statement is pr
Artūrs Kaņepājs
Nov 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
A great overview and summary about the topic. The last chapter perhaps was deemed to be inspiring, but seemed a bit naïve and very anthropocentric. If we don't destroy ourselves, given the speed of technological progress, seems very unlikely that humans will be willing to confine themselves to the present physical and mental forms; and adhere to the eclectic and inconsistent moral codes that we try to employ now.

Some (e.g. Voluntary Human Extinction Movement) might think extinction is not all ba
The second and third parts (describing risks facing humanity now and in the near--at least--future and possible risk mitigation scenarios, respectively) are excellent. The first part, attempting to set up an ethical framework and to persuade us that we SHOULD care about deep future is much less convincing, mainly due to the fundamental problem of comparing actual and potential existence (and in particular the degree of discount which we apply to future, potential, lives) and, of course, to the s ...more
Stephanie Guerra
Apr 19, 2020 rated it it was amazing
This book really changed me and how I think about the world and the future of humanity- during a time of unprecedented collective action, this book made me consider what role I wanted to play in safeguarding against existential risk. It was an oddly comforting read and an important one. Sparked many more questions than answers- highly recommend, I don’t often give five stars.
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