High alert

Humanity faces impending disaster. Can we escape calamity?

This is not a book for the faint hearted. Megathreats, by the economist Nouriel Roubini, is a sobering account of the challenges facing humanity – and an alarm bell no leader should ignore. We are entering a dystopian era that will be defined by the disastrous effects of ten interconnected trends, warns Roubini. They range from our addiction to debt, to economic volatility, rising geopolitical instability, the impact of AI, and the climate crisis. It’s a familiar list – and that’s part of the problem. The most dangerous threats are often the slowest-moving, he warns: it becomes hard to generate collective action. Megathreats unfold while decision-makers dither.

In some ways Megathreats is as much history as vision of the future, as Roubini explains how we got here. He repeatedly points out decisions that made things worse, or early attempts at solutions that were abandoned. Our problems are of our own making: “We have met the enemy, and it is us.”
What can be done? “We must learn to live on high alert,” writes Roubini. In truth, though, the book has less to say about solutions than problems. Roubini allows himself just seven pages to indulge in “wishful thinking”. Will nuclear fusion answer our need for clean energy? Could AI protect us against future, more lethal, pandemics? Might automation de-risk finance, freeing us from the destructive boom-and-bust cycle? Maybe. But structural problems need joined-up global action and the chances of that are slim. In Roubini’s view, ours is a “dark destiny”. Sound policies might partially or fully avert one or more threats, he concludes: “but collectively, calamity seems near certain.

“An alarm has been ringing for decades, but we keep ignoring it,” writes Roubini. “We have slept at our peril. I hope enough of us will wake up, pay attention, connect the dots, and prepare for the consequences.”

Patrick Woodman is editor of Dialogue.