50 pages 1 hour read

Toby Ord

The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2020

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Summary and Study Guide


The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity (2020) by Toby Ord is a fact-based analysis of the existential threats humanity faces, such as nuclear war, climate change, and the development of artificial intelligence. Ord, an Australian philosopher and Senior Research Fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University, uses philosophy, ethics, and science to evaluate the scale of these problems, arguing for a moral imperative to address them and safeguard humanity’s long-term potential. Ord’s book touches on themes such as Existential Risks and Their Implications, Ethical Responsibilities to Future Generations, and Societal Coordination and Global Cooperation. Ord is the co-author of Moral Uncertainty (2020), the founder of the international nonprofit Giving What We Can, and a leader in the Effective Altruism movement.

This guide references the 2020 Bloomsbury first edition of the work.


The Precipice confronts the existential perils created by humanity’s misuse of its technological and societal advances. The text argues that while the future promises further advancement and innovation, it also presents perils that could precipitate humankind’s decline or obliteration. These existential threats, arising from natural and humanmade origins, are the book’s focal point.

The first part of the book introduces the premise that humanity, despite its extensive history, is at an early phase with much of its future yet to be realized. Ord suggests that the disparity between humanity’s technological strength and its collective wisdom has brought it to a critical juncture, which he describes as the Precipice. This figurative brink signifies a pivotal moment in human history when the potential for self-destruction escalates due to the emergence of powerful technologies.

The Precipice employs historic incidents like the Cuban Missile Crisis to display the vulnerability of human society and the slim margins that have historically shielded humankind from calamity. These instances underscore the imperative of confronting existential dangers with a rigorous and comprehensive strategy, encompassing fields from physics to political science, and highlight the need for international unity and the establishment of robust collaborative institutions.

Chapter 1 begins with a survey of the existential threats that surfaced during the Cold War, particularly the possibility of nuclear conflict as exemplified by the Cuban Missile Crisis. The account exposes civilization’s susceptibility to the decisions of a select few, laying the groundwork for the book’s further discussions on assorted existential threats.

Chapter 2 evaluates the ongoing peril posed by nuclear stockpiles and the policies that intensify these threats, such as powerful nations’ maintenance of a hair-trigger stance poised for global conflict. The chapter then broadens to incorporate the cataclysm of climate change, drawing a distinction with the abrupt and unforeseeable nature of nuclear perils.

Chapter 3 examines the potential repercussions of supervolcanic eruptions, asteroid collisions, and cosmic events like supernovae and gamma-ray bursts. The discussion draws upon historical and scientific contexts to assess the probability of such occurrences and their capability to challenge human society.

Chapter 4 turns the lens on human-caused risks, examining the existential threats linked with nuclear weapons, climate alterations, and environmental deterioration. The chapter then evaluates the chances of various extreme-case scenarios and their ability to induce human extinction or irreversible collapse of societies.

Chapter 5 continues with this topic, scrutinizing hazards tied to advanced technologies such as biotech and artificial intelligence. It debates the difficulties in regulating these innovations and the possibility that they could engender irreversible dystopias or heighten other existential threats.

Chapter 6 presents a strategic map, or game plan, for grappling with the existential threats that loom over us. The chapter sketches a three-part framework for these risks, starting from their inception, through their potential growth, to their possible disastrous peaks. Each stage outlines a set of tactics, such as preventive measures, emergency actions, and recovery plans, to pinpoint elements that could either hasten these existential threats or halt them, thus changing the trajectory of humanity’s current risks.

Chapter 7 sketches out a step-by-step approach for humanity to avoid its impending catastrophes and achieve its full promise. The first step is ensuring humanity’s basic survival—existential safety. The next is a reflective pause, a collective moment to ponder humanity’s shared goals. The ultimate step is reaching humanity’s collective zenith of potential. Along this journey, The Precipice confronts humanity’s reluctance for global teamwork alongside the new challenges and risks the current era faces.

The final chapter is both a warning and a hopeful perspective on the future. If people manage to sidestep the dangers of the Precipice, humankind’s future can flourish, not just on Earth but across the stars and for eons to come. The chapter emphasizes the concept of the “Long Reflection,” a proposed era dedicated to deep thought about humanity’s grandest aspirations. The closing argument is a call to action to ensure not just survival but the success of generations yet to come.

The book concludes with a contemplation on the roles everyone plays in reducing these overarching dangers. It points to arenas where people can make a difference—be it in academia, policymaking, philanthropy, or public debate.

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