Richard Posner, that curiously coldblooded judge, wrote a book in 2004 that considered the economics and law of human catastrophes. It was reviewed in Slate, from which I take this precis of one of his thought experiments.
“Consider the possibility that atomic particles, colliding in a powerful accelerator such as Brookhaven Lab's Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, could reassemble themselves into a compressed object called a stranglet that would destroy the world. Posner sets out to "monetize" the costs and benefits of this "extremely unlikely" disaster. He estimates "the cost of extinction of the human race" at $600 trillion and the annual probability of such a disaster at 1 in 10 million.”
The six hundred trillion dollar figure is absurd and … almost touching. What Posner has stumbled onto is one of the theological conundrums of economics, much like the scholastic chestnut about whether God could create a rock that he couldn’t lift. The scholastic chestnut was a way of parsing the logic of divine omnipotence. The six hundred trillion dollars is a way of parsing the limit of money and the economics attached to it, since a dollar without a human being to use it is surely a worthless dollar, one whose material carrier has suddenly lost all significance.
Since, with the election of Donald Trump, we are postponing for another four years any confrontation with the global disaster of climate change, we might want to start considering that six hundred trillion dollars as a sort of black hole: the hole into which the Holocene disappeared. I’m going to have a hard time, obviously, reading papers or thinking about “politics” over the next four years – since the headlines will be so many cocked guns placed at my ‘privileged’ head – and I can’t think I’m alone in this dilemma. Watching America under Trump will be much like cleaning up a public restroom stall that has been visited by a succession of drunks the night before. Or substitute your own image of overwhelming visceral disgust. But I nominate for the muse of this epoch that mythical, mystical 600 trillion dollars, that impossible self-annulling sum. Someday, it will be as plain as the Jehovah’s writing on the walls of the King of Babylon: Even billionaires won’t be able to enjoy their tax breaks when we are all extinct.
And with that… Happy new years!