Cass R. Sunstein is one of America’s foremost legal scholars; he is also a big fan of science fiction authors such as Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. Sunstein thinks that science fiction can be a useful tool to inoculate people against status quo bias—our tendency to resist anything new and unfamiliar.
“If you love science fiction, you find it fun, and maybe a good little chill goes down your spine, when you think of things that hadn’t been dreamt of until 1990 or 2005, and those things excite you, as well as maybe scaring you,” Sunstein says in Episode 468 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.
Sunstein’s new book Averting Catastrophe lays out an approach for evaluating unpredictable threats such as asteroids, AI, climate change, and pandemics. One of the book’s more science fictional ideas is that people might not need to worry so much about the well-being of future generations, an idea that Sunstein attributes to Nobel prize-winning economist Thomas Schelling.
“There are a lot of people urging that we do stuff to protect future generations from what we’re going to inflict on them,” Sunstein says. “And Schelling says, be careful about that, because future generations are going to be much richer and better off than we are—if history is any guide—and if we sacrifice our resources to help them, we will be redistributing from poor us to rich them, and where’s the fairness in that?”
In fact, investing too much time and energy in safeguarding future generations might actually be counterproductive, if those measures end up stifling economic growth. “The fact that we are as well off as we are now is because previous generations did a lot of stuff that made them healthier, that made them wealthier, that made them better off in countless ways, rather than thinking, ‘Let’s stem innovation and development in order to protect the future,’” Sunstein says. “So you could add to Schelling’s point that the future—if the past is prologue, and people are going to be better off than we are—you could add that the future is dependent on our doing a lot of innovative, creative stuff, and not worrying so much about them.”
However, realizing that future generations will likely be wiser and wealthier than we are shouldn’t give us carte blanche to take actions that even a wiser, wealthier civilization will find almost impossible to reverse. “We shouldn’t take Schelling’s arguments to suggest that we should devalue endangered species or pristine areas,” Sunstein says. “The idea of preserving precious things for future generations, that’s a good idea. And if they’re richer but they don’t have wolves and coyotes and bears, they are to that extent significantly poorer, even if they have plenty of money.”
Listen to the complete interview with Cass R. Sunstein in Episode 468 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Cass R. Sunstein on Awake:
“The show is about someone who loses either his wife or his son after a car accident—you can’t tell. Half the time the wife is alive and the son is dead, and half the time the son is alive and the wife is dead. These are two different realities in which he lives, and he can’t figure out which one is real, and neither can the viewer. And the parallels and discontinuities between the two realities are incredibly fascinating. … The idea of parallel worlds is something that I find intriguing. I really like the writer Robert Charles Wilson, because he does great things with that. So that’s up my alley. You can have a bad show on that topic, but [Awake] is off-the-charts good.”
Cass R. Sunstein on The World According to Star Wars:
“With the Star Wars book tour, I had no expectation that anyone other than Star Wars enthusiasts—if I were lucky—would show up, but instead what I found was that the people on the tour were like brothers and sisters to me, in the sense that there was an immediate sense of trust and willingness to be real, rather than to be an audience member. And so they’d talk about something that happened in their lives, like a child had gotten very sick, and as soon as the child was able to go out of the hospital, the dad took the child to Star Wars. … In so much of life, our connections with each other are an inch deep, and that’s better than nothing, but on my Star Wars tour, I felt that we were all, in some sense, family.”
Cass R. Sunstein on Barack Obama:
“He is tall and thin, like the most famous Vulcan, and his ears aren’t tiny, like the most famous Vulcan. He also has a very logical mind—he’s very capable of being really disciplined under pressure. I saw him under a lot of pressure, and I never saw him [act out] like Captain Kirk. But the difference is that he has a very feelingful heart, and though he doesn’t always show it, it’s there. … I got hit by a car in 2017, and when I woke up in the hospital, one of the first people to call me was him. And while he’s a friend, you know, he’s got a lot of friends, and for him to call me after I got hit by a car—almost immediately after I woke up—that was extremely touching.”
Cass R. Sunstein on history:
“I’m particularly interested in time travel, alternate histories, parallel universes, so I’ve thought a bit about writing about that. … I have written an essay about counterfactual history, which is in a book I published recently called This Is Not Normal, in which I end up saying that historians are actually engaged in an enterprise a lot like science fiction writers. Some historians hate that, but I say that’s so in the sense that they are—in figuring out what caused what—actually constructing counterfactual worlds. It’s a little more disciplined and uncreative than the best science fiction writers, but it’s amazing, and it’s kind of the same thing.”