The Castle Lecture Series - The Toxic Flower of a Fertile Seed: Civilization and Social Choice in a World of Climate Change, Nuclear Risk, and Artificial Intelligence

Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, Justice of the Supreme Court of California

LECTURE 1:  What’s Fertile is also Toxic

The world is in the aggregate far healthier, more educated, and safer than it once was.  But optimists confident that such progress will continue for the foreseeable future are playing with fire.  The risks associated with climate, nuclear, AI, and the fraying institutions on which we rely to handle these challenges continue to threaten us, and call for candid reflection about the institutions, norms, and paradigms we use to navigate an uncertain world.  Americans, people around the world, and the domestic and international institutions they have built face considerable challenges despite a sometimes alluring narrative of continuing global progress.  We should consider it a rebuttable presumption that some of our most urgent risks, which I metaphorically describe as toxic, spring from two major and quite fertile drivers of global progress –– the modern market-driven economy we’ve inherited from industrialization, and the international system that serves as a framework for geopolitical competition.  These macro-level phenomena are the persistent backdrop to virtually all of what happens in law and policy.  How much we can affect them is a difficult question for anyone who’s trying to be intellectually honest.  Further idea-generation and practical progress on climate, nuclear, and related domains, including through social movements and new approaches to political economy, is both needed and possible.  To ignore those risks and possibilities borders on madness.