Advanced Search

Please click here to take a brief survey

Larry Brilliant on the World's 5 Biggest Threats and their Common Denominators
Amanda Reed, 4 May 10

Larry Brilliant, president of the new Skoll Global Threats Fund, has written a thought provoking article on "How to Prevent the Next Global Crisis" published at CNN Fortune Tech. The Skoll Global Threats Fund was set up to try and find ways of mitigating the risks from climate change, water scarcity, pandemics, nuclear proliferation, and conflict in the Middle East; or, as they see it, the five biggest threats "that could bring the world to its knees" (see image below).

Brilliant argues that there are five correlating common denominators to these threats, which we need to face (and fast) in order to tackle our bigger global problems:

1. Communication

"Society in general does a lousy job of communicating that the kinds of global threats I mentioned are true risks that could affect us all, and when we do get that point across, it’s usually too late."

2. Uncertainty
"All of these risks share qualitative and, especially, quantitative uncertainty. Scientific uncertainty, outcome uncertainty, and the unintended consequences of any interventions are common to most of these global threats. This keeps scientists and officials up all night, but it keeps actuaries, hedge funds, and insurance companies in business..[Scientists] talk in terms of probability and inferences that can be drawn from a sample of a certain size. We make projections over time that might be x or 2x. But policy makers — and voters — want exact answers, not estimates.."

3. Low Probability
"The low probability of any individual threat happening makes it harder to command the attention of the public or the policy makers, but knowing the aggregate or overall risk makes it imperative to plan sane prevention and mitigation strategies."

4. Leadership
"Solving these risks requires real leadership of two kinds: effective, charismatic individual leaders and trusted institutions. We lack both, sadly."

5. Public Will and Governance
I separate governance from leadership because they are different, albeit connected. A leader inspires people to make difficult choices. But getting those choices enacted into legislation, regulation and changes on the ground requires governance...[and] without political engagement from citizens and pressure from below, governments will be reluctant — and perhaps incapable — of making the tough decisions needed to tackle these threats.

Read Brilliant's full piece here.


Larry Brilliant joined the Skoll Global Threats Fund after serving as the first executive director of An MD and MPH, Larry was one of a four-person U.N. team that led the successful smallpox eradication program in India and South Asia. He later founded the Seva Foundation, whose projects have given back sight to nearly 3 million people worldwide. Larry also co-founded The Well, a pioneering digital community and was a professor of international policy and epidemiology at the University of Michigan.


The Skoll Global Threats Fund was founded by Jeff Skoll, the founder and chairman of the Skoll Foundation, which produces the annual Skoll World Forum on Social Entrepreneurship awards. Worldchanging has published two "reader reports" from the 2009 and 2010 them here: 2009 Reader Report and 2010 Reader Report


(Image Source: Cropped screen shot of Skoll Global Threats Fund homepage)

Bookmark and Share


Dr Doomlove's comment under the linked article says it all. Mr Brilliant is not so brilliant if he misses out some of the most pressing issues.

Posted by: rainman on 4 May 10

Beg pardon, it is of course Dr Brilliant.

Posted by: rainman on 4 May 10

I believe that three of these five common denominators are severely aggravated by one factor in their threat to progress on any major issue: Greed.

Communication is largely bottlenecked and filtered by the entrenched financial interests of the tiny group of firms that control more than 85% of all US media (print, broadcast, internet, film, etc.): Rupert Murdoch's "News Corp", GE, Disney, Time Warner, Viacom & CBS. The only effective influence over these six firms is exercised by their advertisers and board members, not by their viewers, which makes these entities anything but the ideal venues for communication on serious issues. The information and opinions expressed will therefore be dominated by the profit motives of the controlling parties, not by the enlightenment and survival needs of the audiences. The lassitude of media-regulating bodies on government is a function and effect of greed.

Leadership and governance are indeed separate aspects but closely linked by their controlling influences - even more so after the SCOTUS decision in "Citizen's United" vs. the Federal Elections Commission. Selection of leadership through contests of cash, rather than contests of ideas and deeds, predictably results in precisely the bland, ineffective mire of pocketed mouthpieces we now see in our state and federal capitols - and the kind of timid, superficial and self-serving institutions we have before us across society.

This seems to me to be a circular trap - a) greed must be shackled, harnessed and directed before it will work to the greater good, and b) the shackles, harness and direction will never be forged, fitted and forced by 'public servants' who are indentured to greed-based entities and therefore do not and will not serve the public interest.

"Market forces" have fueled our arrival at this conundrum and cannot be relied upon to resolve it. It seems to me that campaign finance is the root of progress on every front, and we are left with nicely asking the rapacious foxes to hand over the shredded and cowering remains of the henhouse.

Venues for free and independent communication of the sort that Worldchanging supplies here seem to me to be the sole hope of our species.

See here -

...and here -

...for more info.

Craig Shields, Editor,

Posted by: Craig Shields on 9 May 10

Post A Comment

Please note that comments will remain open for only 14 days after the article is posted. While previous comments will remain visible, attempts to post new comments after this period will fail. This helps stop comment spam, so your forebearance is appreciated.

The Worldchanging comments are meant to be used for further exploration and evaluation of the ideas covered in our posts. Please note that, while constructive disagreement is fine, insults and abuse are not, and will result in the comment being deleted and a likely ban from commenting. We will also delete at will and without warning comments we believe are designed to disrupt a conversation rather than contribute to it. In short, we'll kill troll posts.

Finally, please note that comments which simply repost copyrighted works or commercial messages will be summarily deleted.

Yes No







MESSAGE (optional):

Search Worldchanging

Worldchanging Newsletter Get good news for a change —
Click here to sign up!


Website Design by Eben Design | Logo Design by Egg Hosting | Hosted by Amazon AWS | Problems with the site? Send email to tech /at/
Architecture for Humanity - all rights reserved except where otherwise indicated.

Find_us_on_facebook_badge.gif twitter-logo.jpg