The Big Issues
The eradication of smallpox stands out as possibly the greatest achievement of the 20th century, saving of the order of perhaps 1 billion lives over 100 years. What about this century? Where might lie the big wins? The scourge of tobacco related deaths stands out as potentially one of the likely greatest failures of the 21st century, with projections of the order of 1 billion lives lost over 100 years. This is 3 times the current combined death rate of AIDS, TB, and malaria. In my book this puts it up there, along with climate change, hostile artificial intelligence, global poverty, and nanoplague, as one of the big issues we should all be discussing. But we don't. What is it about climate change and terrorism that captures the public attention when other equally or more pressing issues seem to register barely a blip? Especially frustrating is the fact that what to do about tobacco is very concrete (raise global tobacco taxes) and can be done quite cheaply (even factoring in opposition from the tobacco industry).
It seems we only respond when there has been a change in state, so we react to AIDS, a relatively new disease, more than we discuss or react to TB, despite it having a similar death rate and being cheaper to cure. Terrorism and awareness of climate change are also relatively new issues, so we respond strongly to them. Tobacco is perceived as having been around for a long time, so we fail to react, and similarly for global poverty. Hostile artificial intelligence and nanoplague hold the short straw. They have never occured, so unless we can find a way to change how we are behaving, we won't react to them until it is too late.