- Paper on SSRN
- Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics (forthcoming)
Lawyers have played a central role in a wide range of movements for legal and social change. This article investigates how the tradition of movement lawyering is being applied to what could almost be described as humanity’s ultimate social movement—the movement to mitigate “existential risk,” which is defined as risk of human extinction or other permanent destruction of future human value. Over the past two decades, an Oxford-based academic community of philosophers and scientists has been cataloguing existential threats, including threats arising from engineered pandemics, transformative artificial intelligence, runway climate change, nuclear war, and extreme natural disasters. Although such events may be relatively unlikely in the near term, this list of threats is expected to grow with technological advances. Awareness of this issue has sparked the founding of dozens of non-profit organizations that work to preserve the future of humanity. In just the past couple years, this movement has entered the realm of law and politics. They have already made extraordinary progress with the introduction of new legislation, court decisions, and international policy initiatives. These advocates have ambitious plans for their next steps. At the same time, the movement has faced vociferous criticism in the media for being influenced by wealthy donors and shifting attention away from current social injustices.
This article presents the first empirical study of the legal activism in this movement. It asks how these “existential advocates” approach the key questions faced by all social-change lawyering campaigns: (1) efficacy, e.g. how to have the greatest impact when addressing such a large-scale, uncertain, and abstract issue; and (2) accountability, e.g. how to faithfully represent the multitudes of potential future generations who are silent stakeholders in decisions we make today. Drawing on a two-year qualitative study embedded with this community of legal advocates, the article describes the development of a distinct model of social-change lawyering—the “priorities methodology.” This model aims to maximize impact using formal processes for optimizing goals and strategies while minimizing cognitive biases. While this model is supported by some recent recommendations from socio-legal literature, it faces limitations when seeking to persuade legal decision-makers and incorporate a more diverse range of voices. The article concludes with recommendations for adapting this model as the existential risk community scales up and pursues more direct and high-profile legal interventions.