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Abstract

Lawyers have played a central role in a wide range of social movements. How is this tradition of legal activism being applied in the emerging movement to protect the future of humanity? This movement is motivated by growing evidence that humanity is entering a new age of “existential risk,” which refers to events that would entirely foreclose a meaningful existence for future generations, e.g. via human extinction of permanent dystopia. Technological developments in synthetic biology, artificial intelligence, and other fields have brought these risks out of science fiction and into serious academic inquiry and political concern. Leading scholars in this field estimate a roughly one-in-six chance of existential catastrophe over the next century. Awareness of risks on this scale has recently sparked the founding of dozens of non-profit organizations and the early stirrings of a transnational social movement. This article presents the first empirical study of the nascent community of legal activists within this movement. How do these lawyers and policy advocates address such an abstract and probabilistic topic as existential risk? And how do they represent the multitudes of future generations, a population that could be extraordinarily large yet entirely voiceless? And what can they learn from the interdisciplinary literature on law and social change?

Drawing on a year-long qualitative study including semi-structured interviews with the leading legal advocates and ethnographic observations embedded in the central legal organization of this movement, the article describes in empirical detail the distinct model of social-change lawyering practiced in this movement. This model, which the article labels “prioritist advocacy,” is marked by a rigorous, evidence-based effort to maximize impact on high-priority goals (e.g., existential risk). To support the realization of this model, legal activists in this field have developed a culture of scientific truth-seeking norms, including efforts to reduce cognitive biases that inhibit recognition of existential threats and moral consideration of future generations. The article concludes by considering how the prioritist model may need to adapt as this movement scales up and pursues more direct and higher profile legal interventions.