When does a threat become ‘existential’?

If I were to ask you what you really worry about – what you REALLY worry about not, for instance, when will a Canada-based hockey team finally win the Stanley Cup again – what would you respond with? What do you see as threats or situations that pose such a degree of danger to us – as a planet or as a species – that we can truly define them as ‘existential’?

I hope we all can agree that climate change fits the bill. Even if the worst case scenarios do not pan out it is beyond contention that at least in certain parts of the world changes to weather and climate will be very, very serious, affecting millions, tens of millions or even hundreds of millions of people. To those unfortunate humans this is indeed existential.

In addition, I have seen enough Bruce Willis films to know that an asteroid/comet hitting the Earth is really serious. A space rock that lands will destroy all life in at least a localised area if not most of the planet. THAT is existential.

So, what else? What other menace is big enough to warrant the scary word ‘existential’? Unfortunately, many have described terrorism as an existential threat. I use the word ‘unfortunately’ deliberately because no matter how bad terrorism has been or is most likely to develop it is not even close to becoming an existential problem. None of this is intended to dismiss the seriousness of terrorism or the need to combat it but it nevertheless pales in comparison, at a minimum, with other forms of violent crime. Besides, the error in overblowing the threat has led to unwarranted terms such as the ‘war on terrorism’ which has led to colossal mistakes in our response to it.

A former colleague of mine at CSIS, Jessica Davis, was quoted in the Toronto Star with respect to economic espionage and the theft of proprietary information as saying that these pose “far greater an existential threat to Canada than the threat posed by, for instance, terrorism….Economic espionage involves lost jobs, lost revenue, lost tax revenue and a reduced competitive advantage (for Canadian businesses) … (It’s) also a long-term, strategic threat, but one that can be difficult to quantify because the results may not be felt for years or decades. And by then it will be too late.

When it comes to the impact of financial crime on the economy I will always defer to Ms. Davis as she is known as a specialist in that field. Me, I can barely balance my bank statement at month’s end so I have no intention of weighing in on what this is and what it means. But is it ‘existential’? Do these nefarious actors have either the intent or capability of taking down our financial and economic systems? If so, can they threaten the very core of Canada’s – or the world’s – banking and commerce? While it is hard for me too say given my lack of expertise I remain skeptical.

For the record I do think more has to be done on this front by CSIS, the RCMP, FINTRAC and others and I do know from my time at CSIS that not nearly enough resources were devoted to it (maybe that has changed since my departure in 2015). But here again we run into the conundrum of resource allocation, a topic I have referred to on my occasions. Yes, counter terrorism has received far too much attention even if the threat is real. Espionage, foreign interference and other ills do deserve more attention but I do not envy those who have to make the decisions on whom to place where and how to ensure that these protectors have the right backgrounds and training.

In the end however the overuse of the term ‘existential’ is not helpful. Yes, it gains headlines but it is not accurate and leads to dumb policies. We really must continue to have professional conversations about these problems and come up with the best solutions possible. Reacting to non-existential threats as if they were in fact existential is not going to end well. After all it hasn’t so far.

Phil Gurski

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