The Tower of Babel Revisited: Global Governance as a Problematic Solution to Existential Threats


The Biblical story of the Tower of Babel illuminates contemporary efforts to secure ourselves from global catastrophic threats. Our advancing knowledge has allowed us to specify with greater clarity the Floods that we face (asteroids, supervolcanoes, gamma ray bursts, etc.); and our galloping powers of technology have spawned a new class of human-generated dangers (climate change, nuclear war, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, etc.). Should any of these existential dangers come to pass, human beings and even all life could be imperiled. The claim that Man, and perhaps the Earth itself, hangs in the balance is said to imply the necessity of a global response. All well-meaning men and women should abandon a provincial attachment to the nation-states they contingently call home. What is needed is more global cooperation, or global governance, so that we can join together in the construction of a tower to the heavens, safe harbor from whatever terrors nature or God visit upon us.

This article questions the conventional narrative. The Biblical account of the Tower of Babel is richly metaphorical in its suggestion that the division of mankind into separate spheres has salutary consequences. The fantasy of a common humanity, joined selflessly in a common enterprise, assumes away the tenacious passions and interests that divide us. The facile claim, based on little more than linguistic parallelism — global catastrophic threats require global governance solutions — breaks down as one reflects, at a more granular level, upon the diversity of those threats. Apart from questions of feasibility, global governance solutions overstate the benefits and understate the costs of collaboration. There are often substantial advantages to maintaining separate and even competing spheres of control. Nation-states, with more rigorous lines of political accountability than amorphous governance structures, are best able to respond to any existential threats. Finally, nation-states and territorially localized sovereigns are less likely to threaten humanity’s future than a global sovereign, empowered by modern technology and emboldened by a crusading faith to save Mankind.