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When threats of such magnitude that humanity’s future is in balance are at play, what are the values that drive the need to act? Where do these values originate? How can the hazards that need to be addressed be prioritized? How can a particular mitigation solution be chosen above others? What are the criteria that apply when humanity is facing unspeakable disaster and seeks a way out?

These questions are currently being debated in academia and in the broader world, yet they are often viewed through a narrow range of ethical theories (i.e., professional ethicists) and with a narrow cultural (i.e., Western) focus. It is urgent that we change this mindset and, to this end, the aim of the PREFER project is to move significantly beyond these limitations. Threats to the future of humanity require comprehensive scientific deliberations that consider a diversity of value systems, including those of lay people. Lay ethics (the ethics of ordinary people) must be factored into discussions on this important topic.

The main objective of the PREFER project is to open the scientific debate on existential risk to empirical enquiry. The PREFER team will identify how lay ethics (the ethics of ordinary people) manifest themselves in non-Western communities faced with extreme threat. Local terminal risks due to the collapse of regional ecosystems will serve as proxies for existential risks. Thus, this pioneering project will obtain, for the first time, empirical evidence on how ordinary humans evaluate and cope with real-life terminal situations. Existential risks concern humanity as a whole: it is essential to add to the variety and number of voices heard in scientific deliberations. A broader discourse on existential risk will contribute to better governance and decision-making around existential risks. The PREFER team will conduct field work in two diverse geographical areas whose inhabitants are experiencing the collapse of life-sustaining ecosystems: the Arctic and the Mekong Delta. Three communities in each area will serve as case studies. Preparatory fieldwork has revealed that members are aware of the terminal threat and have expressed fears that they are facing the end of the life they know. Community transdisciplinary research (the co-production of knowledge with and for local communities) will be accompanied by ethnographic work. Data will be collected in the form of narratives which will be analyzed as sources of information on how local communities appraise the multiple dimensions of local terminal risk, including descriptions, the meanings drawn from these and involvement in impact mitigation actions. These results will then be applied to existential risks, all the while analyzing the appositeness of the PREFER proxy-based approach. Finally, although the main focus is on widening the discourse on existential risks, PREFER will also contribute to the urgent empirical analysis of terminality in the face of collapsing regional ecosystems.