A plan for human survival

Feb 22, 2023
Walking on Moon Towards Planet Earth. In back ground.

Among the world’s many pressing needs, the most urgent of all is a plan for human survival. And Australia should be the country to lead its creation.

At present no country or international body has one. What we currently have is a chaotic road to avoidable disaster, driven by ten vast, interconnected threats which are all the result of human activity.

The existential emergency in which all humanity now stands has been building steadily for over half a century. Our capacity to inflict mass harm on ourselves through our own actions has increased exponentially since the end of WWII.

We’ve wiped out two thirds of the world’s large animals, we’re losing water, topsoil, fish and forests at appalling rates, we poison everyone and everything on the planet every day; we’re constructing weapons able to obliterate ourselves many times over. We’re shaping a climate that can render the Earth largely uninhabitable within a few generations. We’re building dangerous technologies over which society has no control. We throw away half our food and ruin the planet trying to grow more. We unleash new plagues every few years and spread them worldwide like wildfire. And we lie, constantly and continually, to ourselves about it all.

These are not the actions of a wise species. Or even, maybe, an intelligent one. Our governments and corporations seem paralysed, unable to grasp the magnitude of the overwhelming, interlinked risks that are engulfing us.

The ten megathreats are: extinction and ecological destruction; resource scarcity; global poisoning; a hothouse Earth; new nuclear arms race; pandemic disease; food insecurity; overpopulation; uncontrolled technologies and a global deluge of misinformation about them. Because they are all connected, none of these threats can be tackled on its own. They must all be tackled together.

All of them are consequences of the sheer scale of the human enterprise – overpopulation, overconsumption, overpollution and money are the chief drivers. Mostly, they stem from the 101 billion tonnes of resources we now devour every year to support our ‘lifestyle’ – 12 tonnes each – and the damage this process unleashes on the planet and ourselves.

The good news is that solutions to all these threats already exist. They can all be solved in ways that do not generate fresh perils or make other threats worse. We have the brains and we have the technology to save ourselves. The bad news is that we do not have the governments, the leadership or the will to do so.

No government on Earth has a plan for overcoming these risks and securing the human future, as the Council for the Human Future has warned. Most of them are not even aware such a need exists, so poorly do they understand the message of science over the past half century – and so effectively have selfish interest managed to mislead, deceive and frustrate action.

In “How to Fix a Broken Planet” (Cambridge University Press 2023) I explain the scientific understanding of these risks, but more importantly I list all the main actions which governments, institutions and individuals can take in their work and own lives to make ours a safer, more sustainable world. This amounts to a first draft for a World Plan of Action for Human Survival.

It isn’t the complete answer. No short book could provide that. But it is an outline of what the world’s wisest minds now consider we must do in order to survive. It shows that thinking and acting our way out of the biggest crisis every to face humanity is entirely possible. Furthermore, that it is positive, encourages hope, prosperity, confidence and opportunity.

Among several hundred solutions proffered for policymakers and individual humans, here are the top dozen. They should not surprise anyone who has considered our situation objectively.

  • An Earth System Treaty addressing all the catastrophic threats, open for all to sign.
  • A ban on all nuclear weapons.
  • An end to the use of fossil fuels, to stem both climate change and global poisoning.
  • A Renewable (or circular) World Economy.
  • New Human Rights, including a Right Not to Be Poisoned.
  • A Global Technology Convention to oversee all powerful new technologies before they are put to dangerous misuse.
  • A World Truth Commission, to expose the liars and their lies to public shame.
  • A Human Survival Index, to inform everyone how risky is our plight and the progress we are making towards making the world safer.
  • Renewable Food for everyone, to sustain all humanity and reduce the threat of war.
  • A World Population Plan, providing voluntary family planning for all.
  • A Stewards of the Earth plan for rewilding half the Earth.
  • A world pandemic plan to prevent and arrest the uncontrolled spread of disease by human behaviour.

There are many other actions that must be taken to mitigate the danger in which humans now stand, and most of them are outlined in ‘How to Fix a Broken Planet’.

At the heart of all this is an Earth System Treaty, a legal compact by the world’s people (note: not just its nations or governments, but everyone which commits all those who sign it to working for a habitable Earth and a safer human future, by addressing all ten of the great threats. It commits us to living within the safe planetary boundaries defined by Johan Rockstrom and his colleagues.

The answers to the human emergency do not lie in business-as-usual, in government procrastination, in the corruption of public discourse, the poisoning of an entire planet or the destruction of nature. They lie in employing the attribute which has distinguished and led human survival for over a million years: wisdom: the ability to read the future and take action in good time to achieve a better, safer outcome.

Self-evidently the world’s governments, intent on the rivalries of yesterday, are not interested in this, or able to achieve it. They must be driven by the wishes and concerns of eight billion humans who want their grandchildren to survive on a world that hasn’t been reduced to a charred ruin by human negligence and greed.

This is, without a doubt, the greatest and most noble undertaking in the long ascent of human aspiration and achievement. It is a task worthy of us all – and which cannot be completed without the co-operation of all.

In 1945 Australia, under our Foreign Minister H ‘Doc’ Evatt, helped found and lead the United Nations, and draft the Human Rights Declaration. Our global contribution since then has been less than stellar.

Now there is a spectacular opportunity for Australia again to show leadership in the most important issue of all facing humans – forming a plan for survival.

The Earth is a lifeboat, sinking under the pressures of overcrowding and demand. We either row it together – or we go down together. The choice is stark, and it is now before us.


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