Minimising existential threats of our own making

Aug 2, 2017

Events that could permanently and drastically curtail humanity’s potential or even cause human extinction are often referred to as existential threats.   A moderate sized asteroid hitting our planet is a prime example.  It could wipe us all out in a flash, as apparently happened to 75% of the species on earth at the time a 10 Km diameter asteroid hit the Earth about 65 million years ago.

In his recent book “Surviving the 21st century” Canberra Science writer Julian Cribb discussed 10 existential threats that have arisen because of human activities and which we could reduce or nullify if only we could summon the human will and capacity to work collaboratively at a global level.  He says that these 10 risks – ecological collapse: resource depletion, weapons of mass destruction, global warming, global poisoning, food insecurity, population and urban expansion, pandemic disease, dangerous new technologies and self-delusion are not separate threats but interlinked and that there are logical ways in which, if our species had a mind to do so, the level of threat could be very substantially reduced.

So, why are we not doing it? Is it because we don’t understand the danger our kids are in, or because to take action would be too difficult or because we are simply ignoring these threats and hoping they will go away.

Discussions in the Emeritus Faculty at The Australian National University of which Cribb is a member, recently resulted in a half-day roundtable discussion among 37 multidisciplinary members of the University community, including students junior and senior academics.

Most of the group agreed with Cribb’s assertion, that humans are now facing our greatest test in the million-year ascent of our kind. And that this isn’t a single challenge, like a famine or disease outbreak.  It is the constellation of these ten threats, which are now coming together, that imperils the future of the species and they are intertwined. Each affects the others. They cannot be dealt with one at a time, but must be addressed in conjunction and at species level.

The three questions discussed by the Roundtable group were: 1: What needs to happen to place the Human species on a survivable course? 2: What role could ANU play in contributing to this? 3: Where are the levers for change?

Importantly, the group agreed that logical mechanisms for responding to these mega-threats are by no means beyond us, and that an effective response is more about cultural change than about “rocket science”. There was recognition that current efforts to ameliorate these threats are everywhere inadequate.  Many think that the longer we delay properly dealing with them as a global community, the more likely it is that we will be too late, leading to the possibility that human civilisation may not survive the 21st Century.

There was also agreement that universities, as the critics and consciences of the communities to which they belong, can play a valuable role in developing the case for essential transformative change, and a recognition that academic bodies, both here in Australia and internationally are beginning to take up the challenge, but still in a fragmented way.

The changes we will need to make are by no means trivial. And it is unlikely that we will address the general challenge until the broader community understands and demands action from our political leaders. And even that will not be enough. Already about 75% of Australians understand the requirement for urgent action on climate, but our political leaders are pretending not to hear, at lest partly because they are deeply beholden to the fossil fuel sector.

We will need the engagement of the corporate world in the development of a new human narrative about what constitutes progress and how humans can flourish in an economy, which profoundly values the planetary ecosystems on which our lives depend.

At present the human world is driven by the narrative that human progress is about growth, expansion, competition, consumption and self-promotion. This narrative is reinforced by the media, by the corporate world and by our political leaders.

For an alternative “bio-sensitive” paradigm that focuses on sustainability, collaboration and planetary health, to gain traction in the short time available to us will be no easy task. But there is no reason why Australia should not be at the cutting edge of this essential development.

One idea that emerged from the ANU discussion was the development of an independent “Commission” or “Synthesis Facility” that could be developed with government, corporate and philanthropic funds, and could undertake essential research, education and policy advocacy, drawing on the collective resources of academia, governments the corporate sector and civil society, to quickly reposition the nation around a hopeful narrative for the future.

There was clear agreement in the group that the challenge must not be cloaked in gloom and doom, but in  a way that identifies the positive benefits that will result from the transformative change that is needed  to address it .

Em Prof Bob Douglas is a retired epidemiologist, a Director of Australia21  and secretary of the ANU Emeritus Faculty working group on “Humans for Survival.“ He chaired the Roundtable and edited the report

The full report of the Roundtable is available here

The discussion paper that prompted  the Roundtable  is  available here:

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