BOB DOUGLAS. Time for Australia to lead in building a safer future

Mar 5, 2018

A combination of hazards threatens the continued survival of human civilization on Planet Earth. They are all man-made – and most are being systematically ignored or under-rated by political decision makers everywhere and especially, here in Australia.

The hazards include: ecological collapse, resource depletion, weapons of mass destruction, climate disruption, global poisoning, food insecurity, population and urban expansion, pandemic disease, dangerous new technologies and self-delusion. These are often regarded as separate issues, but in reality they are deeply intertwined: each affects the others. This means they cannot be dealt with one at a time, but must be addressed in an integrated way – and by the whole of humanity.

The end of civilisation and possible human extinction are distasteful topics. Nobody likes discussing them and most of us prefer to ignore them as we go about our daily lives. But ignoring them does not eliminate the risk – it only leaves humanity less prepared, and our future more perilous.

There is no other way to deal with such a complex of problems than to face up to it, to understand it thoroughly, and take resolute and agreed planet-wide action to prevent it.

Around the world, there is growing understanding in scientific circles, of the scale of this combined threat to human existence. Groups at Oxford and Cambridge Universities and in a number of US and Australian Universities have developed initiatives to inform and mobilise public policy to address these threats.

At the Australian National University in 2017, prompted by the publication of a book “Surviving the 21st Century,” by Julian Cribb, a member of the ANU Emeritus Faculty, a roundtable discussion among university and student leaders, resulted in the formation of a group called “Humans for Survival “ and systematic efforts to alert political leaders to the need for coordinated action and to ensure human survival is placed at the very top of our national priorities. No other issue is as important.

The ANU Vice-Chancellor has since appointed a working group led by Economics Professor and former politician, John Hewson, to develop proposals for an Australian Commission on Global Futures (CGF). The working group has concluded that we need a new Australian initiative to be owned by all Australians, that will develop a positive vision and action plan for the future of the nation, the planet and all its living systems. The proposed Commission could assist Australia to play a leading role in the growing worldwide movement to mitigate threats to the long-term survival and wellbeing of humans on Planet Earth.

The key objectives of a future CGF would be to:

1.  Lift Australian society beyond the dangerous short-termism that currently dominates social, economic and political discourse.

2.  Alert all Australians to the need to respond to these existential threats and to the available ways of dealing with them.

3.  Develop a new “bio-sensitive” vision that will transform the focus of the Australian nation toward issues and methods of sustainability, collaboration and long-term planetary health.

4.  Foster partnerships between academia, business, civil society and government to develop an achievable vision for the kind of nation we want to be, and can become, and set in train the activities that will bring it about.

5.    Tap public opinion and support by holding public discussion of existential risks and opportunities in cities and towns right across the country.

6.   Build the evidence base and develop proposals for action for new public policies that will ensure our future, as a nation and as humans.

The Commission would need an independent interdisciplinary board of representation from civil society, science and government. Funding this body should fall evenly on government, business and the community. A group has been established to discuss such a development with key opinion leaders in those sectors.

Our second initiative, Humans For Survival (H4S), is a volunteer group of researchers and concerned citizens dedicated to finding and developing solutions to the greatest challenge in human history – the complex of existential threats that now confront us all and our grandchildren for centuries to come.

Managed through the think tank, Australia21, the group has created a website – – to gather and share trusted information on existential risks and their global solution as widely as possible. The group encourages visitors to take part in discussion of our common future in a helpful, creative and respectful manner. Anyone can join. Discussion is based around published items drawn from the scientific literature and reliable sources worldwide about limiting current and future risks to humanity – and how best to overcome them.

Responding to the challenge, some of our ANU students commented “There is a growing disengagement between Australians and the reality of increasingly dire existential threats, as we collectively continue to degrade vital resources. One reason for this is the way in which consumers are conditioned to disengage externalities and the reality of their impact. However, it is necessary to ensure Australian’s understand that these existential threats are not distant but ever-present, affecting their everyday lives and contributing to their greatest personal concerns.

“To address this, these issues should be at the centre of national policy. For this to happen, it is fundamental we shift progress measures from a growth-focused narrative, to one that values a more sustainable approach and challenges the systemic consumer-culture that perpetuates social disengagement with existential crises.”

These are the leaders of tomorrow. We should all pay attention to what they say.

Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas is Secretary of The ANU Vice Chancellor’s Working Group on Existential Threats and a Director of Australia21.  ( )



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