MIKE SCRAFTON. The harder reality of humanity’s road to the future

May 8, 2020

After the pandemic passes the world will be left with a series of far graver challenges. The solutions, if there are any, will only be found through clear-eyed, objective analysis of the interrelated causes and effects, shorn to the extent possible ideological assumptions.

The report of the Commission for the Human Future’s (CHF) roundtable discussion Surviving and thriving in the 21st century enumerates the global challenges that will persist beyond the pandemic. However, despite how clearly the participants articulated the ‘what needs to be done’, the ‘how to do it’ seems as elusive as ever. The timeframes in which these challenges need to be addressed don’t allow for idealism or impractical ideas.

The CHF’s purpose is ‘finding and developing solutions to the greatest challenge in human history – the complex of catastrophic global threats that now confront us all’. The ten threats identified are neither surprising or unknown. That the risks need to be ‘understood and analysed as a complex, interconnected system – not as standalone threats, to be dealt with one by one’ is incontestable.

This is an important insight. The roundtable emphasised that the transformations required to address global warming, food insecurity, biodiversity loss, environmental degradation, resource scarcity and wealth inequality must occur simultaneously. However, the interdependent nature of the economic, infrastructure, trade, social, cultural and demographic features shared across the challenges complicate the way forward.

An objective and pragmatic understanding of the obstacles must precede any practical action plan. Thus, some of the key assumptions in the report need exposure. For example, it claims ‘human beings are by nature highly cooperative’.  An assumption central to the idea of ‘a worldwide discussion of the way forward for all of humanity, a discussion in which everyone can at some level participate’.

This discussion, if it could be arranged in practice, would be guaranteed to produce radical disagreement on the relative priority of the threats, the order in which they should be addressed, and how to distribute the costs. Surmounting the growing nationalistic, nativist, and xenophobic movements would be the first hurdle. Groups would differ over which solutions, if found, are nationally, culturally, religiously and ideologically acceptable. They do now. Genuine cooperation would be hampered by another human characteristic: everyone interprets and values facts differently.

The report sees more democracy as the best route to better responses to crises. But it is a particular idealistic version of participatory democracy. The conviction that giving citizens greater participation in policymaking, giving them ‘a stronger role in determining their own future’, would be more efficacious in tackling matters of a complex scientific, social, and ethical nature, hides another assumption: that the rationality of the roundtable participants is universally valid and not socially constructed and culturally specific.

Advocating that ‘it is imperative to share solutions which are inclusive of voices outside of science, business, government and the traditional centres of power’ and ‘to recognise, hear and share, their views, values and solutions’, has a nice ring to it. However, it is deeply idealistic and impractical. The problems involve highly complex scientific and technical matters and their solutions will largely come from experts in the various fields. Assessment of the value of new and innovative approaches is not something that can be shared out among the general population.

The aggregation of knowledge, expertise and authority in executive government in order to marshal, focus and employ resources has to be central to the solutions. It will be absolutely critical to listen to the voices ‘of women, of youth, of First People the world over, of minorities, the poor and physically isolated’ in order to understand the potential impacts on their welfare of any given solution.  But to suggest anybody other than experts and national governments can determine how ‘science funding should be prioritised into disciplines that improve our future prospect of survival by addressing all of the ten threats that have been identified’ is unrealistic.

The vast cooperative global effort the CHF participants propose will not occur. It is not necessary to be a radical realist to recognise the world is becoming more anarchical and there is no overarching body with the authority to make this cooperation eventuate. But even if we allow for the impossible, the timeframes required for any such a transformation in global consciousness, and then to translate the agreed priorities and solutions into actions, means it will all be too late.

A desire to see a humanist renaissance simply ignores the vastly varied circumstances in which different groups of people find themselves, the ways they are governed, and the ways in which groups socially construct their realities. It overlooks the enormous dislocation and suffering the tumultuous changes will bring. There will be winners and losers from addressing the adverse consequences of global warming, food insecurity, population growth, resource scarcity, wealth inequality, biodiversity loss and environmental degradation. That means resistance and dissent.

And it is not that finding solutions to the challenges facing the world is an easy task. It’s not, or otherwise, they would be fixed already. The most likely outcome is that the world will continue to emphasise difference, struggle for advantage and put self over the other. Changing that trajectory cannot be achieved with wish lists that run counter to the entire history of the human species.

The solutions to these challenges will be hard and unpalatable. Resistance should be seen as inevitable. Coercion and confrontation probably also inevitable. The first steps can only come from wealthy states. Any hope of progress will require the restructuring of government and administration in those states to allow for the concentration of human and financial resources to tackle the challenges. Yet, how even this basic step happens is unclear.

The CHF report serves a vital function in bringing the urgency of dealing with the threats to the attention of the public and power brokers. Maintaining the pressure for action is vital. But the real hard work will be in the ‘how’ to fix things.

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