Solving humanity's greatest risks

Julian Cribb
3 Jun 2018

Address to Royal Society for the Arts Online Conference on Human Survival, by Julian Cribb

Nowadays I find myself meeting more and more people – scientists, concerned grandparents and thoughtful millennials especially – who are wondering aloud whether we are now in the endgame of human history.

Is the 21st century likely to be our last, as a civilization – or maybe even as a species?

My response as a science journalist to this profound existential question is not to say yes or no, but rather: let’s see what the evidence – the latest and best science – is telling us.

Without doubt, humanity is facing the sternest challenge in the history of our species: how we deal with the ten huge, man-made threats now building up around us.

These ten intersecting risks are: ecological collapse, resource depletion, weapons of mass destruction, climate change, global poisoning, food insecurity, population and urban expansion, pandemic disease, and uncontrollable new technologies. They are assisted by a prodigious capacity for human self-delusion.

Put them together and what you have is the focal issue of our time.

Consider the following.

Eco-collapse

In just 40 years we have exterminated half the world’s large wild animals on land and at sea. Today humans and their livestock make up 97 per cent of all terrestrial vertebrates on the planet, by weight – and wildlife, only 3 per cent. Present rates of extinction are 100-1000 times what is normal for Earth

We are in the words of the great biologist E.O.Wilson, ‘Tearing down the biosphere’, demolishing the very home that keeps us alive.

Resources

The world is running critically short of key resources such as water, soil, phosphorus and timber. Not only have human numbers quadrupled in the past century, but each of us now consumes ten times more resources than did our great grandparents.

This slide shows what you, personally, will use in your lifetime.

WMD

Climate models indicate that detonating just 50-100 small nuclear weapons would crash world food supplies and end civilisation in a nuclear winter.

Eight nations now have that power.

Climate

2 degrees of global warming are almost certainly ‘locked in’. and +4-5 degrees is likely if we keep burning fossil fuels.

However, there is real danger that vast stores of natural methane now starting to leak from the ocean bed, the tundra and tropical swamps could cause runaway warming of +9-10 degrees.

Over this, humans would have no control.

Toxic planet

The whole planet is currently immersed in a toxic tide of 250 billion tonnes of human chemical emissions – five times the scale of our climate emissions.

This kills 9 million people a years, exposes every child and adult, and affects all other life on Earth.

Food security

Our need for food will double by the 2060s – but key resources like soil and water needed to supply it are set to halve. With climate change, the existing model of world food production faces severe challenges by mid-century.

Uncontrolled technology

Other major existential threats loom - including pandemics of new diseases, megacity collapse and the unregulated use of new technologies like artificial intelligence, killer robots and global mass surveillance. 

Beliefs

Among our greatest risks is the capacity of humans, as Voltaire put it, to believe whatever we like.

Four great beliefs systems – money, politics, religion and the human narrative – stand between us and a realistic grasp of our situation.

They must all be brought to acknowledge it if we are to survive.

Solutions

The point I wish to emphasise is that solutions to all these risks exist.

All of them are capable of being mitigated and brought under control, through concerted worldwide action and changes in human behaviour, beliefs and consumption habits.

However, these risks cannot be solved one at a time, as solving one often involves making another risk worse. For example: trying to feed the world by clearing more land and using more fossil fuels and chemicals will only destroy the climate, the biosphere and human health. Wiser solutions are needed

Therefore, the solutions to existential risk have to be crosscutting.

They must mitigate the threat in all ten of the main areas of danger.

This is the missing element in the global debate.

Indeed, it is the very reason humanity is now in trouble: our immense technical success in fossil fuels, medicine, mining and food production has bred our present dilemma.

The answer is not to do more of the same.

Circular economy

These cross-cutting solutions include building a circular world economy.

One that wastes nothing, recycles everything, mines nothing anew and no longer pollutes.

A growth economy that runs on ideas, creativity and knowledge – not on material goods.

Urban food

A vital solution is to transfer half of global food production back into cities, recycling all their wasted water and nutrients into new food and new jobs.

It is to redesign cities as truly green – enabling them to feed themselves in a hot, climate-driven world, as they cannot do today.

Rewilding

Producing half the world’s food in cities will free up 25 million square kilometres of the planet – an area the size of North America – to turn back into wilderness.

Under the stewardship of today’s farmers and indigenous peoples this will help end the Sixth Extinction.

The energy revolution is already under way, powering the next great phase of economic growth and development.

But it will only be complete when we have entirely eliminated all fossil fuels.

This will both reverse global warning – and also end the present poisoning of every child on the planet.

There are two essential solutions – without which all others may be in vain.

Think as a species

The key to our survival in the 21st Century may lie in our ability to think, not just as individuals but as a species.

In the second trimester of a baby’s gestation a marvellous thing happens: the cells in the embryonic brain begin to connect – and a mind is born. An inanimate mass of tissue becomes a sentient being, capable of thought, imagination, memory, logic, feelings and dreams.

Today individual humans are connecting, at lightspeed, around a planet – just like the neurons in the foetal brain. We are crossing all the boundaries that formerly divided us.

We are in the process of creating a universal, Earth-sized ‘mind’. Through thousands of organisations on the internet and social media, tens of millions of people are now joining hands and sharing ideas, information, values and solutions.

Humans are learning to think at supra-human level by applying millions of minds simultaneously to the issues, in real time, by sharing our knowledge freely and by generating faster global consensus on what needs to be done to secure our future.

The citizens of Earth are starting to think and act together – albeit cautiously and often fractiously.

But this is still a very wonderful thing.

It is an evolution that will drive government, corporations, economic and social institutions as nothing ever has in the past.

It is planetary democracy in action.

It will replace the failing nation states, the tyranny of transnationals, the fantasy of world government.

It will be unstoppable – and it will decide the human future.

Role of women

My second essential pillar for human survival is the question of who will lead.

In writing my books on the food crisis and the chemical deluge, it became abundantly clear that most of today’s destructive behaviour is primarily by males. 

It is males, not females, who start wars.

It is males who release the most carbon and toxic chemicals.

Who clearfell the forests, plunder and pollute the oceans, create deserts, slaughter wildlife.

Men like to solve their problems quickly, using machines, weapons and chemistry – and to hell with the consequences.

Men built modern society through the bronze, iron and computer ages – and that society is now at risk from its own success.

Women on the other hand, tend to be more cautious. They often consider the needs of coming generations.

They do not as a rule start wars or pillage the biosphere. They prefer to nurture, repair, preserve, heal, pacify and educate.

This isn’t stereotyping. It’s an observation about how different kinds of humans think.

To survive in the 21st Century, with ten billion people packed on a hot planet on which all resources and systems are stressed, we will all need to think more like women – and less like traditional males.

To secure the human future, women must lead – in business, politics, religion, society.

Please be clear, this isn’t an argument about feminism or gender equity.

It’s about the basic rules for human survival in this new and threatening world we are creating.

Survival index

Survival is the one thing you’d imagine most people would agree on.

But the issue is almost entirely absent from our political, economic and social discourse.

As a species, we are sleepwalking to disaster.

So what we most need is a simple way for everyone to see the reality of our situation – a measure of our risk and of common efforts to make our world safer and more sustainable.

This is the Humans Survival Index.

It should be on every news bulletin, social media outlet and smart phone on the planet.

Conclusion

In conclusion: we need science and social media to alert humanity to the risks we face - and to the practical solutions that already exist.

To find out more about these, and the science behind them, I invite you to read ‘Surviving the 21st Century’.

We need to transition our values, our industries, our economy and society to safe, clean, healthy and sustainable ways to live.

And to lead us to a place of safety, humanity now needs the Age of Women.

ends

 

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