Introduction by Croakey: As the world continues to struggle to control the coronavirus pandemic and its devastating economic, health and social impacts, a high profile group called the Commission for the Human Future on Wednesday issued an urgent global call to action.
The group, headed by former Liberal leader John Hewson, calls on “the nations and people of the Earth” to join together in overcoming the ten great catastrophic risks which it identified in its new report, Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century.
These risks are:
- Decline of key natural resources and an emerging global resource crisis, especially in water
- Collapse of ecosystems that support life, and the mass extinction of species
- Human population growth and demand, beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity
- Global warming, sea level rise and changes in the Earth’s climate affecting all human activity
- Universal pollution of the Earth system and all life by chemicals
- Rising food insecurity and failing nutritional quality
- Nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction
- Pandemics of new and untreatable disease
- Advent of powerful, uncontrolled new technologies
- National and global failure to understand and act preventively on these risks.
The Commission’s secretary, retired epidemiologist Professor Bob Douglas wrote in The Canberra Times that the group grew out of discussions at the Australian National University, stimulated in 2017 by the not-for-profit think tank Australia21.
It convened a roundtable of 37 leading Australian scientists and thinkers to consider 10 mega-threats to human survival, who concluded, he said, we have no more than 10 years to “reverse the deadly trend towards human extinction and offer our progeny a reprieve, and even the prospect of a rich and exciting future”.
Cardiologist and consultant physician Dr Arnagretta Hunter is a Human Futures Fellow at ANU College Health & Medicine, and a board member of the Commission. Below, she reflects on the challenge arising from the report: Why you should think about the future of humanity, and do it today.
Arnagretta Hunter writes:
Why you should think about the future of humanity, and do it today.
Much has been written about the position in which we find ourselves in 2020.
The narrative is remarkable, starting with the climate crisis, particularly extraordinary bushfires in Australia following on from a devastating drought. And now the pandemic. And the shutdown.
We are facing a global recession the likes of which we’ve not previously experienced. Everyone affected in some way; it really is the case that we’ve not faced events like this before, so much of 2020 is unprecedented.
So what next? There is a strong desire for things to go back to normal. Many are asking ‘when will our old lives return?’. The nostalgia for what has been lost can be overwhelming. And yet nostalgia won’t aid us in our recovery.
We have been changed. We were changed by the devastating summer and now by social isolation and pandemic disease. Our society, our economy, our relationships are all altered. We are now faced with decisions personally, professionally, nationally and internationally about ‘where to from here?’
There are a few key elements this discussion.
First, there are a range of serious catastrophic and often existential risks that both currently threaten human wellbeing and may yet pose a threat.
Risks of climate change and environmental degradation with loss of natural resources are all apparent across the globe.
We understand the risk of pandemic disease, and we still understand the risks of war particularly with the use of nuclear weapons.
Poorly regulated use of technology and artificial intelligence warrants some thought as do the challenges we face with misinformation and the failure of our systems to appreciate the potential risks we face.
Some of these threats are clearly with us now, some are subtly present and some of these risks may yet emerge.
And threats to humanity are interdependent.
Talking about life and death
For example, the coronavirus pandemic leads to economic stress which increases the likelihood of conflict and decreases the global carbon footprint. Action for one threat, can change the balance for others.
It feels intense. These are discussions about life and death, about how and where we work, about our friends, families and relationships, about our lives now and well into the future for generations to come.
Each aspect of this discussion can be overwhelming, and yet every element of this affects your life personally. Inspiring confidence for community engagement in complex problems and difficult issues is an integral ingredient for excellence in civil society.
Understanding the unprecedented nature of where we find ourselves now adds weight to the need for imagination in our response now to the pandemic crisis and the environmental challenges that are still at play.
The solutions we will find draw on human history and social evolution, but radical transformation is underway and the world ahead will look quite different.
So now is an extraordinary time for imagination. Drawing on the elements of life that sustain us, and understanding the issues that can threaten us, we can begin a new design for the human future.
We can imagine collaboration and an inclusive society, a world in which we protect the natural environment that sustains us. A world in which there is no nuclear weapons. A world in which we have a deeper understanding of the symbiosis between people and planet and our individual roles in the broader tapestry of the planet.
Utopian? Without addressing the catastrophic and existential threats that face us there is much suffering and destruction ahead, already 2020 has offered us several perspectives on a dystopian future.
Anthropomorphic climate change will test the limits of human survivability, perhaps before the end of this century.
Radical action is required, rethinking and resetting the nature of our relationships, economic and social. And these variables are up for discussion as this the place in which we find ourselves in responding to the viral pandemic we confront today.
2020 will be remembered in so many vivid and often awful ways. It can also be the year of transformative imagination and extraordinary human growth. We should have confidence in this discussion. We should all have role and a voice in this discussion. We should consider a broad range of options, testing how that affects risks and benefits individually and on a global scale.
The decisions aren’t made yet, it’s the discussion that starts today.