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The Future of Humanity

The Bodington Lecture, University of Leeds, 11 February 2004.

Some of you may have heard of some remarkably gloomy predictions about the future from the Astronomer Royal Sir Martin Rees. In his new book Our Final Century (the publishers removed the question mark after the title), he explores the dangers arising from human inventiveness, folly, wickedness and sheer inadvertence. The ramifications of information technology, nano-technology, nuclear experimentation and the rest have still to be understood and explored. His conclusion is to give our civilization only a 50% chance of survival beyond the end of this century.

I do not necessarily go as far as he does. But I think we forget the ephemeral, chancy, precarious, contingent character of all human civilization, not unlike evolution itself. Things can go backwards as well as forwards. Indeed the only certainty, as Lucretius once said, is change itself.

Let us look briefly at history in the brief patch of warmth since the ending of the last ice age, and then at the world as we are making it. There have been some 30 urban civilizations over the last few thousand years. All eventually crashed. Why? The reasons range from damage to the environmental base on which they rested to the mounting costs in human, economic and organizational terms of maintaining them: in short their complexity. Indeed the multiplication and behaviour of our species can be seen as a case of malignant maladaptation in which a species, like infected tissue in an organism, multiplies out of control, affecting everything else.

As for the present, a recent book on the 20th century was called Something New Under the Sun. Our species has simply never been in this situation before. These points were well brought out in a remarkable Declaration published by over a thousand scientists from the four great global research programmes at Amsterdam in July 2001. There it stated squarely that:

At least we can agree with Crutzen and Stroemer who have named the current epoch the Anthropocene in succession to the Holocene. The Anthropocene began with the industrial revolution a quarter of a millennium ago. Since then living conditions for most people, measured in terms of material wealth and longevity, have greatly improved. But all change has been at a price. While we have been increasing output of goods of all kinds, we have been running down, despoiling and often wasting the resources from which they are derived. If our animal species among millions of others is to survive and prosper, we need to use our unique capacity to think.

There are five obvious things for us to think about: human population increase; degradation of land and accumulation of wastes; water pollution and supply; climate change; and destruction of biodiversity. All are interlinked, and all concern the future of humanity. According to GEO3 (the latest major report from UNEP), the problems of the environment are bad and generally getting worse. That is also the conclusion of a current study by the International Council for Science of its numerous research programmes on the condition of the Earth.

What can we do about this unique combination of problems? What are our prospects? Where do we start from? The fundamental issue is one of values and priorities. There is a clash of cultures.

I suppose that our top priority is to assess the value that we place on the environment. We have to see it as a kind of endowment of natural capital. It is the means by which we live our lives. I do not think that anyone would disagree with the statement by a well-known economist that "the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment". In short without a healthy environment, there can be no healthy economy.

But there is a real difficulty on how to assess health. The ideologues of free trade like to suggest the price mechanism. But as another distinguished economist once remarked: "Markets are superb at setting prices, but incapable of recognizing costs". Prices are indicators. But we have to make sure that they tell the truth about costs. A pricing system should include not only the traditional costs, but also those involved in replacing the resource, and those of the damage that use of the resource may do. We should heed the words of Oystein Dahle, former Vice President of Esso for Norway and the North Sea who once said:

"Socialism collapsed because it did not allow prices to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow prices to tell the ecological truth."

Not surprising since the enormity of the environmental crisis has become clear, efforts have increased to bring greater compatibility between conventional economics and sustainability. Not everything can be given monetary or economic values. How can we value the loss of a species, or such ecological services as the air we breathe? We need to measure wealth, welfare and the human condition in different terms. There is no universal blue print.

Perhaps our next priority should be better understanding and care of the Earth and its living systems of which we are such a small but immodest part. Hence the importance of the current Millennium Ecosystem Assessment due to report next year, and - in the next ten years - the Tree of Life project to demonstrate relationships between organisms by descent. One of the lessons of Gaia theory is while life itself may be, as Lynn Margulis put it, "a tough bitch", Gaia has no particular tenderness for humans.

Certainly we need to assess more accurately the human capacity for harm to ourselves as well as to other organisms. Here the applications and misapplications of science and technology are crucial. Big changes will come in how we derive our energy as we tackle climate change and exhaust our viable fossil fuels. Solar, wind and biomass will all become more common. Nuclear fusion technology is on the horizon. The hydrogen fuel cell may replace the internal combustion engine.

But technology is a double-edged sword, often throwing up unexpected consequences, sometimes graver than the difficulties they were meant to resolve. The chlorofluorocarbon (or CFC) story is a good illustration. Once thought harmless, they led to depletion of the cover which protects us from certain wavelengths of ultra-violet radiation, and in addition are a powerful greenhouse gas. Sir Martin Rees is particularly concerned about the risks associated with genetic modification, nano-technology and nuclear energy. There have been one or two possible near-misses in the past.

This brings me to prospects for our future. Let us assume that we survive this century. In peering further ahead it may be useful to jump a few hundred years, accepting that our ability to look even twenty years ahead is extremely limited. If statistical projections from the past have value, there will certainly have been some sudden disruptions before 2500, whether volcanic explosions, earthquakes, impacts of extraterrestrial objects, or even destructive wars using unimaginably horrible weapons. The global ecosystem will be very different, as after other extinction episodes in geological history. Human health will be affected by the development and spread of new pathogens.

How our successors, if there be such, will react to these new circumstances we cannot predict. We must always expect the unexpected. But it is hard to believe that there will be anything like current human numbers in cities or elsewhere. It has been suggested that an optimum population for the Earth in terms of its resources would be nearer to 2.5 billion rather than - as now - 6.2 billion and still rising. Communities are likely to be more dispersed without the daily tides of people flowing in and out of cities for work. People may even wonder what all those roads were for.

At present about 20% of the world's people consume between 70% and 80% of its resources. That 20% enjoy about 45% of its meat and fish, and use 68% of electricity (most generated from fossil fuels), 84% of paper, and 87% of cars. This must change. The dividing line between rich and poor is not only between countries but also within them. Already the geographical divide between North and South, or so called developed and developing countries, has become increasingly meaningless as new élites in such countries as India and China acquire similar purchasing power to the middle classes in industrial countries.

Increased meat consumption by middle class Chinese already threatens to perturb world grain markets as more cereal is needed for cattle feed. Greater prosperity in such countries as China and India is good, the increased draw on global resources is not. Better ways of sharing must be found world wide. Happy middle classes are good for stability; insular, wealthy elites are not. The major rift then as now may be between the globalized rich and the localized poor.

There is also the possibility, however sinister, of differentiation of the human species. H.G. Wells invented Eloi and Morlocks (those up above and those down below), and at the time, more than a century ago, it seemed an amusing fantasy. No longer. Redesigning humans has become a real possibility. Through genetic manipulation humans could split into distinct varieties and over time into subspecies. It is worth remembering how vulnerable even the Eloi were. Some of these ideas were explored by Lee Silver in his book Remaking Eden in 1998.

Then there is the development of information technology and its myriad implications for our lifestyles. On the one hand humans may take enormous advantage from such technology and thereby be liberated from many current drudgeries. On the other hand they may become dangerously vulnerable to its breakdown, and thereby lose an essential measure of self-sufficiency. Already dependence on computers to run our complex systems, and reliance on electronic information transfer, are having alarming effects.

Here industrial countries are far more vulnerable than others. Just look at the effects of single and temporary power cuts. More than ever individuals feel out of control of even the elementary aspects of their lives. Some of the more alarming possibilities are explored in Susan Greenfield's new book Tomorrow's People. Indeed she asks whether human nature, as we know it, can survive.

The implications for governance reach equally wide. Already there is a movement of power away from the nation state: upwards to global institutions and corporations to deal with global issues; downwards to communities of human dimension; and sideways by electronic means between citizens everywhere. There is a wide range of possibilities including forms of dictatorship and disaggregation of society.

In looking for some form of global governance for the common good there is much that needs to change. The one world superpower is not leading us where we need or want to go. Global institutions are still feeble by comparison. The United Nations is fundamentally an association of sovereign states, even if real sovereignty is leaking away from them all the time.

Beyond and above the international debating society which is the UN General Assembly is the Security Council for the regulation of peace and war; the International Court of Justice to which few states now risk submitting their disputes; the numerous Specialized Agencies and Associated Bodies with poor co-ordination between them; then the multilateral corporations, the banks, the media controllers, the drug empires, the criminal syndicates and others, essentially outside the current system; the non governmental organizations which, though unaccountable except to their members, try to represent the citizens' interest, particularly in the field of the environment and human rights; and now increasingly the information systems of the internet and the world wide web, also outside the system.

The problems of politics will be as difficult as they are today: how to ensure greater citizen participation without creating chaos; how to establish forms of accountability to ensure that governance is by broad consent; and how to establish checks and balances to protect the public interest, and ensure enforcement without abuse.

There is a rough ride ahead. In a complex world, there is an obvious temptation simply to switch off and turn to bread and circuses. Education will be vital. Every individual must feel that he and she can do something and take increased responsibility for their actions. Governance cannot protect the public interest if the public neither know, nor care, what that wider interest may be.

Let us hope that by then humans will have worked out and will practice an ethical system in which the natural world has value not only for human welfare but also for and in itself. They may also be involved in spreading life beyond the Earth and colonizing Mars or other planets. The opportunities for our species seem as boundless as the hazards. But the time may well come when the hazards become overwhelming. What would the world be like without us? Some have imagined rats as big as dogs, pigeons as big as turkeys, and a whole new zoo of micro-organisms. The tough bitch who is Gaia would take new forms which - by definition - we will never see.

T. H. Huxley once wrote, "I am too much of a sceptic to deny the possibility of anything". Such scepticism may be wise, but it does not allow us to opt out of making choices, and we may have to make many if we are to bequeath a healthy Earth to our children and grandchildren. In the future people could well look back on us today as a messy, short-sighted, wasteful, crude and aggressive lot. Is that what we are? In the meantime as Boswell remarked to the philosopher, cheerfulness will keep breaking in.

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