Can we survive the 21st century?

Stephen Hawkins thinks we will probably go extinct on this planet if we don’t find a new one within 1000 years. Science writer extraordinaire Julian Cribb wonders whether we will make it past 2100.

His book Surviving the 21st Century: Humanity’s Ten Great Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them poses the ten existential challenges facing Homo sapiens, and answers each one. It is a book of solutions, severally and collectively.


So here are the ten challenges from an overview article by the man himself published in lots of places, for example at the SMH and at Online Opinion:

  • ecological collapse,
  • resource depletion,
  • weapons of mass destruction,
  • global warming,
  • global poisoning,
  • food insecurity,
  • population and urban expansion,
  • pandemic disease,
  • dangerous new technologies
  • and self-delusion.

I haven’t yet read the book, this positive review says I must.

Apparently it has plenty ‘Hey Martha, listen to this!’ moments, for example:

    What consumes 10 kg of topsoil, 800 litres of fresh water, 1.3 litres of diesel, a third of a gram of pesticide and causes 3.5 kg of carbon dioxide to enter the air? Answer: the last meal you ate. Now multiply that by all the meals you’ve consumed and all the people on Earth. No wonder we have a problem. As Cribb puts it, ‘the human jawbone is among the most destructive of implements on the planet’.

Or this:

    Over a lifetime each of us uses 100,000 tonnes of fresh water, 750 tonnes of soil, 720 tonnes of metals, five billion energy units and emits 300 tonnes of greenhouse gas.

This one shocked me:

    Every day, every child on our planet is poisoned by man-made toxins. We, and indeed all life on Earth, are mired in a toxic swamp of 250 billion tonnes of annual chemical emissions from human activity. They are in our food, water, the air we breathe, our homes, vehicles, schools and workplaces, in wildlife, the oceans, in our bodies and even in our genes. Medical evidence is piling up of damage to human intelligence, gender, reproduction and health.

China in particular has poisoned its air, its soil and its water, but there is no escaping this chemical bath anywhere on the planet.

He says:

    There is an answer, though not an easy one: it is for consumers worldwide to reject toxic goods and foods, and to reward only companies and farmers who produce clean, safe products.

Countering entrenched commercial interests will not be easy. As with the 90 companies that produce most of the CO2 that will give us temperatures of +5-10 degrees centigrade, they exert influence and even pay off politicians.

Ostensibly the solutions are not that hard. For example, we need to:

    move half the world’s food production into cities and recycle nutrients and water, and then “re-wild” about half the land mass under the wise management of indigenous people and farmers. It is to gradually replace mining with mineral recycling, and cease releasing toxins. It is to replace fossil fuels with renewables.

He says the biggest problem is in our minds. Pope Francis, in his encyclical Laudato Si, has shown that religion can be re-dedicated to human survival. Now it is essential that money, politics and the human narrative are similarly reinvented.

He identifies two extremely hopeful developments.

    The first is the emerging ability to “think as a species” by sharing knowledge, values and solutions through the internet This is reshaping, for all time and for the better, our ability to co-operate around the planet.

    The second is the emergence of women as leaders in all walks of society. Women, as a rule, do not start wars, dig coal, ravage landscapes, plunder the oceans, obliterate other species and knowingly poison their offspring. They think about the children, the grandchildren, and their future needs. Women have already started to curb future population growth by reducing the birthrate worldwide. Feminine thought – by males as well as females – is a key to our future survival.

So there you have it. A lot of Cribb’s articles seem to appear at Online Opinion, where you can find them collected, at least up to 2013.

George Monbiot has also identified 13 challenges facing us, starting with Donald Trump. Here’s a ‘Hey Martha’ from George:

Back to Stephen Hawkins, scientists have found thousands of earth-like planets, so-called ‘exoplanets’, including one dubbed Proxima b, which orbits the star Proxima Centauri, a little more than four light years away from our sun. Current rocket technology would take us 76,000 years one way, but Hawkins thinks that we can improve on that, given another 100 years. Meanwhile, he says, take care.

13 thoughts on “Can we survive the 21st century?”

  1. What a lovely set of possibilities:

    pandemic disease
    atomic war
    global warming
    dangerous new technologies
    population growth

    I put self delusion at the top because this is what will stop us doing what we need to do about some of the other things on the list.
    I then put disease and atomic war next because both are things that could blow up suddenly without much warning. (Think what would have happened if a slow incubating disease like HIV had spread like the flu before anyone realized it was going to kill people.)
    I put global warming and population growth further down because we might see the crisis building slowly and may even decide to do something about them before it is too late.
    And dangerous technologies? Plenty of scope for paranoia here. A GM food we all get to love that turns out to make the next generation infertile? Some equivalent of the program that took over GO that runs real wars instead.
    Have a nice night’s sleep.

  2. I’d be interested in what Cribb sees as dangerous technologies. I suppopse I’ll have to read the book!

    Could be AI, but one that scares me is gene editing technology.

    I think the biggest problem is that all the problems are beyond the capacity of individual nations acting separately to resolve. There is a tendency to retreat behind national boundaries (Brexit, Trump), where we think we may have control, but we don’t.

  3. Brian: Gene editing could create an enormous crisis if done with evil intent or simply without the right checks and balances. Problem is that it is not really under control in any country let alone the wider world.
    In more general terms some of the potential contributing factors to the potential world crisis include:
    1. Population growth. (On the plus side, most developed countries would have declining population if there was no net immigration. Boosting women’s education and the welfare needed to eliminate the need for large families to provide welfare.)
    2. Mechanisms that reduce the power of individual countries to control what is going on within those countries and crossing their borders coupled with international organizations with teeth.)
    3. Too much emphasis on the short term in both business and politics.
    4. A lack of mechanisms to share the impact of the negative effects that doing some of the things we need to do. This is needed at both the individual, business, country and international level.

  4. The ‘dangerous technologies’ discussed in my book are: AI, gene editing (especially when used to create new diseases, or variants of old ones) and quantum computing, which will enable total surveillance if every individual from birth to death. This will tend to chill or suppress dissent of any kind, including on existential risks like climate, nuclear etc. Julian Cribb

  5. The book also discusses how humans can solve these things without relying on ‘nations’, which in my view are yesterday’s system of self- organisation.

  6. Thanks, Julian. First comments by anyone new to the blog are auto-moderated, so the software should like you from now on.

    I find the comment about ‘nations’ especially interesting. People take them for granted. I’ll definitely have to read the book!

  7. Julian: It is worth remembering that car emissions worldwide were improved world wide when California set new and challenging standards that car manufacturers had to meet if they wanted to do business in California. Once car manufacturers demonstrated that they could meet the California standard the standard spread to the rest of the world. Would be harder to do now because either the fanatics at the WTO would have acted on behalf of some international company and blocked the unilateral change in the name of free trade.
    Progress would move a lot faster if individual countries were able to act without being held back while we waited for international organizations to act.

  8. George Monbiot says (paraphrased) “I write this not to depress you, but to focus the mind on the challenge”. Well nothing focusses the mind faster than an earthquake.

    Most commentators are yet to come to terms with the hidden danger of climate change,….geological destabalisation from mass shifts due to sea level rise.

    To my thinking the evidence suggests that the compressional earthquakes to come will very much be in places where earthquakes are largely unexpected. The Chirstchurch earthquake, for instance occurred well away from NZ’s Alpine Fault in an area thought to be benign. Not only that the nature of the earth movement was vertical, as you expect from compression, and massively damaging. The Newcastle earthquake could very well have been a similarly caused event.

    I think we need to get used to the news of massive destruction of built up areas. The shear weight of our cities may very well be singling them out as target areas as compressional stress trigger points in the earth’s crust as it comes under load from sea level rise. So far just a 130 cm’s, imagine what a metre will do.

  9. I haven’t looked into it yet, but someone was telling me that the “Ring of Fire” has lit up like a Christmas tree in recent years.

  10. Can we survive the 21st century?
    I think as a species we’ll be lucky to make it to the end of the century, let alone survive it. It’s a pity, there’s a lot to like in humans, but taken en masse they are really, really stupid.

  11. This is not an easy comment to make for couple of reasons. First, it is counter intuitive to think outside the polarised popular view of the world. In particular so when the topic is conventionally loaded within thinly veiled emotive context. With BilB’s paraphrasing of George Monbiot’s rational for his article in mind let me ask how do we “focus” on probabilities of risks and their possible prevention? Similar with the headline of this post, who are “we” in that context and what constitutes “survival”?
    Second, if outside the box thinking about existential threats is difficult then communicating such is even more difficult. And yet paradoxically, if the Climate Change issue and the comment section of Cribb and Monbiot’s article is any indication, then we need to improve our communication about pressing global existential risks, if we want a chance to work through them successfully.

    Anyone who has had to come to terms with complex medical conditions, with various variables like probability of natural outcomes, as well as various medical interventions and risks thereof, can probably relate to my point about the importance and difficulty of non emotive thinking and clear communication about the options one has available under the circumstances. That is not to say, that there is no room for emotions, such as griev or hope, when coming to terms with such challenging issues. However, these should be based on sound rational foundations and not detract from them.

    One of the most effective and best evidence based psychological intervention is Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT). It makes the point, that often we make irrational assumptions or decisions because we habitually let our emotive psychological response system free reign without first checking with the more rational cognitive response system. Partly that is due to an evolutionary quirky direct link between our emotional response and action system akin to the reptilian fight or flight responses. CBT research and application thereof has profoundly proven that such unproductive reflexive responses can be successfully challenged and replaced with more rational responses. However, such relearning needs to be systematically implemented and require deep insights, particularly with regards to the emotional repertoire and the games we play with ourselves and others. Psychiatrist Aaron Beck has studied and listed the ways people can get things out of perspective. His research shows that our feelings are in proportion to how we describe events and situations, rather than to the rational problem these pose. He outlined seven basic common mis-interpretations and conclusions. in short this are black and white thinking, filtering information by ignoring alternative evidence, overgeneralisation, jumping to conclusions (fundamental attribution error, etc), adopting forgone conclusions, emotional reasoning (because you feel in a certain way proves this is how it is) and self consciously personalising an issue.

    It is my sincere believe that, if we wish to “survive” the 21st century, then we must first and foremost learn to recognise and deal with our emotional responses, in order to address these pressing issues rationally. I would argue, that the demonstrated general display of hopelessness and the opposite emotional response of rejection evoked by the climate change debate are one of the major contributors to the debilitating inaction to that regard.

  12. A belated thankyou Ootz for your long and considered response.

    John Howard stated in 2013:

    that he was an “agnostic” on climate, and preferred to rely on his “instincts”.

    So for a time towards the end of his PMship he adopted climate change policies because of political pragmatism, not because he felt they were necessary. It appears thought didn’t come into it, unless to serve politics.

    Just not good enough, and the present leadership is arguably worse. It’s no wonder Australians are losing interest in science.

    Yes, there are other reasons, but people’s behaviour in public office has an effect.

    I’ve read good things about CBT and understand that you can use it yourself with the aid of the internet with about equal probability of benefit as when using a psych.

    Personally I use a variant of a yoga meditation technique I learnt in the 1980s which they called ‘quietening of the mind’. I won’t go into it in detail, because probably no-one is interested as such. I’m suspicious of the popular ‘Mindfulness’ not as practiced by the experienced meditators, rather as popularly adopted. Every time I hear it described, people seem to be paying too much attention and giving too much weight to random emotions that show up.

    But it’s an issue better pursued in person if anyone is interested.

    Problem is, Ootz, that people enjoy their strong emotions, even anger and hate, and don’t see the need for personal change.

  13. Yes that was a good essay from Ootz, Brian.

    I would answer the question of who are the “we” in the survival question, with the “we” are the survivors. The real question is how many are “we”, and in what condition. as to the non survivors, the trend is that they are remembered as an event, “the great extinction” for instance. Or perhaps “the Great Anthopocene Reduction” for human kind.

    Brian, I know people who fit your notion “people enjoy their strong emotions, even anger and hate, and don’t see the need for personal change” , and now that you have put it out there as a “thing”, I am going to have think about that seriously rather than shut it out.

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