For those who are alert to global ‘signals of change’ what I call the ‘global emergency’ (and what others refer to as the ‘megacrisis’) has not sprung upon the world unannounced. It has been building steadily for several decades. In fact one of the first attempts to pull together a systematic overview of global change was published in 1972. As some readers will realise I’m referring here to the Limits to Growth study presented to the Club of Rome that year. It was subjected to determined abuse that, in the light of subsequent work, looks increasingly wrong-headed and bizarre. It can be quite shocking to realise that more than forty years have passed since then. Over that time a great deal of collective intelligence has been devoted to understanding global change, where it is tending and what it means for humanity. For example one of the most significant works was published in 2003. Edited by Will Steffen, and with dozens of contributors from numerous countries, Global Change and the Earth System provided a panoramic and scientifically coherent summary of our knowledge at that point. Its conclusions are worth pondering and included the following:
- The impact of human activities on the global atmosphere is unmistakable and profound;
- Human-driven changes are pushing the Earth System well outside its normal operating range; and,
- The last 50 years have without doubt seen the most rapid transformation of the human relationship with the natural world in the history of humankind.
One cannot deny that these are challenging and difficult messages to hear. Moreover they have been clarified and extended by a significant body of literature and research from many different fields. (See other items on this weblog, including the section on ‘Action Resources.’) The central issue and dilemma of our time is that by far the greater part of humanity remains in a state of uncompromising denial.
Broadly speaking we simply do not want to know about the great global changes that are already exerting significant costs upon people, other species, natural systems and, indeed, the planet itself. Instead of mobilising to protect ourselves and to secure a viable world for future generations we’ve squandered another decade in fruitless evasion. Ignoring signals of change seems to come naturally to human beings who, as has been pointed out many times, evolved under very different conditions. But in passively accepting that fact we become complicit in constructing the very trap within which our civilisation now stands. I, like a number of others, have written at some length about this – not merely to describe but also to explore a variety of responses. One of these deals with ‘descent pathways’. You can find out more about the special issue of Foresight that I co-edited with Josh Floyd here on the Publications page. Another outstanding contribution appeared early in 2022 and is included with permission of the author, Richard Eckersley, whom I’ve known for many years. His piece brings new clarity to some of the most contested issues of our time and also draws attention to the value of multi-disciplinary research and writing.
The deep divide between the American people and mainstream politics and media
A dangerous gulf exists between Americans’ concerns about their lives, their country and their future, and the priorities, proclivities and pre-occupations of the country’s mainstream politics and news media. This is, to varying extents, also the predicament of other Western democracies. The paper focuses on the US because of its dominant global position, and because its situation is arguably more dire. It draws on several decades of research and synthesis on human progress, health and wellbeing to argue America’s political and journalistic cultures are too ‘short-sighted’ and ‘narrow-minded’ to address the nation’s challenges and problems. These are ‘existential’ in that they both materially and physically threaten human existence, and also undermine people’s sense of confidence and certainty about life. We need to change the ‘idea’ of progress, and to do that we must change the ‘idea’ of politics and journalism. Political debate needs to incorporate and reflect all the complexity and depth of today’s challenges, to encourage the conceptual space for a transformation in our worldview, beliefs and values as profound as any in human history. Read more.
‘Megacrisis’ session at the World Future Society meeting in Toronto, Canada, 2012
In July 2012 I took part in a special session on the topic of the global emergency, or ‘megacrisis,’ at a World Future Society conference in Toronto, Canada. Four speakers provided an overview of their thinking and outlined a variety of suggestions for ways forward: Michael Marien, William Halal, myself and Thomas Homer-Dixon. A robust discussion followed. Five clips of the session are presented here in the Videos section. Have a look at them yourself and make up your own mind. You might also want to look up the review I wrote of Karen Higg’s superb and painstakingly researched book Collision Course: Endless Growth on a Finite Planet (M.I.T. 2014). You can find it here.
A variety of ‘action resources’ from presentations I’ve given over the last few years can be found on my weblog. Most of them are brief. To locate them: click here. If there’s a single source that summarises the essentials of what I refer to as the global emergency it is this overview by Paul and Anne Ehrlich: Ehrlich, P. & A. Can a collapse of global civilisation be avoided? Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biol Sciences, 2013 280, 20122845, 9 January. You can find it here.