Jenny Goldie

The Biggest Wake-Up Call in History

The human race is challenged as never before. We are in the middle of a planetary emergency with ‘no simple solutions, no easy exits’. The only way forward is to deal with it otherwise our children will be condemned to a diminished and unliveable world. We have precious little time to act if we are to avoid the worst outcomes – a world unfit for life, including humans. The only way out of this, as E O Wilson suggests, is through science and technology, combined with foresight and moral courage. This is an extraordinarily well-researched book by internationally recognised futurist Richard Slaughter. It’s written for the layman, yet the bibliography contains 247 references. Many are by his fellow Australians including Charles Birch, Clive Hamilton, Tim Flannery, Graham Turner and Will Steffen.

In Part 1, Slaughter outlines the challenges to civilisation as we know it. The biggest three threats to humankind are loss of biodiversity, climate change and peak oil. But others include the depletion of nonrenewable resources, sea-level rises, scarcity of freshwater, disruption to traditional ways of life, forced migrations, and new sources of conflict. In other words, ‘humanity is eroding the foundations of life on planet earth and undermining its own existence and that of many other species’. Peak oil, coupled with climate change, will completely alter the conditions of life everywhere.

This is not a book about population per se but he does refer early in the book to the ‘hyper-growth’ period of human expansion that ‘has taken place without any real concern for the health of the rest of the natural world’. And he pulls no punches as to what will happen if climate change is not mitigated. With rising oceans, increased storm and hurricanes, human migration and conflict on an unprecedented scale, the ability of the global system to support current population levels would rapidly diminish. A human die-off on this scale would not only be a catastrophe in its own right, it could also exacerbate impacts on other species…for decades and perhaps centuries to come.

The ultimate problem is how to deal with growth in a finite system. It is growth that is driving us towards overshoot and collapse yet the growth imperative is the powering dynamic of the capitalist system. He quotes CSIRO’s Dr Graham Turner’s work on evaluating Limits to Growth and on how well the various scenarios compared with subsequent trends in the real world. Unfortunately, the observed data for 1970-2000 mostly matches the outputs for the ‘standard run’ scenario, one that results in global collapse before the middle of the century.

Can we avoid such a scenario? Part 2 explores the ways we might avert disaster or at least navigate the descent from our high-tech, rapid-growth, high-energy existence. As one who is unfamiliar with philosophical literature and its terms, I found this a little more difficult to read though Slaughter writes clearly enough. Using the Integral framework which is based on four quadrants (interior/ individual; interior/collective; exterior individual; exterior/collective), new approaches to solving global warming and the other problems can be made. Traditionally, solutions have focused on the ‘exterior/collective’ quadrant, namely new technology, improved infrastructure, urban redesign and so on. What Slaughter seeks to do is to focus on the other quadrants and tap into the human and cultural resources that have previously not been deemed useful.

With the Integral approach, there are six colour-coded levels of development. They provide fresh ways of looking at ways we might respond to the planetary problems. These are red: egocentric and exploitative (survival of the fittest); amber: absolutist and authoritarian (strong government and strictly enforced rules); orange: multiplistic and strategic (entrepreneurial intelligence will allow us to survive); green: relativistic and consensual (the communities of the world can now work together to seek progress through harmony and love); teal: systemic and integral (with so much individual and collective capacity, we can shift civilisation to a new level of complexity); and turquoise: holistic and ecological (the breakdown of the world order will be painful but the new order will be based on principles of ‘enoughness’).

No singular solution, no magic bullet, to the global problems that confront us is likely. Rather, a ‘multitude of measures that transform energy systems, economics, social systems, economic systems and institutions at an unprecedented rate and scale’. By the time he gets to his conclusion, Slaughter writes: “…we have to face reality, for we are indeed out of time”.

This is a serious book that deserves wide readership.

Published in Sustainable Population Australia Newsletter, April 2012, p. 7.