Time is Running Out to Save Planet Earth. Review of The Biggest Wake-Up Call in History
In the days of the U.S.-Soviet Cold War, people lived in fear of a hypothetical nuclear world war that would obliterate human civilization. Today, civilization’s end is no longer hypothetical: It’s a certainty unless we restructure how we as a species live, work, play, and even think. That is the stark message that Australian futurist Richard Slaughter delivers to readers everywhere in his book The Biggest Wake-Up Call in History (2010, Foresight International).
“The only way forward that makes sense is to seek clarity on what we are facing and mobilize on a society-wide and global scale to deal with it,” he writes. “Anything less will consign our children to a diminished and unlivable world.”
The looming danger now comes not from nuclear war, but from human civilization itself. Having proven able to adapt to every environment that the planet has to offer, we have colonized everywhere and tapped every resource that nature can generate. We have already developed and grown far beyond the Earth’s capacity to support us, and we continue to grow and develop non-stop.
This imbalance between our way of life and the Earth’s natural limits cannot keep up forever, Slaughter warns. In just the last 150 years, the human race has:
• Directly transformed 50% of the Earth’s land surface.
• Used up more than 40% of its known oil reserves.
• Appropriated more than half of all above-ground freshwater for human purposes, and depleted vast quantities of underground freshwater, as well.
• Substantially upped the concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
• Fished 22% of the world’s fisheries to the point of depletion or overexploited, and put another 44% to their limits.
• Diminished the world’s wetlands area by one-half.
And that’s not counting all the frightening side effects that human-caused climate change is likely to induce later this century: a one-meter rise in the world’s sea levels, which would submerge a multitude of densely populated coastal areas and engender widespread population displacement, famines, and political upheavals.
“Growth without limit is impossible,” he writes. “Like a cancer in the human body, uncontrolled growth can only occur for a short time before it destroys the host.”
But, like a patient suffering from cancer, our species can counter the threat, if it acts swiftly and decisively. Slaughter urges the global community to band together and mount a global response—and to do so now, because time is running out.
We have no shortage of guides. According to Slaughter, individual authors and speakers have been calling attention to the impending global crisis over the past 50 years. Some did raise enough awareness to achieve modest successes. Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, which galvanized a public movement to ban the pesticide DDT, is a case in point.
But the restoration of some habitats or the rescue of some species from extinction, while nice, mean little in terms of the larger problem of unsustainable human growth, in Slaughter’s view. The planet as a whole is still in deep trouble, and scatter-shot conservation measures are not going to save it.
“The multi-faceted process of global decline and deterioration is still the dominant trend and is not amenable to piecemeal approaches,” he writes.
What humanity needs to undertake is a full-scale downshift of consumption and growth, according to Slaughter. He bolsters his case with references to nearly two dozen contemporary authors who promulgate systemic, whole-society approaches to resolving the impending ecological crisis. Slaughter identifies each author’s unique stance and what each author has contributed to human knowledge of global climate and ecological health. They include the following:
• Hazel Henderson identifies flaws in the global financial system and proposes alternatives. She recommends a new framework for evaluating economic output, one that factors human wellbeing, social viability, and care for the environment. The climate crisis is, in her view, a final opportunity to create a greener and more just economic system.
• John Michael Greer calls our industrial and political systems out on their endemic short-term thinking. They have to downshift, he warns. A sustainable future will be one of smaller populations and diminished industrial output.
• Tony Fry calls for reconfiguring all of the design professions to help organizations, businesses, and society in general to plan “from the future to the present.” Its practitioners must become active cultural leaders who continuously identify counterproductive practices and transform them.
• Alastair McIntosh looks at not only the external problems of global finance, politics, technology, economy, etc.; but the internal ones as well—the ways in which we perceive the world. Averting an ecological crisis will require that we change our values and patterns of thinking. He contributes his own insights in the form of “cultural psychotherapy.”
“There’s still time to come to terms with our predicament and change direction. Human destiny is not set in stone,” Slaughter writes.
In essence, The Biggest Wake-Up Call in History is a compendium of the most precious resource humanity has: human foresight. Slaughter demonstrates a commanding breadth of scholarship, a keen understanding of the problems confronting our world, and a deep commitment to linking societies with foreword-thinking sustainability advocates who can help them to foment lasting solutions.
World Future Society, MD, USA, 2012.