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Here’s a riddle with no sensible answer: If inertia can’t save the world from an asteroid, why do people think it will save us from our own mistakes?

Every blockbuster about the impending end of the Earth is an Action movie. The formula is familiar – individuals and nations ignore the problem despite alarm bells ringing, then they flap about in futile panic, but just in the nick of time they work out that they have to take collaborative action to push the asteroid off its path and avoid disaster. The answer is never to do nothing.

Yet here we are, faced with numerous human-made scenarios for mass extinction that put us in real and present danger, and we look at the documentation like it’s a fiction, a poor Hollywood screenplay that we can simply reject. We decide it’s too depressing. Or too melodramatic. It’s never attracted crowds to the box office before. The lead actors are uninspiring. The supporting roles are too difficult to cast. If the spotlight is on rational, measured steps, the narrative is too dull. If no-one with vision is prepared to back the premise in a big way, smaller investors won’t take the risk. There are a million reasons to reject a screenplay or leave the rushes on the cutting room floor when the film looks like it could fail.

But this is not a movie. We have to use our intelligence to find a way to engage people and empower them to make decisions and take actions that will determine a positive ‘fate’, instead of feeling immobilised by fear, lack of foresight or a disregard for the future. Inaction won’t save us from the threat of mass extinction, whether it’s from an asteroid or our own mistakes.

So it’s good to see that Australia is starting to provide intelligent leadership on the issue of human survival.

Australia21 Director, Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas, recently led a Roundtable at the Australian National University, aimed at stimulating discussion about the alternatives to inaction. Now Australia21 and ANU have made available an easy-to-read short report from that Roundtable. It’s called Pathways Past the Precipice: Flourishing in a mega-threatened world, and we recommend it to you.

Bob summarises the issues below.

An intelligent way forward

Events that could permanently and drastically curtail humanity’s potential, or even cause human extinction, are often referred to as existential threats. A moderate sized asteroid hitting our planet is a prime example.  It could wipe us all out in a flash, as apparently happened to 75% of the species on earth at the time a 10km diameter asteroid hit the Earth about 65 million years ago.

In his recent book, Surviving the 21st Century, Australian Science writer Julian Cribb discussed ten existential threats that have arisen because of human activities and which we could reduce or nullify, if only we could summon the human will and capacity to work collaboratively at a global level. He says that these ten risks – ecological collapse, resource depletion, weapons of mass destruction, global warming, poisoning of the planet, food insecurity, population & urban expansion, pandemic disease, dangerous new technologies and self-delusion – are not separate threats, but interlinked. He argues there are logical ways in which the level of threat could be very substantially reduced, if our species had a mind to do so.

So, why are we not doing it? Is it because we don’t understand the danger our kids are in, or because to take action would be too difficult or because we are simply ignoring these threats and hoping they will go away?

Discussions in the Emeritus Faculty at The Australian National University, of which Cribb is a member, recently resulted in a half-day Roundtable discussion among 37 multidisciplinary members of the University community, from junior students to senior academics.

Most of the group agreed with Cribb’s assertion, that humans are now facing our greatest test in the million-year ascent of our kind. And that this isn’t a single challenge, like a famine or disease outbreak.  It is the constellation of these ten threats, which are now coming together, that imperils the future of the species and they are intertwined. Each affects the others. They cannot be dealt with one at a time, but must be addressed in conjunction and at species level.  

The three questions discussed by the Roundtable group were:

  1. What needs to happen to place the Human species on a survivable course?

  2. What role could ANU play in contributing to this?

  3. Where are the levers for change? 

Importantly, the group agreed that logical mechanisms for responding to these mega-threats are by no means beyond us, and that an effective response is more about cultural change than about ‘rocket science’. There was recognition that current efforts to ameliorate these threats are everywhere inadequate.  Many think that the longer we delay properly dealing with them as a global community, the more likely it is that we will be too late, leading to the possibility that human civilisation may not survive the 21st Century.

There was agreement that universities, as the critics and consciences of the communities to which they belong, can play a valuable role in developing the case for essential transformative change. There was also recognition that academic bodies, both here in Australia and internationally, are beginning to take up the challenge – but still in a fragmented way.

The changes we will need to make are by no means trivial. And it is unlikely that we will address the general challenge until the broader community understands and demands action from our political leaders. And even that will not be enough. Already about 75% of Australians understand the requirement for urgent action on climate, but our political leaders are pretending not to hear, at least partly because they are deeply beholden to the fossil fuel sector.

We will need the engagement of the corporate world in the development of a new human narrative about what constitutes progress and how humans can flourish, in an economy which profoundly values the planetary ecosystems on which our lives depend. 

At present the human world is driven by the narrative that human progress is about growth, expansion, competition, consumption and self-promotion. This narrative is reinforced by the media, by the corporate world and by our political leaders.

An alternative ‘bio-sensitive’ paradigm would focus on sustainability, collaboration and planetary health. To gain traction in the short time available to us will be no easy task. But there is no reason why Australia should not be at the cutting edge of this essential development.

One idea that emerged from the ANU discussion was the development of an independent Commission or ‘Synthesis Facility’ that could be developed with government, corporate and philanthropic funds. It would undertake essential research, education and policy advocacy, drawing on the collective resources of academia, governments, the corporate sector and civil society, to quickly reposition the nation around a hopeful narrative for the future.

There was clear agreement in the group that the challenge must not be cloaked in gloom and doom, but in a way that identifies the positive benefits that will result from the transformative change that is needed to address it.

Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas is a retired epidemiologist and secretary of the ANU Emeritus Faculty working group on Humans for Survival. He chaired the Roundtable and edited the report.

The full report of the Roundtable is available here.

The discussion paper that prompted the Roundtable is available here.

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