Ten ‘catastrophic’ threats to our survival highlighted in Australian report

  Last updated April 22, 2020 at 4:06 pm


“The human species’ ability to cause mass harm to itself has been accelerating since the mid-20th Century.”

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Credit: Dmytro Varavin

Why This Matters: COVID-19 may have the spotlight, but we can’t ignore the other threats.

The current pandemic may have shifted our focus, but we cannot ignore 10 “catastrophic and existential” threats to human survival, a new report warns.

However, the pandemic could be used by governments to begin the address the threats.

The call for global, united action to address this crisis is published by the Commission for the Human Future, a body of experts and citizens chaired by John Hewson from the Australian National University.

They list the threats to human survival as extinction and eco-collapse, resource scarcity, nuclear arms race, climate change, global poisoning, food system failure, pandemic diseases, uncontrolled technologies, overpopulation/megacity collapse, and denial and delusion.

To be clear that the description of these threats is not arbitrary, they define a catastrophic risk as “one that menaces human civilisation in general” and an existential risk as “one that may potentially extinguish the human species”.

The risks have been growing for a long time

The complex risks highlighted by the report have been long germinating.

“The human species’ ability to cause mass harm to itself has been accelerating since the mid-20th Century,” the authors write.

“Global trends in demographics, information, politics, warfare, climate, environmental damage and technology have culminated in an entirely new level of risk.”

The warnings have been escalating too, from wildfires, floods and droughts to mass extinction, food insecurity, wars and pandemic diseases – “a wake-up call that our very way of life is at risk”.

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At least 250 threatened species have had their habitat hit by bushfires that ripped through Australia from June last year until February. Credit: Gena Dray

The threats posed by climate change, ecosystem collapsebiodiversity loss and dwindling water supplies – no surprise to scientists who have long tried to sound the alarm – have gained increased traction in public awareness.

Pandemic risk has now hit the world stage with a bang – although the warnings have been around for two decades, says Julian Cribb, a science writer who has been investigating the planet’s growing crises for 15 years.

Pollution and chemicals are another major problem, poisoning land, water, animals and humans.

Also: New research yet another reminder climate change is leading us towards a water supply disaster

Agricultural practices do more than their share of destruction, and ignorance of soil loss, declining water supplies, ecosystem decline and poor nutrition is threatening food security, which is on a “knife-edge”.

When people have a full stomach, they don’t fight

Food insecurity is the binding threat that connects all the others, the report notes, quoting a Spanish saying, “There are only seven meals between civilisation and anarchy.”

Cribb suggests that overhauling the food system provides an opportunity for world peace: “When people have a full stomach, they don’t fight.”

Indeed, the report notes that two-thirds of wars over the past century arose from disputes about food, land and water.

David Kemp, an agricultural systems expert from Charles Sturt University agreed about the risk of food insecurity, highlighting the interconnected nature of the threats. Kemp was not involved with the production of the report.

“What is important to remember is that these threats are linked. Of particular concern is the link between food security and climate change. There is nothing more important than food production but much of Australia’s food is produced in the latitudes that are going to be drier. The droughts this century are clear evidence of that.”

The nuclear arms race is possibly the greatest impending threat to human survival, with 2000 of the world’s 13,890 nuclear weapons on high alert for pushing the button and a “capacity to destroy the human future in an afternoon”.

Also: Extreme weather and geopolitics major drivers of increasing ‘food shocks’

Other emerging threats are posed by dangerous new technologies – such as Artificial Intelligence, biotechnology, nanotechnology and electromagnetic radiation – and widespread denial of scientific evidence.

However, the threat posed by AI is not necessarily a Hollywood-esque killing machine, says report contributor and AI researcher Toby Walsh, from Data61.

“The threat that AI and related technologies pose is much more mundane and nearer. It is the erosion of human rights, the loss of privacy, the corruption of our political discourse and the widening of inequality within and between countries driven by new digital technologies.

“Such changes are already damaging our society,” says Walsh.

Underpinning much of this is the dinosaur in the room: unsustainable population growth leading to ballooning demand for precious resources and environmental degradation, fueled by an insatiable appetite for profits and consumerism.

Yet, no government has a policy in place to address these man-made problems, say the report authors.

Threats to human survival are interconnected

Solutions do exist, but the report stresses they must all be solved together because the threats are interconnected. Rather than considering them as standalone threats to be dealt with one by one, addressing them needs to ensure that none of the solutions worsen any of the other threats.

All the systems we take for granted – economic, food, energy, production, waste and governance systems – and the way we relate to the Earth’s natural systems “must all undergo searching examination and reformation”.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shown how a catastrophe can strike out of the blue, highlighting our vulnerability and lack of preparedness.

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The COVID-19 shows how a threat can dramatically shift our daily lives. Credit: James D. Morgan/Getty Images

It has also demonstrated that radical action is possible, presenting an “unprecedented opportunity” to reconsider humanity and its impact on the planet, argue the report authors.

“After the storm, the global and societal landscape will have changed,” the report says. “We cannot resume business as usual and would be wise to prepare for sweeping change.”

Solutions need people from all walks of life

Reforms that are called for include greater equity, science informing policy, cooperation, participation, renewed social norms, more effective democracies and commitment to long-term solutions, says the report.

And it needs people from all walks of life – from scientists and leading thinkers to indigenous communities, young people and female leaders – to come to the table, share views and solutions and take individual and collective action.

Also: Here’s what the coronavirus pandemic can teach us about tackling climate change

“What our species does about these 10 existential threats in the next few years will determine whether present and future generations face a safe, sustainable and prosperous future or the prospect of collapse and even extinction,” the report says.

“It is a choice we all must make, together.”

Ro McFarlane, a public health expert from the University of Canberra who was not involved with the report, said it highlighted that need for collective action.

“The report is a strong reminder that not only is it urgent that we take action, but that a way forward is agreed on by the majority of nations,” she says.

Griffith University’s Ian Lowe, who also did not contribute to the report, said its findings were a timely wake up call.

“For nearly fifty years, expert studies have been warning that the trajectory of human development is not sustainable and will lead to disaster.

“In the reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have seen governments look beyond short-term economic issues, listen to the experts and take hard decisions for the long-term good,” says Lowe.

“Governments need to listen to the experts and recognise that it would be catastrophic to go back to business-as-usual.

“It is time to set aside ideology and make the hard decisions that would enable a sustainable future, trusting the experts as we have in responding to the pandemic.”

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About the Author

Natalie Parletta
Natalie Parletta is an Australian freelance science writer.

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