Yes, you can save the world! Don’t laugh. Somebody’s got to do it and it may as well be you. But you don’t have to do it alone. “You” is both a singular and plural pronoun, and I mean you and your friends-including me and that guy down the hall. We need to become a large, diverse social movement. But every movement begins as a little group of friends.
First we have to decide what to save it from. Let’s identify four “existential threats” to humankind—four colossal problems, any one of which might wipe out a major swath of Homo Sapiens in a single event: A nuclear war or meltdown, for example. Or the melting of the permafrost and polar ice caps. Or a pandemic on the scale of the Black Death or the 1918 Spanish flu. Or even the swift destruction of a continent’s electrical grid. We can’t handle all conceivable dangers now (Yellowstone’s magma may blow up, or an asteroid may hit us) but let’s pick these four: Global Warming; War and Weapons (Especially Nuclear); Public Health Crises; and Cyber Attacks.
Plenty of people have been working on these risks, so why haven’t they been solved yet? I think it’s because we have tackled them as separate issues, whereas in reality they are so interdependent that we should treat them as a single package—a system—and address them simultaneously with a comprehensive program. Besides, people feel disempowered when they have to choose between working on several different lethal problems. They are more willing to contribute to a project comprising different, but inter-related, elements.
Let me illustrate a few of the interactions among existential threats. Global warming can ruin farmland and create famine-a public health crisis. Food shortages can lead to wars, which exacerbate both famine and global warming. (Famines occur in war zones because the farmers are away fighting and it is too dangerous for women and children to go work in the fields.) Also, the production and deployment of weapons emit CO2, which in turn adds to global warming. Round and round it goes!
According to Canadians for Actions for Climate Change, “By every measure, the Pentagon is the largest institutional user of petroleum products and energy in general.” The authors cite Oil Change International, as reporting: “The Iraq war was responsible for at least 141 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent from March 2003 through December 2007 … The war emits more than 60 percent of all countries.”1
We can develop strategies for working on several related problems at the same time. So far, we’ve only addressed the direct consequences of each kind of risk. But we should notice the secondary effects too. For example, we often ask whether Ballistic Missile Defence systems can save us in a nuclear war. (The answer is no; they can sometimes intercept missiles, but only by cheating—by being told where and when the missiles will appear.) But notice the secondary effects of BMD systems too. They cost money that is needed for saving lives. Moreover, being controlled by computers, they can easily destroy an enemy’s satellites, thereby knocking out many of our electronic devices. The secondary result: another public health crisis, caused by the linkage between war and computers. I repeat: We have to address a whole combination of such existential threats and pick the most effective solutions. Fortunately, we have an excellent new example of how to weigh various options: Paul Hawken’s book Drawdown.
Hawken provides an amazing list of ways to limit global warming. He asked experts to name 100 actions that reduce greenhouse gases. They estimated the amount of reduction that could result from each intervention and then they rank-ordered them from best to least effective. (They were astounded to find that the strongest action would be to capture coolant gases from refrigerators and air conditioners!) Brilliant!
But we need checklists for our other three dangers too-the best ways of preventing wars, famines, pandemics, nuclear reactor explosions, and cyber attacks. With a to-do list like that—say, the top 25 policies that together can reduce all four kinds of existential risks—we could convince a lot of people to work on saving the world. Unfortunately, no such checklist exists and if we were to make one, it would be based mostly on guesswork.
Still, it’s worth a try. Experts make better guesses than the average person, but we can all learn enough to improve our guesswork a bit. And if we all study up on the problems and discuss our guesses thoughtfully, I’ll bet we can make a pretty good to-do list. So I asked the board of Science for Peace to sponsor a forum called “How to Save the World,” and they said yes.
This is where you come in. (“You,” plural, as in “youse guys” or “y’all.”) A forum needs a lot of people—maybe 300. If you are in Toronto when it meets, please come. But if you can’t, you can participate in making our to-do list: not a vague “wish-list,” but a real checklist of policies, like the platform of a political party. (But we’ll be faithful to our platform, unlike certain political parties I could name.) Ours will be called a “Platform for Survival” and you can help compile it.
The sole purpose of the forum is to make that Platform and give it to the world’s activists. Anyone can list 25 nice things to do, but our list has to be smart enough to save the world. We have already created five public Facebook pages where you can discuss your ideas. Science for Peace working groups are tackling specific aspects and will be posting their ideas on those Facebook pages. You can even organize a discussion group of your own to suggest improvements on the Prototype Platform for Survival that I created to get us started.
With all these groups working together, and individuals posting their comments on the Facebook pages, we will have a much better Platform ready when the forum starts. Then there will be break-out groups to continue the process, developing a Platform for a plenary session to integrate and then adopt on the final day.
Below, see my “Prototype Platform for Survival” for you to discuss and revise over the next six months.
The items on this Prototype Platform vary markedly in content. The first five are ways of reducing global warming. The next four are ways of reducing wars and weapons. Items 16, 18, 19, and 22 are all ways of reducing the risks of catastrophic public health crises. Items 20,21, 23, and 24 are ways of reducing cyber attacks. But seven of these policy proposals—items 6,7,8,13, 14,15, and 17—are quite different from the others; they do not seem to directly affect the probability of any of the existential threats. Instead, they are “enabling measures” that serve an indirect purpose: to improve the prospects for the other measures to be adopted and enacted. But what is the rationale for including these seemingly extraneous measures as somehow enabling the rest? Here’s the theory behind my own list:
Whether we start as activists for climate change, public health, or cyber security, we also need to curtail wars and weapons. Not only will the Platform call for the abolition of nuclear weapons, but it will call for sharply reducing the armed forces of all states—say, by at least 80 percent.
However, no government will readily accept the latter proposal, for there is a general belief that national security depends on having some kind of defence force. How can we persuade nations to disarm? Answer: Let’s propose that each country rely on the United Nations to come to its defence if it is threatened by an enemy state or an insurgency.
Fat chance! That idea will convince almost no one. Clearly, the United Nations is not accountable to human voters but only to states, and states do not necessarily have the same interests as their populations. Moreover, five states are allowed to veto any decision made by the Security Council, and those states are more loyal to their allies than to “Blind Justice.” Only the most gullible politician would disarm and count on the UN to defend his state.
Hence some additional measures are required to lend credibility to our Platform for Survival. We must demand UN reform, making it and its partner institutions (e.g. WTO, IMF, and World Bank) more accountable and democratic. My own Prototype Platform calls for the addition of a parliamentary assembly to be elected by the whole human population and endowed with the right to override any veto in the Security Council. If you have better ideas, please propose them as replacements for items 6, 8, and 14. I expect Fergus Watt, the director of the Canadian World Federalists, to propose changes developed by a group that he chairs, which is planning reforms for the UN in the year 2020. This initiative began with the Commission on Global Security, Justice & Governance.2
But there are additional reasons for not counting on the UN for national security. For example, the UN lacks sufficient military resources to promise such protection, so we must add another suggestion to the checklist: the creation of a strong UN Emergency Peace Force, ready to be sent at a moment’s notice wherever a war seems to loom. Peter Langille has developed just such a proposal, which we may include in Science for Peace’s “Platform for Survival.”3
And we may demand that other kinds of peacemaking aid be provided too, such as mediators who can negotiate and help manage conflicts.
These are all “enabling measures” intended to convince decision-makers that it is realistic to adopt the measures that can directly reduce existential threats. We may also demand the creation of new multilateral organizations to regulate cyberspace and reduce such health risks as pandemics, famines, and nuclear reactor explosions. And for those, we will also need to add additional enabling measures—especially ones to provide adequate funding. When faced with that challenge, I thought of two sources of money: a Tobin tax on transfer of currencies, and the savings from disarmament. Even a tiny Tobin tax would generate large sums,4 and disarmament would cover the price of solving the worst problems, for nowadays the world spends about $1.7 trillion each year on the military. Cutting that by 80 percent would yield a lot of money. (But if you have better ideas, please share them.)
Finally, some enabling measures will be required to win popular political support for our whole Platform, which is global in scope. Today the world is in an isolationist mood, with voters supporting white supremacy and Trump’s border walls, and with Britain Brexiting and Russians feeling resentful. To win public support for the Platform for Survival, it must include measures that will allay even their concerns.
Unfortunately, the source of this right-wing populism is uncertain, but apparently part of the grievance derives from financial insecurity—which may not be the same thing as inequality. Oddly, few members of the working class seem to resent the wealthy—to judge on the basis of the election of a billionaire as president. As Thomas Piketty has shown, inequality will continue to increase unless wealth is taxed instead of income. I have included the wealth tax proposal on the Prototype Platform for Survival, though I am not sure that such a policy would actually appeal to “the 99 percent” enough to gain their support for the other measures.
However, if inequality is rarely resented, the same cannot be said of economic insecurity. Donald Trump’s base is located where jobs had been lost and the government had not helped. Rising unemployment may well doom support for our Platform unless it includes some proposed solutions. And we must indeed expect more joblessness, not less. Mark Zuckerberg, speaking to the graduating class of Harvard in 2017, warned, “Our generation is going to deal with tens of millions of jobs replaced by automation.”
Likewise, Jeremy Rifkin points out that not only is manual labor being replaced with machines, but the roles of professionals will soon vanish too.5 Already the publishing industry is reeling because readers can find information online, free of charge. The music industry is no longer profitable, since teenagers can obtain record collections from their friends, free of charge. Watson the computer is a far better diagnostician than any living physician. Millions of students are now taking online university courses from professors whose lectures are more sophisticated than those of instructors in local colleges. Soon many middle-class careers will be gone. Half of all Canadian jobs may be replaced by robots and automated technology in the next 10 to 20 years. Jobs in transportation, logistics, office management and production are likely to be the first to go. In less developed countries, about two-thirds of all jobs may be replaced by automation.6
Our Platform for Survival must include proposals to counteract the insecurity caused by job losses. My Prototype draft calls for a “Universal Basic Income”—a fixed sum, sufficient for subsistence, to be given by a state to all citizens, regardless of their income or work status. A few countries are already offering this—generally about $10,000 a year per person, though the amount varies considerably. The funds may come from wealth taxes and reductions in military spending.7 Ontario is beginning an experiment with a “Basic Income,” though it will not be offered to all citizens but only to those on low incomes. It will decrease by fifty cents for every dollar that the recipient earns on a job.8
These, then, are my own initial suggestions for the Platform for Survival’s “enabling measures.” Overall, they are more debatable than most of the measures aiming directly to prevent our four types of existential catastrophe. They may be acceptable to left-liberals, but less so to most persons on the planet. Certainly we should discuss them all and compile a bibliography to inform a wider debate too. We may, in the end, adopt a platform that cannot win general, worldwide approval today, but which will be ready whenever the first crisis occurs that breaks the prevailing conservative mindset—and, unfortunately, we must expect such crises.
Thus I want to encourage you to participate in saving the world by:
(a) joining and posting your ideas to one or more of Science for Peace’s dedicated Facebook pages. (Go to scienceforpeace.ca/existential for a list of these public pages. You don’t need to have a Facebook account to visit them, but if you do have one, you can also comment and discuss).
(b) forming a preparatory group to meet in your church, public library, or a pub. You can discuss these various possibilities and share your thoughts on the relevant Facebook page with other prep groups, including some in other countries and some consisting mainly of Science for Peace working groups in Toronto.
© observing the guidelines shown below when judging the merits of proposals for the Platform,
(d) attending the forum, if possible. (The details will be announced on each of our five Facebook pages); and
(e) using and publicizing the final version of the Platform for Survival that the forum will complete and adopt. Only when used for mobilizing public support can the list become valuable. Fortunately, there is no competition between it and several other comprehensive lists, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, or Canada’s “Leap Manifesto” or New Zealand’s Climate Declaration.9 The main difference is that the Platform for Survival is meant to be more specific in its demands.
Every game, every language, and every bookkeeping system has rules which, even if arbitrary, are necessary. You will study a variety of possible changes to the Platform and show your thinking on a Facebook page that others can see. Please observe the following guidelines when choosing policies for the list:
1. The Platform Must Be Short—Only One Page. People won’t read a longer list. Each prep group may have 10 to 15 policies ready for its corresponding breakout group when the form begins. However, by the end, the length of the Platform for Survival will be determined by the size of a sheet of paper! Using 12-point type, we can only list about 25 items on a sheet, so each prep group can eventually list only about five policy recommendations on the Platform. Like a treaty, the final text will probably the result of negotiations. You can make it easier if your group is selective throughout the preparatory phase, keeping your list fairly short.
2. The Five Categories Must Stay Fixed. (They are the four existential threats, plus the enabling measures.) Your prep group will presumably change most or all of the policies on the original “prototype platform” but should not add, subtract, combine, or redefine the five categories themselves. No single platform can possibly address all the urgent threats to humankind and your own selection of problems might indeed be better than mine, but please stay with these five anyway: global warming; war and weapons (especially nuclear); public health catastrophes; cyber attacks; and enabling measures.
3. Only Catastrophic Risks Can Be Addressed. Each of the four existential threats can potentially kill billions of human beings in a single catastrophic event. Many, many grave threats must be left for other campaigns to tackle, and we may feel uncertain as to what risks should count as “existential.” Cyber attacks, for example, range from the teenaged hacker who merely vandalizes your web page to, say, the military experts who can destroy every satellite in outer space. We will address the latter risk but not the former. But how about intermediate-level risks, such as helping Trump defeat Hillary Clinton for the presidency? I’m inclined to count that attack as serious enough to warrant our attention, though your group or the forum may decide otherwise. Anyway, the plan is to list on the Platform only policies for preventing catastrophic dangers. (There is one exception: If yours is the group that works on “enabling measures,” you must appraise policies for their indirect effects.)
4. The Platform for Survival Must Apply Universally for all Humankind. Every policy that your group chooses should be valid in all societies, so you may need to modify the phraseology to make certain items suitable. For example, the policy to “educate girls” is an excellent means of reducing global warming, but Canadian girls already have full access to education, so it would be irrelevant here. However, if you rephrase the policy as, “All rich countries shall devote X percent of their revenue to funding education for girls in poor countries,” it will be universally applicable.
5. Choose Policies that Need to Be Promoted. If an extremely valuable policy is already being adopted widely, it does not need our help, so please pick a different policy instead. For example, wind turbines are one of the most promising solutions to global warming, but wind farms are sprouting up all over the world anyway. Since your group can only propose about five policies, please choose effective ones whose value might otherwise be overlooked.
6. Choose Collective—Not Personal—Policies. The policies on the Platform for Survival should be enacted on a large-scale, rather than individually. To be sure, it is important for individuals to ride bikes instead of fly; switch off lights when leaving home; eat mostly plants; and change their passwords often, but such personal habits are not items for this platform. Please propose major institutional innovations instead.
7. Prevent instead of cure. Of course, if one of these catastrophic events does occur, there will be a need to treat any victims still alive. However, our exercise is just seeking ways of reducing the odds that such crises will happen.
After the forum adopts its official Platform for Survival, what shall we do with it?
I don’t know. There is no handbook for saving the world. Nobody has ever been in our situation before, so we will have to figure it out for ourselves. And what a privilege this is! Every human being wants to make a difference, but most people only have an opportunity to influence small local issues, whereas we get to save humankind. There’s no guarantee we’ll succeed, but so what? There’s no guarantee you’ll win a tennis match either. You wouldn’t want to play any game that’s a cinch. Hard challenges are best.
This much is obvious: You can either try to promote the whole Platform for Survival as a unitary package, or just work on one or two of its key demands. If you take the whole Platform, you could, say, turn it into a petition, collect 1,000 signatures, and get an MP to introduce it as a resolution in parliament. Or you could ask other groups—your church’s synod or your bowling team—to endorse it and re-tweet it. You could print it up as leaflets and hand them out to crowds leaving a concert hall. Or print it on T-shirts.
Perhaps you’d rather work on just the items that interest you most. I myself have a rule to phone one MP per day, urging them to get Canada to sign the Treaty Prohibiting Nuclear Weapons. You can write a letter to the editor of your newspaper demanding UN reforms or a big tree-planting program. You can bake 1,000 fortune cookies informing people how to dispose of their old air conditioners. Or you can pour blood and hammer on a weapon or two. Canada’s a free country! Use your imagination.
This is going to be fun. Thanks for saving the world!
Metta Spencer is editor of Peace.
1 Canadians for Action on Climate Change, “The Impact of Militarism on Climate Change must no Longer be Ignored” canadianclimateaction.wordpress.com
2 Richard Ponzio, William Durch, “Confronting the Crisis of Global Governance,” Report of the Commission on Global Security, Justice & Governance. Stimson Organization, June 16, 2014. www.stimson.org/content/report-commission-global-security-justice-governance.
3 H. Peter Langille, Developing a United Nations Emergency Peace Service: Meeting Our Responsibilities to Prevent and Protect. Palgrave MacMillan US, 2016. See also the video of his lecture, www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZkyHuSLZ6iY
4 Alexander Zens, External Intervention in Foreign Exchange Markets: Emphasis on the Tobin Tax.(New York, 2008).
5 Jeremy Rifkin, The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism. Palgrave MacMillan US, 2014.
6 World Bank, Digital Dividends. 2016 International Bank for Reconstruction and Development / The World Bank 1818 H Street NW, Washington DC 20433 www.worldbank.org
7 “Universal Basic Income: The Answer to Automation?” Futurism. futurism.com/images/universal-basic-income-answer-automation
8 Ontario Newsroom: “Ontario’s Basic Income Pilot,” Ministry of Community and Social Services, April 24, 2017. news.ontario.ca/mess/en/2017/04/ontarios-basic-income-pilot.html
9 You can obtain a copy of this declaration from the chairperson: firstname.lastname@example.org