Facing a Set of Linked Problems
IN FOCUS, 30 July 2012
by John Scales Avery – TRANSCEND Media Service
Today, a number of serious and interconnected problems are facing human civilization and the biosphere. Because they are linked, we need to look at all of these problems together, and to find holistic solutions.
First and foremost is the threat of nuclear war: Despite the end of the Cold War, the threat of a nuclear catastrophe remains severe. During the Cold War, the number and power of nuclear weapons reached insane heights – 50,000 nuclear weapons with a total explosive power equivalent to roughly a million Hiroshima bombs. Today the total number of these weapons has been cut approximately in half, but there are still enough to destroy human civilization many times over. The tragedies of Fukushima and Chernobyl remind us that a nuclear war would spread dangerous radioactive contamination throughout the world. Furthermore, recent research by atmospheric scientists shows that even a small nuclear war would have a disastrous effect on global agriculture. Thus a nuclear war would be a global ecological catastrophe, killing enormous numbers of people indiscriminately, throughout the world, also in neutral countries.
The threat of accidental nuclear war remains severe, since many nuclear missiles are on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired within minutes of a warning being received. If it is continued over a long period of time, the probability of a fatal accident occurring will grow to a near certainty. Meanwhile, the number of nations possessing nuclear weapons is growing, and there is a danger that if an unstable government is overthrown (for example, Pakistan’s), the country’s nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of subnational groups. Against nuclear terrorism there is no effective defense.
At the present moment we are faced with a very specific danger – the threat that Israel may bomb Iran, perhaps as early as the autumn of 2012. Such an attack would lead to a widespread war in the Middle East and elsewhere, with unforeseeable consequences. There are several ways in which the conflict could escalate into a nuclear war, particularly if the United States, Pakistan, Russia and China become involved. This is a great danger, and active steps must be taken to avert it.
The driving force behind the danger of nuclear war is the global military-industrial complex. In 2011, world military budgets reached a total of 1.7 trillion dollars (i.e. 1.7 million million dollars). This amount of money is almost too large to be imagined. The fact that it is being spent means that many people are making a living from the institution of war. Wealthy and powerful lobbies from the military-industrial complex are able to influence mass media and governments. Thus the institution of war persists, although we know very well that it is a threat to civilization and that it responsible for much of the suffering that humans experience.
Besides striving for a world free of war and free of nuclear weapons, we must also be aware that the global environment is being destroyed by excessive consumption in the industrialized countries, combined with rapid population growth in developing nations.
It seems likely that the limits for resource-using and waste-producing industrial growth will be reached within a few decades. The first signs of our approach to these limits can already be seen today in the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis and the present Eurozone national debt crisis. (Culture, of course, can and should continue to grow.) We face a difficult period of transition from an economy that depends on growth for its health to a new economic system: steady-state economics.
We should also be aware that the fossil fuel era is ending. By 2050, oil and natural gas will be prohibitively expensive. They will no longer be used as fuels, but will be reserved as feedstocks for chemical synthesis. Within a hundred years, the same will be true of coal. Furthermore, because of the dangers of climate change, human society would be well advised to abandon fossil fuel use long before stocks are exhausted.
It is predicted that by 2050, the world’s population of humans will reach 9 billion. This is just the moment when the oil and natural gas, on which modern energy-intensive agriculture depend, will become so expensive that they will no longer be used as fuels. Climate change may also contribute to a global food crisis. Melting of Himalayan glaciers threatens the summer water supplies of both India and China. Rising sea levels threaten to inundate low-lying agricultural land, and aridity produced by climate change may reduce grain harvests. Furthermore, aquifers throughout the world are being overdrawn, and water tables are falling. Topsoil is also being lost. These elements combine to produce a threat of widespread famine by the middle of the 21st century, especially in countries where many people already are undernourished.
We must face these problems with solidarity. We can no longer accept the intolerable degree of inequality that presently exists. Today 2.7 billion people live on less than $2 a day – 1.1 billion on less than $1 per day. 18 million of our fellow humans die each year from poverty-related causes. In 2006, 1.1 billion people lacked safe drinking water, and waterbourne diseases killed an estimated 1.8 million people. A small fraction of the money that is wasted (or worse than wasted) on the institution of war could solve these problems. Also, if we are to eliminate war, we must strengthen the United Nations, and this will be easier in a more equal world. Thus the problem of war and the problem of economic inequality are linked.
We live at a critical time for human civilization – a time of crisis. Each of us must accept his or her individual responsibility for solving the problems that are facing the world today. We cannot leave this to the politicians. That is what we have been doing until now, and the results have been disastrous. Many politicians depend for election funds on wealthy corporations that make their money from war or from the destruction of the global environment. Thus, we cannot trust them to think of the long-term future. Nor can we trust the mass media to give us adequate public discussion of the challenges that we are facing. We have a responsibility towards future generations to take matters into our own hands – to join hands and make our own alternative media – to work actively for better government and for a better society.
By working together, we can choose a future of changed values, where women will take their places beside men in positions of responsibility, where children will be educated rather than exploited. We can choose a future where material goods will no longer be used for the purpose of social competition – a future where non-material human qualities, such as kindness, politeness, knowledge and musical and artistic ability will be valued more highly – a future where people will respect and love the natural world, and will realize how closely their lives are connected with nature. No single person can achieve these goals, but together we can do it.
We, the people of the world, not only have the facts on our side – we also have numbers on our side. The vast majority of the world’s peoples long for peace. The vast majority long for abolition of nuclear weapons, and for a world of kindness and cooperation – a world of respect for the environment.
Together, we have the power to choose a future where international anarchy, chronic war and institutionalized injustice will be replaced by democratic and humane global governance – a future where the mindless immorality of war will be replaced by cooperation.
The human race has a genius for cooperation. All of the great achievements of modern society are achievements of cooperation. We can fly, but no one builds an airplane alone. We can cure diseases, but only through the cooperative efforts of researchers, doctors and medicinal firms. We can photograph and understand distant galaxies, but the ability to do so is built on the efforts of many cooperating individuals. The comfort and well-being that we experience depends on far-away friendly hands and minds, since trade is global, and the exchange of ideas is also global.
The heritage of knowledge and culture, on which our complex civilization depends, is a monument to cooperation. Science and technology could not exist without the worldwide sharing of knowledge. Art, literature and music are the common heritage of humanity. Let us eliminate the immorality of war from our future, and let us replace it with a nobler goal – the development and sharing of the world’s cultural heritage.
Suggestions for further reading:
L.S. Brown, “World on the Edge”, W.W. Norton, (2011).
J.S. Avery, “Crisis 21: Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century”, www.lulu.com, (2010).
O.B. Toon, A. Robock and R.P. Turco, “Environmental Effects of Nuclear War”, Physiics Today, December, (2008).
S. Starr, “Nuclear Darkness, Climate Change and Nuclear Famine”, www.nucleardarkness.org
John Scales Avery, Ph.D. is Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent book is “Crisis 21: Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century.”
This work is licensed under a CC BY-NC 3.0 United States License.