Blueprint for Planetary Survival

May 14th, 2020 | By | Category: Environment/Sustainability

By Suzanne York.


We could call it the “COVID-19 void” or some such name, the period when so many important issues, reports, conferences and more fell to the wayside due to the overwhelming need to deal with the novel coronavirus.

One such report was released last month that didn’t seem to garner much attention, which is unfortunate, because it is actually a guide for the post-COVID-19 world, whenever we get to that.

‘Catastrophic Risks’

The report, Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century, is tagged as a “call to action on global catastrophic risks.” Prepared by the Commission for the Human Future (CHF), which is comprised of Australian scientists, academics, business leaders, and concerned citizens, it seeks to research and develop solutions to our most daunting challenges in the Anthropocene epoch. The CHF defines a catastrophic risk as one that menaces human civilization in general (as opposed to an existential risk that could wipe out homo sapiens).  This report is of course timely, given the upheaval in the world. It is very readable and is an excellent overview not just on the problems, but on how we can start to build a better path forward.

It also shows how unprepared the world is to handle the many disasters coming towards us, or that are already here.

The experts created a list of ten catastrophic risks that our civilization has to overcome in order to transition to a sustainable, safer and healthier world.  The ten risks are:

  1. Decline of key natural resources and an emerging global resource crisis, especially in water
  2. Collapse of ecosystems that support life, and the mass extinction of species
  3. Human population growth and demand, beyond the Earth’s carrying capacity
  4. Global warming, sea level rise and changes in the Earth’s climate affecting all human activity
  5. Universal pollution of the Earth system and all life by chemicals
  6. Rising food insecurity and failing nutritional quality
  7. Nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction

Encouragingly, the report authors realize how the above risks can’t be addressed separately if we are to achieve lasting change.  The CHF writes, “The group recognised that all these risks are interconnected and therefore cannot be solved one at a time. It is a systems issue. All risks must therefore be solved together, as a system, at the same time and in ways that make none of them worse.”

COVID-19 makes this obvious.  To overcome it, global society will have to address health, a warming climate, exploitation of nature, habitat loss, overconsumption, population growth and more all together, not individually.

It’s refreshing that the authors don’t mince words and plainly state the problems. For example, they say, “Growing evidence suggests that human changes to the Earth’s environment are driving the planet’s Sixth Great Extinction and are now so profound that we are entering the third stage of evolution of life on Earth.”

The Commission’s report also doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable topics. The authors take on the issue of population growth, noting – correctly – that “human population growth at current levels exacerbates all other threats, and its seriousness, and preventability, are not being addressed.”

The experts ask the critical question of “How can we slow both population growth and its impact in ways that can enable survival and prosperity for all?”   They urge an effort to voluntarily slow down the birth rate rather than the alternative of having large numbers of people dying from catastrophic risks such as climate change and hunger.


Deforestation in Mexico [photo:]

Deforestation in Mexico [photo:]

Pathways and Realistic Solutions

In terms of slowing population growth, the report includes the proper and crucial action of investing in health and development and women’s rights:

It is well understood that lasting reductions in birth rates can be achieved where there are adequate levels of education, healthcare, family planning, female equity and a general improvement in economic conditions.

One way the world can get there, the report notes, is by adhering to the Sustainable Development Goals. Amongst many other goals, the SDGs focus on reproductive health and rights and gender equity.

It’s not just population growth but overconsumption that is driving the global risks.  Total human demand for resources, the report states, “has increased 40-fold in the past 120 years and is likely to redouble again by the mid- century.” Measures to end destruction of nature and with it, overconsumption, include ending deforestation, outlawing poaching and hunting of all threatened species, and stronger accountability for damages done to the environment by industry.

One other solution to quickly mention here is to end food insecurity by creating a renewable global food system.  This would consist of regenerative farming, advanced urban food production and deep ocean aquaculture.  It would be a zero waste system and the authors believe it would open up 25 million sq km for rewilding and reafforestation.

The Future is Now

This report is just a brief foray into the most pressing issues and what we need to do to stave off planetary collapse.  It is a call to action for “the nations and peoples of the Earth to come together, as a matter of urgency, to prepare a plan for humanity to survive and thrive, far into the future.”

The Commission for the Human Future notes what we all already know, that we have to change our current (well, mostly pre-COVID) behavior, “if civilization is to survive and prosper.” As terrible as the virus is, it has shown us that people can step up and alter their actions when needed.

Once we all emerge from lockdown, we will have entered a changed society.  Maybe the glimpses into a world with fewer cars, less air travel, reduced pollution and more reliance on mutual well-being will spur lasting behavioral changes.  It’s too early to say, but  hopefully we learn the lesson that we have to alter the old way of doing things.

Surviving and Thriving in the 21st Century takes on some of the big issues and offers the start to creating a viable blueprint, one that can and should be implemented today.

Suzanne York is Director of Transition Earth.

Tags: , , ,

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.