The coming decades are going to be increasingly difficult for the human civilization on Earth, the Swedish Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) said in a report published on May 23.
While we’re unlikely to go extinct, human societies should adapt to the new realities of a rapidly changing world.
More frequent armed conflicts, climate change, resource shortages, widespread famines, and sluggish policy responses all contribute to risks of unprecedented global upheavals.
World leaders are getting worse at dealing with the intertwined and self-compounding mesh of global threats, which hangs like the sword of Damocles over our civilization.
What are the threats humans face?
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the number of armed conflicts around the world, and the risk of a global war have both declined sharply. However, this new equilibrium lasted for only 20 years.
Between 2010 and 2020, the number of interstate conflicts and war casualties has doubled. The number of refugees has similarly increased to over 80 million people, worldwide.
“Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, geopolitics was becoming discernibly more fraught,” SIRPI report reads.
“A particular feature has been the increasingly frosty relationship between China and several Western powers, notably the United States.”
The global ecological situation also remains precarious. Nearly a quarter of all species on the planet are facing extinction. There are fewer and fewer insects to pollinate plants, soil quality is decreasing, and human resource consumption is unsustainable.
Climate change continues to drive up average global temperature; hurricanes, fires, storms, and heatwaves are becoming more frequent and intense. These conditions are driving crop yields down, exacerbating global food shortages.
The reports outlines examples of these twin crises fueling one another. A lengthy drought in Somalia, coupled with poverty and a weak government, drives people to join Al-Shabab – an extremist Islamic insurgency.
In conjunction with organized crime and wide-spread corruption, climate change-driven declines in Central American crop yields are fueling a surge in migration flows toward the United States.
The Arab Spring was caused not only by civic factors – corruption, authoritarianism, poverty – but also by a heatwave that led to skyrocketing food prices. Flawed political systems couldn’t handle the cost-of-living crises in countries across the Middle East and North Africa.
The report suggests that armed conflicts tend to occur when several entangled problems form a major complex crisis. Current events, however, prove that this a two-way street.
As Ukraine produces a third of the world’s wheat, the Russian invasion of the country is threatening the global supply of grain. Blockaded Ukrainian ports lead to worldwide grain shortages, which, in turn, could provoke a global food panic, hiking prices by 20-30%.
Developing countries would bear the brunt of the crisis, creating political tensions. Hunger could lead to a new series of rebellions and clashes, meaning that the world will be dealing with a scattering of local conflicts, which would be much harder to control.
Could we go extinct?
According to paleontologist Nick Longrich, 99.9% of all species to have ever lived on Earth have since gone extinct. Statistically speaking, the end of human life on the planet is a “when,” not an “if.”
Humans are uniquely vulnerable to large-scale calamities. First, there’s a lot of us, meaning that we require a lot of resources to sustain ourselves. Second, we tend to live for a long time, but our birthrates are declining, says Longrich.
Not all is lost, though. Humans can learn and adapt to new conditions, amend our consumption and rations in a way that other species aren’t able to do. We can adapt to almost any environment.
The Collingridge dilemma posits that while it’s tricky to foresee the consequences of technological development, it’s even more difficult to manage those consequences, once new technology becomes entrenched.
AI is an example of such a technology. On one hand, academics theorize about the ways our lives will be improved by advances in AI that could solve our health, energy, and climate problems. On the other hand, some hypothesize that AI could spell doom for our entire civilization.
Cars illustrate the other side of the quandary: we keep making and driving cars, despite millions of people dying in car-related accidents every year.
The dilemma will remain in an equilibrium, until a something comes along and is so destructive, that we won’t have a chance to correct the mistake we’ve made. Global nuclear war could very well be that: while humanity won’t be completely wiped out in such a disaster, most people will have very little chances of survival.
The Boston-based Future of Life Institute, with its scientific advisory board that includes dozens of academics from the world’s most prestigious universities outlines four existential threats humanity faces. They include AI, climate change, nuclear weapons, and biotech. The think-tank advises world leaders on these threats, so that corresponding precautionary policies could be put in place.
All these efforts remain just a bit of hot air. Much like war, these threats remain distant and abstract, something people feel they can’t “personally” affect. It’s a natural psychological defense mechanism. It’s crucial, however, that those, who are in a position to do something about them, understand exactly what we’re all facing.
What is there to be done?
SIPRI outlined five guiding principles for people in positions of power:
- Think fast, think ahead, act now: it’s much easier to solve a nascent problem than to deal with its consequences in the future.
- Cooperate to survive and thrive: common threats require a new model of global cooperation.
- Expect the unexpected: humans must be ready to adapt to a rapidly changing world. The “before times” are gone forever, and it’s futile to try and bring them back.
- Only a just and peaceful transition will succeed: our civilization doesn’t need any kind of “just ecological wars.”
- By everyone, for everyone: decision-making – from the UN to community projects – has to include the people most affected.
The report criticizes the governments of some countries for their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic: instead of ameliorating the crisis, they were scoring political points for their political leadership, contrary to scientific advice from experts.
The emerging new reality leaves no room for unilateral solutions. From climate change, to the Ukrainian war – modern challenges are global by nature, and therefore require global solutions.
The authors of the report say they weren’t trying to throw its readers into despair. They merely attempted to make politicians understand the new reality, and chart a way to tackling the current and future challenges our civilization faces.
Perhaps then we may be able to become one of those 0.01% of species that have survived.