By John Scales Avery
09 June, 2012
Today, the world is faced with a number of problems which are both serious and interconnected, but which all have solutions. Although the problems are well known, it is useful to list them:
• THREATS TO THE ENVIRONMENT: The global environment is being destroyed by excessive consumption in the industrialized countries, combined with rapid population growth in developing nations. Climate change threatens to melt glaciers and polar ice. Complete melting of Greenland's inland ice would result in a 7 meter rise in sea level. Complete melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet would produce an additional 5 meters of rise.
• GROWING POPULATION, VANISHING RESOURCES: 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. The reserve indices for many metals are between 10 and 100 years. Reserve indices are defined as the size of the known reserves of metals divided by the current annual rates of production.
• THE GLOBAL FOOD CRISIS: 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.
• INTOLERABLE ECONOMIC INEQUALITY: 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. Meanwhile, obesity is becoming a serious health problem in the rich part of the world. In 2006, 1.1 billion people lacked safe drinking water, and waterbourne diseases killed an estimated 1.8 million people. The developing countries are also the scene of a resurgence of other infectious diseases, such as malaria, drug-resistant tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS.
• 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. Expressed differently, the total explosive power was equivalent to 20 billion tons of TNT, 4 tons for each person on earth. 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 danger 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. Continued over a long period of time, the threat of accident 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.
• THE MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX: In 2008, 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 threatens to destroy to civilization and that it responsible for much of the suffering that humans experience.
• LIMITS TO GROWTH: A “healthy” economic growth rate of 4% per year corresponds to an increase by a factor of 50 in a century, by a factor of 2,500 in two centuries and 125,000 in three centuries. No one can maintain that resource-using, waste-producing economic activities can continue to grow except by refusing to look more than a certain distance into the future. It seems likely that the boundaries for certain types of growth will be reached during the 21st century. (Culture can of course 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.
In this paper, I will present four scenarios for the future, two of which are very dark indeed. The other two scenarios present solutions. Our world is not doomed to undergo a dark fate. Modern science has, for the first time in history, offered humankind the possibility of a life of comfort, free from hunger and cold, and free from the constant threat of death through infectious disease. At the same time, science has given humans the power to obliterate their civilization with nuclear weapons, or to make the earth uninhabitable through overpopulation and pollution. The question of which of these paths we choose is literally a matter of life or death for ourselves and our children.
Will we use the discoveries of modern science constructively, and thus choose the path leading towards life? Or will we use science to produce more and more lethal weapons, which sooner or later, through a technical or human failure, may result in a catastrophic nuclear war? Will we thoughtlessly destroy our beautiful planet through unlimited growth of population and industry? The choice among these alternatives is ours to make. We live at a critical moment of history - a moment of crisis for civilization.
No one living today asked to be born at such a moment, but by an accident of birth, history has given each of us an enormous responsibility, and two daunting tasks: If civilization is to survive, we must not only stabilize the global population but also, even more importantly, we must eliminate the institution of war.
The problem of building a stable, just, and war-free world is difficult, but it is not impossible. The large regions of our present-day world within which war has been eliminated can serve as models. There are a number of large countries with heterogeneous populations within which it has been possible to achieve internal peace and social cohesion, and if this is possible within such extremely large regions, it must also be possible globally.
We must replace the old world of international anarchy, chronic war and institutionalized injustice, by a new world of law. The United Nations Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Criminal Court are steps in the right direction, but these institutions need to be greatly strengthened and reformed. We also need a new global ethic, where loyalty to one's family and nation will be supplemented by a higher loyalty to humanity as a whole.
The Nobel laureate biochemist Albert Szent-Gy ¨rgyi once wrote: “The story of man consists of two parts, divided by the appearance of modern science.... In the first period, man lived in the world in which his species was born and to which his senses were adapted. In the second, man stepped into a new, cosmic world to which he was a complete stranger.... The forces at man's disposal were no longer terrestrial forces, of human dimension, but were cosmic forces, the forces which shaped the universe. The few hundred Fahrenheit degrees of our flimsy terrestrial fires were exchanged for the ten million degrees of the atomic reactions which heat the sun.”
“This is but a beginning, with endless possibilities in both directions – a building of a human life of undreamt of wealth and dignity, or a sudden end in utmost misery. Man lives in a new cosmic world for which he was not made. His survival depends on how well and how fast he can adapt himself to it, rebuilding all his ideas, all his social and political institutions.”
“...Modern science has abolished time and distance as factors separating nations. On our shrunken globe today, there is room for one group only - the family of man.”
Scenario 1: Nuclear Catastrophe
Today the danger of a catastrophic war with hydrogen bombs hangs like a dark cloud over the future of human civilization. The total explosive power of today's weapons is equivalent to roughly half a million Hiroshima bombs. To multiply the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by a factor of half a million changes the danger qualitatively. What is threatened today is the complete breakdown of human society. Although the Cold War has ended, the dangers of nuclear weapons have not been appreciably reduced. Indeed, proliferation and the threat of nuclear terrorism have added new dimensions to the dangers.
There are 26,000 nuclear weapons in the world today, about 4,000 of the on hair-trigger alert. The phrase “hair trigger alert” means that the person in charge has only 15 minutes to decide whether the warning from the radar system was true of false, and to decide whether or not to launch a counterattack. The danger of accidental nuclear war continues to be high. Technical failures and human failures have many times brought the world close to a catastrophic nuclear war. Those who know the system of “deterrence” best describe it as “an accident waiting to happen”.
A nuclear war would a global ecological catastrophe, and all the nations of the world would suffer - also neutral nations. Recent studies by atmospheric scientists have shown that the smoke from burning cities produced by even a limited nuclear war would have a devastating effect on global agriculture. The studies show that the smoke would rise to the stratosphere, where it would spread globally and remain for a decade, blocking sunlight, blocking the hydrological cycle and destroying the ozone layer. Because of the devastating effect on global agriculture, darkness from even a small nuclear war could result in an estimated billion deaths from famine. This number corresponds to the fact that today, a billion people are chronically under-nourished. If global agriculture were sufficiently damaged by a nuclear war, these vulnerable people might not survive. A large-scale nuclear war would be an even greater global catastrophe, completely destroying all agriculture for a period of ten years.
There are many ways in which a nuclear catastrophe could occur, and indeed the world has many times been close to such a disaster, for example during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and on the occasion in 1983 when the Soviet warning system falsely reported an American attack, and only the outstanding skill, courage and coolness of Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov averted disaster.
In this scenario we will consider the threat of a third world war triggered by an Israeli attack on Iran. The government of Israel, under Benjamin Netanyahu, is reportedly planning a unilateral military attack on Iran, perhaps as early as the autumn of 2012, at the height of the US presidential election. President Obama's response, on behalf of the United States, has been to state that if Israel is attacked by Iran, all options are on the table, diplospeak for US military involvement in the war. But if Iran is attacked by Israel, how can Iran fail to respond? Thus the stage is set for escalation.
Most probably, a military attack on Iran by Israel will provoke Iran to retaliate by closing the Strait of Hormuz, and also provoke an Iranian missile attack on Tel Aviv. The United States will very probably respond by sending warships to the Strait of Hormuz, and bombing Iranian shore installations. This will very likely lead the Iranians to sink one or more of the US warships by means of rockets. The public in the United States will demand massive retaliation against Iran.
Meanwhile, one can anticipate that, in Pakistan, the unpopularity of the
US -Israel alliance (as well as memory of numerous atrocities) will lead to the overthrow of Pakistan's government and the entry of the new revolutionary government of Pakistan into the war on the side of Iran, thus providing Iran with nuclear weapons. Israel will then decide that a preemptive first strike against Pakistan's nuclear weapons installations is necessary, and for this purpose Israel will use its own large arsenal of nuclear weapons.
Russia has already prepared for the threatened war by massing troops and armaments in Armenia, and China too will be drawn into the conflict. In this tense situation, when nuclear weapons have been used for the first time since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there will be a danger that a much larger scale nuclear disaster will occur because of a systems failure or an error of judgement by a political or military leader. Such a disaster will have both environmental and economic dimensions.
Scenario 2: Large-Scale Famine Produced by Overpopulation, Climate Change and the End of Oil and Gas
During the first decade of the 21st century, a child died from starvation every six seconds - five million children died from hunger every year. As the 21 st century progresses this tragic loss of life will increase to unimaginable proportions.
As glaciers melt in the Himalayas, threatening the summer water supplies of India and China; as ocean levels rise, drowning the fertile rice-growing river deltas of Asia; as aridity begins to decrease the harvests of Africa, North America and Europe; as populations grow; as aquifers are overdrawn; as cropland is lost to desertification and urban growth; and as energy prices increase, the billion people who now are undernourished but still survive, will not survive. They will become the victims of a famine whose proportions will exceed anything that the world has previously experienced.
Attempts to increase the size of the area under cultivation will meet with failure. In Southern Asia, in some countries of Eastern Asia, in the Near East and North Africa there will be almost no scope for expanding agricultural area. In the drier regions, it will even be necessary to return to permanent pasture the land that is marginal and submarginal for cultivation. In most of Latin America and Africa south of the Sahara, there will still be considerable possibilities for expanding cultivated areas; but the costs of development will be high, and it will often be more economical to intensify the utilization of areas already settled. Many of the remaining tropical rain forests will be destroyed in attempts to increase the area under cultivation.
Rather than an increase in the global area of cropland, we will encounter a future loss of cropland through soil erosion, salination, desertification, loss of topsoil, depletion of minerals in topsoil, urbanization and failure of water supplies. In China, North Africa, the Middle East, India and in the south-western part of the United States, water tables will fall to such an extent that the agricultural use of water from wells will become impossible. Attempts to convert arid grasslands into wheat farms will fail, defeated by drought and wind erosion, just as the wheat farms of Oklahoma were overcome by drought and dust in the 1930's. Much land will be turned into desert by salination and overgrazing and wind erosion.
Especially worrying is a prediction of the International Panel on Climate Change concerning the effect of global warming on the availability of water: The prediction is that by the 2050's, global warming will have reduced by as much as 30% the water available in many areas of world that now a large producers of grain.
Added to the agricultural and environmental problems, there will be problems of finance and distribution. Famines will occur even when grain is available somewhere in the world, because those who are threatened with starvation will not be able to pay for the grain, or for its transportation. The economic laws of supply and demand are will not be able to solve this type of problem. One will say that there is no “demand” for the food (meaning demand in the economic sense), even though people are in fact starving.
Green Revolution plant varieties will prove to be less valuable than might be expected because they require heavy inputs of pesticides, fertilizers and irrigation. Monocultures, such as the Green Revolution varieties will also prove to be vulnerable to future epidemics of plant diseases, similar to the epidemic that caused the Irish Potato Famine in 1845. Even more importantly, pesticides, fertilizers, irrigation, and the use of farm machinery all depend on the use of fossil fuels. Therefore high agricultural yields cannot be maintained in the future, when fossil fuels become prohibitively scarce and expensive. Furthermore, food crops will be converted into biofuels, and biofuels will be grown on land that could be used for food production.
The ratio of the fossil fuel energy inputs to the food calorie outputs depends on how many energy-using elements of food production are included in the accounting. David Pimental and Mario Giampietro of Cornell University estimated that in the 1990's, if the energy expended on transportation, packaging and retailing of food is included, the U.S. food system required 10 input calories of fossil fuel energy for each food calorie produced, and this figure did not include energy used for cooking. Thus, by 2050, just as global population reaches unprecedented levels, a severe blow to modern agriculture will be dealt by prohibitively high prices of oil and natural gas. The result will be global famine on a scale never before experienced. As desperate refugees from the worst-hit parts of the world attempt to enter more fortunate countries, the severity of the disaster will be compounded by xenophobia, loss of empathy, and a shift to the political far right.
Scenario 3: Steady-State Economics
Like a speeding bus headed for a brick wall, the earth's rapidly-growing population of humans and its rapidly-growing economic activity are headed for a collision with a very solid barrier - the carrying capacity of the global environment. As in the case of the bus and the wall, the correct response to the situation is to apply the brakes in good time.
The size of the human economy is, of course, the product of two factors the total number of humans, and the consumption per capita. If we are to achieve a sustainable global society in the future, a society whose demands are within the carrying capacity of of the global environment, then both these factors must be reduced. The responsibility for achieving sustainability is thus evenly divided between the North and the South: Where there is excessively high consumption per capita, it must be reduced; and this is primarily the responsibility of the industrialized countries. High birth rates must also be reduced; and this is primarily the responsibility of the developing countries, in many of which birth rates are too high to be sustainable. Both of these somewhat painful changes are necessary for sustainability; but both will be extremely difficult to achieve because of the inertia of institutions, customs and ways of thought which are deeply embedded in society, in both the North and the South.
In this scenario we will look at the features of a new type of economics, which will be needed to avoid an ecological crash: Steady State Economics. In the future, the population of the earth will be gradually decreased to a level that can be maintained by organic agriculture. The changes which will be used to break the cycle of overpopulation and poverty are all desirable in themselves. Besides education and higher status for women, these measures include state- provided social security for old people, provision of water supplies near to dwellings, provision of health services to all, abolition of child labor and general economic development.
When women have higher education, higher social status, and independent careers outside the home, they will not be forced into the role of baby- producing machines by men who do not share in the drudgery of cooking, washing and cleaning. Women will take their places beside men in positions of responsibility, thus contributing their uniquely life-oriented point of view to the ethos of society.
As the global population first becomes stabilized and afterwards gradually decreases to a sustainable level, the problems of eliminating poverty and providing adequate infrastructure will be simplified.
In the industrialized countries, per-capita consumption will be drastically reduced. Material goods will no longer be used as a means of social competition. Public education, mass media and religious instruction will all reenforce the perception that “conspicuous consumption” is vulgar and antisocial. Riding a bicycle will become more fashionable than riding in an automobile, since it will be seen as contributing to the salvation of the earth's environment. In general, private transportation (apart from bicycles) will disappear, and will be replaced by public transport systems driven by renewable energy sources.
The use of fossil fuels will be gradually reduced and finally eliminated. This will be achieved with the help of high taxes on fossil fuel use. All forms of renewable energy will be intensively developed with the help of state subsidies. In particular, the solar energy potential of arid desert regions in North Africa, the Americas, Asia and Australia will be fully exploited. Solar energy will be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. These gases will be liquefied and transported to other parts of the world, where they will be used in fuel cells.
In so far as is possible, food will be grown locally. The consumption of meat will be very much reduced in order to shorten the food chain, and in order to avoid the release of nitrogen-containing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. New forms of food will be found - for example high-protein algae and high-protein edible seaweed.
The institution of war will be eliminated, thus releasing productive forces for more constructive purposes. Aid to underdeveloped countries will be very much increased. Wasteful energy use will be avoided, partly because it will be considered to be antisocial, and partly through governmental regulations. Goods will be made more durable and repairable.
In the world of the future will be a world of changed values. Non-material human qualities, such as kindness, politeness, knowledge and musical and artistic ability will be valued more highly, and people will derive a larger part of their pleasure from conversation and from the appreciation of unspoiled nature.
Governments already recognize their responsibility for education. In the future, they will also recognize their responsibility for helping young people to make a smooth transition from education to secure jobs. If jobs are scarce, work will be shared with a spirit of solidarity among those seeking employment; hours of work (and if necessary, living standards) will be reduced to ensure that all who wish it may have jobs. Market forces alone cannot achieve this. The powers of government are needed.
The present financial system of the world, characterized as it is by fractional reserve banking and the need for growth, will not survive in the future, when growth is no longer possible. Private banks will be replaced by national banks.
In the future world as it can be if we work to make it so, a stable population of moderate size will live without waste or luxury, but in comfort and security, free from the fear of hunger or unemployment. People will derive more of their pleasure from the enjoyment of their families and friends, from music, art and literature, and from the beauty of the environment.
Scanario 4: Global Governance
The problem of achieving internal peace over a large geographical area is not insoluble. It has already been solved. There exist today many nations or regions within each of which there is internal peace, and some of these are so large that they are almost worlds in themselves. One thinks of China, India, Brazil, Australia, the Russian Federation, the United States, and the European Union. Many of these enormous societies contain a variety of ethnic groups, a variety of religions and a variety of languages, as well as striking contrasts between wealth and poverty. If these great land areas have been forged into peaceful and cooperative societies, cannot the same methods of government be applied globally?
Today there is a pressing need to enlarge the size of the political unit from the nation-state to the entire world. The need to do so results from the terrible dangers of modern weapons and from global economic interdependence. The progress of science has created this need, but science has also given us the means to enlarge the political unit: Our almost miraculous modern communications media, if properly used, have the power to weld all of humankind into a single supportive and cooperative society.
Many of the large regions within which internal peace has been established are federations, and in this scenario, the United Nations is developed from the confederation that it now is to a World Federation. We visualize a reformed UN General Assembly, with the power to make laws that are binding on individuals. These laws will be enforced by a much more developed International Criminal Court, whose jurisdiction will be extended to cover the full range of international law.
The decisions of the ICC will be backed by a World Standing Army, with a monopoly on heavy weapons, and with more power than any national military force. The manufacture or possession of nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction will be forbidden. Mass media, public education and religion will all be used to build up the loyalty of citizens of the world to humanity as a whole. Global citizens will feel that it is their duty to report violations of international treaties and laws, in particular laws banning nuclear weapons. Whistle-blowers will be protected and rewarded by the World Federation. International trading in light arms will be forbidden.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights will take on a central position in defining the aims of the World Federation. Gross violations of human rights will be prevented by the World Federation. National politicians violating human rights will be arrested by the World Standing Army and tried by the International Criminal Court.
The voting system of the UN General Assembly will be reformed, and final votes will be cast by regional blocks, each block having one vote. The blocks will be: 1) Latin America 2) Africa 3) Europe 4) North America 5) Russia and Central Asia 6) China 7) India and Southeast Asia 8) The Middle East and 9) Japan, Korea and Oceania. A reformed Security Council will still exist, but without the special privileges of the P5 members, and without the veto power.
The World Federation will be given the power of taxation. One of its sources of income will be the so-called “Tobin tax”, named after the Nobel laureate economist James Tobin of Yale University. Tobin proposed that international currency exchanges should be taxed at a rate between 0.1 and 0.25 percent. Even this extremely low rate of taxation will have the beneficial effect of damping speculative transactions, thus stabilizing the rates of exchange between currencies.
The volume of money involved in international currency transactions is so enormous that even the tiny tax proposed by Tobin will provide the World Federation with between 100 billion and 300 billion dollars annually. By strengthening the activities of various agencies, the additional income will add to the prestige of the World Federation and thus make the organization more effective when it is called upon to resolve international political conflicts. Besides the Tobin tax, other measures will be used to increase the income of the World Federation, for example, resources of the sea bed be given to the UN, as well as income from taxes on carbon dioxide emissions.
In the future, the budgets of agencies, such as the present World Health Organization, the Food and Agricultural Organization, UNESCO and the UN Development Programme, will not just be doubled but will be multiplied by a factor of at least twenty. With increased budgets these agencies will sponsor research and other actions aimed at solving the world's most pressing problems - AIDS, drug-resistant infections diseases, tropical diseases, food insufficiencies, pollution, climate change, alternative energy strategies, population stabilization, peace education, as well as combating poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, lack of safe water and so on. The United Nations will be given its own television channel, with unbiased news programs, cultural programs, and “State of the World” addresses by the Secretary General of the World Federation.
The need for international law will be balanced against the desirability of local self-government. Like biological diversity, the cultural diversity of humankind is a treasure to be carefully guarded. A balance or compromise between these two desirable goals will be achieved by granting only a few carefully chosen powers to a World Federation with sovereignty over all other issues retained by the member states.
Although the problems facing the world in the 21st century are both severe and difficult, nevertheless they have solutions, as scenarios 3 and 4 attempt to show. Solutions such as these are vehemently opposed by the powerholders of today, who control both governments and mass media. Indeed this opposition by powerholders, who profit from the status quo, is the main reason why rational solutions to global problems have not yet been found. But in the last analysis, it is ourselves, the people of the world, the 99%, who have the collective ability (and responsibility) to choose the future world that we want. We have the weight of numbers on our side, and we also have reason on our side.
John Scales Avery is a theoretical chemist noted for his research publications in quantum chemistry, thermodynamics, evolution, and history of science. Since the early 1990s, Avery has been an active World peace activist. During these years, he was part of a group associated with the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. Presently, he is an Associate Professor in quantum chemistry at the University of Copenhagen
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