By Metta Spencer | 26 October 2017

I have a lot of activist friends. Most of them are engaged in various social movements that are trying to save the world from some real catastrophe: nuclear war, say, or climate change, or a public health calamity, such as mass starvation, a new pandemic like the Black Death, or a nuclear reactor melt-down.

Some of my other activist friends are addressing global threats but are not yet numerous enough to be a distinct social movement. For example, some are professionals working on the loss of freshwater, others study the acidification of oceans. Some are beginning to organize discussions about internet risks, such as the WannaCry cyber attack, trolls wrecking democratic elections, or hackers stealing from your bank account. Some activists regard economic inequality as the worst global threat, whereas a few others say it’s population growth. Bless all these wonderful friends. By seeking to prevent such calamities, they are saving the world.

And they have lots of brilliant ideas. Every one of them can suggest several public policy innovations that, if adopted, would reduce the probability of whatever global disaster they are working to prevent. Someday one of their ideas may indeed save the world but, so far, the world’s not interested.

Why can’t they get their messages out? Unfortunately, each movement occupies a distinct “silo.” My own network of activists is quite diverse, but few of them seem to know each other. If I could get them all together and ask them to share their best policy ideas, would they find their top proposals compatible?

Yes, I think so. If activists from five or six social movements were to compile their most promising policy ideas on the same sheet of paper, I predict that almost every one of them could readily endorse the whole list. And better yet, everyone would learn a lot from the discussion.

If we want to save the world, the first step should be to think hard together about how best to do so. We need such a general conversation now. Out of it can come a common list that can be a useful tool for all our movements. Call it a “checklist for survival.“ Or, better yet, a “Platform for Survival.” By jointly working to promote such a common program of action, each separate NGO could gain numerical strength from all of its new allies.

Let’s do it! That was my initial thought, but next I had to ask myself seriously whether such a Platform would be coherent enough for each of those groups to adopt as its own.

Obviously, the coherence of the Platform would depend on the combination of policies that are written on it, and that is unpredictable. Admittedly, it might take some negotiating to come up with a single list that would hang together. A few incompatible policies might even have to be revised or deleted from the list in order to make the whole combination coherent. (That is most likely when it comes to policies about nuclear power. Some of my activist friends promote it as a marvelous alternative to fossil fuels, whereas others want to prohibit it as too dangerous. Both the pro and con positions cannot be on the same list unless an acceptable compromise can be worked out, which is a tall order.)

But, knowing my diverse activist friends, I can’t think of any other controversy that’s likely to spoil their consensus. On the contrary, most of them will discover that many ideas proposed by others will actually strengthen their own. Indeed, with a little tinkering, they can compile a list that’s a “whole greater than the sum of its parts.”

When I began suggesting this project to my friends, most of them liked it, so I proposed it to Science for Peace, and was authorized to proceed. Now we’re inviting lots of other people to participate, including you.

We are especially inviting activists who are working on existential dangers that seem to be highly inter-dependent— i.e. ones that are a system.

The way to fix a system is to locate the connections in it that are especially crucial. You figure out which parts affect which other consequential parts—and change those parts together, not as separate, unrelated entities.

Of course, not everything is a system. Not all problems are equally inter-dependent, but many of the worst ones are. Professor Danny Harvey has made a matrix of some risks, showing in each cell how they could interact with each other. He could fill almost every cell, and most of his hypothesized interactions seem quite plausible. (See below)

Matrix

Matrix of Interactions between 4 Big Threats to Humanity. A given cell lists impacts of the threat listed at the start of each row on the threat given in the column heading. For the global warming row, impacts both of global warming in worsening the threat listed as the column heading, and/or of solutions in global warming in reducing the threat, are given.
This table is scrollable for smartphone and small tablet users. Move your finger sideways to see hidden or cut-off content.

Table credit: Danny Harvey, 2017.
Threat Threat
Nuclear war Global warming Global pandemic Cyber attack on the electricity grid
Major conventional war and nuclear war Military activities are a source of GHG emissions Devastation from war would increase the vulnerability of survivors. Refugee flows also increase vulnerability Threat or prospect of physical war might prompt a pre-emptive cyber–attack by a state actor
Global warming Impacts create regional stress, increasing the risk of conflict that could spiral out of control (as in Gwynne Dyer’s scenarios)


Reduced need for fossil fuels reduces competition for non-renewable energy, removing one potential source of conflict.
Hungry people, or concentrations of refugees in unsanitary conditions, could increase the spread of a pandemic once it gets started


A vegan diet, by eliminating intense human-animal interactions, and eliminating the over-use of antibiotics for livestock, greatly reduces the risk of a new super-germ evolving and/or being transferred to humans
(Increases stress on the grid by increasing cooling electricity load at a time when transmission capacity falls, although probably has no effect on vulnerability to a cyber attack)


Modern wind turbines, with fault- ride-through capability and reactive power control, already play a stabilizing role. Increased deployment of wind farms with their own AC grid, decoupled from the main AC grid with a DC intertie, also improves resiliency. Urban PV systems, especially with some direct DC connections to DC loads, also improve resiliency
Global pandemic Social destabilization leads to more extreme politics, increase the risk of war. Population decline would likely lead to reduced GHG emissions
Cyber attack on the electricity grid Could lead to a retaliatory physical war, by design or by accident Reduced economic growth and generation of electricity following a cyber attack would reduce GHG emissions Loss of refrigeration of medicine and anti-biotics could increase susceptibility to infectious diseases and trigger an outbreak of a latent pandemic?

If our worst global threats have systemic aspects, to prevent them we need to note their causal connections. Let me explore here the tangle of causality among just six of these dangers: warfare, global warming, famine, pandemics, mass exposure to radiation (e.g. from a reactor meltdown), and cyber attacks.

SIX GLOBAL RISKS AS A SYSTEM

Humankind’s’s worst risks today are nuclear war and global warming. Each of them can kill billions of us and end civilization. Global warming may even exterminate our species if it melts the clathrates and permafrost. That would be the newest in a series of mass extinction events; in one of those extinctions more than 75 percent of all species on the planet died.

Warfare is both a cause and an effect of global warming. For example, in Syria global warming caused drought, which forced farmers to move to cities to survive, where they were easily recruited into rebel insurgencies, thereby starting the current war.

Moreover, the effects also run in the other direction; war and weapons also cause global warming. For example, even in peacetime, the Pentagon burns more fossil fuel than any other US organization, and when its weapons are used in a war such as Iraq, the emissions escalate. War and preparedness for war are inevitably a major source of global warming.

Over the next decades all the nuclear powers intend to modernize their arsenals. The US alone will spend a trillion dollars on theirs—money that is needed for innovations that reduce carbon emissions. This diversion of funds is another way in which weapons cause global warming.

Unless, however, someone starts a nuclear war! Surprisingly, nuclear war would have climatic effects that are contrary to the usual effects of a war. Exploding only about 100 Hiroshima-size atomic bombs actually would reverse global warming. For example, a small nuclear war between India and Pakistan would burn cities and send smoke to the stratosphere. Soot would circle the planet for a decade, blotting out sunshine, turning summers into fall and winter, and freezing crops. The northern hemisphere would experience a prolonged famine, probably killing billions.1 (Though every responsible person considers the possible consequences of whatever he or she advocates, few of the generals who control nuclear weapons have acknowledged this risk to humankind.)

When peace activists start proposing policies for the Platform for Survival, their top priority proposal will almost certainly be: “Disarm all nuclear weapons and set up a monitoring system to keep any from being created again.” Probably their next suggestion will be: “Eliminate or sharply reduce all existing armies and their weapons.”

What will the climate change activists list as their own top proposals for the Platform for Survival? They will almost certainly choose one of the top five or six interventions that Paul Hawken named in his superb book, Drawdown.2 Hawken asked experts to identify 100 measures that would all help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Then they calculated how effective each measure was likely to be, and rank-ordered them.

Hawken’s list is immensely helpful to climate change activists when they are prioritizing their campaign efforts. If we ask them to list the best policies for the world to adopt, many will mention refrigeration first! The researchers were astonished to discover that the coolant in air conditioners and refrigerators is the most dangerous source of global warming. Its impact on the temperature of the planet may be as much as one degree. Also, the Platform will almost certainly include Hawken’s proposal to improve land use, especially by planting billions of trees around the planet.

The peace movement’s proposals will presumably please the climate change activists because disarming would help reduce global warming. And the climate change activists’ proposals will please the peace activists, not least because preventing global warming will prevent conflicts and thereby prevent wars. There is already mutual respect between these two movements, and they can gain by an alliance to advance their common goals.

Moreover, both groups’ proposals will receive the support of other activists who are trying to save the world from pandemics, radiation exposure, and cyber attacks. Again, in some ways their problems are inter-dependent, so their solutions will also fit together.

For example, wars can lead to pandemics. The Spanish flu of 1918 affected one-fifth of the human population and killed more people than World War I. It was caused in part by the movement of troops around the world, spreading the virus. John Bates Clark wrote that “the most serious human cost of war has been not losses in the field nor even the losses from disease in the armies, but losses from epidemics disseminated among civil populations.”3

Today, a new virus would more likely be spread by civilians traveling by plane, but there are still reasons to worry that war could cause a pandemic—possibly even intentionally, with pathogenic microbes that were genetically engineered for malevolent purposes.

To be sure, wars have occurred without epidemics, and not all disease epidemics correlate with war, but the connection is still so close that common plans should be made for global interventions that can greatly reducing the risk of both. Indeed, some organizations, notably Doctors Without Borders, already do work on both problems, as well as hunger, and we hope they will contribute to our project by proposing their policies for inclusion on the Platform for Survival.

The key to stopping the spread of an epidemic is early detection and early response. The best method of detection is one here in Canada. Global Public Health Intelligence Network (GPHIN) is run by the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response (CEPR). It monitors Internet news media around the world. When people start mentioning a new set of symptoms, the group notices it faster than the World Health Organization with its more elaborate on-the-ground monitoring. Implementing such a scheme universally would promote earlier detection and enable earlier responses. Because of GPHIN, the SARS epidemic was stopped and never became a pandemic. This process should be adopted on a worldwide scale.4

Global warming, war, famine, and epidemics are so interdependent that interventions that prevent one of them will often help prevent them all. Famine, of course, is almost always the result of a war that interrupts the production and distribution of food. But by mid-century, the human population will increase so much that the amount of food must be doubled, which would be a challenge in itself. When we take account of the migrations that global warming will produce through floods, hurricanes, and droughts, today’s problems of food security will be multiplied. Tropical diseases will spread more widely too, as mosquitoes move north. The Platform for Survival should include proposals for preventing famines in connection with the diseases that go with it.

There is another major public health threat—massive exposure to radiation from the civilian nuclear industry— that does not fit into the same system of inter-dependent causation as famine, pandemics, or global warming. Instead, nuclear reactors are often found in rich countries, and their connection to warfare is specific to nuclear, not other types of war.

Small health effects are routinely incurred by people working as uranium miners, technicians, and radiologists, but of course the public is rightly concerned primarily about the potential for reactor explosions.

In fact, nuclear power is probably less debated by public health leaders than by activists in the climate change and peace movements. These activists do not all necessarily agree, though of course they were all alarmed about the three famous reactor accidents—Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima. Today many of them worry more about the impending catastrophic effects of global warming than about radiation hazards. Nuclear reactors do not emit carbon into the atmosphere, unlike fossil fuel energy, and that is the strongest (maybe the only strong) basis for favoring their continued use.

But activists are not the only ones whose opinions are divided on the subject. A BBC poll of 23,231 people in 23 countries shortly after the Fukushima accident showed that, except in UK and the US, most people did not want any new reactors built. Indeed, 30 percent wanted to shut all reactors down immediately. The trend continues to be against nuclear power, and by 2016, for the first time a majority of Americans opposed it.5

Peace activists are concerned about nuclear power primarily because it is so closely related to nuclear war.6 The first reactors were built specifically to produce fissile material for use in bombs. Only later did the idea of using them to generate electricity catch on. Even today, peace activists’ main concern is that all reactors inevitably produce plutonium. Considering the stupendous amount of waste that power plants generate, technologically competent nations or even terrorists will inevitably acquire fissile products. There is an inextricable connection between the civilian production and military use of nuclear material, and for that reason if no other, peace activists demand that all nuclear reactors be shut down. I expect the Platform for Survival will include a proposal for the speedy transition from nuclear to sustainable energy.

However, in reality, not all reactors can be dismantled immediately, so there is room for another proposal to be added: a suggestion or two for improving the safety of existing reactors all over the world until they can be shut down.

Finally, our Platform for Survival should include a proposal for reducing a new threat to humankind: cyber attacks. So far, there is no social movement underway to prevent these problems, but I predict that one will coalesce within a year. Every day I read several articles or news stories about Internet risks.7 They vary from the crude vandalizing of web sites to phishing attacks, to ransomware attacks such as WannaCry, to the North Koreans’ sabotage of Sony, to the Stuxnet virus attack against Iran’s nuclear centrifuges and the sabotage of North Korea’s missile launches. I have not even counted in this litany the Russians’ use of Facebook and YouTube to subvert the effects of the U.S. elections, but this kind of problem—call it “information warfare”—is a looming challenge beyond anything we have had to cope with before, either as propaganda or as technological sabotage.

I am not aware of any existing nexus linking cyber attacks to global warming, radiation exposure, famine, or pandemics, but there certainly is a link with warfare. Not all cyber crime is warfare, but there is a strong link between cyber attacks and other forms of warfare. The causal relationship runs in both directions. For example, ballistic missiles are not reliable methods for defending a country from the incoming ICBMs (whether Russian, Chinese, or North Korean) but they are very good for knocking out an enemy’s satellites, which would render their cell phones useless.

And conversely, cyber warriors can inflict devastating blows against an enemy’s military equipment or even against its cities. As the Internet of Things takes over more functions, so will our vulnerability. Already the continent’s electrical grid can be knocked out, which will take many months to repair, and in the meantime millions will die.8 For these reasons, I want some Internet experts to contribute policy proposals to the Platform for Survival. If we intend to save the world, we need to prepare for threats that are not full-blown yet but which will be coming soon.

BUILDING THE PLATFORM

How shall we go about building the platform that we envision? Here’s what I suggest. Everyone deserves a chance to help save the world, and ideally this document will come “from the bottom up” as a product of participatory democracy. But it also must be smart—proposing innovations wise enough to save the world.

Let’s say that the final version of the Platform will include about three proposals addressing each of these six risks: war and weapons (especially nuclear); global warming; famine; pandemics, massive radiation exposure, and cyber attacks. We could choose a different set of calamities to save the world from: Biodiversity. Or poverty. Or water shortage. Or human rights. Or population. Or refugees. Or plastic things in the ocean. Or police brutality. Or overconsumption. Or female genital mutilation. Or, or, or… However, for practical reasons we can handle only about six. Fortunately, the Platform will also include proposals chosen for the sake of systemic sustainability and many of those measures will help solve other serious economic problems besides our six chosen “existential threats.” We wish it were feasible to address all 17 of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, but at this time we cannot. Our resources cannot compare with those of the United Nations.

My diverse activist friends’ suggestions will be compatible and coherent. However, coherence alone is insufficient. Even very desirable innovations may fail or be rejected unless other changes are also introduced to make the whole package sustainable as a system.

We are going to be proposing major changes in the world’s institutions, but those institutions now form a system in which some components support each other. If we pull out one or two of the parts from the nexus, the whole system may collapse. (Mikhail Gorbachev discovered that the Soviet Union was a system when he began changing some of its institutions; it did collapse.) Hence it will be necessary to add several proposals to our Platform just to lend stability to the new system that we want to create. In fact, political and economic innovations should be addressed by a distinct group of activists who can propose five or six policies for the Platform. Their mission is to promote systematic sustainability for our Platform. Let me point out here some functional requirements of the system that they should address.

The peace movement will almost certainly propose that all national armies be reduced or totally disarmed. Even though most people can see the advantages of that notion, they will reject it. They believe that each society requires security mechanisms for repelling invaders and repressing internal rebellions. To take away their military units would leave them feeling vulnerable.

Peace activists may try to counter these anxieties by promising that the United Nations would come to their defence, if need be. This is not a credible offer. The UN has no military or policing capability of its own and, even if it did, the Security Council decides all requests for intervention, and the Security Council is undemocratic, subject to the veto of five countries. The rule of law is weak in international affairs. Therefore I doubt that the disarmament proposal will be considered realistic unless at least two other policies are added to the Platform to support it. These are

  1. a UN Emergency Peace Service must be created that is not dependent on the voluntary contributions of peacekeepers by member states;
  2. a more democratic body must be added to the existing UN with the capacity to over-ride the veto. This may consist of a parliamentary assembly in which seats are allocated by some formula to already elected parliament from the member states.

Would these provisions suffice to convince the public? Probably not. Most people would question how the UN would fund the new UN Emergency Peace Service. Financing is a functional requisite, so an additional proposal is needed to cover it. One idea may be a Tobin Tax, which could fund many of our other proposals too, including the development of food security programs and the management of infectious disease outbreaks. Thus, in addition to the proposals that directly reduce the risk of our six existential threats, several proposals will be needed to make the whole Platform for Survival sustainable as a system. Such necessary proposals are often called “enabling measures.”

There is also the challenge of winning public support. The main proposals of the Platform would universally protect people everywhere in the world. This is a generous approach that most activists heartily support—but not conservative populists, who are in fact winning most elections these days. Right wing nationalists would not support the Platform unless it offers something more to them.

Hence, to make our new system sustainable, we must take account of such people as Donald Trump’s supporters. I am on thin ice guessing what would make them happy, but some people claim that they are reacting mainly against the insecurity of employment. There is every reason to expect their insecurity to increase over the next decade, putting the Platform for Survival at greater risk. Hence to make our proposed system sustainable, we may need to add a proposal for a universal basic income and another to tax wealth, as Thomas Piketty recommends for reversing the global trend toward inequality.9

Next systemic problem: To make a basic income feasible, a financial plan must be proposed. Where will the money come from to support people who no longer can find employment? Our economic proposals must anticipate the economic realities of two decades in the future, when artificial intelligence will have replaced even professional jobs. Everyone may be “on the dole” but in new, happier roles.

Thus the project of saving the world is more complicated than we’d like. We can easily think of constructive proposals, but we must foresee their consequences if they are to be fulfilled. Before the Platform is adopted, many suggestions must be discussed online and in public educational events. The most controversial proposals may be the enabling measures—financial and institutional changes required for the sustainability of the new system we want.

The ideas should come from experts and activists, and anyone else in the world who is interested—well, at least everyone who can write passable English on the Internet. I’ve set up seven public Facebook pages where people can enter and discuss proposals, as well as a web site called ToSaveTheWorld.ca where we can collect articles, videos, and post information about events and educational meetings about potential ways of preventing these six kinds of catastrophe and making a sustainable new system. This is a utopian exercise, to be sure, but it must also be pragmatic.

After fostering several months of public discussion about items for the Platform, we shall hold a public forum in Toronto. A committee of NGO leaders will have winnowed the proposals down to 50 or less, and during the forum we shall discuss them and select only enough to fit on one page. Hardly anyone will read a document longer than one page, so let’s please agree to that one-page limit before we start. About 25 concise one-line proposals will fit on one page. Our purpose is to stimulate a public discussion, then negotiate and adopt the wisest possible 25-item list. It will be “owned” jointly by all the NGO partners that sign and ratify it.

I have compiled a “Prototype Platform for Survival,” just for illustrative purposes. (See it at the end of this article.) I doubt that many, if any, of the items on it will appear on the final version of the real Platform, which must be produced democratically by the participants themselves. My prototype was created within about twenty minutes just to illustrate the form that the proposals should take. They are all short, pithy, specific demands for a new public policy, directed toward a decision-making body such as a national government, a corporation, or a UN agency. The policies are all formulated so as to be relevant anywhere in the world, not just to a single community, stakeholder group, government, or social class.

I hope we can agree to the following criteria for the Platform:

  1. The Platform must be short—only one page—i.e. 25 one-line policies at most.
  2. Our objective is to identify promising ways to prevent six catastrophic threats to humankind: war and weapons (especially nuclear); global warming; pandemics; famines; massive nuclear radiation exposure; and cyber attacks. We cannot add, subtract, or change this list. However the Platform will also include proposals designed to make the other proposals sustainable as a system and these “enabling measures” are expected to alleviate many other global problems, such as poverty, economic inequality,, and a democratic deficit in global governance and corporate decision-making.
  3. The Platform for Survival should apply universally to all humankind.
  4. Choose policies that need to be promoted, not ones already happening anyway.
  5. Choose collective, not personal, policies.
  6. This project is for prevention, not cure.

Of course, a one-line proposal is too short to explain anything, but each chosen proposal will have its own page on our web site, explaining why we adopted it. These pages may become the basis for a book, as happened with Hawken’s list.

ENDNOTES

1 Kevin Loria, “Even a ‘Limited’ Nuclear War Could Trigger Cruel Nuclear Winters and Global Famine.” Business Insider, Aug 10, 2017. www.businessinsider.com/nuclear-explosions-earth-atmosphere-temperature-2017-8

2 Tom Steyer and Paul Hawken, ed. Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. New York,: Penguin, 2017.

3 M.R. Smallman-Raynor and AD Cliff, War epidemics: An Historical Geography of Infectious Diseases in Military Conflicts and Civil Strife 1850-2000. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2004. P. 35.0.

4 Larry Brilliant’s TED talk, “My Wish: Help Me Stop Pandemics.” www.ted.com/talks/larry_brilliant_wants_to_stop_pandemics

5 Rebecca Riffkin, “For First Time, Majority in U.S. Oppose Nuclear Energy.” Gallup News. March 18, 2016. news.gallup.com/poll/190064/first-time-majority-oppose-nuclear-energy.aspx

6 Gordon Edwards, Video for Science for Peace: “Can we be Free of Nuclear Weapons and Still Have Nuclear Power?” www.youtube.com/watch?v=AdwrEucO2UA

7 www.nytimes.com/2017/10/23/upshot/why-the-fact-checking-at-facebook-needs-to-be-checked.html and also another New York Times article about the Russian use of YouTube: www.nytimes.com/2017/10/23/technology/youtube-russia-rt.html.

8 Ted Koppel, Lights Out: A Cyberattack, A Nation Unprepared, Surviving the Aftermath. New York: Penguin, 2014.

9 Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty First Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014.