Global Change Seminar
"It's Your Move!"

Segment #2:   Is Our Planet In Trouble?

Part II: Urgent Global Problems

          There is little consensus on exactly which are the most important (or urgent) global problems, nor how to address them.   There is no shortage of debate on the issues--reflecting the increasing weight of urgency perceived by an increasing number of individuals, policy makers, academics, as well as business and non-profit institutions. Some advocate that since our global resources are limited, we must prioritize where we put our efforts. Others argue that such an approach is fruitless since the time it would take to come to the consensus necessary to permit such an approach would have us all (and our descendents) in the grave before it happened.

Canadian Thomas Homer-Dixon in his insightful book The Ingenuity Gap describes a conversation he had with John Bongaarts, one of the world's leading demographers. Dixon describes Bongaarts as saying that the next twenty-five years [2005-2030] will be very difficult. There will be continued rapid population growth and many simultaneous changes in the global ecosystem. What's worse, many of these changes will occur relatively slowly and so won't be noticed by most people. Humanity is gradually drifting into a world where it has lost many valuable things. There are currently no sharp, dramatically visible changes in systems, and their seeming stability is lulling people into complacency. However, one can be certain that the golden future proposed by economic- and techno-optimists will not come to pass. The ecological stress being put on the planet and the trend towards widening gaps between rich and poor ensure that there will be a future altogether more mixed and ambiguous.

          The current "6th Extinction" of earth's species, like the 5th great extinction approximately 65,000,000 years ago which caused the demise of about 75% all species alive at the time (including dinosaurs), is likewise primarily caused by ecosystem disturbance. This time, however, the destroying force is not the geophysical environment but rather human actions. An estimated 27,000 species are being lost every year.

          Below are several lists assessing the world's collective situation.  The bibliography includes the sources for these lists.  What these illustrate is that how one looks at our global problems seems to depend on one's perspective or background: as an economist; an environmentalist; a scientist; or a sociologist.

          A:   This first list was created during the Copenhagen Consensus of 2004. It identifies what were deemed to be the 10 most urgent problems, in priority order, as follows:

  1. Climate change;
  2. Communicable diseases;
  3. Conflicts and arms proliferation;
  4. Access to education;
  5. Financial instability;
  6. Governance and corruption;
  7. Malnutrition and hunger;
  8. Migration;
  9. Sanitation and access to clean water;
  10. Subsidies and trade barriers.   

          B:    This second list (unprioritized) comes from Colin Mason, an Australian statesman, who identified the following factors converging to a catastrophic confluency by around 2030:

  1. Energy shortages;
  2. Population growth;
  3. Climate change;
  4. Nuclear proliferation;
  5. Famine -- food and water shortages.

C:   A third assessment of the driving forces for change in the world is from the Center for Strategic and International Studies:

  1. Culture;
  2. Economics and work;
  3. Science, technology, and information;
  4. Tribalism and decline of authority;
  5. The process of globalization;
  6. Changes in human psychology.

D:   Futurist Gilberto Gallopín has identified the following critical trends - some positive and some negative. None are evenly distributed across the globe):

E:    This last list of 20 global problems is the private opinion of J. F. Rischard, a senior official of the World Bank:

  1. Issues involving sharing of the "global commons":   global warming; biodiversity and ecosystem losses; fisheries depletion; deforestation; water deficits; maritime safety and pollution.
  2. Issues requiring a global commitment to resolve:   poverty; conflict and terrorism; education; disease; digital divide; natural disasters.
  3. Issues needing a global regulatory approach:   taxation; biotechnology; finance; illegal drugs; trade; intellectual property; e-commerce; international labor; and migration.

          Notice that none of these lists specifically mention religion or spirituality, although most would surely say this an important factor. To quote Joseph Jaworski: "When all is said and done, the only change that will make a difference is a transformation of the human heart."

          It seems that a consensus is emerging that the world is facing a crisis of a magnitude unlike anything humanity has faced before. It's equally obvious that no-one knows what to do about it. It is becoming ever clearer that the human species is heading for big trouble unless it changes its ways. As Pogo said, "we have met the enemy and he is us."

          We collectively arrived in this situation as a result of thousands of mostly unthinking small actions by millions and millions of individuals. It is our opinion that we now find ourselves in a situation of great complexity and chaos. Our old approaches no longer fit and our existing leaders and institutions are not yet up to the task. Billions of people are so focused on trying to stay alive from day to day that they have little capacity to be concerned about the rest of the world. Millions who are in a position do something are too busy to attend to what's happening globally.   Nonetheless, millions are fortunate enough to have both their basic needs met and the time and awareness to do something. If more people become conscious of our collective global problems, all may become more aware of the implications of individual decisions and actions. By paying more careful attention, perhaps collectively we can learn how to create and support the kinds of institutions and culture shifts that might avoid global collapse.

          Everything we do has consequences--and to date the unintended ones appear to have carried the day.

Think About

    1. What percent of oil goes to make assorted plastics for consumer products as compared to energy?
    2. What do you think are the most pressing global problems?   
    3. Which trends are the most troublesome to you?
    4. What strikes you most about what you just read?


Next: Some Future Scenarios


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