Our Stolen Futurea book by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski, and John Peterson Myers
 
 

 

 

A Humanity Crisis
Summary of Remarks by Dianne Dumanoski
Global Environmental Action Conference
Tokyo, Japan
12 October 2001


 
 

Since the first Earth Day, the dilemma we call an "environmental crisis" has escalated from concerns about dirty air and dirty water to the global jeopardy of deteriorating and increasingly unstable planetary systems. Why haven't three decades of environmental activism, more than thirty Earth Days, and two Earth summits been able to turn this crisis around?

The next century stretches ahead of us like an urgent question. The problem isn't simply that we don't have the answer. Our actions suggest the leaders of our now global civilization don't fully grasp the dilemma confronting us.


We might get a better fix on our dilemma and target our efforts more effectively if we understood this as a "humanity crisis" rather than an environmental crisis. Whatever else is in jeopardy, this is first and foremost a crisis for humans and our current civilization. In my view, the environmental framework we've used to think and talk about our situation for the past thirty years has led us to focus too much on symptoms and to mistake the symptoms for the problem that ails us. The response we've mounted has been a hodge podge of efforts on many fronts that has lacked any overall coherence. We find ourselves running faster and faster on an accelerating treadmill of crisis.

By now it should be clear that we must stop chasing brush fires and take on the pyromaniac.


Over the past three decades, I've written thousands of stories about the diverse symptoms of our worsening crisis-stories about acid rain, endocrine disruptors, ozone depletion, vanishing species, and climate change. So how do we make sense of all of these ominous signs?


The root problem in our humanity crisis is this: the bedrock assumptions of our civilization are increasingly at odds with the world we now inhabit.


If I had to write a headline to capture the significance of this historical moment, it would be this: "Humans hurtle onto planetary stage-biggest step since fire.''


In the past half-century, humans—with our growing numbers and exploding technological prowess-—have arrived as a global force capable of disrupting the vast systems that sustain Earthly life.

As Jane Lubchenko and other leading ecologists reported in the journal Science "no ecosystem on Earth is free from pervasive human influence" Humans now dominate the planet. Our power to alter its course rivals the Ice Ages and asteroids. And human activity has become a significant wild card in our future. As we've entered this planetary league, the technological gifts that used to enhance our security have become the leading source of insecurity. From now on, the game of survival will play out in a radically altered physical and historical landscape according to profoundly changed rules.


This new historical era has already begun. We find ourselves in the midst of a difficult and dangerous historical transition as we try to get a grip on this fundamentally changed situation. We're in deep trouble because our current civilization--born a long time ago in a world of expanding horizons-- is not only obsolete, but even dangerous, in the face of this new era and its unprecedented challenge. This crisis is not about some other place apart from us called the "environment", about some natural amenity, or simply about the growing scarcity of resources that fuel our industries and the global economy. The human civilization we pass on to our children and grandchildren is in profound jeopardy. If this modern global civilization survives the next few centuries, it will only do so through a profound transformation that will alter all of its current operating assumptions.


The salient question is whether in the next century or two the Earth will remain a place that sustains human life as we know it and that supports our complex, interconnected global civilization. Our communities and the larger human enterprise rest on the often-invisible foundation of natural systems, a living, life-sustaining matrix which the scientist James Lovelock christened "Gaia". What happens to this human structure as natural systems become increasingly unstable from the stresses of global change? Can it hang together if the foundation suddenly shifts or begins to collapse beneath us? And how will shocks in the natural system—like a 20-year drought in the Midwest—ripple through volatile human systems like the global economy?


From an evolutionary perspective, the process of globalization, which has been proceeding at warp speed, is a risky strategy, indeed, because it draws all of us every more tightly into a single global economy and a single global human population. Guided by the economic logic of efficiency and profit, we are putting all of our eggs in a single basket. Ecologists even have a term for this kind of excessive integration, which makes the whole system vulnerable to any disruption within or in the external environment. Such systems are described as "hypercoherent".

Such tight integration may be a reasonable strategy if one can count on a stable environment and be certain that tomorrow will be pretty much like today. But it is an unwise way to meet a changing world. Life had endured for 3.5 billion years on a turbulent Earth through redundancy, varied strategies, and hedging bets. As the history of life has demonstrated, the best way to stay in the game is to spread out the risk through diversity, to keep eggs in many baskets. The logic of survival is NOT efficient. This ongoing process of global economic integration will only increase human vulnerability to extreme events. Making ourselves into what amounts to a global monoculture is the last thing we should be doing as we enter a time of unpredictable change. The single-minded pursuit of efficiency is fundamentally at odds with prudent survival strategies.


By raising these concerns, I am not suggesting that we retreat to an Edo Period solution of regional self-sufficiency. We will have to make the human future on the global stage because our global impact makes us a global species now bound to each by the inescapable interconnection. I am certain, however, that there are smarter and safer ways to be global than the current approach to "globalization".


As we face the future, we need to think about more than sustainability in our use of resources or our agricultural systems. We need sustainable human institutions fit for stormy weather. In a "hypercoherent" tightly integrated global economy, a stall in the Gulf Stream that suddenly gives Europe the climate of Greenland could be more than a regional catastrophe. In much smaller economic crises over the past decade, I think we have seen ample evidence that the whole global economy could unravel. The worst of all possible futures is one in which a climatic disaster leads to a global depression, leaving human societies without the resources to address the causes of rapid climate change or adapt to the consequences.


In 1992, I was one of several thousands journalists who covered the Earth Summit in Rio, the largest gathering of heads of state in world history. At this historic event, I spent a whole day listening to our leaders' high-minded speeches about sustainable development and the human future. Many spoke of the need to alter our course. Then, they all returned home and, instead of putting on the brakes or changing course, these same leaders put the pedal to the floor and continued at full speed toward the abyss.


The ten years since Rio have seemed like a mad delusion as the world's leaders cheered on the juggernaut of globalization, economic boom, and unsustainable development. Although the limits are looming in all directions, the human enterprise is careening onward. What do we make of this? Is this a death wish? Is it political cynicism? Is it denial? Or is this evidence that those who lead us don't really comprehend our predicament and its dangers? Perhaps our incomprehension comes from the piecemeal way we discuss this crisis, from the fact that we view it as a laundry list of disparate problems. Perhaps we don't recognize all of these symptoms as ominous signs all pointing to the arrival of a new historical era.


Whatever the explanation, the world has witnessed a spectacular failure of leadership over the past decade. Future historians will judge this generation of leaders harshly I fear for its failure to rise to the challenge of this unique historical moment. Our crisis has rapidly worsened over the past decade. Our most pressing need is for leaders equal to these times and the unprecedented challenges of this new era as a global species.


A recognizable human future hinges on our speed and success at adapting our civilization to this new reality-a world in which humans command awesome powers but at the same time confront the constraints of the biosphere looming in all directions. The plot for this next chapter of the human story will center on how humans come to terms with our own powers and with the inescapable finitude of Earth. The most urgent task of our time is civilization redesign.


There are many places to begin:

  • Shock-proofing our human institutions so they can withstand increasing instability should be a high priority. Our global civilization faces a dangerous passage over the next century or two. It will be a very bad trip for our children and grandchildren if essential systems such as agriculture or the economy collapse like a brick building in an earthquake at the first major shock.
  • We need to refine and advance the Precautionary Principle and broadly apply it to the progress of science and technology so they will enhance human security rather than increase insecurity.
  • we need to get serious about green chemistry and begin to end the reckless global experiment with synthetic chemicals.
  • we need to accomplish the transition away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible.
  • we need to set the goal of sustainable trade and develop a long-term strategy for the necessary move toward an economic system suitable for a finite planet.

The leaders in our societies have been walking backward into this new historical landscape with their eyes fixed on a departing era and an obsolete way of life. We need to get on with meeting the challenge of this new time. We need to turn and squarely face the future.

 
     

 

 

 

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