Around the world, people in the scientific community are raising alarms about the state of the planet and about our ability to survive. Among them is Australian science writer and author Julian Cribb. A Fellow of both the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering and the UK Royal Society of the Arts, he warns that “it is now, not in a generation’s time, that the decision to survive or fail must be taken.”
Vision publisher David Hulme interviewed Cribb following publication of his book Surviving the Twenty-First Century.
DH Why did you write Surviving the Twenty-First Century?
JC As a science writer I was meeting more and more people who were starting to wonder whether we were entering the “end game” of human history. I thought, they’ve got a point; the outlook is a bit grim. I wonder what the science actually says about it. I didn’t know the answer myself, but I felt it was worthwhile to make the inquiry, to see what the latest and best science was saying about it.
DH We’ve heard about global threats before, beginning with the H-bomb and the environmental concerns of the ’60s. Is the time we’re in now somehow different?
JC Compared to the 1960s, we’ve got double the population and a massive increase in human demands on the planet. The whole thing is starting to creak now, so this has really added a new dimension to the nuclear threat, which was the main one in the 1960s. All these other threats are now compounding one another. For instance, there was no shortage of fresh water in the 1960s; there is clearly a shortage of fresh water, worldwide, today.
DH In the book you outline 10 existential threats. Presumably one could add more, but these are the central ones you’ve identified. What’s the essence of what we should do about them?
JC The thing that came to me as I was writing the book is that you cannot fix these problems one at a time. If you try to adopt simple solutions to one particular threat, you often make matters worse elsewhere. For example, the simple solution to food insecurity is simply to do more farming, to use more machinery, more chemicals, and things like that. But that in turn makes the climate situation worse, and that in turn makes agriculture less sustainable. So you don’t end up with a solution to either problem. It came to me clearly that we have to develop cross-cutting solutions that work for all 10 of the megathreats.
DH Becoming politically engaged seems to be a part of your advice to those who want to make a difference. But a lot of people today are rejecting political activism, especially with the divisions that are now occurring in the world. What do you say to someone who says, “I’m apolitical. What should I do?”
JC I think we can actually have more influence on the world as consumers than as voters, because if we choose to eat sustainably, our economic messages will actually discipline industry, and they will influence government. So just in the way you live, you can influence the whole of the economy.
DH Some people might say that with your 10 existential threats you sound like a doomsayer.
JC Most of the doomsayers, as people characterized it—Malthus, the Club of Rome—turned out to be quite right. The very fact that Malthus warned people about overpopulation was one of the factors that led to the agricultural revolution so that we could feed the excessive population. The Club of Rome’s warnings were also heeded by a great many people. I see no problem with warning about problems.
DH You’ve said, “You might define humanity as a species which spends 34 times more on better ways to kill itself than it does on better ways to feed itself.” What’s the basis of that calculation?
JC I got the data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. They do an annual report on the world’s weapons spending. It’s currently US$1.8 trillion. So that’s how much the world is investing in better ways to kill people, every year. As for the other figure, I got that from some Australian economists at the University of Minnesota, who have actually calculated how much money was spent on agricultural and food research, worldwide. It was $50 billion, which sounds like a lot, but it’s not when you consider how much food is consumed. So here we are as a species that spends 34 or 35 times more on better ways to slaughter one another than we do on better ways to feed one another. It’s just a way of highlighting how irrational our processes have become—and drawing attention to where the real issues are.
Jimmy Carter made the observation that if there was less hunger, there would be less war. If we spent 10 percent of the world’s military budget on peace through food—in other words, ensuring that everybody had adequate access to food, land and water—we would have an awful lot less war; because when you scrape away all the politics in any war, you find that at the bottom of it, people are arguing about food, land and water. They are the things that people really get disturbed about. If you read the history of World War II, the fulcrum of German foreign policy was to acquire more land to feed the German people—Lebensraum.
“This issue of food, land and water underlies a lot of the militarism that goes on today. And if we can alleviate that, we will step down the risk of war.”
DH When I first saw food crises as one of the existential threats, I was a bit surprised. How did you get there?
JC Again, it was something I came to after looking at all the scientific evidence. I thought, what’s stopping us fixing these problems? The answer is that we’ve got a lot of cherished beliefs that sometimes get in the way.
I particularly came to this conclusion when I was thinking about money. Money is a fiction. It’s a pure figment of the human imagination. It didn’t exist before we came along; it won’t exist after we’re gone. It’s purely in our minds. The alarming thing about money is that you can create as much of it as you like. That’s what happened in the global financial crisis. The crisis was created by banks pulling a whole lot of money out of thin air and lending it to people who couldn’t pay it back, and then the crisis was fixed by the US Central Reserve and other reserve banks pulling more money out of thin air and paying the banks the imaginary debt they had created. The whole thing was just junior-league poker.
But the point is, if you use an infinite supply of money to destroy finite assets, like soil or water (essential for food production) or forests, you’re going to run out of soil, forests and water a long time before you run out of money. This is an example of how human beliefs about the world can conflict with what we need to do to actually fix the problem.
So I began looking at those beliefs. There are things, certainly our political beliefs, that interfere between us and fixing the problem. And there are some (usually older) religious beliefs that interfere with our looking after the planet on a grand scale. But there are new religious beliefs, like Pope Francis’s Laudato Si’, where he’s arguing that the function of human beings is to look after the planet. So religion is rethinking itself more quickly than politics or money at the moment.
But we have to beware of these belief systems in case they trip us up and prevent us from addressing the real problem.
DH If religion can play a role in helping us face these threats, how do you see it being harnessed?
JC Well, religion traditionally has had a strong moral and ethical guidance thread all through history. During the last 60 years religion has suffered somewhat; as the material world has taken over, the numbers of people attending a place of worship have tended to go down worldwide. A lot of religions have found themselves on the back foot in the face of modernity, and they are looking for a way to reinvent themselves. This is offering people of faith, whatever their faith may be, a tremendous opportunity to reassert a moral and ethical leadership in the world and to discover a very critical role in ensuring human survival.
“I think that every faith, and indeed every political belief, has to put human survival as the number one goal.”
DH The American poet and farmer Wendell Berry has said that probably the most significant scripture about saving the earth is Genesis 2:15, where it says, “keep it”—keep the creation, look after it, preserve it, conserve it, make sure it’s sustaining.
JC I think that’s exactly right. But there’s also the bit in Psalms, where they talk about putting all the animals in the creation under the foot of the human species. That’s an old idea that applied to a world where there were less than a billion people and the environmental systems weren’t so stressed. Times have changed dramatically. We do have to look after this planet if we want to exist on it.
DH You quote that verse in Psalm 8 at the opening of chapter 3 of your book, with respect to humanity being given “dominion.” It’s true that some people have taken that as an opportunity to exploit the earth. Dominion means exploitation to them. In what sense are you putting forward this particular scripture?
JC Dominion, of course, is from the Latin word dominus, meaning “lord,” so it’s a hierarchical concept. The “lord” is the lord of the manor, and everybody is subordinate to that lord on that particular manor. That is a pretty old-fashioned idea nowadays. We prefer our pyramids to be a lot flatter. Putting everything underneath the foot of man or the foot of one person is a bad idea. We now know that if we keep on doing the things that we’re doing—mass producing all sorts of goods, releasing pollution and contamination—we will hurt ourselves in the end. So it’s not a case of dominion at all. It’s more like cultivating the garden, looking after the garden. And I think that’s the angle that Francis is coming from—that we really have to take care of the place and see ourselves as caretakers and stewards, not as lords and masters.
DH It’s interesting that in Genesis, where it mentions dominion, it goes on to talk about the garden—that we are to dress and keep it. The Hebrew there is about conserving, preserving, taking care of, nurturing. It’s not about exploitation. I’ve always found that very interesting, because that’s an early view of the earth, as you’ve been pointing out, and yet it couldn’t be more up-to-date in terms of what we need to do about it.
JC There are some old virtues which are incredibly relevant to the modern age. Another one is thrift—not throwing stuff away, cleaning your plate as your grandmother told you to do. She knew what it was like to go hungry. We don’t know what it’s like, because we’ve got this supercharged agricultural system that will probably fall over in mid-century. But she knew that you had to bottle your fruit and save it for the winter time, because there was not going to be much food around in winter time.
“Human beings throughout history have taken account of the need to look after the soil, the food supply, things like that. There is great wisdom in that. It’s the wisdom of experience, of actually starving to death if you don’t do that.”
In our short-term society today, where everything is available in the supermarket, we’ve forgotten some of those primal lessons of humanity, and we need to rediscover them. I don’t mind whether we rediscover them in the Scriptures or from the reading of science or whatever, but we do have to rediscover them if we hope to survive as a species through the challenges this century is going to throw at us.
DH You mentioned wisdom. One of the points you make is the human capacity for foresight, which you see as a unique aspect of humanity. That should lead to the accumulation of wisdom.
JC Obviously there are wise individuals among the human species, but we are not a wise species overall or we would not be endangering ourselves in these 10 dramatic ways. We would not be risking our entire future if we were wise. So I’m advocating that we become more wise. Wisdom is the application of knowledge to achieve a better outcome. It’s simply thinking about the problem and then saying, “From what I’ve learned, and from the tools at my disposal, what can I do to fix this problem or to make this a better world?” And if the whole of the human race starts to think like that collectively, then we have a much better chance of surviving this century.
How we’re going to start thinking like that is through the Internet and social media. It is sharing the knowledge of what works, at light speed—sharing the solutions to climate change, to nuclear disarmament, to food insecurity, to global poisoning, all of these threats. And that’s already happening.
DH At the same time, though, you say we may not even be intelligent enough to ensure our long-term existence. These might seem like irreconcilable ideas.
JC I don’t believe they are irreconcilable. As a species, we’re not smart at the moment because we haven’t seen the dangers building up. However we are now starting to share the knowledge of those dangers, and the possible solutions, on the Internet. And this is what I call thinking as a species. We’re learning to think as a species. We’re having conversations around the world, sharing knowledge, sharing wisdom, sharing insights, sharing solutions to the problems we face.
DH One of the concepts you bring up is that of “re-wilding” to help resolve food production issues. How is this to be accomplished in practical terms? Can we really re-wild at the level you want it to happen?
JC I believe we can, but we need to start talking about it. First of all, I think we need to move half of our food production off the farm and into the city. The cities of the world are a huge repository of nutrients and fresh water, and we can recycle those back into food production very easily. But if we keep sending them down the sewer pipe or throwing them in the landfill, we’re going to destroy the system that feeds us. The easiest way to recycle nutrients and water is in the city, using modern techniques: hydroponics, aquaponics and roof gardens are taking off all around the planet. Even things like cultured meat, which is grown from the stem cells of cattle, pigs or poultry. That will supply the cheap meat that people need. There will still be good-quality food produced on farms, but on a much smaller area and by ecological methods.
“Once we have a more sustainable mode of feeding ourselves, and I believe that technically it’s quite easy to do, you can then take part of our farms—the hilly ridges and things like that—and turn them back to nature, back to forest or grassland.”
We can graze the rangelands of the world much less intensely and allow the wild animals to come back. If we take half the planet back to nature and pay the indigenous people, and the farmers who don’t really want to be high-intensity producers, as stewards to look after the wilderness, to protect it as our heritage, then I believe we can do it.
DH You talk in your book about the role of children’s play—“games that create and restore, rather than kill or destroy”—and you say, “The play is but rehearsal for life,” and “How children play may ultimately govern their fate.” How are today’s educators, parents and teachers going to meet that goal?
JC In medieval times, most people lived on farms, and children would play with little wooden animals. They were rehearsing for their life as future farmers. Little girls played with dolls, because they were rehearsing for the role of motherhood. Children have always rehearsed for a future role. The thing that unnerves me, terrifies me even, is the fact that most kids are going online after they’ve done their homework and getting into these games where they kill things and kill other people, and they get rewarded for killing.
Indeed, for many of the military drone programs, they were actually selecting kids who had shown themselves to be ruthless killers in this virtual world of cyber conflict. I worry about what’s going to happen to the world if we train a billion kids to be cyber killers. If kids have a fight in a playground at school and get their nose bloodied or get a black eye, they learn it’s not a good idea to have a fight, because you, yourself, can be injured or punished. But in the cyber world, you’re very often rewarded with more points or more levels if you’re an efficient killer. And that terrifies me, because human beings are competitive.
But before we’re competitive, we’re cooperative. Cooperation has delivered far more benefits to humanity than competition ever has. Really, the essence of humanity is cooperation. And we’ve got to learn the cooperative skills, rather than the competitive skills, when we’re young.
DH The Bible talks about a time when nations will learn war no more. It’s really what you’ve just emphasized. Our early education should ground us in the fact that conflict is not the answer; cooperation is the answer.
JC Yes. For example, if you teach children to produce food while they’re in primary school, then they love their brussels sprouts—you know, if they’ve grown them with their own hands. They have experienced the whole cycle of food. That’s an example of a beneficial style of education.
DH We often hear that we should depend on knowledge or technology to save us, but maybe there’s something else?
JC We shouldn’t depend on technology alone. I think that’s a foolish thing. We have to understand the problems that we’re getting into in order to understand what the solutions are. Very often those solutions don’t involve masses of technology. They simply involve changes in behavior by human beings—living a simpler life, or more ethically, for example, or choosing more sustainable products for our homes, in our diets, and things like that—and changes in the way we think; we need to think about the next two or three generations, not just about our own comforts today.
I should like to conclude by saying that the problems that face humanity are very large—and very deadly. They are going to claim a lot of lives and inflict a lot of needless suffering unless we act soon. But we need to act with wisdom, understanding the nature of those problems, so the solutions we devise can leave this a better world for our children. And we need to share that knowledge across our whole species.