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Seminar 9

“Future of Planet Earth” Participant Statement

Paris, France | June 3–5, 2008

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Anthony McMichael

What are the three most critical challenges facing Planet Earth going forward?

In broad terms, the greatest general challenge to the planet itself (as we know and value it) is the advent of the Anthropocene – the recently established geological era in which a single species, H. sapiens, has become so dominant and intrusive as to reshape and disrupt the great natural systems and processes of the planet. This has no Earthly precedent.

Many current concerns do not threaten the planet per se, but the sustainability of humankind and its societies. This category includes peak oil: modern industrialized societies depend on plentiful oil. The likely choice is between wars, devastation, and societal collapses or the transformation of energy systems, international governance, and readiness to share. There is also a looming crisis of food yields, affordability, and malnutrition – as reflected in the dramatic 40% rise in the World Food Price index in 2007. That rise, says the World Food Program, is due to the triple stresses of climate change, rising oil prices, and alienation of arable land by biofuel cropping. Depletion of accessible freshwater supplies (especially aquifers) is another great challenge to human societies – but does not necessarily endanger the planet’s natural systems. Meanwhile, persistence of the rich-poor divide around the world (with its globalised deregulated economy) will continue fomenting tensions and conflicts, jeopardising regional geopolitical instability and causing widespread human suffering.

Threats to the future of Earth itself comprise: (i) human-induced environmental stresses due to the pressures that characterize the Anthropocene; (ii) the natural vicissitudes and processes of the cosmos (e.g., asteroids, solar collapse). Anthropogenic threats include:
• Global climate change (currently accelerating beyond recent predictions)
• Depletion of stratospheric ozone (apparently arrested, for the moment)
• Acidification of the oceans
• The (accelerating) loss of species, and resultant disruption of ecosystems

As a geophysical entity, Earth would survive the above, albeit in much altered form. However, the question posed is, to us, most meaningful in relation to the needs of the human species as product of biological evolution. Our future survival requires either a transformation of population size, economic activity and values such that we continue to live as part of nature’s systems, or a fantastic shift to a high-tech “bubble” civilization in which we forego much of the biosphere’s supports and, with new energy sources and systems, produce food, freshwater supplies, and respirable air within an autocratically managed post-biosphere civilization.

The three most critical challenges facing Planet Earth (as we know and depend on it) are:

1. The world community must attain shared understanding that human biology and civilization depend on Earth’s life-supporting systems. Western science, with its pervasive influence on societies and technologies everywhere, has origins in mechanistic models that have nurtured reductionist modes of research and thought that impede our response to today’s environmental crisis. The rise of ecology and systems-based science (no longer a fringe “subversive” science) can assist the replacement of anthropocentrism by biocentrism.

2. The key issue of over-population must be reinstated in the “environment” discourse. Global swarming is a major contributor to global warming, yet the policy debate is confined to energy systems, emissions, and carbon price. We have exceeded Earth’s carrying capacity.

3. New forms of global governance are needed. We limp along, sinking further into non-sustainability, with 19th-century neo-tribal nation-states, competing with one another on 20th-century territorial, militaristic, and asset-controlling terms, yet now face systemic environmental, demographic, and geopolitical crises that will dominate 21st century agenda.