In the history of human evolution, survival has always been our overriding goal, an essential bid to avert the extinction of the species. Today, at the beginning of the 21st century, humankind is imperilled. Not only is all humanity affected, but we can expect grave and irrevocable consequences for our civilisation. Deep existential risks of this magnitude are new to us. We do not have biological nor cultural strategies to deal with them. It is quite possible that we are on our way to the voluntary extinction of our own species.
This prediction is based on well-known threats: environmental degradation, the possibility of nuclear annihilation, uncontrollable super-intelligence, scarcity of water and energy shortages - and the deep fractures that characterise life on planet Earth. The deepest fracture is arguably between the human species and the Earth system. Humans, as the most powerful of all species, are at the center of the planet but are increasingly unable to control what is happening to it. The Australian professor of public ethics Clive Hamilton describes this shift: "Our understanding of the Earth we inhabit is undergoing a radical change. The modern ideas of the Earth as the environment in which humans make their home, or as a knowable collection of ecosystems more or less disturbed by humans, is being replaced by the conception of an inscrutable and unpredictable entity with a violent history and volatile ‘mood swings’.”
We must accept that in the “anthropocene” (the contemporary geological period), the world is no longer a “humans among themselves affair” as Hamilton wrote last year. The “humans only” focus that prevails in so much of contemporary debate leads to humans watching their own extinction as a televised spectacle that takes place outside the cubicle of their daily lives. We are up against the formidable forces of nature which is no longer our sister or beautiful mother “who opens her arms to embrace us” as Pope Francis suggests, but rather, in Hamilton’s view, she is Mother Earth who opens her arms to crush us.
To deal with this we need to engage in a serious and deep reflection about how urgent the existential risk for the human species is. In particular, we need to confront the issue of overpopulation. We tend to avoid the topic of demographics because we do not have an acceptable solution. Yet population growth from the present 7.5 billion to some 9 billion by 2050 implies the need for more food production with the likely result of further soil erosion and even more intensive use of scarce energy sources - and ever less space for non-human animals that are already fast disappearing (the so-called Fifth Extinction Wave, which is currently killing more animals than ever before). This leads to a dangerous loss of bio-diversity.
We need to rid ourselves of our obsession with the “technology fix”: the belief held by eco-modernists that solutions such as regulating solar radiation could restore the fracture between humans and the Earth system. This belief fails to see that technological solutions - however inventive- always lead to more problems asking for more technological solutions, thus embedding human beings ever more in a technological culture that shirks moral responsibility.
We need to cure ourselves of what Robin van Tine has referred to as Gaeaphobia, “a form of insanity characterised by extreme destructive behaviour towards the natural environment and a pathological denial of the effects of this behaviour”. Eco-insanity means that we think that in dealing with the existential risk of human extinction we can keep doing the same: believing that we can use more knowledge and technological power to control the earth system and expect species-friendly outcomes.
Charles Darwin argued that species that can cooperate on the basis of trust, and are characterised by diversity and mobility, have the best chances of fitness and survival. We need to engage in survival conversations about changing a contemporary socio-political and economic reality that promotes competition, deception and suspicion, that breeds homogeneity and kills creativity that bends the rules.
But how should we respond to this analysis of the state of our world? I am in favour of combining despair and optimism. Andreski’s felicitous phrasing serves me well, “my own view …might be described as a desperate optimism”. Desperate because of the eco-insanity of those who deny climate change with shameless lies that cover up corporate interests. But also because of the naivety of those activists who believe CO2 emissions can be controlled through international treaties. We must navigate between the optimism that spends millions of dollars to sell the viewpoint that climate science is a hoax and the optimism that keeps announcing that we can stop climate change within the coming 10 years. Whereas one party rushes forward towards the abyss, the other does not want to see that it may already be too late to solve humanity’s gravest problem. In both cases there is an unwillingness or incapability to face the urgency of the existential risk of human extinction and to address the question of how to cope with this possibility.
Curing ourselves from eco-insanity and finding ways to confront desperate optimism is the greatest challenge for upcoming generations. More often than not youth is not part of the sustainable futures debates that are usually conducted by those already on their way to the exit. Recently the Foundation Rescue our Future initiated a global project for a Youth Tribunal on the Future. The tribunal will bring the youth of the world together in deep solidarity to establish responsibilities, to demand global accountability and to propose corrective actions to rescue our future.
This is based on the inalienable right of the youth to a future in a world worth living in. The younger generation is destined to populate the future, and therefore rescuing the future of humanity is an existential issue and needs to trigger global action to guarantee the future of life on the planet. This forces the new generation to ask whether we are moving in the right direction, a question which gives today’s children the legitimate right to interrogate those who are accountable for an imminent cataclysm with the question: “Why are you messing up my future?”
Starting with a series of local and regional meetings, the project will culminate in a global public tribunal, involving youth organisations and people under 25 from around the world. They will run the organisation of the tribunal and provide attorneys, lawyers and judges. The global tribunal will be recorded on film and shared with a global audience. In 2019 representatives will gather on a global platform in the Haag in order to present and discuss their findings in the Peace Palace and offer concrete proposals for common action. Survival is the pressing issue: The new generation needs to probe the question: “Is this the planet we want?”