December 12, 2017

The state of planetary security

By Barend ter Haar.

The coming third Planetary Security Conference (on 11 and 12 December in The Hague) is a good reason to look at the current state of planetary security. It can be summarized in one sentence: Mankind has reached a pinnacle of prosperity and power, but it shies away from confronting the unintended environmental, moral and social consequences of this success.

Let me qualify that somewhat, beginning with the enormous achievements of mankind. A century ago, most people still lived close to nature, illiterate and with little means to protect themselves and their families against famine and infectious diseases. Now the great majority of children goes to school, agricultural productivity rises fast and most infectious diseases have been brought under control. As a result global life expectancy has more than doubled from less than 35 years to more than 71 years.

But this unprecedented global development has a grave impact on the environment. Take for example the concentration of carbon dioxide. Last year it reached a level (400 parts per million) that had not occurred for 3 million years. At that time temperatures were 2-3oC higher and sea level 10 -20 metres higher. Hopefully temperatures and sea level will not reach these levels again, but the sea level does not have to rise ten meters to make life in The Hague less comfortable.

Or take the astonishing decrease of the number of flying insects. This summer I did not terribly miss the mosquitoes in our bedroom, but I missed the bumblebees and butterflies in our garden. Species are currently becoming extinct at between 1,000 and 10,000 times the natural extinction rate. But even if the extinction rate were only 100 times as high as normal, shouldn’t that give us pause to reflect (and act)?

Another unintended consequence of the fast growth of science and technology, is the proliferation of immense powers such as nuclear weapon technology and genome engineering. Who should be allowed to use these technologies and for what purposes?

These problems can only be effectively addressed through close international cooperation. However, the social consequences of the vast economic and technological growth tend to drive many people in an opposite direction. Almost everybody enjoys the supply of ever cheaper and better products, but the financial benefits are not evenly distributed. The main winners are the inhabitants of poor countries like China and India and the highly educated elites of the rich countries. The losers, at least in relative terms, are middle class people in rich countries whose jobs are taken over by computers or by cheaper labour in other countries.

Another unintended consequence of globalisation is that people are more directly confronted, both through internet and as the result of migration, by the, sometimes radically, different traditions and values of people with another cultural and religious background. The combination of relative economic decline with such a clash of cultures brings many people to vote for parties that pretend that by withdrawing behind their borders countries can bring back former times without losing the current levels of peace and prosperity.

As result, the United States and the United Kingdom, countries that once were in the vanguard of international cooperation, have expressed their wish to withdraw from respectively the Paris Climate Agreement and the European Union. To prevent other countries from following their bad example, governments will have to combine strengthening international cooperation with addressing domestic problems of inequality, discrimination and integration.

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