According to the experts one has read, there are are three species-level risks that humans face. The first is entirely man-made and it is that of nuclear weapons. When I was a high school student for a year in the United States in 1986-87, one of my classmates was doing a paper on the theory of mutual assured destruction, the prime theory of deterrence between the Soviet Union and the US.
Today, it is fair to say that there is not as large or at least as visible a threat from the world nuking itself into oblivion. This is mainly because large-scale nation-on-nation wars seem to be a thing of the past. The large militaries that nations have gathered are used mostly to train (more soldiers die in training than in combat these days). Also, the nuclear rhetoric, with the exception of the India-Pakistan exchanges, is more mature since the death of the Soviet Union.
The second threat is that of artificial intelligence, which is also man-made. The threat here is that someone, whether a corporation like Google, or a nation, will develop a super general intelligence (as opposed to the narrow artificial intelligence used in things like self-driving cars) that will take over the world. This sounds fantastic only to those who have not studied the subject. Very great minds have cautioned us against the threat and the key here to safety is for us to develop the AI safely. Unfortunately, because the corporate world survives on competition, it is unlikely that there will be any “safe” development on the side of businesses. And at the moment there is no regulation by any government in the world of such work and so we are unaware of what the level of danger really is. We shall find out soon if we have made some awful mistake in the next couple of decades, if not before.
The third threat is climate change.
This is also man-made unless one ignores the science. The facts are quite clear. The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has gone up from around 320 parts per million in 1960 to around 420 today. This has been caused by emissions from petrol, diesel and coal burning. We are also removing forests at the rate of millions of hectares per year, compounding this problem.
Students and activists at a Global Climate Strike rally in New Delhi on September 20. Photo: Reuters
The effect is to be seen in the changing chemical composition of the oceans and the melting of the polar ice caps, raising water levels. Average global temperatures have been creeping up steadily through the century. As India also joins China as a middle-income nation in the way that nations have done through the last 100 years, its population will burn plenty of fossil fuels to get there and there is no real stopping this from happening.
The effects of climate change
are already upon us and there is no part of the world that can claim that the weather there is the same as it was three decades ago. This is a real and present danger. So, why are we not doing anything about it if the data is clear and we are already feeling the effects? The thing is that we humans are specialised in solving certain types of problems and not others. We are not designed to handle problems that are long-term. The human experience is that of one lifetime at the individual level, which is nothing in cosmic time. We do not have the capacity to project facts into the long term and analyse probabilities. None of us knows what we will do and where we will be in five years time, because we do not have the computational power to assess all the externalities. Because of this, while at the civilisational level we seem to have understood that climate change
is a great risk to all of us, it is not that easy to get us motivated to act on it because it appears to lack urgency.
We continue, as we have been doing for the two decades since the dangers of climate change became mainstream, to conduct a giant experiment with our planet. Indeed, the United States under President Trump has actually reversed its commitments towards climate change, by pulling out of the Paris Agreement, a non-binding and voluntary commitment.
So then, what is to be done? More of what was done today (meaning the day I am writing this), September 20. That is to march and protest against the inaction of the governments. The truly inspirational thing about this for many of us is that it is led by children. In India, we often have schoolchildren press-ganged into doing “social work” type things, like lining up in uniform and cheering our leaders and so on. But in Europe, the schoolchildren striking over climate change inaction have not been doing this as “children”. They have been doing this in their capacity as fellow members of our race whose future we who are older have been endangering.
To me, the climate change problem will be addressed with much greater resolve as this younger generation participates in politics. There is a generational shift that will come and the manner in which the problem is perceived has changed. This is similar to the issue of gender and sexuality. We can observe that globally, issues such as equality for LGBTQI and also workplace equality for women and the dignity of third genders, all these are taken more seriously than they were a generation ago. Those of us who held on to conservative social values on such matters have lost and that is entirely a good thing.
And so, we must cheer on the “children” who are leading humanity towards a better future. We must not be patronising with them and when they speak about the need for urgent change, because on the issue of climate change they are the ones who are actually the adults in the room.