What is your dangerous idea?

By Dave Etkin, York University

John Brockman edited a fascinating book called “What is your dangerous idea?: Today’s Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable”. In it, many creative thinkers tried to answer that question from the perspective of their own disciplines.

Here is how I would answer that question, and it began with a discussion I had with the eminent Professor Ian Burton, who asked me (perhaps rhetorically)

“Why are the forces that create exposure and vulnerability so strong? And why are the efforts to reduce risk not strong enough? And when we know the answers to those two questions…. what do we do about it?”

I think the answers are very complex, but can be thought of within two general sets of factors. The first set of factors is connected to how those forces that create exposure and vulnerability differentially benefit the people and organizations that construct risk. The second set of factors relate to sets of adaptive strategies (both cultural and hardwired) that historically evolved in a different kind of environment where they worked well, but that have now become dysfunctional. The dysfunction occurs when solutions that are rational and effective at small scales are ramped up to large scales, where they become increasingly irrational and dysfunction as they accumulate. Examples of this are the accumulation of weapons of mass destruction and the Tragedy of the Commons.

This perspective suggests that in spite of all the good work that is going on to reduce risk, exposure and vulnerability to extreme hazardous events are increasing as a result of very powerful forces in society. These forces are embedded in the most fundamental aspects of our social structures and are not amenable to change except under extraordinary circumstances. I suspect that in this globalized, technological and highly populated world we are becoming increasingly dysfunctional as a species, plummeting headlong towards a catastrophic future.

To support this argument I present two figures. Figure 1 shows how in recent decades, our planet has shifted into a zero sum game, where economic and social benefits to people can only accrue from environmental degradation. From a systems perspective, the long term exceedance of carrying capacity can only result in some form of system crash.

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Figure 1: This graph shows the number of Earths required to provide the resources used by humanity and to absorb their emissions for each year since 1960. This human demand is compared with the available supply: our one planet Earth. Human demand exceeds nature’s supply from the 1980s onward, over‑shooting it by some 20 percent in 1999. Source: Wackernagel, M., Schulz, N. B., Deumling, D., Linares, A. C., Jenkins, M., Kapos, V., Monfreda, C., Loh, J., Myers, N., Norgaard, R. & Randers, J. (2002). Tracking the ecological overshoot of the human economy. Proceedings of the national Academy of Sciences, 99(14), 9266-9271.

Figure 2 illustrates how changes in atmospheric carbon dioxide are moving the state of the atmosphere into a region not occupied over the last 420,000 years. The result of such a system shift are very difficult to predict, but carry a high risk (eventually) of moving into what theorists of complexity call a different strange attractor, which means that the earth would have a very different climate system than the one it now has.

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Figure 2. State space view of Antarctic ice-age cycles. Modified from Etkin, B. (2010). A state space view of the ice ages—a new look at familiar data. Climatic change, 100(3), 403-406. 2013 data has been added, for global mean temperature and atmospheric CO2 concentration.

My dangerous idea is that, like the proverbial lemming, Homo sapiens is rushing headlong towards annihilation. Like a moth drawn to a flame, we can see the light of destruction growing ever closer but are biologically and culturally trapped in a ruinous pathway.

Ian Burton asks what we can do about it. Given that the human response to hazard is dominated by the two strategies of being reactive and incremental, I fear that there is little we can do to prevent it. An alternative view requires a major cultural shift of environmental and social ethics. Such shifts have happened and are possible, but would probably only result in response to catastrophic stresses. Given the large inertia that exists in climate and ecological systems, it would then be a case of too little, too late.

I sincerely hope I am wrong.