Existential Risk to the Future of Humanity

Glen T. Martin

27 January 2023

Whether Human Beings have a future is in serious doubt. There is a small but growing literature about the imperiled future of humanity.  Some thinkers are asking whether we have any credible future at all given the ever-growing possibilities of extinction or the collapse of civilization.  Some are beginning to propose arguments as to why these questions are of supreme importance. Just as during the Cold War with its awareness of the possibility of nuclear holocaust some people were building bomb shelters, so today, as Donald Wallace Wells in The Uninhabitable Earth (2019) points out, there is a growing movement of “environmental nihilists” where people withdraw into their private worlds assuming that our human future is destined for failure on an ecologically ruined planet.

A number of environmental writers have envisioned a planet ruined for higher forms of life given the current trajectory of rising greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and the consequences of this in the rise of planetary temperatures by about 6 degrees Celsius within the next century. I discuss some of this literature in my 2021 book, The Earth Constitution Solution: Design for a Living Planet. However, climate collapse and/or nuclear holocaust are but two of the major threats to human existence. An obvious third possibility, very real and growing more dangerous daily, is that of a bioweapon causing a global, unstoppable pandemic that wipes out all or most of humanity.

In his 2020 book The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, British philosopher Toby Ord reviews a number of ways that human civilization might collapse back to primitive levels or end entirely due to species extinction caused either by human activities or by natural forces (such as a large meteor hitting the Earth). He declares that “the world is waking up to the importance of existential risk” (p. 57), and that we are in a “transition period” from national or other group-oriented values to “civilizational virtues” (p. 53).

Ord presents arguments as to why reflection on existential risks to humanity is morally extremely important.  Just as we consider it a terrible tragedy if some adolescent boy or girl with great potential for his or her life is cut short by an early death, so human civilization is still in its adolescence with tremendous potential for future generations. It would be a cosmic tragedy if we were to allow human civilization to cut off the future thereby wasting all the struggles, aspirations, and hopes of past generations that brought us to the present with its immense possibilities.

In geological or evolutionary terms, the rise of human civilization was just yesterday, just a blip on the graph. Human civilization is still in its adolescence, just beginning. After reviewing in some detail the possibilities for the demise of humanity due to either natural or anthropogenic causes, Ord plots out “the path forward” concerning how we should be addressing these existential risks. His informative and scholarly book is about how we can assess and respond to these possibilities.

A significant portion of the path forward involves taking seriously the task of calculation and analysis of risks. Ord goes into the dynamics of this domain of calculation in some detail. Thinkers about the future can derive some guidance here about how we can approach the task of assessing risk and dealing with the range of possibilities for survival and flourishing. We need to be taking “the Long Reflection,” looking at human civilization itself as a cosmic phenomenon and developing “civilizational virtues” that can be cultivated and enhanced as we envision our vast potential over millennia or even millions of years to come.

We need to turn civilization around from the destroyer of the Earth to its savior and contemplate future generations as moving into the galaxy and beyond as part of “the potential of human civilization in its full maturity.” We must be “patient, prudent, compassionate, ambitious and wise” (p. 217). We need to consider our own highest “peak” experiences of flourishing, of living fully “amidst the beauty of the world” as pointers to “modes of thought” that may include a fullness of being “beyond our present understanding” (p. 237).

Yet for all this Toby Ord offers very little that is concrete or liberating with respect to the present mess within which humanity finds itself. On a personal level, his book relates that he has admirably committed 10% of his income to helping people in Africa survive and flourish. He is committed to the human civilizational project and our common human dignity. But his recommendations concerning how we proceed from here appear to accept the world’s dominant institutions without serious analysis of how these institutions inhibit and contradict the human civilizational project. One wonders if he has ever read Karl Marx or Emery Reves?

He is largely silent about the curse of sovereign-state militarism and nationalism. He is largely silent about the exploitative and destructive aspects of global capitalism. It is as if, as a research fellow in the elegant and “civilized” environment at Oxford University, the vast benefits and ability to flourish he has received from centuries of exploitation and domination have created a blind spot in his mind for these on-going institutions of war, domination, and exploitation.

His recommendations for how we are to survive into the future are deeply non-revolutionary. He rejects world government as “a slippery idea” opening dangerous possibilities for tyranny and advocates only some greater international authority that can work to abolish nuclear weapons (not all war and militarism) (pp. 201-202). He quotes a 1997 UNESCO Declaration on our Responsibilities Toward Future Generations—a mere declaration, not advocating any institutional changes that could really make a difference. And Ord’s bibliography contains almost nothing from the literature about world government making it appear as though he has not seriously investigated this civilizational option.

Neither does his bibliography contain many references to the vast literature on the stages of human growth toward cognitive, moral, and spiritual maturity. He mentions “peak experiences” but never cites Abraham Maslow, Eric Fromm, Ken Wilber, Lawrence Kolberg, Carol Gilligan, nor Jürgen Habermas. Nor does he cite the literature from those thinkers who consider the cosmic context of human life as we grow toward a greater world-centric and cosmic consciousness, thinkers such as Teilhard de Chardin, Jean Gebser, Raimon Panikkar, Maurice Bucke, Sri Aurobindo, or Ervin Laszlo.

This makes his final chapter, on “Our Potential,” strangely empty and lacking in the visionary and revolutionary possibilities that human beings encounter everywhere today in the interstices of the dominant systems and reactionary modes of consciousness ravaging our world. Contrast this with the recommendations for transformative change in my 2021 book, The Earth Constitution Solution: Design for a Living Planet. The kind of personal and institutional changes needed to avoid human self-extinction and create a flourishing, just, and sustainable civilization are nonviolently revolutionary.

The recommendations in Toby Ord’s book, well-meaning as they may be, constitute a prescription for failure. The Earth Constitution Solution revolves around five concrete accomplishments that humankind must achieve in the reasonably near future if we want a future at all:

  1. Internalize Holism. We must become deeply aware of the emergent holistic paradigm that derives not only from contemporary science but resonates with traditional wisdom about the cosmos and our place within it. This paradigm includes understanding the interdependence and interrelationship of all things in the universe, including the geosphere, biosphere, and noosphere of Earth. This awareness must inform all our design efforts.
  2. Establish Ecological Economics. We must build an economy that benefits everyone while living within the parameters of the laws of entropy, renewability, and steady-state prosperity. We will examine [in this book] what several ecological economists have to say about sustainable economics.
  3. Promote Spiritual Growth. We must design a world system that promotes cognitive, moral, and spiritual growth that nurtures those aspects of human nature that transcend selfishness, egocentrism, fear and hate, while promoting those aspects that include love, compassion, dialogue, mutual respect, and concern.
  4. Institutionalize Planetary Applied Science. We must create institutions – at the regional, national, and planetary level – that study and monitor Earth as a whole and that can respond in a timely fashion to maintain stability. Climate scientists must be empowered to manage our environment for health and stability. As [Buckminster] Fuller says, this means seeing our spaceship as a whole. The good news is that we now have the expertise and technology to implement regenerative and sustainable practices.
  5. Give Earth a Brain. We must generate a world noosphere (mind-sphere) that includes a coordinating center, a brain, and a common consciousness that is representative of humanity and capable of planning and acting for a stable, prosperous, and resilient future. To date, the world has no such coordinating self-awareness singularly focused on creating a decent and secure future for humanity. (Ibid., pp. 2-3)

The Earth Constitution Solution goes into each of these domains in some detail and shows that they cannot be achieved without ratification of the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.  The Earth Constitution puts the democratically elected representatives of the people of Earth in charge for the first time in history—not wealthy banking cartels like the IMF and World Bank, not multinational corporations, and not imperial militarized nation-states.  This is why the Constitution is absolutely necessary. It bases the democratic world government on our common human dignity and the unity in diversity of all civilization, no longer one portion of humanity dominating or struggling against another.

The Constitution, therefore, is already an incarnation of holism, and its ratification would promote holism worldwide. The Constitution is mandated to establish ecological economics which involves most fundamentally a debt-free public banking system directed toward sustainability and not toward endless growth and private profit for bankers and corporations.  Similarly, a worldwide educational system that is the right of every person on Earth is premised on the same unity in diversity that is at the heart of the democratic world system established by the Constitution. It intrinsically promotes “love, compassion, dialogue, mutual respect, and concern.”

Several of the agencies in the Integrative Complex created by the Earth Constitution are designed to implement planetary applied science within the world government.  Environmental scientists would no longer have to compete with millions of dollars in anti-environmental propaganda now funded by the fossil fuel corporations and other capitalist entities dedicated to reaping billions of dollars in profits from destroying our planetary environment.  Environmental scientists rather than special interest lobbyists would now be advising legislators with detailed studies, computer analyses, and real environmental information.

Finally, perhaps the most fundamental gift of the Earth Constitution to humanity is to give it a brain. Today human civilization has no brain.  It is a chaotic collection of rival nations, businesses, and interest groups vying for influence, ascendency, or survival.  This chaos has us heading toward ultimate disaster.  Toby Ord does not appear to recognize the need to provide the Earth with a brain. 

Such a brain is brilliantly supplied by the Earth Federation Government under a World Parliament drawn from every corner of the planet with subsidiary institutions dedicated to assessing the state of civilization and projecting the best possible futures for humanity. The world, for the first time, will have an authoritative body concerned for the well-being and future of the whole of civilization. That is the function of a brain.

The Constitution for the Federation of Earth provides for all these dimensions of nonviolent revolutionary transformation necessary for human survival and flourishing: It is founded on holism and the internalizing of the principle of holism. It provides for a comprehensive ecological program for sustainability that includes ecological economics.  It promotes cognitive, moral, and spiritual growth for all of humanity. It institutionalizes climate science so that legislators have all the necessary information for making good decisions. And, finally and most comprehensively, it gives the Earth the brain that it so badly needs.  We need to ratify this Earth Constitution.