Many are aware that climate disruption may cause horrendous problems, but few seem to realize that this peril is not the only potentially catastrophic one and may not even be the most serious threat we face. Humanity finds itself in a desperate situation, but you’d never know it from listening to the media and the politicians. Loss of the biodiversity that runs human life-support systems, toxification of the planet, the risk of pandemics that increase in lockstep with population growth, and the possibility of nuclear resource wars all could be more lethal. We are finally, however, starting to understand the patterns of culture change and the role of natural selection in shaping them. And since everything from weapons of mass destruction to global heating is the result of changes in human culture over time, acquiring a fundamental understanding of cultural evolution just might be the key to saving civilization from itself.
The change will begin with clearing up the misapprehensions; even climate disruption, for instance, is widely misunderstood. Sea-level rise, displacing tens of millions of people, may be the least of it. Changing patterns of precipitation, which likely will be continuous over the next millennium, will make vast problems for agriculture. So will the melting of mountain snows and glaciers that are so critical to the flows of water upon which food production depends. Furthermore, the temperature sensitivity of crops and impairment of natural pest controls will make maintaining crop yields in many areas ever more difficult. Melting of the Himalayan “water tower” (the ice and snow on those mountains and on the Tibetan plateau), combined with reduced productivity of wheat and rice, now imperils the nutrition of some 1.6 billion nuclear-armed people in south Asia. Worldwide, we face the possibility of today’s billion hungry people becoming several billion starving to death.
To help avert such an outcome, humanity must revise civilization’s water-handling infrastructure for maximum flexibility. And that could be a minor chore compared with the necessary restructuring of the world’s energy economy in the next few decades, or addressing the racism, sexism, and economic inequity that make environmental problems so difficult to solve in the first place.
Educated people generally realize that humanity’s negative impacts on our life-support systems are tightly tied to population size; for instance, the more people, the more greenhouse gases are added to the atmosphere. But few realize that the 2.5 billion people projected to be added to the human population by midcentury will have a much greater destructive impact than the last 2.5 billion. People are smart and therefore naturally use the most concentrated, highest-grade resources first. So each additional person must be fed from more marginal land, equipped with objects made of metal won from poorer ores, supplied with water from more distant sources or expensively purified, and so on. Similarly, while politicians and many economists believe that increasing consumption is the cure for all economic ailments, it is only because they do not understand that the human economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of nature’s economy. They have not yet learned that it is the aggregate consumption of Homo sapiens that is destroying our natural capital. They are unwitting victims of the culture gap.
For most of our species’ existence, all members of hunter-gatherer bands possessed virtually the entire body of their group’s non-genetic information—its culture. But since the agricultural revolution, and especially in the past century or two, that situation has changed completely. No living person knows even a billionth of the cultural information possessed by humanity. No reader of Seed could assemble a 747 from its parts, let alone tell how each part was manufactured, where, and from what. Of course, there’s no way to close that enormous culture gap now. But critical parts of it could be filled in, so that most people would know, for example, what an ecosystem service is, the difference between ozone depletion and climate disruption, the biological significance of skin pigmentation, and the importance of the second law of thermodynamics.
Scientists today believe that such critical information must be disseminated and quickly acted upon to avoid catastrophe. But that is not happening, as indicated by the “much talk, little action” status of climate change. The central need is clearly not for more natural science research (although in many areas it would be very helpful). Rather, the social sciences and humanities need to be reorganized and refocused—“rebooted”—to provide better understanding of human behaviors and how they can be altered. Our civilization must move toward the formation of a sustainable, empathic, global family. Its members must be able to cooperate intensively to deal with global problems before it is too late.
That’s why a group of natural scientists, social scientists, and scholars from the humanities decided to inaugurate a Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior (MAHB, pronounced “mob”). It was so named to emphasize that it is human behavior, toward one another and toward the ecosystems that sustain us all, that requires both better understanding and rapid modification. The idea is that the MAHB might become a basic mechanism to expose society to the full range of population-environment-resource-ethics-power issues, and sponsor research on how to turn that knowledge into the required actions. Perhaps most important, the MAHB would stimulate a broad global discussion involving the greatest possible diversity of people, about what people desire, the ethics of those desires, and which are possible to meet in a sustainable society. It would, I hope, serve as a major tool for altering the course of cultural evolution.
The MAHB would differ from other global efforts such as the IPCC and the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment in that public input and outreach would play a much more dominant role. Local MAHB discussion groups are already forming, and I hope that the MAHB will kick off with a world megaconference around 2012 on the scale of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development that was held in Rio de Janeiro two decades earlier. The purpose of the MAHB conference would be to initiate a continuing global discussion, creating the MAHB as a new, semipermanent institution. The whole MAHB program is now at a preliminary stage, and the need for input from those accustomed to working in the social sciences and humanities, in the media, in the business community, in NGOs, as well as the general public, is obvious.
The really big MAHB issue is how to ethically reorganize global civilization and consciously reshape its norms so that humanity can transition to a sustainable and fair society. Finding convergence will be challenging: There are few ethical universals, and it is highly unlikely that many will be agreed upon soon, although most ethical systems do converge on some basic elements (for instance, murder and cheating are wrong).
We clearly need an international discussion of such contentious topics as the degree to which wealth should be redistributed from rich to poor, what people owe to future generations, or the kind of population-control programs that are ethically justified. Such discussions should involve not just “leaders” but as many diverse publics as possible. Humanity’s future hangs on finding broad agreement on such major eco-ethical decisions. One role of the MAHB would be to facilitate discussion and debate of those usually ignored topics. The MAHB could also serve as a rallying point for myriad organizations now fighting for environmental quality and social justice. The discourse would emphasize that our brilliant, dominant species has undermined its own life-support systems. It now faces a daunting array of self-generated threats, ones that the human family could cooperatively organize to fight and, with luck, overcome by avoiding the first collapse of a global civilization.
Paul R. Ehrlich is Bing Professor of Population Studies at Stanford University and president of Stanford’s Center for Conservation Biology.
Dr. Ehrlich hopes that MAHB can become the focus of badly needed new, coordinated efforts by social scientists, scholars in the humanities, members of the business community, and the media alike. If you are willing to get involved, go to the MAHB website.
Originally published November 30, 2010