The four greatest challenges to humanity and how we can overcome them

Michael Pace is a historian of science and technology. He takes his expert understanding of the past to draw dotted lines into the future, trying to see how today’s trends might emerge over the coming decades. He is Counselor Professor of History, as well as Professor of Science and Technology Communications, and Professor of European Studies, at Vanderbilt University.

Below, Michael shares 5 key insights from his new book, A Planet at Risk: Humanity’s Four Biggest Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them. Listen to the audio version – read by Michael himself – in the Next Big Idea app.

A Planet in Peril: Humanity's Four Biggest Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them by Michael Pace

1. Planetary solutions are already being found today.

All four mega-risks facing us – climate change, nuclear weapons, pandemics, and advanced artificial intelligence – are global, so they will only be successfully addressed if humanity can come together to craft planet-spanning solutions. The good news is that we’ve come a long way in building more global coordination systems than most people realize.

A hundred years ago, all we had were the pathetically weak tools of the League of Nations. Today, we have a multi-layered network of institutions that manage the interactions of the world’s people: from the United Nations and the International Criminal Court to regional bodies such as the European Union; From business networks like the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the International Monetary Fund to regulators like the World Health Organization; From anti-terror organizations like Interpol to military alliances like NATO; From grassroots groups like Greenpeace or Amnesty International to volunteering for organizations like Doctors Without Borders and Oxfam. If someone did a time snapshot of these interconnected endeavors as they have emerged over the past century, it would look like the self-organization of a young life form—a new creature gathering its nerves and nerves around the planet’s core.

“Today, we have a multi-layered network of institutions that manage the interactions of the world’s people.”

All of these organizations and networks still have a long way to go, but it would be wrong to underestimate how far we have come.

2. The United Nations has the potential to become a much more effective instrument.

The United Nations is in disarray. The Security Council is outdated, with the exclusion of a large number of important states, and the veto power of its five permanent members often leads to deadlock. I propose a series of reforms that can gradually transform the United Nations into a more effective instrument for coordinating humanity’s most important endeavours. The long-term goals are:

  • Expanding the membership of the United Nations Security Council and abolishing the veto option
  • Develop a weighted voting system in the United Nations, so that the influence of each country in the World Assembly more accurately reflects the size of its population and economic strength
  • Reducing the disparities in wealth and opportunity that divide the world’s people
  • Introduce new checks and balances to keep the UN system accountable and transparent in its operations
  • Build powerful collective military security and economic sanctions tools, capable of dealing decisively with fraudsters, cheaters or bigots

In this revamped United Nations, most of the day-to-day business of the peoples’ affairs will continue to be done by the existing national governments. Only truly global matters such as military security, climate change, or the regulation of hazardous technologies would be mandated with coordination by the United Nations.

3. The power of gradual, purposeful change.

Some profound transformations have taken place in the modern era gradually, through successive unremitting efforts generations of committed individuals.

“Technological achievements, such as the telephone, that seemed fanciful two centuries ago, became conceivable a century ago, and then became a reality 50 years ago.”

It turns out that the realm of the possible isn’t a stable place: it changes from decade to decade, as habits, expectations, and assumptions evolve. Technological achievements such as the telephone, which seemed a fantasy two centuries ago, became possible a century ago, and then became a reality 50 years ago. Societal achievements that were considered ideals in 1850, such as equality for women, have begun to become the norm in recent decades and are well on their way to becoming a social and economic reality.

These two examples illustrate the transformative power of small, purpose-based innovations. Seemingly modest changes are a lot like compound interest: It can add up significantly over time, producing quietly revolutionary results.

4. Major positive shifts in society can occur in the absence of full consensus.

Let me illustrate this with two historical examples.

In 1950, the nations of Western Europe were still reeling from the disaster of World War II, after centuries of mistrust, rivalry, and conflict. However, four decades later, in 1992, these countries signed the Maastricht Treaty, which bound themselves together in a partial supranational federation. The war between the countries of Western Europe has become closer to the possibility of armed aggression between the United States and Canada. This was achieved through ten thousand small gradual steps, propelled by several successive generations of loyal citizens and leaders.

The second encouraging example is the green movement. The environmentalists of the 1960s faced a daunting challenge: how to convince their fellow citizens to switch to a more environmentally sustainable way of life. Their efforts were strongly opposed by powerful and well-connected groups. Yet, seven decades later, you’d be hard-pressed to find one aspect of the modern industrial economy still untouched by green innovations. From cars to cosmetics and from education to business, everything is subject to sustainability considerations. Our economic system is certainly not as green as activists in the 1960s hoped, but it is greener than it would have been if they had raised their hand in resignation.

We should not be discouraged by the daunting nature of the political and diplomatic challenges facing us globally. Today we can roll up our sleeves and work on modest changes that gradually accumulate, gradually taking us into a different international order.

5. Dictatorships and democracies can work constructively with each other.

How will a reorganized UN work, in practice, when some states are democratically governed while others are autocratic or authoritarian? Here, I take inspiration from the Cold War relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, where the rivalry was geopolitical. And ideological.

“Now, with pandemics and climate change so clearly on our minds, more people continue to see the need for planet-wide management tools.”

However, these sworn enemies did not go to war. As the decades went by, they eventually drew up a tacitly agreed-upon playbook for dealing with each other. By the time of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in the 1980s, they had accepted limited mutual inspections of each other’s military installations, in order to maintain stability and arms control.

Something similar could emerge as a basic principle for countries coexisting under a revitalized United Nations. Many of these countries do not like each other. Many may differ profoundly in the ways in which they run their communities back home. But if they see it as in their national interest to do so, can’t they learn to play by a common set of rules? Could this become the basis for a more effective role for the United Nations in coordinating policies and decisions?

The mentalities of the human race began to change a hundred years ago, as the horrors of World War I affected thinking people. They changed even more radically with the trauma of World War II and the bleak predictions of a nuclear holocaust. Now, with pandemics and climate change so clearly on our minds, more people continue to see the need for planet-wide management tools.

As these pressures continue to mount globally, more people will question narrow and restricted nationalities. Like it or not, they will have to look for ways to work constructively with outsiders on other continents, and that will require new institutional tools to bridge the gaps between them. It will also require new mental frameworks for thinking about who we are and how we draw boundaries around ourselves.

It is about the continuing choices that we will make and that our descendants will make. It is very important to realize that this is what it is choices, are not static or predefined paths. The future is more open than people think.

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