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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 26, New Delhi, June 12, 2021

126 Nobel Laureates and Experts Issue Timely Warning on Some Crucial Issues, But Miss Other Urgent Concerns | Bharat Dogra

Saturday 12 June 2021, by Bharat Dogra


Review Article by Bharat Dogra

An extremely important recent statement on critical issues faced by humankind was recently released in late April by 126 Nobel Laureates. This statement was inspired by the discussions at the 2021 Nobel Prize Summit, issued by the Steering Committee and co-signed by Nobel Laureates and experts. This statement is titled Our Planet, Our Future—A Call for Action (OPOF-CA). While this statement makes several very important observations, it is really surprising and regrettable to find that it makes some omissions of very critical importance and some issues of critical importance for resolving the present crisis are more or less left out of this statement’s concerns. Hence while this statement deserves great attention for its several important and profound observations, it deserves attention also for the glaring omissions that have been made. For example, the most important task of complete elimination of nuclear weapons (and in fact all weapons of mass destruction) is hardly mentioned in this statement.

This statement says—Science is a global common good on a quest for truth, knowledge, and innovation toward a better life. It would be more appropriate to say Science should be ... instead of saying Science is... as the reality today is very different from the ideal.

Next the statement says— Now, humankind faces new challenges at unprecedented scale. The first Nobel Prize Summit comes amid a global pandemic, amid a crisis of inequality, amid an ecological crisis, amid a climate crisis, and amid an information crisis. These supranational crises are interlinked and threaten the enormous gains we have made in human progress. It is particularly concerning that the parts of the world projected to experience many of the compounding negative effects from global changes are also home to many of the world’s poorest communities, and to indigenous peoples. The summit also comes amid unprecedented urbanization rates and on the cusp of technological disruption from digitalization, artificial intelligence, ubiquitous sensing and biotechnology and nanotechnology that may transform all aspects of our lives in coming decades.

This observation is followed by very appropriately quoting a Nobel Laureate,
“We have never had to deal with problems of the scale facing today’s globally interconnected society. No one knows for sure what will work, so it is important to build a system that can evolve and adapt rapidly.” Elinor Ostrom (Nobel Laureate 2009)

Further the OPOF-CA statement adds—The summit has been convened to promote a transformation to global sustainability for human prosperity and equity. Time is the natural resource in shortest supply. The next decade is crucial: Global greenhouse gas emissions need to be cut by half and destruction of nature halted and reversed. An essential foundation for this transformation is to address destabilizing inequalities in the world. Without transformational action this decade, humanity is taking colossal risks with our common future. Societies risk large-scale, irreversible changes to Earth’s biosphere and our lives as part of it.

In support of these assertions this statement quotes a prophetic saying by a most visionary scientist - “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels.” Albert Einstein (Nobel Laureate 1921)

Even more appropriately this important statement adds—We need to reinvent our relationship with planet Earth. The future of all life on this planet, humans and our societies included, requires us to become effective stewards of the global commons — the climate, ice, land, ocean, freshwater, forests, soils, and rich diversity of life that regulate the state of the planet, and combine to create a unique and harmonious life-support system. There is now an existential need to build economies and societies that support Earth system harmony rather than disrupt it.

Identifying very clearly the very special and distinct nature of recent decades in history this statement says— Geologists call the last 12,000 years the Holocene epoch. A remarkable feature of this period has been relative Earth-system stability. But the stability of the Holocene is behind us now. Human societies are now the prime driver of change in Earth’s living sphere — the biosphere. The fate of the biosphere and human societies embedded within it is now deeply intertwined and evolving together. Earth has entered a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. Evidence points to the 1950s as the onset of the Anthropocene — a single human lifetime ago. The Anthropocene epoch is more likely to be characterized by speed, scale, and shock at global levels.

Coming now to the present crisis related to COVID-19, this statement says—The scientific response in the face of catastrophe, from detection to vaccine development, has been robust and effective. This is a highly questionable statement. In fact much avoidable distress is related to the absence of a robust response. However later even this statement admits that the scale of this catastrophe could have been greatly reduced through preventive measures, greater openness, early detection systems, and faster emergency responses.

This statement rightly notes that reducing risk of zoonotic disease like COVID-19 requires a multi-pronged approach recognizing “one health” — the intimate connections between human health and the health of other animals and the environment. Rapid urbanization, agricultural intensification, overexploitation, and habitat loss of large wildlife all promote the abundance of small mammals, such as rodents. Additionally, these land-use changes lead animals to shift their activities from natural ecosystems to farmlands, urban parks, and other human-dominated areas, greatly increasing contact with people and the risk of disease transmission.

 This is well said, but in order to be comprehensive this statement should have referred also to the other group of risks relating to lab-leaks, genetically engineered viruses, so-called gains of function research and hidden biological warfare research. The neglect of such a big risk in this statement is to be regretted.

This statement says appropriately that for the first time in our existence, our actions are destabilizing critical parts of the Earth system that determine the state of the planet. For 3 million years, global mean temperature increases have not exceeded 2°C of global warming, yet that is what is in prospect within this century. We are on a path that has taken us to 1.2°C warming so far — the warmest temperature on Earth since we left the last ice age some 20,000 years ago, and which will take us to >3°C warming in 80 years.

However next this statement again makes a highly questionable assertion by saying— At the same time, we are losing Earth resilience, having transformed half of Earth’s land outside of the ice sheets, largely through farming expansion. The objection should be to ecologically destructive farming, not to farming as such. But this statement fails to clearly distinguish between the very different implications of industrial farming/factory farming/ environment destroying farming on the one hand and environment protecting mixed farming on the other hand which increases organic content of soil and increases green cover.

It is possible for ecology protecting farming and agro-ecology to contribute much to climate change adaptation. By failing to make a clear distinction between the implications of ecologically protective farming/agro-ecology on the one hand and ecologically destructive farming, this statement lends itself to an interpretation that would call for displacement of farmers from their sustainable livelihoods in the name of checking climate change. This may not at all be the intention of these learned scientists, but such can be the implication and misunderstanding caused by less than careful drafting of an important statement that is likely to be studied all over the world and will no doubt contribute to policy. To avoid misunderstanding these scientists should issue a rejoinder clarifying that they support ecologically protective farming and want farming to shift towards this, and that they do not support any displacement of small farmers.

This statement also confirms the terrible data that of the estimated 8 million species on Earth, about 1 million are under threat. Since the 1970s, there has been an estimated 68% decline in the populations of vertebrate species.

This statement has done very well to present a strong for opposing trends of increasing inequality and to plead for much more equality—While all in societies contribute to economic growth, the wealthy in most societies disproportionately take the largest share of this growing wealth. This trend has become more pronounced in recent decades. In highly unequal societies, with wide disparities in areas such as health care and education, the poorest are more likely to remain trapped in poverty across several generations. More equal societies tend to score highly on metrics of well-being and happiness. Reducing inequality raises social capital. There is a greater sense of community and more trust in government. These factors make it easier to make collective, long-term decisions. Humanity’s future depends on the ability to make long-term, collective decisions to navigate the Anthropocene.

Further this statement adds in more recent contexts—The COVID-19 pandemic, the largest economic calamity since the Great Depression, is expected to worsen inequality at a moment when inequality is having a clear destabilizing political impact in many countries. Climate change is expected to further exacerbate inequality. Already, the poorest, often living in vulnerable communities, are hit hardest by the impacts of climate, and live with the damaging health impacts of energy systems, for example air pollution. Furthermore, although urbanization has brought many societal benefits, it is also exacerbating existing, and creating new, inequities.

Establishing important linkages, this statement says—It is an inescapable conclusion that inequality and global sustainability challenges are deeply linked. Reducing inequality will positively impact collective decision-making.

What this statement has to say on the disruptive impact of some recent technologies is really important—The accelerating technological revolution — including information technology, artificial intelligence, and synthetic biology — will impact inequality, jobs, and entire economies, with disruptive consequences. On aggregate, technological advancements so far have accelerated us down the path toward destabilizing the planet. Without guidance, technological evolution is unlikely to lead to transformations toward sustainability. It will be critical to guide the technological revolution deliberately and strategically in the coming decades to support societal goals.

 Coming now to an important recommendation for the next decade this statement says—The future habitability of Earth for human societies depends on the collective actions humanity takes now. There is rising evidence that this is a decisive decade (2020-2030). Loss of nature must be stopped and deep inequality counteracted. Global emissions of greenhouse gases need to be cut by half in the decade of 2021-2030. This alone requires collective governance of the global commons — all the living and non-living systems on Earth that societies use but that also regulate the state of the planet — for the sake of all people in the future.

Here this reviewer would take the liberty to digress a little from the review to inform that in mid-2019 he had launched a campaign for declaration of 2020-30 as the Decade for Saving Earth (SED), as part of a wider campaign Save the Earth Now with its SED demand. This campaign calls for time —bound most essential actions to avoid existential threats within a framework of justice, democracy and peace. The reviewer wrote seven books on this theme in English and Hindi, apart from several articles. After obtaining the endorsement of several eminent persons this demand was sent to the Office of the Secretary General of the United Nations.

The OPOF-CA statement has rightly emphasized the urgency of the situation—Time is running out to prevent irreversible changes. Ice sheets are approaching tipping points — parts of the Antarctic ice sheet may have already crossed irreversible tipping points. The circulation of heat in the North Atlantic is unequivocally slowing down due to accelerated ice melt. This may further affect monsoons and the stability of major parts of Antarctica. Rainforests, permafrost, and coral reefs are also approaching tipping points. The remaining carbon budget for a 67% probability of not exceeding 1.5°C global warming will be exhausted before 2030. At the same time, every week until 2050, the urban population will increase by about 1.3 million, requiring new buildings and roads, water and sanitation facilities, and energy and transport systems. The construction and operation of these infrastructure projects will be energy and emissions intensive unless major changes are made in how they are designed and implemented.

However, while this statement puts so much emphasis on environment protection, it almost entirely ignores the equally important issue of disarmament and peace. In fact it is increasingly clear that without the elimination of weapons of mass destruction (including nuclear, biological, chemical, robot (AI, autonomous) weapons and without eliminating the possibility of space warfare, it is not possible at all to avoid existential threats. The gains of years of efforts of protecting environment can be undone by a significant exchange of nuclear weapons lasting a few hours. Secondly, war and militarization needed for this is itself the biggest polluter. Thirdly, the great international cooperation and ground-level environment protections cannot be ensured in conditions of power-rivalries and conflicts.

Another weakness of the OPOF-CA statements is that it fails to pin the blame on some of the biggest and most powerful corporations and big corporate interests who have been responsible for massive ecological ruin and arms-race. The extent to which a small number of MNCs and billionaires have become implicated in highly destructive policies relating to arms race, space race, control of important areas of life like food and health, their huge harmful influence should have received a lot of attention in this statement. Their share of the blame for increasing inequalities is also not spelled out. Other aspects of international inequalities, including persistence of neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism trends in various forms and at various levels, accentuation of trade and patent related exploitation etc. are not mentioned at all.

The fast decline of genuine democracy and reduced possibilities of people’s movements, including in such critical areas as environment protection and peace with justice, are not mentioned. The reasons for this decline, the role of big finance in the decline or even hijacking of democracy in several countries is not mentioned, as also the regrettable role of several big powers in this context.

More close to the area of the science, the issues of conflict of interest, the involvement of several scientists in highly hazardous research, the close alignment of several scientists with big business interests and arms race are issues which should have found a prominent place in such a statement, but have been neglected to a large extent. Even when referring to the disruptive impact of recent technologies, this statement leaves the issue very vague, treating this almost as an inevitability and assigning no blame.

In fact a careful reading of the statement leads to the suspicion that some of the more difficult and complex issues have been deliberately avoided. Otherwise how can a statement prepared by such learned persons miss out so many really important issues. This belief is strengthened by the rather routine drafting of remedial actions, without really calling for very basic changes in the way the world is structured and governed presently, changes which are really becoming more and more essential for avoiding existential threat. There should be a much more comprehensive and better thought-out collection of remedial actions, concerning the scientific aspects but also governance and mobilization aspects.

Hence it will be very useful if a second statement, a substantially revised version of the statement released in late April, is considered, so that many neglected but omitted issues can get the due inclusion and some parts open to misunderstanding can be redrafted. In these times of existential threat preparing such a statement is an act of great responsibility and importance, and should not be attempted in a half-hearted way. Leaving out or omitting very important issues in such statements is not helpful at all.

(The reviewer, a journalist and author, is Convener of Save the Earth Now Campaign with its SED Demand. His recent books include Planet in Peril, Protecting Earth for Children, Man Over Machine and Earth Without Borders. Web-site— Contact-bharatdogra1956[at]

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