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My four-year-old loves the fantastical flora and fauna of the marine environment so the other day we decided to watch Blue Planet 2. What began as a joyous attempt to showcase the wonder of the oceans soon took a melancholy turn as we silently watched an exhausted walrus mother and pup struggle to find pack ice on which to rest. After a few minutes, my daughter sought confirmation of something that had clearly bothered her. “Papa,” she said, “if those walruses don’t have ice, they’ll die.” Amazed (but not surprised) by my young child’s ability to reason, I took a deep breath before responding. “Yes,” I replied, “without ice, the walruses would die, but people are working to ensure that doesn’t happen.” I hated to sugarcoat the truth and I worry that I have overstated current efforts to save both the walrus and humanity itself.
It is an extraordinary time to be alive and after seven decades of relative peace and prosperity, living standards have improved for billions. Indeed, public health campaigns have eradicated diseases and lengthened lifespans, and economic growth has lifted billions of people out of dire poverty. Moreover, this sustained period of global peace and prosperity has spurred the proliferation of many new and exciting technologies, allowing us to reach the Moon, decipher the human genome, and wirelessly communicate with one another from across rooms and oceans.
But it is also true that the benefits of peace and prosperity have been neither uniform nor equitable. For decades, many of us (myself included) have been able to engage in mindless consumption—of energy, of natural resources, of durable and non-durable goods—at an unsustainable rate. Only now, as a wave of environmental and technological disruption washes over us, are we beginning to appreciate the disruptive effect of our collective actions.
Signs of Disruption
Signs of disruption and its societal impacts have long been evident. For example, the destruction of various ecosystems and wasteful water use practices have dramatically altered water cycles leading to shortages, restrictions, and difficult questions over resource access. Likewise, the use of fossil fuels has pushed global carbon dioxide concentrations to levels not seen in hundreds of millions of years. According to the IPCC, “[h]uman-induced global warming has already caused multiple observed changes in the climate system.” Without drastic and immediate action, our planet is on a trajectory to exceed 2 degrees Celsius of warming by 2100, if not sooner. According to the IPCC, this would almost certainly amplify the impacts we’re already experiencing and lead to the inundation of coastal communities, the further alteration of ocean chemistry due to ocean acidification, and the complete loss of summer sea ice in the Arctic.
Environmental disruption is a major challenge and constitutes an existential threat to humanity. But it is not the only brand of disruption we face in our modern world—technological disruption is now impacting society with full force. Advances in artificial intelligence and robotics are disrupting the workplace to such an extent that Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute estimates that 47% of the US workforce is at risk of automation. On top of this, big data and the internet of things are fundamentally altering our humanity. These technologies have so eroded the concept of personal privacy that it is now nearly impossible to go anywhere—virtually or physically—without revealing intimate details of one’s life.
Why Haven’t We Acted?
While our collective inaction to counter disruption seems, in retrospect, more than negligent, it’s not actually surprising. The reason we haven’t acted is really quite simple: environmental disruption hasn’t so fundamentally altered our sense of permanence of place. But it could. Nor has technological disruption so fundamentally altered our individual sense of what it means to be human. But it could. The sooner we come to terms with these truths, the more likely we are to be able to stave off the worst of the potential impacts.
Reason to Hope
As humans, our relatively brief lifespan is a blessing—it instills in us an ability to hope for the better and motivates us to do as much as we can in a short amount of time. We must acknowledge that the future will be different than the past—indeed it always has been—and we must recognize that we have some degree of agency over that future. While some may question the need for or the practicality of bold solutions to disruption—climate change included—for my generation and for my daughter’s generation, there is no choice.
A piecemeal, incrementalist approach will not suffice—it will only accentuate the impacts of disruption. Instead, we must seek an “all in” strategy from our leaders and work to build a movement to ensure that we have both the political will and the necessary structural conditions to meet all forms of disruption head-on. This will require a global effort, the scale of which has been unseen in human history and will necessitate coordinated government strategy, cooperation among public and private sectors, and a massive mobilization of resources.
Beyond that, we must seek to harness positive disruptive outcomes as a means of addressing negative disruptive consequences. For example, we should apply disruptive technologies as tools to help us address the most acute impacts of environmental change. Likewise, we must reframe our collective challenges as opportunities to improve conditions for all. While this mindset will not make the very real and acute impacts go away, it will show us that each of these challenges is interconnected, just as each one of us is connected. Unlike any generation in history, we have the tools and capabilities to unite as a global community for the common good.
As a lawyer and a futurist, I have spent much of my adult life feeling pretty down on the prospects of the human race. It was only when I had children that I regained my hope. Minutes after witnessing the plight of the walruses, my daughter raced to our kitchen to get ice packs from the freezer. “What are you doing,” I inquired. “An experiment to help the walruses,” she replied. While we can draw inspiration from their hope, it shouldn’t be up to today’s four-year-olds to solve the global crises they stand to inherit. Rather, the responsibility should fall on those of us who’ve enjoyed the fruits of peace and prosperity to leave the world a better place than we found it.
Scott Nuzum is a Washington, D.C. based father, husband, attorney, and futurist. He previously worked at the White House Council on Environmental Quality (2009-2012) and the U.S. Department of the Interior (2012-2014).
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