Can We Save The World?

Burkey, Tormod V. | December 13, 2016 | Leave a Comment Download as PDF

Snowy Owl 03-03-14 by nebirdsplus | Flickr | CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This article is the first in a two-part series by Tormod V. Burkey.
Learn more about Tormod’s perspective in Part Two of Can We Save the World?

Why are we not acting to save the world? Could it be that we simply don’t know how? Typically, we know the sorts of things that need to be done. What we don’t know is how to get humanity to act, even when we know that we must.

Why Are We Not Acting To Save the World?

In his 1987 book, famed behaviorist B. F. Skinner outlined a few reasons why we are not acting to save the world, having to do with past evolutionary selection for rapid responses to acute danger rather than to long term, diffuse, risk. Saving the world is to do something about the future, and the future doesn’t exist yet, save as a statistical prediction in a haze of uncertainty, like one’s fate as an individual smoker. Economists say we discount the future, for more immediate and less uncertain rewards. Predicting specifics about the future in a complex system is hard, and this is particularly true in social systems. Perhaps that causes some people to be wary even of general predictions by our best scientists. Few sciences have even advanced far enough to engage in prediction. Yet, in questions related to global climate trends, the biodiversity crisis, overexploitation of natural resources, and related environmental threats, we know that we must act, and quickly.

To “save the world” is just a short-hand for solving those large, complex environmental problems that involve tipping points and international dimensions. The presence of tipping points in the dynamics of global ecosystems means that before we know it it may be too late, and that doing just a tiny bit too little, or too late, is equivalent to doing nothing. Our culture, and our democracy, is not used to dealing with issues where it may suddenly be too late and damages are irreversible. The other issues our political system is preoccupied with are less critical, because if you get it wrong, or do too little, you can always go back and fix it later.

Governance in an Increasingly Complex World

Our politicians seem to be an “elite” in name only, whose ambition extends to gaining position, but not to what they want to do with it once they have it. When the rest of us are all too busy or caught up in day-to-day business, or simply too uncoordinated, it becomes all too easy for politicians to ignore the most important issues in the world—where the shit won’t really hit the fan until after they have moved on to other jobs. “Saving the world” should not be just another job… Or one that we are free to perform poorly.

Political scientists like Scott Barrett have studied what makes a good international agreement, and question why the climate agreements or the Convention on Biological Diversity looks nothing like that, and why negotiators don’t learn from past experiences. In the Ingenuity Gap, Thomas Homer Dixon argues that society is getting ever more complex, and constantly speeding up, and that our ability to handle the situation is not keeping up. The severity of our global environmental problems is escalating and even if we weren’t already overwhelmed with the difficulty of doing something about it, we soon would be. Do we understand social systems well enough to plan and carry out an intervention that might actually succeed as needed? Is it possible within and between our weak democracies, given the challenges of getting people to agree even on the simplest of issues?

Psychologists and behavioral scientists have identified a host of cognitive failures that hamper our educational efforts, our political discourse, and our effectiveness at all levels from personal choice and reasoning to our democratic system.

Making Good Choices Generic

We need systems whereby not only idealists behave properly. We trivialize the future of the world by reducing it to small personal actions like daily recycling and transportation choices, without implementing systems that make good choices generic. And making an effort can be demoralizing when all around you others continue to behave just as before, as if oblivious to the challenges we face. People wait for politicians to do something, but politicians can’t do anything until people demand it. In any case they don’t know what to do without being told. We cannot let them get away with treating “the environment” as just another special interest—but we have been, and why should we think that we will get more effective with more of the same?

In a globalized world, where several global boundaries have already been exceeded, everything is political. Yet we trivialize politics by reducing it to a never-ending string of issues and cases that we endeavor to address in isolation. Even do-gooders attack problems through “projects,” partially because that is how funding agencies have structured “the world,” when projects are invariably on the wrong scale in both time and space.

We must all do our little bit. But that only works if there are enough of us doing it. Even living a simple life in internally benevolent eco-communes and (temporarily) stable bioregions demands that there are not emergent properties of aggregate human behavior at greater scales. And problems interact. We cannot solve the climate crisis without solving the biodiversity crisis, and vice versa. Can we solve over-fishing without solving ocean acidification, invasive species issues (exacerbated by climate change), eutrophication and soil erosion, over-population, the economic system, and the weaknesses of our democratic systems and international governance?

So, Can We Save the World?

Many of us would answer a simple “No.” if asked whether we can save the world. The feeble attempts to “solve” the most important issues of our times are ludicrously out of proportion to the challenges we face. Is it possible to get humanity to take necessary and sufficient action in time? Where the deadline is perhaps uncertain? If not, what institutions are needed? If the conclusion is that we cannot move humanity to necessary and sufficient action in time (with existing institutions), that too is a powerful and important message. What institutions, with what powers and mandates, would be needed to get the required steps implemented? What processes need to be embarked upon? What can we say about our ability to solve such problems?

“Can we save the world?” should be an important enough question to justify submitting it to our best thinking and a thorough review of everything we know that has bearing upon it. Perhaps it is one that we have shied away from, for fear that a negative answer would breed despair and passivity and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet it is hard to see that compiling everything we know in an accessible manner could be a bad thing, and realistically assessing the mechanisms that hamstring us when we want to save the world may help us find ways to get around them.

I suggest we organize a seminar series with experts that have worked on mechanisms that hamper our efforts, and people with experiences with existing efforts, to ask the question: “Can We Save the World?” The results from such a seminar series should be contained in an edited book of the same title. Anyone willing and able to help make Can We Save The World? happen—whether it be planning, fundraising, organizing, participating, facilitating, brainstorming, providing a venue, publishing, whatever—please get in touch.

Tormod V. Burkey is the author of “Ethics For A Full World, or Can Animal-Lovers Save the World?” and a conservation biologist passionate about saving animals, plants and wild places. You can follow his tweets: @Toruk_Makto_ and/or his blog: Thor’s Hammer. “Ethics For A Full World, or Can Animal-Lovers Save the World?” will be available through the publisher, Clairview Books, on April 3rd or can be pre-ordered through

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  • Alex Gonzalez

    ok there are over 7Billion people in this world if we all do are part. and take great care with it then yes we can save it [shout out 2 Prince Ea!] I especially if about 7 billion people in the world Planet a tree every freaking day yes and more stuff. stop using carbon and go straight to electric yes it would take a ferry long process but we start now we all can save the world stop killing endangered animals 2 but we also NEED THIS especially MEDITATION!!!!!! SHOUT OUT 2 PRINCE EA!

  • We win
    Out of chaos, something beautiful is born: civil movements are destroying the dark dreams of the ultra-right and are paving a new and wonderful road forward for all of us.

    Our wonderful community is at the center of this battle … and we win!

  • Tormod V. Burkey

    Anyone who has commented here, etc., Part 2 is now out:

  • Meditor

    I would like to propose that the elements which brought us to this terrible place will not redeem us. So, for example, technology will not save us. Why? Because, first, technology requires tremendous resources. Will fusion save us with nearly free electricity? That would create the shortage of other materials, not only copper, but rare earths. Will we use fusion to distill water to make up for the ground water we’ve depleted or polluted? If so, we will create huge amounts of toxic brine, that will have to be used or discarded; that will take more energy and organization. Shall we distill lithium for example, from brine? Yes, but that will require more electricity and technology, and in the end, there will still be a great deal of sludge to be disposed of.
    Geoengineering such as spraying sulfides, will have many unintended consequences. This is so easy to do, fill a 747 with sulfur compounds and nozzle it out in to the jet wash. No one can even guess what results this will have, and further, it won’t reduce all the other effects of CO2, such as an acid sea. Many people don’t realize (unless they wash jets) that the atmosphere is full of life; we honestly don’t know the result of poisoning that life.
    If we use genetic engineering to make sure that all the humans that are allowed to survive are the best specimens, we will no doubt create huge new social problems. Lot’s of great science fiction exploring this technology.
    In addition, technology always shapes human social organization. For example, growing food that stores well eventually requires granaries. Granaries attract pests and robbers, so now the society has to domesticate rat hunters and designate some men to do nothing but guard the granary. Granaries also means that population will grow, and it means that when people are hungry, they will bring trade goods to the granary. Very simple example of how one technological change, growing food that stores well, changes social structure.
    The point of most technology is to allow us to keep doing what we’ve been doing. Do do something else actually doesn’t require technology, but dramatic social change.
    Technology won’t save us, I’ll propose.
    I will propose that the driving element of human population and resource exploitation, social structure, will only save us if we configure it downward and decentralize. So, governments won’t save us. Laws won’t save us. Governments work through bureaucracies, which are ways of organizing human behavior to further organize human resources. Virtually all bureaucracies are organized to control humans and resources, and they all take a fee for doing so. Sometimes the fee is monetary, but often the fee is a behavioral change. Often, the needs of the bureaucracy become more important than the needs of the humans in the system, for example, when child welfare services requires a mom to go to parenting classes in the middle of her shift and she loses her job; the system sees that as her failure, and not an iatrogenic consequence. As a result, all bureaucracies have an inherent fault. Further, bureaucracies are nested. That means that, not only do they compete with each other for purview (purview is like territory) but being nested, the flaws of each are magnified as the consequences travel up and down the structure. A humorous was of looking at this effect is this: See in particular, “The Plan”.
    To be sure, bureaucratic organization is very effective, particularly when coupled with marketing. There are cell phones in the jungle.
    In addition, humans are always able to influence the bureaucracy; lobbyists are one way; “plata o plomo” (silver or lead) is another common way.
    I propose that centralized government, and indeed, all large social structures including the global social structure which is now, literally, run by computers (which run algorithms and make determinations in complex systems which used to be made by humans) will not save us due the inherent nature of social organization.
    Have you thoughts?

    • Tormod V. Burkey

      Lots of discussion in my coming book “Ethics For A Full World, or Can Animal-Lovers Save The World?”, out in March 2017. 😉

      Decentralized authority is also a problem, notably in “wildlife management”, land use and natural resources decisions, as local people will always have financial incentives in exploitation, and thus have a conflict of interest. Also, it is hard to get competence even at national and international levels, how will one achieve it at local levels. Then of course, local efforts to do good may be nullified by forces outside their jurisdiction and purview.

      • Meditor

        It is very rare that local people have control of resources, so how do you know this? Why should someone in Washington DC or Brussels, Belgium, know more about my woods that I do? Why would they care more than I do?
        “Compliance” implies laws; laws imply lawmakers and the process of making sausage, according to Bismark. This implies discussion and argument and narratives. I have no faith in laws; no faith in enforcers, and above all, decline to let people far away, with ulterior motives and values different from mine, make decisions that directly impact my watershed and my ability to survive there.
        So, I disagree that central authority is necessarily more capable of saving the world. As Elinor Ostrom said, “there are no panaceas” in central control.

        • Tormod V. Burkey

          Decentralization of authority in land use and natural resource/wildlife decisions is a trend around the world, and I have been battling it for years here in Norway where just about every politician agrees that local people, like sheep farmers and people who would like to build cabins and sell cabins and land and bring economic activity in by appealing to vacationers, should be allowed to decide the fate of wolves, endangered caribou (reindeer) and so on. In other matters we know to insularize policy and management decisions from conflicts of interest. Anyway, in land use and natural resources decisions local municipalities are altogether the wrong scale to be the make decisions about nature, which should “belong” to all of us. Fragmentation etc. results.

          I have also seen it in places like Indonesia and Papua New Guinea (and many other places) where new laws make the provinces (at least nominally) responsible for decisions over forestry, mining, development, and so on. And, yes, it is still often ignored by corrupt etc. politicians/bureaucrats centrally.

          Of course, no panacea in central control. But less vested interest. Perhaps closer link to conditions on the ground, but also less overview, theoretical framework, competence, etc. They may not know the local woods particularly well, but they may know the whole woods. Collaboration with any that know the local woods, of course, but guidelines for local efforts (and enforcement) might have to be lifted to a higher level. Either way, one has to be careful, smart, knowledgable, wise, inclusive, insightful, and independent (in the sense of not having a conflict of interest related to own income etc.).

          “Modern” people may be less interested in the state of the local watershed and its wildlife than they are about making a buck.

          Otherwise I agree with several of your points. The key is to do these sorts of things well. Thanks.

          • Meditor

            Oh, the pressures are tremendous, particularly when rural people are made to feel that their subsistence lifestyle isn’t good enough, they must buy consumer goods for their children.
            It has been a fight my entire life; in Nevada a few decades ago there was the Sagebrush Rebellion. I supported the movement, which was to recover state lands stolen by the BLM, and to give control over all federal land to the state. I was a busy supporter, until the plan was changed. The change gave one person the authority to permit activities such as mining and oil exploration. I suspended my support at that point.
            I lived in Humboldt County, during the timber wars there. I saw neighborhoods erupt over timber harvesting issues, and I saw over 40 cop cars of various sorts lined up along a one lane road because four girls were in a redwood tree. I was arrested at a protest to protect Headwaters, and contributed to other logging protests.
            Now, I live in North California where we are struggling to get free of urban control and try to restore our own control over our communities. Even in this, there is division between those who want to sell logs to Russia (somehow; we have no port) and those who want to preserve the forest by thinning, which produces more biomaterial and far fewer market logs. There is no market for logs, anyway, but people want to make a living, they want to stay local, they don’t want to become part of the stream of our best people to the cities, where they can make a living. Of all the exploitation we suffer from cities, the loss of our brightest children is the greatest.
            Rural people have to make a living. I encourage you to look to the much greater problem of cities, where the ceaseless drive for growth and profit strip the environment from literally the entire globe.
            You mention wolves, which is perfect for this discussion. Wolves are being forced on us in North California. We don’t want them; there were never many wolves here. Mountain lions, which are protected even though they are not in any way endangered, compete very effectively with wolves; there is an overpopulation of lions and our deer herds are diminished because of the drought, and because there are too many lions.
            Even so, those who pretend to know more about our forests than we do want to force wolves on us. Who are these people? They are feel good environmentalists, and people who literally make a living by pushing wolves. Explain how the benefit works here.
            Collaborations do work, when everyone involved has a similar amount to lose. Collaborations started and guided by people from outside, who are experts in something, but not us, don’t do well because we stand to lose, and they do not.
            Vested interest is easy to see when it is local; it is harder to see when money from elsewhere guides the process. We still have fracking in California; we still have wells leaking methane. Local people didn’t do that. Money did it, and it did so with the help and cooperation of the state.

          • Meditor

            By the way, how did our protests against Maxxam and cutting old growth go? Great: the timber company sold a few acres to the state for more than they had paid for the entire forest, and then they logged all they could, and the split the company, Pacific Lumber, into smaller units which where generally allowed to die. Did we save a few hundred old growth? Yeah. Did we hurt the holding company? Not at all.

  • SLDI

    RE: “So, Can We Save the World?”

    World’s First Planting of a Champion Redwood & Sequoia Forest
    Will Genetic Clones of the World’s Largest Trees Help to Save the Planet?

    The non-profit organization Archangel Ancient Tree Archive has started to restore an old growth forest on the southern Oregon coast with exact genetic duplicates of some of the largest
    champion redwood and sequoia trees in the world…

    • Tormod V. Burkey

      Wonderful! Thank you. I love Redwood and Sequoia forests/groves. Who could not?

      Can this be scaled up to Save The World? How do we leverage this kind of action to bring about more action? How many of these kinds of initiatives can we do? How many are we doing? What is the sum of the parts? Have they stopped cutting down redwood forests and other glorious groves? Can we start a virtuous chain reaction? Will we?

      How do outside processes impact your forest? (Now, or in the future.) If everyone does their little bit… but how could one get everyone to do their little bit? At least many enough? What is needed? Should one try to manage such a process, or trust to the “wisdom of crowds”, the aggregate outcome of desentralized, uncoordinated, processes, or to fate/luck? Even “minor” processes, like making a movie or building—or operating—an oil rig, are subjected to SERIOUS project management. Should we do something like that when it comes to a task like saving the world? (Is that possible? Desirable?)

    • Tormod V. Burkey

      Wonderful! Thank you so much. I love Redwood and Sequoia forests/groves. Who could not?

      Can this be scaled up to Save The World? How do we leverage this kind of action to bring about more action? How many of these kinds of initiatives can we do? How many are we doing? What is the sum of the parts? Have they stopped cutting down redwood forests and other glorious groves? Can we start a virtuous chain reaction? Will we?

      How do outside processes impact your forest? If everyone does their little bit… but how could one get everyone to do their little bit? At least many enough? What is needed? Should one try to manage such a process, or trust to the “wisdom of crowds”, the aggregate outcome of decentralized, uncoordinated, processes, or to fate/luck? Even “minor” processes, like making a movie or building—and operating—an oil rig, are subjected to serious project management. Should we do something like that when it comes to a task like saving the world? (Is that possible? Desirable? Is there a better way?)

  • Meditor

    Hi, Tormod, DeVita here. You invited me to post here; these are my comments.

    The assumption relies on the belief
    that humans are their own first source, that using reason and
    technology, including the technology of the bureaucracy, humankind
    can create a sustainable, equitable world.

    Selective research can always display
    instances where many humans acted for the collective; one might even
    say the best example is war, where hundreds of thousands of people,
    because of cultural values, social expectations and pressure, or
    threat of law, people act not in their best interest, but in the best
    interest of nesting authorities: first the platoon, then the general,
    then the army, then the nation.

    One could say that religion is a way of
    joining millions (or billions) of people.

    However, even those examples break down
    on closer examination. For example, religions are not monolithic,
    there are sects and followers adhere to varying degrees. Counting
    the number of people in church on Sunday will yield far fewer devoted
    than asking people to check a box on a form.

    The greatest, and I think
    insurmountable dilemma problem is that social structures are complex
    beings, there are always counter currents of strain, what some call
    “anti-systemic movements”. It seems that if only about 10
    percent of the people defect, meaning they don’t play by the rules,
    the system is in danger. If nearly everyone does obey the rules, but
    the only mostly obey them, like a “rolling stop” at a stop sign,
    the system can remain stable, but eventually those informalities
    accumulate into social action.
    Conversely, if you are successful
    at getting a sufficient number of people to conform, it will not only
    take a great deal of complex energy, there will be no freedom at all.
    North Korea is a good example of what you describe. The “carbon
    card” which we are all about to receive is an example: it will
    literally tie our every action to a database. Hell on Earth.

    I know there is the belief in the
    “hundredth monkey”, where just a few change agents can eventually
    bring revolutionary change to a group. Sadly, there are millions and
    millions of hundredth monkeys, and they don’t all share the same

    There is no real evidence to suggest
    that lofty rhetoric or anything short of socialization and rigid
    government control can force everyone to “make good choices.”
    Most people will make good choices if presented with such choices,
    but sometimes no alternative exists. Then, you are left with either
    taking something from someone else to make up the lack, or to pass
    laws, and check up on every person, all the time. Even that will
    generate anti-systemic movements.

    Most of all, the formulation leaves out
    the ecology and requirements of social structure. You can’t simply
    organize things any way you wish, there are natural laws, as in

    • Tormod V. Burkey

      Hi, DeVita!


      In the case of participation in wars, there were/are lots of structures that almost make those “decisions” automatic for the individual. In some cases the costs are discounted because the consequences may, or may not, occur a long time in the future. A little like Skinner calls for when he says “Why not arrange immediate consequences that will have the effect that remote consequences would have if they were acting now?”

      And one question is whether some of the tools from war-time economies need to be implemented in order to enable us to save the world.

      Yes, religions can have that effect. And ethics. Social sanction. One of the problems with religion is that if you can use them for good, others can just as easily use them for ill.

      Yes, the power structures and the multitude of checks and balances, and competing interests is part of what makes it so difficult.

      Of course, you don’t always have to force people to do something. There are other means, such as economic incentives. Though, clearly, some times prohibition is more effective than regulation. And in asking whether or not we can save the world, one aspect is to consider the extent to which coercion can play a part in it.

      Yes, “One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor” (Paul Simon). The thing is, that on a finite planet, it is all a zero sum game. If we take something, we always take it from someone else. And some people will not like limits.

      From conservation biology one will learn that you cannot manage nature, you can only (at best) manage human behavior. Managing human behavior is really why we organized ourselves into societies in the first place, and in getting us away from “Might Makes Right”.

      Do you think describing the circumstances under which these kinds of problems might be solvable would be useful?

      • Meditor

        Lovely! For good or ill: you mention war as being involuntary (I was drafted during Vietnam; I know all the pressures there are to help you “want” to do what they require), but list “law” as way of enforcing good behavior. Like religion, law can be used for good or ill, and frankly, it’s a very mixed bag in the real world, isn’t it?
        I think before we can begin to save the world (we can not save the world in the sense we wish; it is already degrading too quickly, but we can save some things), we need to understand the problem fully.
        It isn’t only just now that we want to control the behavior of others to what we see to be the common good; history is full of great orators and great legislators who accomplished to a high degree their idea of saving the world (Hitler springs to mind).
        During WWII, when saving the world was saving Britain, the danger was imminent and obvious and the population was well motivated. The government used all the tools we discuss: it pushed the “stiff upper lip” theme; it conducted drives not only to collect materials for war, but to encourage social cohesiveness; it passed laws and made local wardens responsible for the enforcement. It worked amazingly well.
        Here is our problem now, relative to those strategies: the danger is imminent, but not obvious; many people are motivated to deny the death of the planet. Further, it isn’t one nation, it is many different nations and cultural groups, some of whom have and won’t have less, and some of whom have never had and wait to have. War worked for this purpose because there was a face, someone to hate: the Boche. They had a demonic ruler and even more demonic and disreputable friends. We have: carbon.
        I’m certain you are familiar with Joseph Tainter, who studies complexity, or social structure, in empires. I join Tainter in believing that a controlled, sustainable global society would be hell on Earth. There would be no free person, no growth or development of any kind could be allowed. Are you also familiar with the late Albert Bartlett, who coined the term “sustainable development” as an oxymoron: something that can’t exist?
        Finally, your reference to involuntary participation in war touches on the real issue: social structure. Social structure is a very complex subject, and includes the individual and all the layers of organization between the individual and the global society. We might image in cell in a body. The cell has no idea of the body, because it is responsible for just its job, and it regards only the cells around it and its flow of chemicals. If the cell gets cancer, it might kill the entire body, but in general, the cell will live and die and be unaware of the true nature of the body, and likewise when it dies the body, and the brain and consciousness it generates, will be unaware if its death, unless as pesky dandruff. That’s us.
        To “save the world” we have to get all the cells of the body on board. Even the body can’t do that. As you get older you’ll discover just how many systems we have that can go wrong.
        If you start saving the world by reducing population to 1 billion and scattering them to the winds, the job will be much easier. If you allow the population to get to 9 or even 11 billion, there is no chance short of a dystopia; at which point the end is merely delayed while the planet is thoroughly drained of the resources of life. Even soylent green will eventually cease to be a usable resource as toxins accumulate.
        As I mentioned in a previous discussion, I think, or rather intuit, that less than 10% of the population defecting, refusing in a significant way to participate, would eventually collapse the entire social structure. This is because, to maintain such strict control over population and resource use, there would be a tremendous cost to the system. Think the old Soviet Union going down because of Afghanistan.
        Should we discuss it? You bet! But, it’s not going to be warm and fuzzy.

        • Rob Harding

          Great comment, Meditor. As somewhat of a starting point when considering the question “where do we go from here?”, do you agree with promoting a voluntary reduction of the global population to 1-2 billion? Presumably this would be driven by educational programs, somewhat like those provided by Population Media Center, focused on shifting cultural norms about family size toward 1-child (or no child) families. Obviously there are many other factors to consider, but that seems like an important one that deserves its own discussion. Thanks.

        • Tormod V. Burkey

          Wonderful. These are among the considerations I would like us to have a concerted think about. And see if we can move the post a bit rather than just spinning in circles inside our own heads. It is hard to think about something constructively without some kind of solid foundation, and knowing what tools we have at our disposal. I like Archimedes: give me a firm point on which to stand and a long enough lever and I can move the world.

  • Penelope Canan

    I think you’re absolutely right to emphasize institutional change. In that light, we should learn the lessons of ozone layer protection. This was an experiment in global governance that worked. The Montreal Protocol, itself brilliantly crafted, succeeded through the collaborative committees from each ozone-depleting industrial sector (aerosols, solvents, foams, refrigeration, etc.), peopled by sector experts that spanned industry (50%), government (25%), and the academy & NGOs (25%). The technical committee reports of the combined Technology and Economic Assessment Committee (TEAP) were not screened/edited by governments; they stood on their own legs with virtual peer review accomplished by professional associations. The parties to the treaty installed every policy suggestion of the TEAP over the decades of periodic review and amendment, as they still do today. The “most successful environmental treaty in history” (Anan) was/is literally a new institution for global governance by expert networks. That’s a powerful model.

    • Tormod V. Burkey

      Thank you.

      Yes, Montreal Protocol was good. But ozone was much easier than climate and biodiversity, or even fisheries. And partly they got lucky. Though perhaps we are not quite out of the woods yet… Regulating ozone depleting substances would seem a lot easier, and less fraught, than managing (internationally) such things as land use, consumption and population size, fossil fuel use, diets, recreational activities and lifestyles, economic systems… (All those behaviors and systems that impact “our” forests and oceans, rivers, savannahs, deserts and tundra, our atmosphere, our co-inhabitants of this planet, “our” future, and our every-daily lives.)

      There are a number of reasons the agreement on ozone depleting substances (the Montreal Protocol) was obtainable, and many of these will not apply in other agreements. For instance, the consequences of not passing an agreement on ozone depleting substances was directly linked to increased illness and death from cancer, an illness with particularly high, and directly measurable, social and monetary costs. The costs related to taking action was tiny compared to the estimated benefits. In fact, for the United States (and other rich countries), the immediate benefit of acceding to the Montreal Protocol exceeded the costs by a wide margin, irrespective of the behavior of other countries. Consequently, it also made monetary sense for rich countries to offer payments to poorer countries to participate in the agreement. A technical solution existed and a number of the large producers of CFCs (like the Du Pont corporation) were posed to make good money on the production of substitutes, and improvements were continually and rapidly being made in both the production of substitutes and in driving down costs. The changes made sense in economic terms for some of the largest producers, like the United States. Perhaps the Montreal negotiations were helped also by the fact that they occurred at a time when our societies were less impacted by neoliberalist laissez faire ideology and had more respect for science. The same approach will not work on all problems, so the design of and the success of a given treaty will depend on the nature of the underlying problems, as well as the acumen of the negotiators.

      Scott Barrett spends a lot of time on Montreal in his writing, as a contrast to other agreements, as a way of directing attention to what works and under what circumstances. The lessons he has taken from his studies, as well as the efforts to develop an explanatory and mechanistic body of theory, are well worth studying.

      Part of the difficulty in asking “Can we save the world?” is that each “chapter” is an entire field of study in itself, or several—in interaction. 🙂 :'(

      • Meditor

        Note: all successful changes require that those who make money continue to make money. I think as long as we are required to work within capitalism we will only ever push the wrinkle around on the rug.
        Can we save the world if corporations have to be satisfied first?

  • Reed Shapiro

    Lots of great thoughts, insights, leads and inputs here. Tormond, sending you an email in the meantime, but this question of, “How?” to me comes down to education – or lack there of it.

    Any well informed/enlightened/objectively educated person will be able to come up with, or communicate, or understand, or begin to act on certain solutions that if all taken together fit the bill of a larger-scale, global shift to the tune of what’s needed. From what I’ve learned over the past several years of following these subjects (environmental degradation, desertification, poverty, food waste and inequality, class and race “relations”, geo-politics, species extinction, etc.) is that most people in the world – just like is referenced in the article – cannot be bothered, and therefore are uneducated.

    If you can synthesize not only the information and the conclusion that information yields – the “we have a problem and this is what it is and how it will effect us all, in these ways, etc.” – and put it out there to people in a way that is very easily disseminated and accessed, AND simultaneously provide real solutions that are EASILY actionable at every level of this chain – i.e. in westernized, developed countries, as well as developing and least developed countries, at different levels of society, for each of the issues in parenthesis above, that’s HOW you get people more engaged, and that’s HOW you can actually move the dial.

    Whoever said in here that politicians won’t move without the people was totally right, but then we have this issue of the issues won’t move without the people – hence the question of HOW do we get the people to move the issues – it comes town to awareness and simplicity. If it’s not simple enough for a (sorry to say it) really simple person to say, “Yeah, sure why not.” or, “Oh, yeah got it now, cool,” then you can’t expect the magnitude of change/adoption to happen.

    Great Transition Communication Blitz sounds interesting, Andrew, I have envisioned something similar – that would bring experts or successful, believable figures in various industries and sectors who the average person would trust prima-facie together to not only shed light in a way that is digestible on what THEY do, and provide solutions in isolation, but for them to come together with people of vastly different backgrounds, i.e. an atmospheric physicist and a fashion designer, for example, so they can potentially shed light on something else that could provide a new lens with which to view a certain issue…. if that group can cut through the fat and begin to drill down what’s worked for them and tease out ways of how it can work for everyone else, you’ve created a platform that is a nexus, or hub for top-of-the-line communication and ideation, and if you can get that out to everyone in a way that is easily accessible that gets the education-nut greased up to be improved.

    I firmly believe that if there is a true general understanding of how the problems are dealt with (the solutions exist as many of you have pointed out) the rest becomes much easier to work with. People have a true (perhaps) general understanding of the problems, they’ve been blasted and blasted and blasted with that info… it’s time for the same to be done about what the solutions are… once we have that the how outlines itself for each person who learns and considers that solution.

    • Tormod V. Burkey

      Thanks for this, Reed, and thanks for the e-mail. I will get to it!

      I certainly feel you when it comes to needing critical mass behind an intervention, and how hamstrung and frustrated we are when we don’t have it.

      We certainly seem to need a more educated public.

      A number of challenges I see with continued calls for education:

      In public discourse information is often mistaken for knowledge, and even knowledge has to be structured in a certain way to enable action. (And a lot of other conditions apply.) And we are swamped with information. You need knowledge, insight and wisdom. You need a mental/structural framework in which to fit the information in order to make sense of it, and something more again in order to act upon it. And to have critical mass a lot of people have to internalize the same knowledge, insight and wisdom. Personally, I think a good Ethics (values, if you like) is critical. In a strung out every-day life, everybody is exposed to different inputs, so how can one promote a certain amount of “collective consciousness”?

      NGOs and others have been calling for, and working on, educating the masses for as long as anyone can remember.

      Education is an open-ended proposition. I am educated to within an inch of my life, and I still cannot do much. Obviously, very many people are “educated”. Will those we “educate” still find themselves hamstrung, dejected and impotent? (I use the term “we” very lightly here, because everyone has to educate themselves, it is not a passive process. I don’t think it is not something you can be given.)

      If you take it upon yourself to educate the masses, all your opponents have to do is pretend they are still not educated…

      In a democracy every participating individual is ultimately responsible for ensuring that they are educated/enlightened enough to make responsible decisions. Of course, if you are not educated, you don’t know what it is to be educated. And, again, it is an open ended thing…

      It is much less likely that education is the answer if you are up against the clock. One of the reasons I never wanted to teach was a feeling that those we teach would come too late to the fight. Whom can we educated that will be in a position to make a difference?

      What about those who are already educated/enlightened? Are they able to save the world? If they cannot, because they need more people to be educated, how many will it take? How soon? Are there critical subsets of the general public that need to be reached? Which ones?

      Franklin D. Roosevelt once said to a group of petitioners from his own party: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.”

      Is there anybody out there today that could do something if we tried to make them? Could we get to a point where somebody (some subset of us, some institution, or other, or the collective “we”) was able to do something?

      • Reed Shapiro

        A good and fair counterpoint. It ends up as a matter of contextualization of education then, I guess. I knew there were problems, but it was only once I was able to put them in context of one another that I understood how twisted some processes and normalized systems are, and that I was right in the middle of a lot of them, contributing to a lot of them, and that they were touching me.

        You are definitely right, having information, even good information is not necessarily enough to kickstart an individual – and the motivation to do something always comes from within, unless forced, which isn’t the right way to go about this exercise in the first place.

        People aren’t going to move unless they have some impetus, be it personal, financial, or social. The moral appeals and arguments that work for some might not work on others who need to see a financial justification. My point is that “All roads lead to Rome,” in a certain sense. For any argument, or reason for not acting immediately, there is an equal line of logic and evidence showing that non-action results in the very personal, financial, or moral deficit any one person would normally hope to avoid.

        Detailing easy to follow narratives, which show not only doom & gloom (which is a majority of what people see when looking at the climate discussion – no wonder many are turned off), but legitimate ways forward that are equally easy for individuals to engage in/with, and then making those pathways readily available could be how you get people engaged. If there were chart showing the economies of scale achieved if greater and greater volumes of solar panels are brought on line – “that show for every million homes that use rooftop, this is how much the cost can come down,” for example, that to me seems to be the type of information that can spark mobilization.

        One can read about a hydrogen car, or Solar City, or about how a community in Africa is adapting its fishing practices to deal with over-fishing, but unless the info they get, and the options they see answer the question, “what does this mean for ME, how does it benefit or hurt ME, what can I do when I just get up, go to work, come home, eat, go to sleep?” there’s not much they’re likely going to do, nor can do.

        I may be wrong, and am happy to hear why, but the way I see short term action is not through sweeping policy because sweeping policy doesn’t really exist (it took over 20 years to get Paris signed, and that’s still not enough), but rather through people having a solid enough understanding of what’s to come paired with an actionable set of tools, even if they’re minute in isolation, that they can also understand that by doing this little thing, I am contributing to a much large solution when you look at the aggregate.

        Without some basic understood premise, I fear individuals will always come back to this question of, “Why do I care?” and if they’re stuck on that, the follow up of, “Why should I act?” is not far behind.

        This is why I think thought and solution networks, could be a valuable part of the “How.” Without networks that can penetrate different lines of thought – networks which house many different lines of reasoning at the poles, but that all draw on a central principle or conclusion – without being to draw these different factions together, even if loosely, how do you get the Democrat and Republican to see eye to eye, or the least developed and industrialized? In order for a player to play their role, they need to understand it.

        • Tormod V. Burkey

          Too bad there is not a “Like button” on this platform. Much to like here, and the aspects and approaches you raise would certainly be an integral part of any exploration of the question “Can we save the World?”. (See also part 2, coming on Tuesday, December 20, 2016).

          My question is still: How? And why are we not doing it, in an coherent manner? Many individuals and organizations putting in a lot of effort. Networks! (Also think tanks, task forces, campaigns, etc.) Many networks in place, though they could certainly be more effective and better directed, more powerful and better at leveraging further actions. Recall that there are also networks and a multitude of forces pulling in opposite or disparate directions. What would it take to be successful? Can we do it? In time? I would be more comfortable with an outline of necessary and sufficient actions (including “processes” to undertake), but as part of “actions” I would look for all those other (“lesser”) actions that are necessary and sufficient for making the overarching actions happen.

  • Tormod V. Burkey

    If we know the “what”, but not the “how”, we are still stuck. For every proposed action or necessary outcome, whether it be stopping bottom-trawling, or habitat destruction, or over-fishing, or restoring atmospheric carbon concentrations and human population size to acceptable levels, the follow-up question is “How?” How do you get other people and nations to do what they may not want to do, or at least feel precluded from doing? And in all such issues, timing is critical.

  • Andrew Gaines

    Hi Turmod,

    I think your question has already been answered. One of the
    better books is Lester Brown’s Plan B 4.0
    – Mobilizing to Save Civilization. It covers the major dimensions
    of environmental degradation, and not only outline solutions, but works out the
    cost of implementing the solutions (it comes to a fraction of the United States
    military budget).

    Amory Lovins’ Natural
    Capitalism outlines design strategies that can reduce energy use and
    material throughput by 90% or more. He gives many practical examples.

    Geoff Mosley’s Steady
    State Alternative to Endless Economic Growth makes it clear that industrially-based
    economic growth is destroying the planet. We must embrace materially modest
    lifestyles and transition to a steady state economy.

    And at many other levels people are working on solutions.
    Solutions abound.

    The key missing ingredient for the entire
    environment/progressive movement is … public will. I think that it is clear
    that we must change the direction of our entire global civilisation if we are
    to pull out of our ecological nosedive. This can only occur if we inspire
    thoughtful passionate public will for the necessary transformative changes. The
    continuation of business as usual will kill us.

    Putting this idea into action, I invite you to check out

    The Great Transition communication Blitz will be throughout
    March 2017. As many individuals and organisations as possible will all communicate
    about how we can transition to a life-sustaining society, rather than
    continuing on our present course of ecological self-destruction. Everything needed
    to act as a communicator is on the website, including sample emails, guerrilla marketing
    ideas, and a manual for conducting Kitchen Table
    Conversations. We have a growing global network.

    Aligned, but acting autonomously, we can become a powerful
    force for transformative change. If this approach makes sense to you, please
    play a role.

    • Tormod V. Burkey

      Thank you! I shall certainly explore these books and initiatives in greater detail, and expand my own little personal library (though I already have at least “Plan B”, and a whole collection on Steady State Economics). Though one is commonly left with as many questions as answers. Perhaps that is necessarily the case. I should like to see such thinking compiled in a way that it is accessible to engaged people as a unitary body of thought. It is hard to create a common body of knowledge, or a collective consciousness, when it spread out all over in bits and pieces, and nobody has read the same works. I have my own thoughts in my book, and so do multitudes, in more or less accessible form. What I would like to do is get some people who have worked on aspects of these issues (more on that in Part 2) and get them together to produce something together and move the post a bit… Of course we cannot cover everything in one effort, but perhaps we can pull more stuff together in a more actionable and “localized” form.

      Quoting from Skinner: “Traditional explanations of why we are doing so little are familiar. It is said that we lack responsibility for those who will follow us, that we do not have a clear perception of the problem, that we are not using our intelligence, that we are suffering from a failure of will, that we lack moral strength, and so on. Unfortunately, explanations of that sort simply replace one question with another. Why are we not more responsible or more intelligent? Why are we suffering from a failure of will?”

      And can we do anything about it? Can we chose the approaches that can get us there in time? If so, how?

  • Thanks for writing this insightful and challenging essay Tormod. Audacious and challenging.

    “Is it possible to get humanity to take necessary and sufficient action
    in time? Where the deadline is perhaps uncertain? If not, what
    institutions are needed?”

    We can imagine this problem on different levels. One is how we individually and collectively deal with stress. When systems are breaking down or we know that break-down is immanent, This causes psychological and social stress. Our reaction to this stress is what determines whether we survive the effects of the stressor.

    The problem here is that it is very likely that our reactions to the stressor will actually make things worse, so much worse that they can destroy the institutions and practices that help us to survive. This is no idle thought. We are presently witnessing the rise of Authoritarianism and Fascism around the globe. We can see this as a reaction to economic stress, for instance, the global financial crisis of 2008 and it’s aftermath.

    Now let’s look at this problem from a global economic level. The economic system depends on Earth’s ecosystems. The discovery, and utilization of fossil fuels has allowed the economic system to grow beyond the bounds of the Earth’s systems to support it. Collapse is immanent. Evidence is the acceleration of Climate Change, the intensification of species decline, and the stalling of growth in the Global Economy.

    If we look at this from the point of view of God or Nature it will be fixed in a hundred million years, just as happened in the great extinctions of the past. What’s more, from this ridiculously wide perspective, the faster our economic system collapses the better for the bio-systems.

    From the human point of view, it boils down to understanding how we will survive. Encouraging Fascism, and other forms of Authoritarianism, and full-speed-ahead Capitalism led by Big Oil risks a more precipitous collapse. The world will eventually recover but civilization will not.

    Any attempt to increase resilience on a local or a national scale could be swamped by the effects of economic collapse – Authoritarianism, non-state and state terrorism, piracy, wars, warlordism, mass hysteria, the breakdown of public health and the return of pandemics, the list is depressingly long.

    The best way to deal with stress is often to control the parts of the situation that we actually have an influence over. In this case we are talking about the social and the political. We can share our concerns and try to understand the situation and the possible scenarios together. But at some point, I believe, we will be forced to develop political or religious ideological approaches, as a means of dealing with stress. We need to develop ideologies in order to inspire and mobilize people on a mass scale and most importantly in order to cope with and process the amount of stress that we will be facing. Collapse is inevitable. It is how we respond to it that matters in the end.

    • Tormod V. Burkey

      Thank you! And indeed!

      Though, I must say, that, personally, my motivation is not for the survival of the human species. Appeals to utility for humans, or warnings of dire consequences to humanity itself, do not work for me. And it is clear that a lot of anthropocentric arguments are not adequate for getting us to solve even “simple matters”, like poverty and humanitarian crises. Some might even question the logic of doing so (e.g. if poverty is a relative state, then some will always be “poor”, and crises will always be a factor of the human condition.)

      And in certain scenarios it is not clear that “the world will recover”. And personally, I care about the species that are here now, and am unwilling to let humanity continue its relentless attrition of them. Of course, we cannot freeze the biosphere in time, but we can aspire to halting, and even reversing, our destruction of it. If we are in fact able to “save the world”, then we have a choice.

      Several works have been written recently on the psychology of stress and cognitive dissonance, and barriers to action, or even solid reasoning or absorption of facts. Much on motivated reasoning, and on what works and what doesn’t in terms of motivating us to action and to making real change. And, yes, political or religious ideological approaches to inspire and mobilize people. I might call it a working Ethics. But there is always the “How?” There is such a thing as “too late”, and that realization must always be factored in…

      • I don’t think that you can argue in any convincing way what you are implying: that there is a more important goal than saving humankind. Nature has taken care of itself up to our appearance, and it will take care of itself after we leave the scene. It might take a hundred million years for biodiversity to come back, but it has before from more extreme disasters in the far past.

        If you are seriously arguing that saving the Earth’s biodiversity is more important than saving humanity, you should then be supporting Donald Trump and Exxon in their bid to accelerate oil exploration and extraction. The faster we get this thing over the faster biodiversity will recover. You should be supporting anything that would lead to WW III, because it will get the job done faster.

        Furthermore, the sooner the global economy goes into contraction, the better, from the point of view of the biosphere. There is nothing that would be more effective than global economic collapse to save biodiversity, and the more precipitous the decline the better.

        And from the point of view of biodiversity, what is time? A million years, a hundred million years is a fraction of the time that life has been on Earth. Time, in terms of months, years, centuries is only meaningful to humans. It comes back to human purpose, as it always has to. How many people do you think you can convince or influence arguing that biodiversity is more important than humanity? The reason biodiversity is important is because it supports humanity. If we lose it we will go together with it. We are tied-up in this. You cannot coherently argue for biodiversity over humans, to other humans. Why should they take your argument seriously? You are basically writing them out of the picture. Who is your audience?

        • Tormod V. Burkey

          It is not up to me to write anyone out of the picture. May I still retain my personal ethics and values?

          • Ethics and values are part of social discourse. To value the non-human over the human ends social discourse.

          • Tormod V. Burkey

            I think I can participate in the social discourse no matter what my values are. Would you rather I keep my values secret? For strategic reasons, perhaps?

          • If you appeal to non-human values, it’s a conversation stopper. How can one answer or challenge your values without themselves appealing to human values? Or you can deceive yourself and others by not seeing what really follows from your premises, ie., that the world would be better-off if humans went extinct, and the faster the better.

          • Tormod V. Burkey

            Actually, I speak about my values and ethics for strategic reasons. Because I want to embolden, energize and mobilize those who feel the same way as I do, and to let them (and others) know that that is a perfectly acceptable way to feel. Hopefully, we, too, may be part of any solution. If saving the world enables Homo sapiens to have a long existence as a species, then fine. It is just not what motivates me, personally.

          • Strategic thinking eh? Perhaps I should be doing that too. I admit that I am very much pulled in the direction of valuing biodiversity, the Deists would call it God’s magnificent creation. I go along with Lovelock, in thinking that the biosphere will eventually recover, as it always has previously. It would just be really great if we were there to see it happen. If we are also a part of the biosphere, we need to learn how to adapt to the consequences of our actions in order to stay there. Humans tend to overreact to crisis, but we can settle down if we keep ourselves well-informed. What is happening right now is that anxiety is being channeled into Authoritarianism, and Truth and Scientific Knowledge are becoming the casualties. My faith is in humanity but we have to keep the flame of inquiry going, we can never let it be snuffed out.

          • Tormod V. Burkey

            “Like”. (Sorry, not Facebook features on this platform…)

            As I mentioned, I am not sure the biosphere will “recover”. Certainly not to anything like what it has been. Run-away climate change resulting in Earth becoming much like Venus is just one scenario. And the species we lose every day will certainly not recover. And my love of orcas, snow leopards, sharks, praying mantises, Sequoia, slime molds, salamanders, Blue-Fin Tuna, giant clams, etc. etc. etc. is what motivates me to keep up the struggle (although constantly on the edge of despair, and not very effectively; I also still love and lament the Tasmanian Tiger, the Passenger Pigeon, Ivory-billed and Imperial Wood-Peckers, Carolina Parakeets, etc. etc. etc.). Perhaps there are many like me who feel that this is a more powerful motivation. Why sacrifice for someone just like yourself, that you don’t love? (Of course, humanists can still engage for the sake of others, but perhaps usually only while the cost to themselves and their family and friends remain negligible (?)—or they can find some kind of win-win…)

            Sorry, trying not to give up all the elements of my book, but one of the reasons I appeal to a non-anthropocentric ethic (aside from the fact that I feel non-anthropocentrism is “right”) is that “animal-lovers” love “someone” who is suffering the brunt of humanity’s depredations in the here and now. We don’t have to wait for the future to feel the consequences, and hence may be more likely to fight for our loved ones before it is too late. We can actually “know them” in the here and now. While I can love other species even as a “concept”, I cannot love humanity as an impersonal abstract. And because of the things humans do to my loved ones, my empathy is not highly developed either.

          • Rob Harding

            Thank you Tormod and Charles for your comments here, and thank you Tormod for writing this piece. I look forward to reading part 2. Tormod, I have just one comment to add for now – I particularly like your presentation of the non-anthropocentric ethic as a motivator for timely, collective action.

          • Tormod V. Burkey


          • James Hoggan’s book “I’m Right You’re an Idiot” is really pertinent here. The public discourse is being polluted by polarization and fake news creating widespread mistrust about issues like global warming. We have to take that mistrust into account, the fact is, most people are not listening. acknowledge the skepticism but patiently make a plausible case. When we are provoked we let ourselves be controlled by our opponents. We need to see the strength’s and values in our opponents views.

          • Tormod V. Burkey

            Actually, I speak about my values and ethics for strategic reasons. Because I want to embolden, energize and mobilize those who feel the same way as I do, and to let them (and others) know that that is a perfectly acceptable way to feel. Hopefully, we, too, may be part of any solution.

  • Eric Rimmer

    There are two essential actions to “saving the world”

    First is to arrest and reverse human population growth.
    Second is to renounce economic growth and develop steady-state economies.

    The first is absolutely and arithmetically dependent on universal one-child families.
    The second needs a wholesale change in economics education.

    Neither of these two is likely – and there are other problems too.
    But these two are totally essential.

    Our ability to turn these thoughts into mainstream thinking is minuscule, but that does not absolve us of of the moral duty to tell everyone – ASAP.

    All other discussion – including the above “Can We Save the World” is just fluff.

    • jason brent

      Dear Eric: You are absolutely correct. If anyone whats to know more about the problems facing humanity and the coming elimination of the human species from the face of the earth in the very near future due to the exploding population and the impossibility of continuing economic growth, please contact me at and I will be very happy to send to you some very interesting essays. Jason G. Brent

    • Tormod V. Burkey

      The question is not so much “What?”, as “How?”

      • Rob Harding

        Hi Tormod. I have one observation to share. Technically, I think the terms “What” and “How” need to be clarified. Allow me to explain.

        First, I think it’s clear that you have defined “What” as “Saving the World”. That’s understandable, but “Saving the World” seems too vague to be the ultimate objective. Assuming that the approach that’s more likely than the alternative to be widely accepted is an approach that includes trying to prevent human extinction, the two “essential actions” that Eric Rimmer presented appear to be an appropriately defined 2-part objective. To further this point, I think it’s incredibly important for the ultimate objective (i.e. the “What”) to be clearly defined. That is where I disagree with your comment to which I am replying, at least in part — the “What?” question seems to be just as important as the “How?” question since the “How?” question cannot be answered before first answering the “What?” question.

        Second, similar to how I proposed replacing the term “What” with “Objective”, I’m proposing that the term “How” be replaced with the term “Strategy”. Of course, ultimately the terminology doesn’t really matter. These are simply the synonymous terms in my thoughts so I’m sharing them. Answering the “How?” question (or the “Strategy?” question to use my newly proposed term) seems like it needs to be done in layers. Layer 1 could be something consistent with Eric Rimmer’s points. For part 1 of the objective (i.e. arrest then reverse human population growth), this would be developing and communicating a unified message globally that one child families (or no child families) are a necessity, at least temporarily with said temporary period of time not needing to be determined at this time. For part 2 of the objective (i.e. renouce economic growth and develop steady-state economies), this would include overhauling economics education and also likely promoting a transition to a world of Not-For-Profit entities (like the economy envisioned by the Post Growth Institute, to give them due credit). Additional layers could then be added which would provide a progressively more granular level of detail, and when all the layers have been documented to an agreed upon level of specificity then we would have the answer along with a stategic action plan.

        That’s how I think of answering both of these important questions. I appreciate any input or feedback.

        • Tormod V. Burkey

          To clarify, my “how?” was more directed at the proposed “solutions”. It is natural, once you have asked (and answered?) “can we save the world?” to say, “Okay, how?” (provided the answer was in the affirmative). Some might say you have to arrest and reverse human population growth. Here is where I would come in and say, “Okay, how?”. Once I was convinced that was part of the “what?” (i.e. what it is that we have to do.) To me, a lot of what is proposed as a “solution” is not a solution, until I know how we will get humanity to actually do it. That last part is an integral part to any real solution. No implementation, no solution.

          Yes, “strategy” or even “process” may be part of how we get something done.

          Exactly, these are layers. For most proposed “solutions”, or actions, the next question is “how?”. And down you go into the rabbit hole, asking “how?” at every level. Until the answer is trivial. Perhaps impractical. But we are not doing so well with what we have been doing.

          • Rob Harding

            Thanks Tormod. That makes sense, and I agree. I’m viewing the first necessary step in answering the “how?” question as identifying the “Layer 1” solutions, for which I proposed Eric’s 2 suggestions. Before proceeding to the next layer of “how?”, I think it’s important for a general consensus to be sought regarding the “Layer 1” solutions, primarily because of how high-level these proposed solutions are. Assuming that “Layer 1” solutions like these would receive a broad consensus, I could see the subsequent layer(s) of solutions being determined at more of a country- or region-specific level.

          • Tormod V. Burkey

            Yes. Incredible amounts of noise when raising issues about human population size. How does one get beyond the disinformation, the things people think they know that just aren’t so, the appeal to flawed authorities, people’s inability to separate the chaff from the wheat, good presenters (I won’t mention names…) who don’t know their own limitations but get people to buy flawed arguments, etc. etc. etc…

          • Rob Harding

            All good questions that need to be addressed. Thanks Tormod. Like most issues of sufficient complexity, there is no single silver bullet solution. Highlighting our societal addiction to growth as well as the the connection between (1) existing human overpopulation, (2) continued unmanageable population growth, and (3) overexploitation of resources, and the symptoms that these issues cause is essential. It’s akin to first communicating to a patient that they are sick with a specific illness before exploring how this illness can be addressed and eventually eliminated. I think we need to more widely agree on what the illness is before proceeding with addressing it. One place of focus, as an example, is applying pressure on environmental NGOs to change their messaging to include this connection between human population issues and the many downstream symptoms their organizations have a stated mission to address. Another example is using more than just words to communicate – one example being art. Artwork provides an opportunity to communicate about major issues that can’t necessarily be described nor understood through words alone, and is also a format that can promote cross-generational engagement. I’m currently working on organizing a global street art mural project that’s focused on highlighting these issues, especially human overpopulation & unsustainable consumption. One artist so far, London-based Louis Masai Michel, is already interested in pursuing this, so the next step is securing funding. For this my goal is to earn Australian businessman & philanthropist Dick Smith’s $1 million Wilberforce Award which is an award intended to help support work on these issues. This mural project coupled with something like applying pressure on the UN to revise its messaging around human overpopulation as a root cause issue rather than as one symptom among many are a couple examples of things I’m working on. The more support the better!

  • Louie Farrell

    I feel that the more frequently people hear about this question, the less they think on it. We take everything in the world for granted and we don’t appreciate the gifts of nature. And I definitely think that everything is in our hands and there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

    Louie Farrel, Manager @ Smart Patio Cleaning Liverpool