On Threats and How to Prevent Them

Threats that humanity faces today are planetary in scale. That and their menacing character require long-term thinking and preventive politics to deal with or, better yet, prevent them. This may require planetary governance that unites humanity for mutual protection.

by Jan Greguš, Masaryk University, Czech Republic 

Few would have believed five or ten years ago that this world could be ravaged so deeply by organisms tinier than a pinhead. With infinite complacency humans went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. Despite the plagues of the past, they paid no attention to scientists’ warnings about the potential for another lethal outbreak of pandemic scale. And then came the great disillusionment.

Despite our technological might and progress, despite our vast intellects, we were caught unprepared and paralyzed by the Covid-19 pandemic long forecasted by scientists. Many suffered. Many died. Many economies were ruined. Many businesses went bankrupt. We were not ready.

Just as we were not ready so many times throughout human history. Appeasing Hitler, the attack on Pearl Harbour, 9/11, and the Covid-19 pandemic are recent examples demonstrating our collective inability to imagine (and prepare for) new kinds of threats until it is too late. One cannot wonder at this; after all, we are still only humans.

In the case of this pandemic and some of the other events mentioned above, our leaders can perhaps be pardoned because they encountered these events for the first and only time in their lives, or because they had no expert forecasts. In other cases, long-term ills cannot be so readily pardoned.

How should history judge our current leaders, who have been warned for decades by experts about the many threats we now face, and yet have done basically nothing about them? Where they have tried to do something, they have mostly implemented surface-level solutions with no lasting effect. Or they worried over particulars and minor things, but ignored the main problem.

One clear example is human overpopulation. A plethora of scientific literature directly or indirectly links its particular challenges (deforestation, desertification, environmental degradation, pollution, increase in municipal waste, water scarcity, food insecurity) to the size of humanity. Yet this is repeatedly ignored, most recently in the Adaptation and Mitigation components of the IPCC’s Sixth Assessment Report on climate change.

Illegal deforestation for a palm oil plantation. Photo: ADPartners

Inspired by the great philosophical tradition, we should be seeking the fundamental causes of our ills. And if the science indicates that the vastness of humanity is a major cause of our environmental problems, we should be targeting our numbers. Because truly to solve particular problems, we must address what causes them in the first place.

Climate change, another symptom of overpopulation (as well as overconsumption) cannot be solved only by curbing emissions per person. If humanity is to overcome the existential challenge of climate change, we must curb emissions, but we must also curb fertility. Both are necessary. Just as to stop deforestation, we must not only plant new trees, we must also reduce the number of humans for whose needs or indulgences the trees are being cut down in the first place.

Preventive medicine and preventive politics

Another strong parallel lies in preventive medicine. The goal of preventive medicine consists in prophylaxis; that is, prevention of new problems and diseases. Preventive medicine has long held that it is better to prevent diseases from emerging than to cure them. Preventive medicine is a key part of staying ahead of diseases rather than running miles after them, offering expensive diagnostics and treatment. For that reason, it is more effective and cost-effective than treatment. It is also superior ethically, in that you reduce human suffering by preventing illness in the first place.

To prevent societal ills – from the pandemic to the overpopulation that fuels it to the lacklustre response that worsened it – from repeating, we now need what can be called preventive politics: a politics that prevents problems before they arise, or nips them in the bud quickly. This is to say, a politics that deals with the origin of diseases, not their symptoms. One that pays attention to expert forecasts and scientists’ warnings and acts accordingly. One that anticipates and eliminates such emerging threats. It is obvious that such politics require long-term and preventive thinking.

The difference between short-sighted politics and long-term politics can be illustrated by attitudes towards the environment. Short-sighted politics is willing to sacrifice environmental protection to earn votes. Long-term politics realizes these are temporary wins that may cost much more in the future. Long-term politics realizes that timely interventions are far cheaper in the long run, as we avoid additional costs later on. Long-term politics realizes that environmental protection is not only cost-effective and pragmatic, but also ethical, helping meet our ongoing ethical responsibilities towards future generations and all wild species with which we share this Earth.

Long-term politics realizes that while it is easier to postpone solving problems than start acting on them, this only makes problems worse. The more we postpone their solution, the more difficult and longer it will take us to solve them, if we don’t lose the opportunity to solve them altogether. Thus, we need to start acting now, not unfairly foist our problems onto the next generations and the biodiversity of the planet.

It would be easy to blame current leaders for their short-sightedness, but are they the ones truly to blame? Or is it the system that uses and consumes them (and sometimes recycles them) in four- to five-year terms? The problems, threats and ills discussed here cannot be solved within four- to five-year terms during which officials must keep appeasing those who elected them by reducing taxes, increasing benefits and doing everything possible not to lose their voters. Because of this need, they cannot take unpopular but necessary precautions. With the system as it is, politicians’ short-term assignments and obligations to voters mean they lack the ‘luxury’ to see the world long-term.

Surely, we can wish for great new leaders, Churchills with guts to solve the greatest challenges of our time, but should we not open ourselves to the possibility that a new systematic approach is necessary? Perhaps what we really need is another, long-term government following long-range visions and plans. A government with long-term perspective and strategy that would be able to distance itself from trivial matters and the transient affairs short-term governments must deal with, and thus be ready to solve our truly menacing problems. Such a government would see the bigger picture and act on it, thinking far beyond our own generation, our own era.

Planetary governance?

As the many threats and challenges we face (human overpopulation, climate change, environmental degradation, pollution, and others), are planetary in scale, so are the actions that must be taken to solve them. So there may be the need for a planetary government designed for long-term problem solving. In a world with no single government, nations are divided and compete with each other. They thus are unable or unwilling to take the measures necessary to act on problems that affect us collectively, before they become global in scale.

A General Assembly meeting at the United Nations. Photo: UN Photo/Manuel Elías

Is such a level of global cooperation and commitment possible? We can see so far that the United Nations, whose purpose was to unite us against common threats, has not been as effective as it needs to be. And here we are still talking about known threats. Surely there may be other, more menacing threats, whether viral, extra-terrestrial, or otherwise unknown, that we cannot yet fathom.

Given the historical experience we have as humanity, we should take as our main tenet that ignoring unlikely and seemingly unfathomable threats is unwise and brings terrible consequences. Thus, just as we practice preventive medicine with great success, we should practice preventive philosophy and preventive politics.

Preventive philosophy with its foresight and circumspection would help us to see the bigger picture, think long-term, anticipate threats, map possible scenarios and give recommendations for the future. At the same time, it might dissuade us from voting in populists who offer simple solutions to complex problems.

Preventive politics would act in the same spirit, working to prevent the next crisis, or even our own extinction. Shifting our focus to the origin of diseases over their symptoms allows us to get ahead of them and prevent them. If we ensured we were not so many steps behind, as we have been with Covid-19 and the climate crisis, we would have a greater chance of addressing the roots of these problems, before they cause immense harm.

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3 thoughts on “On Threats and How to Prevent Them

  1. The problem is the economic system that focuses on growth, “The Economic system must grow”
    Overpopulation is feared because the economic system must grow

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