Mother Pelican
A Journal of Solidarity and Sustainability

Vol. 13, No. 1, January 2017
Luis T. Gutiérrez, Editor
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Can We Save The World?

Tormod V. Burkey

This article was originally published in
Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere
13 December 2016
under a Creative Commons License

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

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?” due out this spring, 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.

Saving the World: How Do We Get Things Done?

Tormod V. Burkey

This article was originally published in
Millennium Alliance for Humanity and the Biosphere
20 December 2016
under a Creative Commons License

Snowy-owl by Bert de Tilly | Wikimedia | CC BY-SA 3.0

In our busy and fragmented lives, things have a way of slipping. Ordinary people, politicians, organizations, international bodies, bureaucrats, we all kind of muddle along, trying to keep up with our daily tasks, hoping against hope that the aggregate of our efforts will somehow, magically, produce good overall results. Everyone is too busy to do their job properly. In the words of Raymond Dasmann (1975): “nobody is at the wheel.” And perhaps human frailties are such that nobody could, or should be, in charge. But we would still like to do well the things that we want to do. So how do we get things done when we need to?

Like poverty breeds myopia and short-termism, the broader view is often the first casualty in a hectic life. Even among those engaged full time in efforts to save the environment, few dare take a hard look at how much we really achieve. One would like humanity to really make a concerted effort, to take a deep and brutally honest look for real solutions. And by “solutions” I mean a set of necessary and sufficient steps that are actually implemented; not only the changes needed, but how we can get them implemented. How do we get humanity to actually take the necessary and adequate steps?

Interrelated Challenges

The climate crisis, biodiversity crisis, overfishing and other over-exploitation of natural resources and habitats, are all problems of a nature whereby we may suddenly, and perhaps unbeknown to us, cross a threshold that makes it too late to solve them. Extinction is forever. We wipe out other species at an unprecedented rate and have exceeded several other planetary boundaries. We do not know how or when the loss of individual species will manifest on the larger scale of ecosystem integrity and suitability for other life forms.

Can we fix the biodiversity crisis without fixing the climate crisis? Can we fix the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis without changing the economic system? Can we solve large problems given the weaknesses of our democracy? Can a weak democracy fix itself? Can we build better institutions within the existing framework or do we need to go beyond the existing framework? Can smaller questions like overfishing/over-harvesting, invasive species, strife and poverty be fixed without fixing the larger problems of climate, biodiversity crisis, economic crisis, population crisis, institutional crises, and the weaknesses of our current (democratic) model? Can you save one species, without saving a host of other species that it interacts with, and solving the problems of habitat loss and over-exploitation?

Choosing What We Care About

Finding real solutions depends on what you are willing to do. Which, in turn, depends on how desperate you are, and how severe you perceive the situation to be. Great problems are not to be taken lightly. Nor can one blindly hope that things will, somehow, turn out OK, and keep plodding along as before.

This is partly a question of values. Our ethics. In the absence of a God that gives value to things, we all have to choose what it is that we care about.

Barriers to Action

Checks and balances were built into our systems so major upheaval (and abuses of power) would not occur, but in the kinds of problems addressed here you actually need some major action to be taken at times. In the internet age power seems to be more decentralized and fragmented than ever before. Power is relative. By one definition, power is the ability to get someone to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do. When everyone has power, no one has power. Powers cancel each other out, unless one party can forge larger alliances than others. Such alliances can be unwieldy and flighty. With an increasing number of checks and balances, and a growing number of micro-powers, paralysis and inaction may easily result.

The dysfunctionality of the US political landscape might convince anybody of the futility of concerted action, and international cooperation is certainly no easier. You get three people in a room together, and typically they can’t agree on anything.

It is hard for anyone to act unilaterally. Unilateral action is much more expensive (and perhaps impossible), than to act as part of a larger group. In the absence of global consensus, can one start in smaller groupings while exploiting mechanisms that encourage others to join in?

Does a Solution Exist?

Can we ever know what is necessary and sufficient? Perhaps it is easier to just start doing something. And hoping that of all the independent and uncoordinated efforts something will pan out. But is it really wise to proceed without asking whether what we are doing is adequate, or at least thinking about how it can be scaled up to meaningful proportions?

A solution is not a solution unless it is implemented. We need to know not only what is needed, but how we get humanity to actually do it. Like Archimedes, we need a firm point on which to stand and a long enough lever to move the world.

When mathematicians are working on a particularly difficult problem, they sometimes try to show whether or not a solution exists at all before trying to find it. This can be a very powerful exercise.

What do we know?

What are the problems we need to overcome to enable humanity to act? 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. Each chapter in such a book should compile what we know about each set of mechanisms that make saving the world difficult in practice. Presenting what we know in each of the related fields and brainstorming around the issues should help us make some progress towards finding ways of getting around these obstacles.

Subtopics for analysis/book chapters might include:

•  Why are we not acting to save the world?

•  How to make good international agreements.

•  Acting unilaterally in a connected world.

•  Our current democratic system: designed so nothing much will change, so what do you do when something really needs to change? Can a weak democracy fix itself?

•  Our future democratic system: What are the characteristics of a system that works when you need it to? Democracy is a matter of degree, not simply that you have it or you don’t. What measures can we put in place to improve our democracy?

•  War-time economies and how we got things done when we needed to. Are any of the tools from war-time and states of emergency applicable for us now?

•  An international system that works: What is needed in (a) super-national institution(s) to save the world?

•  Time constraints: Can we make it in time? How to deal with irreversible damage and systems with break points, tipping points and positive feed-back loops.

•  Everyone doing their little bit: What if there are not enough doing it? Can we get enough people involved in time? How could you ever know what is necessary and sufficient?

•  Is inter-disciplinary research/collaboration possible? What models work best for teams that want to get things done?

•  Can we get society to use the knowledge and the experience that we already have?

•  Can we plan in complex systems? If complexity, unknown unknowns, social contagion, accidents of history, punctuated equilibrium, and our proneness to a diversity of fallacies limit our power to predict, what hope is there for planning?

•  Super wicked problems and general approaches to solving them. What do we know about how to solve super wicked problems?

•  Process versus results: if you can’t plan for results, does the uncoordinated, multipronged, decentralized, unplanned, trial and error approach actually make sense?

•  What role is there for the legal system, international or domestic? Law is usually pretty conservative. Can it lead?

•  A new economy: Are real solutions compatible with our current economic and monetary systems? What are the traits of an economic system where we actually could save the world?

•  Dealing with uncertainty: Can we act responsibly under uncertainty? Will science ever get to the point where politicians and bureaucrats will/can take meaningful action?

•  A role for coercion? How would it work? Are there feasible and acceptable ways to coerce our own populace, or that of other nations?

•  Trans-border problems. To what extent can a problem be effectively addressed within a single nation or other administrative boundary? What do we know to be useful when we have to solve trans-border or multinational problems?

•  Communication: How to communicate effectively for action. What do we know about social movements?

•  The strategic mindset: Tools for strategic and tactical organizing. How to win the battle and the war.

•  What difference does a problem make? Does the solution depend on the nature of the problem?

•  Interactive problems. Can we solve the different problems in isolation, when they are interdependent?

•  Technofixes: Is this all we can hope for?

•  Exploitable social tipping points in solutions. Can we use our knowledge of the dynamics of social systems to exploit the nature of tipping points and social trigger points in our quest for solutions?

•  A new story for our existence. Do we need a new narrative for humanity in order to make fundamental changes in our lives, communities and mentalities necessary to address root causes of the threats we are facing?

Anyone willing and able to help make Can We Save The World?, the seminar series/book, 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?” due out this spring, 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.

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