While the title may sound overdramatic, it’s not. Political and community engagement from ordinary citizens will likely determine how humanity deals with several global challenges over the next few decades.
Civic engagement is important to ensure citizens have space to participate in community decision-making; consistent engagement from members of the community has been shown to improve problem-solving. Some suggest that it also guards against corruption and gradual accumulation of power by elites.
Humanity currently faces several challenges that will require the cooperation of governments and people around the world. Unfortunately, today’s institutions have largely been unresponsive to many of the threats faced by humanity. In cases were institutions have responded, actions have usually been insufficient to address the issue.
While the impact of civic engagement cannot be divorced from current entrenched power structures such as special interest groups and powerful industries, this article only examines the scale of issues that humans must tackle and why civic engagement is so important for the survival of humanity.
Civic engagement, of course, is not only meant to tackle existential threats to the world – though, it’s a good motivating factor. The importance of engaging at the local level on local issues cannot be overstated, as these small engagements build toward better overall governing and priority-setting by policymakers. Many issues that do not necessarily threaten the survival of humanity will need to be addressed to establish inclusive, well-informed decision-making processes in our communities.
Nonetheless, I find it’s useful to put the term “civic engagement” in the context of humanity’s greatest challenges to capture just how important active involvement in community decision making is for ordinary people.
Below, we’ll first look at what top scientists have identified as some of the greatest threats to human existence and what could be done to prevent or protect against these events. Then, we’ll look at why civic engagement is so important either – directly or indirectly – for these issues.
Major Challenges That Humanity Faces
There are many threats to the survival of humanity, but scientists largely coalesce around a dozen or so vital issues that must be addressed in the near to medium-term.
Major challenges to humanity fall within three major categories:
- Human-produced threats (e.g. nuclear war or ecological disasters).
- Threats originating on or from the earth (e.g. infectious diseases or volcanoes).
- Threats from space (e.g. asteroids or coronal mass ejections).
Looking at just a few examples of each category and potential ways to address these issues, we can see why civic participation is paramount to solving these issues.
Humans have created several challenges to their own long term survival. In fact, some of the most urgent problems the world faces are entirely human-made. Below is a closer look at two major examples.
Nuclear war is, perhaps, one of the greatest threats to life on earth. Yet, despite the elevating risk in recent years, it has largely disappeared from public discourse since the end of the Cold War.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), at the beginning of 2019, just nine countries “possessed approximately 13865 nuclear weapons, of which 3750 were deployed with operational forces. Nearly 2000 of these are kept in a state of high operational alert.” Ninety percent of these weapons are owned by the U.S. and Russia alone.
The sheer number of nuclear weapons is cause for concern in and of itself as the current global arsenal could destroy the earth many times over. Some argue that it is only a matter of time before a war or human error sets these weapons off in a cataclysmic event.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, for instance, has famously kept a Doomsday Clock, which depicts how close humanity is to disaster through “unchecked scientific advances.” Midnight on the clock represents global disaster and the clock has been steadily ticking towards midnight since it’s an invention in 1974.
In January of 2020, the clock was at 100 seconds to midnight. The authors explained,
Humanity continues to face two simultaneous existential dangers—nuclear war and climate change—that are compounded by a threat multiplier, cyber-enabled information warfare, that undercuts society’s ability to respond. The international security situation is dire, not just because these threats exist, but because world leaders have allowed the international political infrastructure for managing them to erode.
Many advocates in the nuclear disarmament space bemoan the lack of public engagement on the issue. Governments will not likely change their behavior without sufficient grassroots pressure. While there is heated debate over whether or not nuclear weapons have kept the world safer, the current runaway stockpiling of these weapons far exceeds any strategic justification.
Ecological disasters could happen in many ways. Perhaps, the most well-known possibility is the runaway greenhouse effect in which the earth’s climate becomes highly unpredictable due to increased amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2).
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA),
The annual rate of increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide over the past 60 years is about 100 times faster than previous natural increases, such as those that occurred at the end of the last ice age 11,000-17,000 years ago.
In 2018, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was higher than at any point in the past 800,000 years. The last time the planet has had the same amount of CO2 in the air was 3 million years ago when the sea level was 15–25 meters (50–80 feet) above today’s levels. Below shows the increase in CO2 over the last 800,000 years.
NOAA also identifies the cause of the rising CO2 levels as a result of fossil fuel use. The official government website states,
Carbon dioxide concentrations are rising mostly because of the fossil fuels that people are burning for energy. Fossil fuels like coal and oil contain carbon that plants pulled out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis over the span of many millions of years; we are returning that carbon to the atmosphere in just a few hundred years.
Ecological disasters could come in other ways as well. Other commercial practices dependent on raw natural resources could lead to the collapse of key ecosystems. Many industries are now pressing the boundaries of sustainable resource use and may reach a point of no return.
Overfishing, for example, is when a species is removed from their habitat faster than they can reproduce. It has happened several times throughout the last centuries and some systems have already collapsed. Researchers from Rutgers University examined over 150 cases of ecological collapse and found that drastic population decreases over the last 50 years were largely driven by overfishing.
Other commercial practices like overlogging could cause key ecosystems to collapse. Stephen Petranek, an established science writer and a well-known commentator on humanity’s greatest challenges (see TED Talk above), has noted that within the Amazon rainforest there is a “marginal tree” that represents the tipping point for the whole ecosystem.
As logging and fires continue to sweep the Amazon, there is a steady march toward killing the “marginal tree” and setting off a chain reaction that threatens one of the most biodiverse systems on the planet.
Other practices such as monoculture, genetically-modified organisms, and lab-produced organisms may represent unique threats to ecosystems and biodiversity as well. Scientific research, however, is often better regulated than resource extraction. Commercial practices are often supported by powerful companies that seek to lower regulations and have immense sway over policymakers.
Once again, institutions will not likely modify regulations and curtail these practices without public pressure. If left unchecked, these industries could precipitate a global extinction event causing famine and serious doubts over humanity’s future. With sufficient levels of civic engagement from people around the world, these issues could be addressed and, in most cases, the current damage could be reversed.
Threats Originating On Or From The Earth
There are many inherent threats to humanity’s survival on earth beyond our control. However, in most cases, humans could develop systems to help mitigate fall out from natural disasters. Here’s a brief look at two threats and what civic engagement could do to help protect humanity from these events.
Infectious diseases are always a looming threat to humanity and every so often a new disease appears – sometimes with global consequences.
The Spanish Flu of 1918, for instance, was one of the most deadly pandemics of modern history. The disease infected about 500 million people, which was one-third of the world’s population at that time. Over 50 million people died over the course of about a year.
Scientists have long warned that the likelihood of pandemics is rising. In a prophetic report published just months before the discovery of the coronavirus that causes the COVID-19 disease, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board stated,
While disease has always been part of the human experience, a combination of global trends, including insecurity and extreme weather, has heightened the risk. Disease thrives in disorder and has taken advantage–outbreaks have been on the rise for the past several decades and the spectre of a global health emergency looms large. If it is true to say “what’s past is prologue”, then there is a very real threat of a rapidly moving, highly lethal pandemic of a respiratory pathogen killing 50 to 80 million people and wiping out nearly 5% of the world’s economy. A global pandemic on that scale would be catastrophic, creating widespread havoc, instability and insecurity. The world is not prepared.
The report goes on to note that the global health infrastructure is insufficient to handle pandemics. Funding shortfalls have meant less research into preventions and cures.
Despite respiratory illnesses as being one of the leading causes of death worldwide, relatively few government resources are put into fighting infectious diseases as opposed to other threats such as terrorism, which cause far fewer deaths. These priorities are unlikely to change without mass interventions from ordinary citizens.
While volcanoes are erupting all the time, some do pose a serious threat to life on earth. Supervolcanoes, which have the potential to kill upwards of 95% of life on earth and have likely been responsible for more extinctions than asteroids. An explosion from one of these supervolcanoes would make nuclear war or a runaway greenhouse effect look minor in comparison.
These events could make the entire planet uninhabitable and some have suggested that, eventually, humanity will need to find other planets to live on like Mars. Evacuating earth is likely hundreds (hopefully, thousands or more) years into the future, but planning for these types of global events is not something that should be prolonged. Given that other major geological events present a similar risk and so little is known about when such an event could occur, some scientists suggest it’s not too early to begin planning.
Threats From Space
Space can be a pretty unforgiving place and it’s sometimes easy to forget that we’re whizzing through it at 67,000 miles an hour on a relatively tiny planet. Scientists have warned, though, that it’s only a matter of time before the earth is faced with a threat originating from space.
Below are just two brief examples of real threats from space that policymakers need to address. How civic engagement fits into the priority setting picture for these threats is addressed in the final section below.
The earth has been pummeled by asteroids throughout its 4.5 billion-year life – primarily in the earlier stages of the solar system’s development when space debris was more prevalent. Today, the earth is still being hit by asteroids frequently, but most burn up in the atmosphere – appearing as shooting stars.
Major asteroids that threaten mass extinction events are thought to appear only once every few million years. Smaller asteroids, though, also pose a threat to critical infrastructure and population centers. In fact, your odds of dying by being hit by an asteroid are higher than being hit by lightning.
There are impressive efforts to help identify potential collisions such as NASA’s Near-Earth Object (NEO) Observations Program. The NEO program has been tasked with locating at least 90% of any major threatening asteroids. However, should the NEO program identify a threatening object, it is not yet clear how global institutions would respond.
Coronal Mass Ejection
A coronal mass ejection is an eruption of plasma and electromagnetic radiation from the sun’s outer surface. It is normally very rare for these ejections to hit the earth directly given the size and distance of the earth to the sun.
(Video of a solar storm in August 2010 shows coral mass ejections.)
However, direct hits do happen and with the modern power infrastructure, the consequences of a direct hit from a coronal mass ejection would be devastating. The global power grid would be blown out, leaving the world in darkness. The fallout would be catastrophic and it would take over 20 years to restore the entire planet’s power infrastructure.
Such an event has been known to happen. One instance was recorded in 1859, known as the Carrington Event. When a coronal mass ejection hit the earth, it shorted out telegraph wires and ignited massive fires throughout Europe and North America.
Some commentators have pointed out that above-ground electrical grids are as vulnerable to solar storms today as they were in 1859. While moving to underground infrastructures could help protect against solar storms, the issue is unlikely to be a priority in current political environments.
Importance of Civic Engagement
The examples above may seem like overwhelming scenarios for civic engagement and, indeed, these examples are the most extreme areas of public concern.
In some circumstances, it may not necessarily be clear what civic engagement could achieve to help determine the fate of the world. Events such as asteroids and supervolcanoes seem out of the average citizen’s scope of attention and it sounds more like a matter of good government contingency planning. These aren’t the types of issues that can get massive grassroots support after all.
However, the examples above all reveal a common thread that many institutional priorities (around the world) are driven by short-term gains rather than long-term sustainability. In the case of nuclear weapons, for instance, resources have been deliberately directed into something that raises the risk of global disaster.
Institutional priorities are usually the product of social, economic, and political forces. These priorities are then reflective of the system as a whole and how it distributes power. Political philosophers going back centuries have pointed out that if ordinary citizens stop engaging in civic affairs, the machinery of government quickly becomes designed to serve a select few at the expense of the many.
One of the most quoted individuals on the subject of civic engagement, Alexis de Tocqueville, spoke on several occasions on the topic of civic atrophy. Tocqueville was a diplomat and political scientist who made keen observations on early American society. In one of his major writings, Democracy in America, he wrote,
Subjection in minor affairs breaks out every day, and is felt by the whole community indiscriminately. It does not drive men to resistance, but it crosses them at every turn, till they are led to surrender the exercise of their will. Thus their spirit is gradually broken and their character enervated; whereas that obedience, which is exacted on a few important but rare occasions, only exhibits servitude at certain intervals, and throws the burden of it upon a small number of men. It is vain to summon a people, which has been rendered so dependent on the central power, to choose from time to time the representatives of that power; this rare and brief exercise of their free choice, however, important it may be, will not prevent them from gradually losing the faculties of thinking, feeling, and acting for themselves, and thus gradually falling below the level of humanity.
Tocqueville reinforces the notion that without everyday engagement from ordinary citizens, institutions can gradually shift against their interests. The marginalization of ordinary citizens from the civic process, in turn, makes it easier for governments to subjugate the people it’s intended to serve. Without consistent engagement, citizens become unaware of how to get involved and gradually lose their ability to contribute.
With Tocqueville’s observation in mind then, issues that threaten humanity’s survival may or may not require direct intervention from civic movements. However, to address these issues and orient priorities towards the longterm survival of the planet, ordinary citizens need to engage in civic affairs to help shape institutional priorities in the likeness of popular opinion as opposed to the interests of a small group of elites.
Looking for more on civic engagement? Check out our post that looks at key terms, examples, and models of civic engagement here.