The Human Future
When we know something of our past, we think we know the present. Some may see the future as a continuation of past and present, but according to former diplomat Sir Crispin Tickell, this outlook is ineffective. In this talk, Sir Crispin urges us to confront the issues of our day: the multiplication of our species in all its aspects; the economics of health and wealth; the future source of food and energy; adaptation to climate change; and the shortcomings of conventional wisdom.Related Events: The Human Future
Gary Dirks: Thank you for taking time to join us in this Wrigley Lecture Series event. My name is Gary Dirks. I am the Director of the Global Institute of Sustainability, and it’s my deep pleasure to be able to welcome you here this evening. The Wrigley Lecture Series is made possible by a very generous gift from Julie Wrigley, who has been a longtime strong supporter of the Global Institute of Sustainability, and to the School of Sustainability. The lecture series participants are selected by a committee composed of faculty members, staff, students, and interested members of the community. They are typically chosen because they have both a strong commitment and track record on the academic side of sustainability, but also are very engaged in solutions for sustainability problems.
Our speaker this evening is no different. We are very fortunate to have him with us. He has been spending several days with the School of Sustainability and the Global Institute, participating in our board, meeting students. He ran a workshop, and to introduce him now, I would like to turn the floor to our President, Michael Crow, who will introduce our speaker.
Michael Crow: Thank you Gary. It is not often the case that we can, to this particular neck of the woods, actually have an individual who is a global thinker, who has worked on the global stage, who has affected the outcome of nation-states and their engagement in issues related to sustainability and climate change. This evening, for the Wrigley Lectureship, we have that. Sir Crispin Tickell was raised in Britain, was a graduate of Oxford, or is a graduate of Oxford University where he, in the British parlance, read history. They don’t study there, they read, and then they convince someone that they have read enough, and then they move on. College education—he served at what used to be called the role of subaltern in the British Army, later referred to as second lieutenant.
Following his service in the British Army, he entered the Foreign Service, what we call the Foreign Service of the British government. He had many assignments in his many decades in the Foreign Service, including at one point being in charge of the British territories of Antarctica. Do you remember that? He says yes. He also served as the British ambassador to Mexico, and the British ambassador to the United Nations, holding that seat on the—as a permanent seat on the Security Council for the British government. His role and engagement, after all of his experiences in climate-related issues, came in his service to academic institutions—Oxford again, and to the British government, as an advisor across a number of very complex scientific questions, including climate change.
Even on the news, just a couple of days ago, with the passing of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Sir Crispin was credited as the individual who was able to weigh in and convince her that there were actual issues associated with climate change, thus helping her to shape British government policy, going forward from her term as prime minister. He has also been an author, and has written and been engaged in writing and lectures on questions as it relates to climate change and global politics, and all of the complex hithers and yons, as they are related to this still roiling question of how does the Earth really work with seven billion people, growing to nine billion people?
Not too long ago it was only a fraction of that number. I mean it’s just unbelievable, the rate of change, and the rate of increase. What Sir Crispin brings to the table is a global perspective, a political perspective, an historical perspective, but also a—always focused on solution perspective. “How might we work toward solution?” What might we do, if in fact there are problems that have to be solved, in as complex a civilization as we reside in, here in 2013? And so it is indeed a great pleasure to have the opportunity to introduce our speaker, Sir Crispin Tickell.
Sir Crispin Tickell: Well good evening. I think my first job is to convince you that I am human, after hearing the nice things that have been said about me. I am human, and I am very interested in sustainability, which is why that when President Crow asked me to come here to participate in the work he was doing, I was very proud to do so. I think we have a long tradition of working together, which I hope will continue. What was I to talk about for a meeting of this kind, which would be appropriate for sustainability? Well, I thought about it a bit, and decided that there is so much work going on here, that I have to choose a subject which was a bit different.
What I decided to do was to go for what I called the human future. In other words, how is our species going to survive, in the kind of challenges of which we’re all too painfully aware at the moment? I shall speak on the subject. I hope that when I’m done you will be bold enough to ask me some questions, or make some comments. I will do my best to respond, if and when you do so. Well, let me begin.
We all know something of our past, and we think we know the present. Some of us may see the future as a continuation of both. If they do, they are wrong. Today I want to look a bit backwards, a bit sideways, a bit forwards, adventure into the longer-term prospects for our species. First, let’s establish the perspective. Humans are an infinitesimal part of the natural world. I think that the figure that is used is that we are 0.0007 percent of estimated living species. Each of us, a point that always strikes me as very interesting, each of us has 10 times more bacterial than body cells, and of course our species is relatively new. No one was around to record the evolution of the first human-like creatures, which came from ape-like ancestors in Africa some millions of years ago.
They left eventually for the savannah, away from the forest, became relatively hairless, and walked upright on two legs, with consequences for the physiology of their growing brains. By at least half a million years ago, they split into a variety of related strains. Among them were the Neanderthals, and we’ve all heard about the Neanderthals, and recently discovered, the Denisovans, from finding a useful bit of bone in Siberia, and another offshoot may still have been living on the Indonesian island of Flores, as recently as 16,000 years ago, which I need hardly tell you is a mere squeak in geological time. So far, through analysis of fossils, and work on current humans, we have been able to trace the genealogy of Homo sapiens back only some 200,000 years. All other branches of humans are now extinct, but many of us share at least a small proportion of their genes.
Most of us sitting in this room have probably about six percent of Neanderthal genes in their bodies. Now over the last 40,000 years, the human impact on the Earth has slowly and then rapidly increased. Hunter-gatherers fitted easily, although sometimes uncomfortably, into the ecosystems of the cold and warm periods of the Pleistocene epoch, the so-called Ice Age. People migrated, in response to changing conditions, but farming with land clearance was only began between 10,000 and 8,000 years ago. That of course changed everything. With a vast increase in human population came towns, and with an even bigger increase came cities. Tribal communities evolved into complex hierarchical societies, and for a rich variety of reasons. Each—some societies rose and fell, and usually, but not always, recovered. The pulse of civilization has always been irregular.
Well, before the Industrial Revolution, some 250 years ago, which began in the island from which I come, the effects of human activity were local, or at most regional, rather than global. Now the impact is indeed global. Indeed, as you’ve heard, we have the idea of a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, to mark the effect that human activity has had on the surface of the Earth, and will have still more in the future. Indeed, in its long history, with all its variations, the Earth has never been in this situation before. Nor has life, in its myriad manifestations come—following Darwin, it was Lynn Margulis, a good friend of mine, who described Gaia, or the living Earth, as a tough bitch. So she is, I say simply that the introduction of the idea of symbiosis into the Darwinian processes of natural selection, in short, cooperation as well as competition between species, is now essential to our understanding of evolution.
In the meantime, human actions are transforming the Earth, and will do so even more in the future. In my view, there are six main factors which have driven this transformation, and will continue to do so in the future. Of these, population issues are often ignored as somehow embarrassing, or mixed up with religion. Most people are broadly aware of land resources and waste problems, although they’re far from accepting the necessary remedies. Water issues, both fresh and salt, have had a lot of publicity, and already affect most people on Earth, and I add, particularly in this part of the world. Climate change, with all its implications for atmospheric chemistry, and sea level rise, is also broadly understood, apart from those who do not wish to understand it. How we generate energy, while fossil fuel resources diminish, and demand increases, is another conundrum.
The damage to the diversity of life on which our species critically depends, has until recently escaped the attention it should have received. Indeed, I hope that that’s one of the things that Arizona State University may make one of its specialities. Here in this area, we remain largely ignorant of our own ignorance. In this same area, human destructiveness has been most evident over the last 10,000 years. Current rates of extinction could, in the long run, be the most important of all these factors for human welfare, and the future of our species. All living organisms are interlinked, and all in their complicated mutual dependencies, constitute the natural environment. That is what nature means, but now there is a seventh factor, recent in human experience. It arises from the introduction of new technologies, the most recent of which of course was the digital.
In a recent book, Martin Rees, former president of the Royal Society in London, which is the equivalent institution of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States, he explored the dangers arising from human inventiveness, human folly, human wickedness, and sheer inadvertence. For example, the effects of plastics on ocean chemistry, and the organisms within it. The ramifications of information technology, nanotechnology, cyber technology, nuclear experimentation, and the rest have still to be understood and explored. Martin Rees’ conclusion was to give our civilization only a 50 percent chance of survival beyond the end of this century. Well then, what are we to expect? How are we to recognize that the last 250 years, the period of the Anthropocene, have been a bonanza of inventiveness, exploitation, and consumption which may not continue?
All successful species, whether they be bivalves or beetles or humans, multiply until they come up against the environmental stops, reach some accommodation of the rest of the environment, and willy-nilly restore some balance. The penalties for not doing so can lead to collapse. Now are we near to those stops? To judge from the current debate within the scientific community, some believe we are pretty close to them. Now we all have our own lists and calculations of the dangers I have already—of the dangers in question, and I have already suggested some of mine. Going back to them, I have no doubt that we have to rethink how we run our society, and in that respect, the role of universities is critical. That means confronting the major issue of our own multiplication, and all its aspects, 10,000 more humans every hour, and almost 80 million every year, what has been well-called global swarming.
Looking again at a lot of economics, and how we measure things, in particular health, wealth, and welfare, deciding where our future energy supply should come from, giving high priority to conservation of natural resources of all kinds, dispersing, and to some extent localizing the ways by which we feed ourselves, managing and adapting to climate change, or as I prefer to call it, climate destabilization, and challenging the conventional wisdom, even in science, with a somewhat mechanistic interpretation of the natural order. We all suffer from a disease which has been well labeled conceptual sclerosis. Little is more difficult than learning to think differently. Old ideas haunt us like ghosts, so what kind of future can our species expect, in a world which is changing under human pressure before our eyes?
What can we expect of the Anthropocene? Bear in mind that nearly all forecasting turns out to be wrong, we do well always to expect the unexpected. Well there are some obvious challenges. Some relate to the Earth as a whole. For example, the natural disruptions known throughout history, like volcanic explosions, or earthquakes, or impacts of extra-terrestrial objects, and variations in species and ecosystems. In short, the whole evolutionary process. Climate, after all, is always changing with profound, sometimes rapid, effects on the natural world.
Then there are the specific problems of humanity, including the widening division between rich and poor. Within or between countries, shortages of food and water, the threat of new forms of disease and epidemic, loss of confidence in social systems, the effects of large-scale migration, the high vulnerability of cities, the growth of terrorism, the risks of war, with unimaginably horrible weapons, and the exhaustion of resources on which we have learned to depend. Of course this is not the whole story. Before and during the Anthropocene, the balance of power shifted towards Europe, the United States, and to some extent Japan, and away from China, India, and the Middle East.
Now, following the end of the Cold War, things are changing fast. Now all of this is a huge subject in itself, political, social, economic, and technological. It coincides with the current crisis, within what is loosely called capitalism, and the relationship between industrial and other countries, the so called developed, developing, underdeveloped, or even overdeveloped countries. When I had the responsibility of running the overseas British aid program, I tried always to get away from that, because it carries the implication that all of the countries of the world have to follow the pattern which was created by the industrial countries. But anyway, such changes that are taking place now at the moment may come to represent the most important for hundreds of years, and they seem to be accelerating.
On the one hand, the world is becoming more global. On the other, people feel more local, whether in the United States, whether in China, or whether in Europe. Now the remains for the tremendous implications for governors of different kinds. In some areas, good regulation will be more important than ever. In the words of the title of a recent book, we have to recognize that most things fail, whether they be natural organisms over a period of time, or human institutions. In many ways, there is a movement of power away from the nation-state, upwards to global institutions and corporations, to deal with global issues. Downwards, to communities, are more human dimensions, and sideways, by electronic means, between citizens all over the world.
Now, to say a word about each of those, upwards we need better means to cope with global issues, including an enforceable international legal system in the common human interest. I was very much aware of that when I was ambassador to the United Nations, but I can tell you, it was hard work to put across that idea. One idea I did put across at that time was the idea of a world environment organization, to bring together the 200 or more limited, often overlapping, detailed agreements on environmental issues, and to act as a kind of global umbrella over them. I didn’t get very far. Downwards—that’s upwards. Downwards, we need to bring in a much stronger sense of collective responsibility at national, regional, and local levels, hence the ideas, which are very popular in Britain at the moment, for a so-called big society. Here results are clearly inadequate so far, and we have a lot of work to do.
Sideways, we need to engage individuals and endow them with stronger feelings of personal engagement. Here we’re seeing extraordinary advances, for example widespread access to the Internet, in spite of the efforts of some governments to censor it, and the spread of mobile telephones, even in poorer parts of the world, which promotes communication of a kind hitherto impossible. I believe the introduction of what you call cell phones, indeed, is one of the most transforming factors in Africa at the moment, across the poorer parts of the Sahel. We have yet to reckon with all these consequences. There also remains—again, this is very much applying—speaking about what should happen in universities.
There also remains a major problem of communication between the scientific world on one side, and the political and media world on the other. It can take a dangerously long time for discoveries in science to become intelligible to the rest of society. I have been involved in a number of efforts to do this. For eight years I ran the British government Panel on Sustainable Development, which we tried exactly to do this. I have run think tanks at Oxford, and also in Cambridge. We’ve got one particular effort that I have been working on recently, which is a climate education program, fostered by NASA in the United States.
The prime educational device, in that regard, is what has been called science on a sphere, SOS, a model of the Earth, roughly two meters in diameter, always changes, whether in tectonic plate movement over millions of years, climate change over thousands of years, or day-by-day weather patterns, or even aircraft movements can be displayed. Such spheres now distributed in many parts of the world, and many in the United States, attract fascinated audiences, and appeal to our increasingly visual understanding of the changes taking place in the world around us.
Well, it would be rash to attempt to forecast how the world will look, even 100 years from now. It may be useful to jump that 100 years, and from the vantage point, look backwards. In doing so, I shall assume, I hope correctly, that humans will have faced up to, and coped with, at least some of the problems I have discussed. The Anthropocene epoch should certainly continue. As in the past, there will be failures and collapses, so what is my guess for what the world will look like? Well first, humans are likely to be living in a more globalized world of rapid communication. Here is an obvious consequence of current technology. Ideas and units of information, or memes, will pass almost instantaneously between countries, communities, and individuals.
The wiring of the planet with fiber optics, cellular wireless, satellites, and digital television, is already transforming human relationships. More than ever in the past, there will be something like a single human society and civilization. Already, something that is quite amusing to notice, well, we’re all wearing the same clothes, whether they be suits or jeans, the whole world is wearing suits and jeans. Go back 100 years, and we were wearing something more interesting and very different, in different parts of the world. In many ways, we are like ants. We can be regarded as a kind of superorganism, but also like ants, there will be fierce competition between groups and communities, and more than ever anxious to maintain and express their identity.
This new evaluation of local or national identity is also something unexpected. We have a movement for Scottish independence from the rest of the United Kingdom, and there is a comparable movement in Catalonia in Spain, to establish Catalonia as an independent state, from the rest of Spain. Another product of local feeling is the widespread movements of intermittent protest against existing elites of whatever kind. This sort of protest can be seen in new shareholder mobilization against corporate management, worldwide discontent with autocratic regimes, particularly in the Middle East, and demonstrated there very clearly in the last little while. Here, new technology is crucial. The effects of increasing distribution of mobile telephones, as I’ve said, are enormous, and they have yet really to be fully understood, while human numbers, in cities and elsewhere, are at present rising fast.
It’s hard to believe that this can, or will, continue in the second half of this century. By 2113, remember I am still looking back from 100 years, in 2113 our numbers will almost certainly be substantially less. There are signs of this happening already. Some people will live longer, bringing its own train of problems, including for example employment. Their distribution will be different. Women will have a more important role. In many parts of the world, they are already achieving their long-deserved equality with men. This will have enormous effects on the management of society. It has been suggested that an optimum population for the Earth, in terms of its resources, would be nearer to 2.5 billion, rather than as now, 7 billion, or even 9 billion by mid-century.
Next, communities are likely to be more dispersed, without the daily tides of people flowing in and out of cities for work. Current obsessions with so-called growth, and ever-increasing consumption, will be replaced by the need to make better use of resources, respect the natural capital of the Earth, a very important concept, and measure health, wealth, and welfare in a more rational way. We have been talking a little bit about this in the last few days. Application of new, digitized technologies is already changing the character of manufacturing. Agriculture will be more local and specialized, with greater reliance on hydroponics. Energy and transport systems will be, in my view, decentralized. Archeologists of the future may even wonder what all those roads were possibly for.
On the one hand, some humans may thereby be liberated from many current drudgeries. Houses may be able to clean themselves. Robots will produce meals on demand, cars may drive under remote instruction, and evolution of desirable characteristics could even be automated. All of this seems highly imaginable, when so many, so many, still have to trudge miles to collect fuel, wood, and water. On the other hand, humans could well become dangerously vulnerable to technological breakdown, and thereby lose an essential measure of self-sufficiency. Fewer people will produce more, and the character of employment will change radically. All this raises questions about evolution. Changes are already taking place in the human organism, for example a resistance, or lack of it, to certain diseases. Bacteria may have been defeated in many cases by antibiotics in the last few years, but they now seem, following a good Darwinian prescription, to be adapting themselves for a strong fight back.
As Lord Rees observed in a science magazine of 8 March, “Synthetic biology offers huge potential for medicine and agriculture, but in the sci-fi scenario, where new organisms can be routinely created, the ecology, and even our own species, might not long survive unscathed.” We are well capable of manipulating or altering some genes, and can even insert extra chromosomes, for a limited variety of purposes. Who knows what we will do next? Genetic enhancement is a real, if awkward, possibility. Will the rich eventually choose the best genes for their children? With what result will that have for the others? Already, it’s been shown that the current electronic revolution, and the daily deluge of information it has produced, can have big effects on the brain. The most—which I add, is the most remarkable part of the human body.
Revolutions of the past, for example the invention of writing, slowly changed the way in which we stored information, and made use of it. Some parts of our memory store emptied, and others filled up. Now the problem is changing. Instead of putting information together, and taking a relatively unified view, we are reacting to a multiplicity of bits, of fast-moving information, and dealing with the bits, as best we can, as they come. In short, we are no longer so good at seeing the wood for the trees, and indeed, we sometimes can’t see the trees for the twigs. Many people, particularly in the younger generation, are less interested in words, for example, as we know them in books, that in visual images on screens and the Internet. Some people even prefer to text, rather than talk to each other.
The physical functioning of our brains may already be changing, and the notorious tilt between the left and the right hemispheres with it. We may also be coming up against the physical limits of our brains. It’s worth remembering that the Neanderthal brain was rather bigger than the one that we have. A honeybee, with its milligram-sized brain, can perform tasks such as navigating landscapes on a par with mammals, while elephants, with their 500 million volt larger brains, need more than 100 times longer for their signals to travel between the opposite sides of the brain, and from their brains to their feet, so an increase in size, even if it were feasible, would not necessarily increase human intelligence. It would be better to follow the example of the bees, small can be beautiful after all.
Now these problems may seem a long way away, and let us hope with our total confidence that by 2113, humans will have worked out, and will practice an ethical system in which the natural world has value, not only for human welfare, but also for and in itself. The human superorganism must take its place along other superorganisms. Well, the penalties for failure to respect the natural world are enormous. Plants may not have brains, but they have an amazing sensitivity to the behavior of other organisms, well explored in a recent book, which many of you may have seen, entitled What a Plant Knows. They may even be able to communicate with bees, as would-be pollinators, by electric signaling. We tamper with the long and infinitely complex chains of mutual dependence at our peril. Extinction is as frequent as adaptation. Survivors in their original form, over hundreds of millions of years are extremely rare. Well humans may be no exception.
I sometimes wonder how long it would last—take for the Earth to recover from the human impact. Future visitors from outer space say thousands of years, not hundreds of years, but thousands of years from now might well be puzzled by the fossil remains of ourselves, and the agglomerations we call cities, in short, the relics of the Anthropocene. They might also wonder at the fossils of the other animals and plants we have so abruptly adapted for our own purposes. In the future, rats could be as big as dogs. Water houses could block lakes, and microorganisms could go macro, but they should know, as should we, that life itself, from the bottom of the seas, to the top of the atmosphere, is so robust that the dominance of any one species could be no more than a relatively short episode in the history of life on Earth.
Above all, we must recognize how small and vulnerable we are, as members of a particular species, in a particular environment, at a particular moment in time. Let us, ladies and gentlemen, enjoy it as best we can, for as long as we can. Thank you. [Applause]
Gary Dirks: So we invite you to ask questions. We have a microphone that we’ll pass around. Do we have any questions this evening?
Audience: So you had mentioned that the optimal planetary population might be 2.5 billion, rather than seven, and tied that in with comments about growth being unsustainable, the idea of continuous growth. What would be the consequences? How would you actually go, if ever, down from where we are? Societally, globally, what would be the consequences?
Sir Crispin Tickell: Well, there are parts of the world where the human population is already beginning to shrink, and there are other parts of the world where, of course, it is increasing at great speed. What I’m saying is that 100 years from now—and I’m only—this is only a rough hypothesis, but if you look at the resources that we use, and the kind of way we like to organize our society, and above all the resources we use, you come up with the conclusion that the best arrangement we could make would be something more like 2.5 billion, which it was when I was born, the year after I was born. The—what’s happened since then is very different, and you are really a species proliferating almost out of control. If you say, “Well how can this possibly happen?” It happens—I think the key element, the absolutely key element is the place of women.
Where women have equal status with men, when they have good knowledge of their bodies and how they work, and when they can play the role that they could play in society, you frequently find that everything begins to—the population increase begins to moderate, and indeed shrink. This is not necessarily a popular view, but I think that the critical place of women in the future population has been somewhat neglected. I have explored this idea in some detail, as I expect others have too. It’s a very interesting concept, but it shows the way in which our societies are changing. Certainly, the evidence is that in parts of the world where women do have proper control of their bodies, and do have equal status with men, they are leveling out, if not shrinking.
It’s very interesting, for example, that whatever the Pope may say, the population of two very Catholic countries, Ireland and Italy, are among the shrinkers of the moment. Moreover, China and Russia—the Russian population has been shrinking. In Britain, we have a rising population, largely because of immigration. I think probably the same can be said of the United States, and you can look around all over the world, and see these different patterns developing. When I was running the overseas aid program, I was really struck by the fact that in parts of Africa, women are so much treated as sort of secondary objects that they didn’t understand how their bodies worked. There was quite an effort to educate them that made a complete difference.
They suddenly began to realize what was going on, which they hadn’t understood before. My view is that if all the factors that are going to push in this direction, and I’ve mentioned many of them in what I just said, I do think the role of women is critical.
Audience: Can you shrink without societal collapse?
Sir Crispin Tickell: Without what?
Audience: Can you shrink without societal collapse, this idea of—
Sir Crispin Tickell: I think you can, yes. I think you can. It would take some doing, but after all, we’ve increased very effectively. I think we can therefore shrink.
Audience: I loved your talk, thank you. My question is in regards to public health. What is your number one piece of advice for public health clinicians all over the world, maybe here in the United States?
Sir Crispin Tickell: I’m not quite certain how I can respond to that, because I am not a clinician myself. It’s much more—with public health being a feature of the good health of a society in general, it becomes very important. The National Health Service, for example, in Britain is one—is perhaps the most amazingly successful institution of its kind in the world, and is enormously—it’s the most popular, in terms of public opinion polls, of any political institution, is the National Health Service. It gets criticized of course, from time to time, and makes mistakes, but nonetheless it is amazingly popular. The idea of a kind of national commitment to health makes a great deal of difference, in which the state in a way, is the last resort.
I know I am saying things that might cause horror in certain parts of the United States, but I just wanted to underline the fact that public understanding of health is very important, and public responsibility for it. I think if you look, nobody wants to have interfering bureaucrats more than they have to, but I think you must always recognize that all governments have a responsibility to provide—to make sure that food is available, that energy is available, and that health is available in our societies. How they all do so of course differs, according to the society in question. In fact, they all have that responsibility, and governments, in different ways, will try and exercise it.
Of course they have to—in doing so, they have to deal with a lot of the politics of health, like the politics of energy, like the politics of food, which can be extremely tricky.
Audience: I have one fairly simple question, which I think you can probably answer and sum up. Basically, the major issues pressing society today, on a global scale of course, are environmentalism and economics as well. We have a great financial crisis that we see our self in at the moment, but on the other hand, we have the sustainability issue. How do we move forward in a sustainable realm? Well, sustainability in my opinion, is to equilibrate all systems on Earth. Then you have the financial system that we have predicated on exponential growth curves. Do you see a way in reconciling these two systems? Are they compatible, or can you only have one without the other?
Sir Crispin Tickell: Well, I did touch on this issue in what I said. I think that—let’s go back for a moment, to what the Chinese always say about the nature of markets. They say we are in favor—and this is what I’ve heard myself, from the Prime Minister of China, “We are in favor of markets, within a framework of the public interest.” Now how you define the public interest is always of course very tricky, and it’s defined differently in different places, but I think it’s—what is important is that capitalism does require regulation. I don’t think that people talk about free markets—frankly, there’s no such thing. There never has been a free market, there never will be a free market. We all have different kinds of regulation, whether they are organized by the state, or whether there are arrangements between different groups, is another matter.
I did refer to the fact that we all have a kind of economic paradigm that maybe not right. I personally think that the current economic paradigm, which is—for example, lays great emphasis on growth, is mistaken. We do need growth, but what kind of growth? You have to say what you mean, and I—when I have met politicians, as they all do in all countries, like to say, “We must have growth.” I like to stand up and say, “Would you like to tell us what growth is?” You find that very few politicians have the slightest idea what growth is, except producing enormous quantities, more goods. Sometimes, the goods are not very wise to produce and then—because they in fact damage the good health of society, more than they advance the living standards of those who buy the goods.
I think this is a very big—one of the biggest things of our time, the biggest problems of our time is how, in fact, you get markets to follow this Chinese view, that they should be within a framework of the public interest. That is where I’d like to see the debate taking place, rather than about how can we increase growth? You have to make out—to be quite clear what you’re talking about. Now if you can produce growth of a sensible kind, limited to things that are of value, then you’re getting into the sustainability discussion. I was asked—when I ran the British government Panel on Sustainable Development, I always used to—well, people used to say, “Well what is sustainable development?” My reply was, “Treating the Earth as if we intended to stay,” which I always think is quite a good answer for a vague concept. It’s a vague answer, but that’s what, in some respects, what you need.
You have got to realize that we have to treat the natural surroundings, of which we are, and I want to underline this very strongly, of which we are a very, very small, but important part. We’ve got to treat nature, and respect the natural world and other organisms, because we are part of them, and they are part of us.
Audience: Thanks for your talk, and I think you partly answered my question. As a pioneer in using the politics in the environmental protection, and the climate change, so I want to ask something about politics. As we all know, in a word, the countries is at different stages. The British and the U.S., they are developed countries, and China, India are developing countries. The countries in Africa, they are under development, so what do you think will be their difference, on the responsibility toward the sustainable, and environmental protection, in a political view? Do you think that they should accept the different responsibility? If you do, how that will be?
Sir Crispin Tickell: Well you’re speaking within the paradigm, which I have just said I don’t agree with, in other words, that we all are going in the same direction. You have developing countries, under-developed countries, over-developed countries, and the rest. I can assure you, I don’t think that is correct. We have got the industrial countries, we have countries that are usually described as poor, but—or under-developed, but the assumption there is that you are moving towards a kind of model of the grownup society, which requires people, other countries, to go the same way as the industrial countries who created the Industrial Revolution, and created the consumption crisis of our present times, in other words, the Anthropocene.
I believe, and when I was running the overseas aid program, my principal was not to give aid to people to make—to poor countries to make them more like us. It was to help them make best use of their own resources. So often you find, for example, that food, which is grown in a poor country, probably doing damage to the soils and damaging to the natural environment, generally is produced fairly cheaply. We buy it happily, because it means we don’t have to do it. The countries themselves can be ruined by the exports that they create. What I would like to see is a world in which each country makes good reckoning of its own resources, and above all, consults its own people about what it should be doing.
It shouldn’t necessarily be trying to find the cheaper product for use in the industrial world. It should be treated differently, and we need different models of—I keep away from this word development. Keep different models of change, and I’m afraid that although some economists are now working on this, very often they are not. Above all, the message from some economists, not—but there are some in the World Bank, for example, and in the monetary fund, with who I used to have discussions, and in certain academic quarters, that is going in the right direction. It’s slow, and the connection between that and the economics which drive our politics is still very, very loose. I think in some respects what’s gone wrong with our society at the moment, is quite understandable. People should be worried about the money crisis, and the rest of it. It’s that we’re thinking in wrong terms about it.
We need a new approach to economics. Indeed, I was saying to the president of your university, that I think a priority is try and defining a new—working out a new economic paradigm, which tries to reckon with the subjects that I have covered during my talk this evening.
Audience: Given the fact that hundreds of species have died out in the past, how do you suggest that we determine which of the ones that remain merit heroic efforts to sustain?
Sir Crispin Tickell: Well, I think that you’re working on the illusion that you’re, perhaps, a rather interesting manifestation of God. In other words, is it our right to decide what should survive, and what shouldn’t survive? On the whole, I am in favor of things surviving. There is a—but you don’t—you have to recognize the fact that in natural terms, the species are constantly diminishing, and taking advantage of changing circumstances. Some succeed and some fail. There’s a book I reviewed recently by—which is called Survivors, which analyzed those species that have really lasted from Cambrian times. That’s about 500 million years ago, and there are a very, very small number. There are something like—well, probably not even 0.1 percent of species that have survived. Species are constantly changing.
What we don’t want to do is to destroy other species to satisfy our own selfish desires. It’s quite reasonable that we should want species to survive, and I am in favor of it. I don’t think we can regard ourselves as being sort of substitutes for God, and deciding which species are going to survive, and which ones aren’t. What we want to do is to create the circumstances, and to respect the natural order, to respect natural capital, and make certain that the right ones survive, and the other ones don’t. That’s something which is out of our control, and I think we should recognize it should be largely out of our control. We haven’t got a kind of prescriptive mechanism for what is going to survive, and what isn’t. It would be easier if we had, but we haven’t.
If you look at the history of life, I do assure you that it’s very—it doesn’t support the thesis that we have to support one kind of species against another. I should say, the Great Extinction, as I’m sure you all know, or the time of what’s called the Permo-Triassic extinction, which is about 251 million years ago, when there was something terrible happened to the Earth. Nobody has yet been quite clear what happened, where something like over 90 percent of species perished. We, of course, are the survivors of the famous extinction at the end of the Cretaceous, the beginning of the Jurassic, when the dinosaurs also went their way. If the dinosaurs had survived, we wouldn’t be here, so there is a constant changing and replacing, and so on, and so forth. You have, as it were, to respect the pattern of it, rather than try and be the masters of the whole process ourselves.
Audience: In your opinion, what would be the most effective way to change the global mindset, to be able to live within our means?
Sir Crispin Tickell: Well, I’ve found that on the whole, the difficulty always is if you make it an abstract account, say you are in favor of these things, and that you listen to somebody like me, saying some of the things I have said, and you can’t actually demonstrate it, you are not going to be able to carry much conviction. I think it’s very important that when you want to carry out a policy, or you show a policy, as necessary, that you should be able to point to practical examples of it working. That is something, I think, that governments tend not to do, and scientists also are notorious in saying, “Well this is what we ought to do,” and then turning to the next problem.
In fact, what you have to do is to show, and demonstrate, why it’s necessary to do something, and that why one solution against another solution will succeed. That is something that again, the scientific community has a very large responsibility to carry out. Practical demonstration, so the need for change, practical demonstrations of alternative strategies is absolutely vital. There again, the role of universities is critical.
Audience: Hi, when you mentioned before the path of civilizations are irregular, could you drill down into that, and give more detail? Thank you.
Sir Crispin Tickell: Well I am one of the—I have a number of personal interests. I mean I am very interested in pre-Columbian civilizations, having been ambassador to Mexico, and having actually been there 20 years before I became ambassador. I even collect pre-Columbian objects, so I have taken a particular interest in what—how pre-Columbian civilization worked. There you can see exactly how climate change, for example, affected a lot of the rather over-complicated civilizations of the eighth century A.D. You get climate change taking place to the north, migrations of people moving southwards, and that upsetting all of the local customs of—the elites lose their authority, and you find that a lot of parts of the world—over lots of parts of Central America and Mexico suddenly go into recession.
I once was—I mean I took a helicopter—I persuaded people to put me in a helicopter and take me around some of the forests of the Mayan peninsula. There you can see for yourself where all of these roads were, where all of these towns were. The whole thing—it just doesn’t—and there’s no humans living there, it’s all finished. Why is it finished? Well, a multiplicity of things, an overcomplicated society, which didn’t have the support of most people, but above all, an external factor, like climate change somewhere else, precipitating big changes within the society, which brought the whole thing down. You can see what happened in the Indus Valley, there are many parts of the world where you’ve had quite successful societies for a while.
Sometimes it’s that they caused the damage themselves, by over-cultivating the soils, and planting the wrong things, so that soils can no longer retain the moisture, and that the whole thing turns from a possible tree—fairly, fairly well-treed society, suddenly it turns into nothing but a barren desert. One of the things that happened, for example in Australia, which was when the first settlers went there, they didn’t respect the traditions of the indigenous peoples of Australia. They went and brought in cattle and sheep, and started planting things at a high rate, because the profits were so good. Lo and behold, a lot of Australia at the moment is subject to drought, and a lot of the fertility of the soils have vanished.
You have to—it’s very difficult to give a straight answer to these things. Societies have collapsed—I can give you a list of societies that have collapsed in the past, and then the reasons that they have collapsed are various. Environmental change is always certainly a factor. Excessive use of agriculture in certain areas is another factor, and so on. There’s got—you can work them all out. I am not going to do it now, but you can work it all out, and I have always been very interested in seeing why these societies collapsed.
In the case of Mexico, and the civilizations in which I have sort of specialized, I am very much aware of the way which the external factors upset, in particular human proliferation, excessive population, and then of course warlords taking over, attacking each other. You get—we were talking earlier today—earlier in this meeting about conflict, when I was trying to look into why climate change can provoke conflict. Climate change isn’t the only thing which provokes conflict. Economic breakdown is liable to do exactly the same thing, in a variety of different ways and different circumstances.
Audience: Sir, you have described very serious global problems. I was educated at ASU, and taught at ASU. The first thing we learned in our freshman class was critical thinking. Today, it seems like—you described the multiplicity of information. I would call it, frankly, shallow learning as opposed to deep learning. I’m wondering how you see this playing out in the generation.
Sir Crispin Tickell: Well, I’m not sure I can answer that question. The answer is I don’t know. I’m just aware of these changes that I described, that people are visualizing things in a way they didn’t before. They visualized things before the invention of writing, after all. Human societies survived when they couldn’t write things down, but writing, of course, is a very recent development in human society. Everyone here knows how to read and write, and probably you read and think all the time, but read and think. In a society with people who don’t—aren’t used to it, as I say, don’t see the wood for the trees, don’t understand very clearly what’s going on, I think it’s a major handicap, which has got to be accounted for in the future.
I hope our educational processes in the future will take proper account of this. You’ve got to somehow produce something which combines ability to visualize with ability to take the broader view, and see the big picture, and to work on that basis. I don’t know, I don’t have an instant answer.
Lauren Kuby: One more question after this, by Nancy Grimm.
Audience: Thank you. Sir Crispin, the acceleration in changes that you refer to all sorts of changes, climate change, economic change, all sorts of things, I think is largely due to one factor, and that is that which distinguishes humans from every other species. That is our ability to create, and adapt technology. It’s almost an equivalent of free will. There are good things that come from it, and bad things. My question is how do we reconcile that? We are, I believe, as our human nature—the nature of the planet is—compels us to advance and keep advancing technology. Then we leave it for others to use it wisely, or use it poorly.
How do we reconcile this dilemma that we have, this goldenrod of technology that enables us to do good and bad things? How do we move it towards a more sustainable, and more enlightened type of environment?
Sir Crispin Tickell: I don’t think it’s automatic, that technology should advance. I came across, the other day, a very interesting bit of information, which was that at the end of the reign of the first Queen Elizabeth, in my country, somebody invented the means by which you can produce clothes, you know weaving systems, looms and things. They were denied, they were not given a patent because the queen rightly decided that it would probably throw a lot of people out of work. I was rather amazed to find out so many technical inventions were not developed in the past, because people felt that the social consequences of adopting them were too great.
I think certainly we’re going to go on trying to improve—and using technology in a good way, but of course it is, as I was quoting Martin Rees in saying how difficult it can be. We don’t know what the consequences always will be when we do this, especially the development of nanotechnology. In many cases, you need to have better regulation, and you need to have again, this public interest being very clearly defined, and respected. I wish there were an answer to your question, but I don’t know what it is. Right, do I have a last question?
Audience: I have the last question. I have lots of questions, but I’ll just ask one. Very much enjoyed your talk, and you said that cities will be the relics of the Anthropocene. In the midst of a very helpful sort of set of things that you were talking about in the future, that sounds a little bit less hopeful to me. I kind of like to think that cities might actually be the place where we can figure out how to live sustainably on the planet, at whatever population level we have. I just wanted you to go into that a little bit more.
Sir Crispin Tickell: Well I mean I don’t deny the important role of cities, but I think the character of cities will change. I mean at the moment, a city is rather like a natural organism. It brings in energy and food, and it emits waste, and within certain limitations, that’s fine. I think one must recognize that. I am not against that at all. What I do think is not necessarily the best way of producing things, either manufacturing or living a life is creating cities which are really superorganisms that destroy their natural environment. What I foresee—when I belonged to this British government taskforce on the future of cities, we tried to work out exactly what cities would look like.
We thought, for example, that it’d be very important to have efficient public transport, that we wouldn’t expect people to come in and out of work every day. The advantages of the electronic revolution would be that people could stay at home much more than they did, or could work at home, that there would be much more local activity of every kind, and so on. City—I’m not trying to say that cities won’t continue to exist, of course they’ll continue to exist. The only thing is what kind of cities should they be? Our aim should be to limit their size, reduce their vulnerability, which is a very important point, and make them more useful for—in the long-term human interest. That is really what it is about.
I must—I mean I must look again at our report, which we sent in to the British government some whatever years ago. They didn’t quite know what to make of it, I can tell you, because so many people had been pressing them to build more roads, and do all of the things that exactly we were saying, “Don’t do,” that I think they found it rather hard to digest this particular set of proposals.
Lauren Kuby:: Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in thanking Sir Crispin. [Applause]
Gary Dirks: We have here a very local gift, and one that I hope you will both enjoy, and it will cause you to remember a great visit with us in Phoenix.
Sir Crispin Tickell: Okay. This is heavy.
Gary Dirks: A little bit, thank you Crispin, for a wonderful lecture. [Applause]
Sir Crispin Tickell: Could I just say one final word? I have been associated with Arizona State University since I was invited to come and join you by the president. It is a matter of pride to me, that I should be associated with the university. I shall continue to do all I can, and I am proud to be a member of it. I believe I am a member of it.
Gary Dirks: If you weren’t, you are now.
Sir Crispin Tickell: And for that reason, I shall do what I can to promote the interests of Arizona State University, which I regard as a model for many other universities in other parts of the world. I wish you extremely well.