The Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior (MAHB, pronounced “mob”) is a new initiative started by a group of social and natural scientists and scholars in the Humanities with the aim of “changing human behavior to avoid a collapse of global civilization.”
Writing in an essay published today on the Public Library of Science – Biology website (The MAHB, the Culture Gap, and Some Really Inconvenient Truths), the multiple award-winning author of The Population Bomb (1968), and Stanford University professor, Paul R. Ehrlich, details the numerous threats facing the human race and which, collectively, threaten to collapse human civilization this century.
Author Paul Ehrlich, speaking for the Millennium Assessment for Human Behavior group, offers a sobering analysis of human society’s greatest, most urgent challenges.
The essay offers a rather sobering assessment; despite that fact the climate change is now on the global political agenda, Ehrlich notes some fifteen international climate conferences in the past 20 years yet with no serious change in GHG emissions and no “enforceable agreement to reverse this trend.”
Further, Ehrlich lists numerous other critical issues that, in in the view of the MAHB group, are not being given the political high-priority needed to avert catastrophe.
These include: the increasing loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, the growing percentage of malnourished/hungry people (which means more and more immune compromised people), the increase in rapid population growth (which, combined with the second item promises to increase epidemics), rising temperatures and the decline in the Himalayan glacial pack mass (the “Himalayan water tower”) which threatened to disrupt the lives of over a billion and a half people (whom live in nations that possess nuclear weapons), the “toxic peril” caused by the release of hormone-disrupting chemicals into the environment that could potentially alter the sex ratio (and reduce sperm counts).
Ehrlich emphasizes this call to action through observing a “culture gap” between the Science (and the scientifically educated community) and the general population–including world leaders, many of whom have less than adequate scientific knowledge to address these critical issues. For example, Ehrlich asserts that “Few non-scientists are familiar with the basic idea that environmental damage is a product of population size, per capita consumption, and the sorts of technologies and social and economic systems that supply the consumption.”
“To lead decent lives, at least two billion people are in dire need of more consumption, but extending American consumption patterns to even today’s 6.8 billion people is not only unsustainable but likely a biophysical impossibility.“
The author goes on to write that because of this gap, leaders of developing nations fail to implement or follow family planning policies, while, richer, more developed nations, such as in Europe, are “irrationally encouraging higher fertility.” Ehrlich laments that not enough recognize that adding another billion to the world’s population will do far greater harm to the global ecology than the previous billion, as competition for scarcer resources and environmental degradation increases dramatically.
Ehrlich also recognize the central role in our deteriorating life-support systems played by over-consumption by the rich–a standard of living still viewed as wholly good by most western economists and corporate leaders. quoting from the essay: “To lead decent lives, at least two billion people are in dire need of more consumption, but extending American consumption patterns to even today’s 6.8 billion people is not only unsustainable but likely a biophysical impossibility.”
Without compelling incentives, it would take several more decades before enough of the world’s population was committed to sustainable population growth and resource usage. However, Ehrlich notes that sometimes an entire society can mobilize itself to alter its behavior in a very rapid time frame–as was the case in the U.S. during World War II. In the span of 4 to 5 years, the entire population accepted rationing of fuel, materials and food stuffs. This, he asserts, proves that a rapid shift in behavior is possible. That said, Ehrlich admits that such a rapid modification (such as would be needed to curb GHGs) would need to last several times longer than in WW II.
Central to this transformation of social behavior is a shift away from more natural science (which he sees as being sufficient, except in some areas) and towards more social science. The urgent need now is “better understanding of human behaviors and how they can be altered to direct Homo sapiens onto a course toward a sustainable society, to muster that courage before it’s too late.”
Calling for a joint effort by the Social Sciences and the Humanities, Ehrlich advocates a greater focus on “understanding such things as how social norms are generated and how individual actions get translated into group behavior…” This, he believes, is pivotal to any successful effort at rapid, societal modification.
The MAHB group/initiative hopes to provide an effective “mechanism” towards achieving these ends through pursuing the following three agendas:
1) exposing society to the full range of “inconvenient truths” regarding population–environment–resource–ethics–power issues,
(2) sponsoring a broad global discussion involving the greatest possible diversity of people, and
(3) trying to close crucial parts of the culture gap.
The group is aware of the tremendous challenges facing human civilization, central of which is simultaneously decreasing the rate of consumption in the developed (rich) world while increasing the rate of consumption in the developing (poor) world. Ehrlich spares no criticism of the role of large corporations in this challenge, noting that “This will require developing mechanisms to force big corporations (including those in big agriculture and big pharma) to bear social responsibilities like the real individuals whose rights they legally want to assume.”
Furthering his critique of standard capitalistic practice, the author points out that “if capitalism must depend on non-asymptotic perpetual growth of the physical economy, capitalism will disappear. Like it or not, the human enterprise simply must be constrained if it is to persist.” In this one may hear an echo of FDR who, in implementing his federal regulatory policies, stated that he was “trying to save capitalism from itself.”
In conducting its global dialogue, the MAHB group seeks input from both the scholarly community and the general public “and will continue to do so”. For more information on MAHB and/or to join in the discussion visit here.
images: public domain
bottom image (density map): NASA
Michael Ricciardi is a well-published writer of science/nature/technology articles and essays, poetry and short fiction. Michael has interviewed dozen of scientists from many scientific fields, including Brain Greene, Paul Steinhardt, and Nobel Laureate Ilya Progogine (deceased). Michael was trained as a naturalist and taught ecology and natural science on Cape Cod, Mass. from 1986-1991. His first arts grant was for production of the environmental (video) documentary 'The Jones River - A Natural History', 1987-88 (Kingston, Mass.). Michael is also an award winning, internationally screened video artist. Two of his more recent short videos; 'A Time of Water Bountiful' and 'My Name is HAM' (an "imagined memoir" about the first chimp in space), and several other short videos, can be viewed on his website (http://www.chaosmosis.net). Michael currently lives in Seattle, Washington.