A Proposed Framework For Thinking About Existential Threats – OpEd


Today’s existential threats to humanity might perhaps be classified in four categories:

1. Ecological collapse. Ecological collapse has already begun.

2. Thermonuclear war.  The apparent inevitability that the continuing onward advance of science will make it possible and inevitable that ever more fiendish and ungovernable weapons of many kinds will be invented and, inevitably, sooner or later used.  Spreading chaotic warfare like that happening now in South Sudan, Gaza and Ukraine could become an existential threat.

3. Social chaos.  This includes unemployment. crime, gangs, fascist paramilitaries, drug trafficking, human trafficking, epidemics of mental illness and depression, mass shootings, police violence, authoritarian takeovers, gender violence, service delivery failure, racism, sexism, homophobia, runaway inflation, corruption, post-truth culture, and anomie.

4. Existential crises partly caused by the sheer number (a number that passed 8 billion on November 15, 2022) of human beings on planet earth.

Let this be the offer of one among many ways to classify existential threats, followed by ten theses for discussion.

Thesis One:

It is necessary to escape all four threats simultaneously, avoiding measures that reduce one threat while worsening others.

Thesis Two:   

The third category, social chaos, merits priority attention. Giving social peace priority, while not neglecting the other three categories, could and should facilitate the green transition, demilitarization, and a sustainable  human population.

Priority should be given to creating societies of the kind Abraham Maslow called good, societies making provision for meeting basic needs (dignity is a basic need), thus freeing people to pursue inherently worthwhile activities that satisfy less basic needs.  Victor Frankl adds a complementary perspective.  Frankl claims that the need to find meaning in life is basic.  The desired and expected outcomes of continuing conversations thinkers like Maslow and Frankl start would contribute to safety from existential threats one, two and four as well as three.  As Erich Fromm and others have suggested, it would shift the motivations of the rich and privileged (and everyone else) from having to being.

Thesis Three:

Within the general category of working to end the social chaos that fosters violence, a leading candidate for special priority attention is working for a world where every human being who needs work is working and enjoying a dignified livelihood.

In the previous sentence, the phrase “dignified livelihood” for all replaces the more usual phrase “full employment.” “Dignified livelihood” expresses better what the goal should be.

The word “dignified” in the phrase “dignified livelihoods” is intended to call attention to the psychological and ethical benefits of work.  A dignified livelihood is more than a source of income.  In Abraham Maslow´s terms it is a source of esteem and self-esteem.  In Frankl´s terms it is a source of meaning and purpose.

Before considering how to fund more dignified livelihoods, I will describe some benefits of universal access to them.

Thesis Four:

It is not likely that racism will cease to exist, or become substantially less pervasive and violent than it is now, while people of different races and ethnicities are competing with each other for the same scarce dignified livelihoods (I.e., scarce good jobs).  Plentiful dignified livelihoods would weaken one of the main motives for racist behavior; namely, the motive of securing economic advantages for people like oneself.

Thesis Five: 

It is also not likely that sexism and patriarchy will cease to exist, in spite of recent progress, while women and men are competing with other for the same scarce dignified livelihoods.  If there are four hundred members of parliament, and if they are all men, and if this injustice is corrected by electing two hundred women to parliament, then there are two hundred fewer male MPs.  The situation is similar in law, in admission to medical school, in academia, and to a greater or lesser extent in other fields.

The situation becomes dire at the tough end of the labor market where the poor struggle to survive.   There employers hiring women while not hiring every man who needs a job conflicts with social norms that my working-class father was brought up to revere, namely the norm that it is the duty of the man to support the family and norm that ít is the place of the woman to be the housewife.  After WW2 was over, when he was approaching middle age, he became permanently unemployed. Losing our house, the four of us (mother, father, and two boys) moved in with his mother.

My father was doubly humiliated.  First because he was rejected by the labor market.  Second because he could not be the provider that he felt he was supposed to be.

Unable to work himself, he would not allow his wife to work.  She left him, taking her two boys with her early in the morning while he was asleep.

My father became a depressed and deranged chain smoker.  When two of us, my brother and myself, visited him and his mother at Christmas, he would meet us at the door nicely dressed and ask “Where is your mother?”  He called us traitors to the family.  He got crazier and crazier, depressed and more depressed.  He lived the rest of his life in a bedroom in his mother´s house, dying at age 53 sick, angry and completely insane.

My father´s fate can be seen as an early harbinger of the fate of millions today.

Where competition for scarce good jobs is fierce, and getting fiercer, backlashes against the advancement of women are to be expected.

Thesis Six:

Most people would agree that the benefits of an abundance of dignified livelihoods, available for everyone who needs one, if it could be achieved, would be immense.    Most people would be able to supply their own reasons why this is so.

Thesis Seven:

The danger of reducing one threat while worsening another is very real.

This dismal fact suggests the need for a framework for thinking about existential threats fundamentally different from “development” conceived as requiring economic growth

Thesis Eight:

When we get to the point where we understand the need for, and some of the benefits of, creating dignified livelihoods for all (DLFA), and begin to take steps to achieve that goal, we will already be well on our way to safety from existential threats of social chaos.   And also safety from the threats of ecological collapse, militarism and overpopulation.

Admittedly, this is a bold claim.  I believe it is true, because at that point we will already understand that DLFA cannot be funded entirely by private employment making products to sell, and paying wages to workers from revenues from sales.  Nor can it be funded entirely by self-employment leading to sales –due to the chronic weakness of effective demand identified but underestimated by Keynes.  Nor can it be funded entirely funded by public employment financed by taxes.  Nor from any combination of these three.

Civil society must weigh in, after these three sources have contributed as much as they can to achieving what a social consensus must identify as a goal to be achieved.  The non-profit sector funded by voluntary donations is key.  “Surplus” must be moved from where it is not needed to where it is needed.  Identifying surplus requires ethical deliberation as well as technical calculations.

A specific example may help to make these general principles understandable. The example should not be confused with the innumerable and various applications of the principles.  I take the example from my own current experience.

My partner and I, both retired academics with pensions, fund for people who need them three livelihoods that are dignified by Chilean standards, two young social and ecological activists, and one crippled elderly single mom.  I have estimated, starting from World Bank statistics, that out of a total world population of 8.2 billion, more than a billion have either virtually the same, or more, wealth and income than we have.  The upper 1% have astronomically more.  Transferring resources from where they are not needed to where they are needed, for example funding people who need dignified livelihoods to work to save the biosphere, is not hard to do — if that is what you want to do.

In an article recently published in TMS Evelin Lindner succinctly identifies the basic issue.  After reviewing the overwhelming evidence for drawing the conclusion that humanity is in deep trouble, she succinctly explains why: too much is being done motivated by profit-seeking; too little is being done motivated by a care ethic.

Carol Gilligan has defined practicing a care ethic as attending to and responding to needs; others around the world at least for the past several thousand years, have been encouraging pro-social behavior using different words.

Lindner´s point suggests rephrasing our question.  Instead of asking, “How can we defend our species against existential threats?” ask “How can we as a species stop destroying ourselves and the biosphere by our self-destructive and anti-social behavior?”

Thesis Nine:

Social activists need to be people Antonio Gramsci would call organic intellectuals, meriting and enjoying the confidence of large numbers of people, while reading books and journals large numbers of people would never read.  They need methodologies that start where humanity is, not just in general but in many different cultures and contexts, work with institutions that exist, encourage the many counter-cultures where people are already following one or another care ethic prescribing solidarity and sustainability,  and lead to where humanity needs to be: freed from the necessity of complying with the systemic imperatives of regimes of accumulation, protecting the best liberal values while achieving the best socialist values, using the resources of psychology and moral education, not just jails, to combat  the omnipresent corruption that makes even the best institutions useless, practicing the virtues that (as Alasdair McIntyre articulates) are necessary to make any given set of practices function properly. Humanity needs institutions that function for the good of all and the good of mother nature, and that lend themselves to constant improvement in the light of ongoing experience.

Fortunately, promising methodologies and actionable theories exist.  Some I am aware of are in books by Gavin Andersson, Evelin Lindner, Genevieve Vaughan, John McKnight, Jody Kretzmann, André Orléan, Paulo Freire, Rosa Luxemburg, J.C. Kumarappa and Mahatma Gandhi, Dave Elder-Vass (see his Profit and Gift in the Digital Economy), Andrew Sayer, and Rafael Carmen et al.  My own take on how to interpret the world and change it is in a PowerPoint called Basic Cultural Structure that can be found in English on the site www.chileufu.cl.

Thesis Ten:

We can now reframe the framework.  We know, if anybody believes my assertions in the theses for discussion, that we have met the enemy and he is us.  We (meaning ourselves and our existing institutions) are the perpetrators of our existential threats.  The cure is not to protect us (us and our existing institutions) against threats from out there, but to analyze and change the path to self-destruction that our ancestors have created and the majority of our contemporaries have accepted.

For the agenda:

How can we lick our bad habits that destroy the biosphere?   Why is it that when climate scientists make it perfectly clear what must be done to reverse global warming, humans do not do it even after promising to do it, but instead do what must be done to save jobs, make profits, and achieve high levels of economic growth with low levels of inflation?

Why is it that the United States and its allies when they lose enemies to fight acquire others?

Why is it considered impossible to fund dignified livelihoods for the poor when huge surpluses have been accumulated by the rich?

Why is it that when birth rates fall in Europe, raising hopes for a demographic transition toward sustainable numbers of humans on the planet, instead of celebrating the good news, the powers that be are alarmed by what they see as bad news?

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS)

Prof. Howard Richards

Prof. Howard Richards is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. He is a philosopher of social science and Research Professor of Philosophy at Earlham College, Richmond, Indiana, USA. He was educated at Redlands High School in California, Yale, Stanford, University of California at Santa Barbara, University of Toronto, Harvard and Oxford. He currently teaches in the University of Cape Town`s EMBA programme. His books include: The Evaluation of Cultural Action, a study of an application of Paulo Freire´s pedagogical philosophy in rural Chile (London Macmillan 1985); Letters from Quebec; Understanding the Global Economy; The Dilemmas of Social Democracies; Gandhi and the Future of Economics; Rethinking Thinking; Unbounded Organizing in Community; and The Nurturing of Time Future. His new book, written with the assistance of Gavin Andersson, Economic Theory and Community Development: Why Putting Community First Is Essential for Survival, is now available from the publisher, Dignity Press, and from Amazon and other major booksellers, as a print book and as an eBook. [email protected]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *