Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Centre for Human Survival at the Australian National University

A centre for human survival at the Australian National University (ANU) has been proposed by Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas, Julian Cribb, and others. What follows are some early thoughts on this excellent idea.

Soon before the asteroid struck, initiating the 5th great extinction, an imaginary survey was conducted among the dinosaurs. Unanimously, they predicted the indefinite survival of their species. Today, most human thought leaders are similarly optimistic. Optimism is common in humans, the one species definitely known to be aware of their limited individual lifespans; optimism is a trait perhaps favoured by evolution. Optimism is especially frequent in elites such as politicians and chief executives. Optimism breeds success; pessimists are rarely popular.  

There are important exceptions: Winston Churchill, almost alone among his peers, foresaw WWII. Bertrand Russell, following WWII, worried that nuclear weapons heralded the demise of civilisation. In 1983 Carl Sagan and colleagues warned that a fairly small nuclear war could trigger “nuclear winter”, leading not only to the end of civilisation, but our species.

Yet, optimism bubbles afresh. Most people, most of the media, and even most academics dismiss concerns about human survival as “catastrophism”. The current recurrence of famine is generally considered an aberration; blighted places like Yemen, South Sudan and Syria are explained away as special cases, dependent on “political”, “economic” or “ethnic” factors, in ways that persistently disguise and marginalise linked underlying root causes. These deep causes are rarely analysed or even admitted, though a recent analysis of Niger is a good exception. Another is the work of the  OASIS Initiative, based at the University of California, Berkeley.

In recent years, new threats have been more widely recognised: climate change, inequality and biodiversity loss. Each of these threats have champions, but the voices of the few scientists and activists who warn not only of the unified, systemic nature of these threats (such as limits to growth) but that they literally threaten human survival is scarcely heard. Relatedly, paths toward the alleviation of these threats are almost invisible.  It is as though global elites have determined that a “fortress” or “enclave” world – pockets of liberalism and order in spreading chaos –  is an acceptable outcome, even desirable (think of gated communities writ large). This is deeply problematic; as the pockets of order contract, authoritarianism within them is likely to rise (think of Turkey). Outside the refuges, brutality and chaos will spread. Already this dystopia subtly threatens the enclaves. These threats are increasingly obvious.

Why should Australians care about Human Survival?

In recent years, Australians have looked increasingly inward, pursuing their own enclave strategy. Foreign aid has been cut, negative feelings towards refugees and many visa-bearing migrants have strengthened. Australia’s world-class climate science capability, and world-leading expertise in renewable energy technology have not translated into effective action. Instead, a series of policy decisions (supported by the main political parties) have seen Australians punch far above our weight as per capita emitters of carbon dioxide. Collectively, we are now even blasé about the imminent death of the Great Barrier Reef

“Economics”, as conventionally defined, has harmed not only the environment, but also concerns about global social justice. Instead of health and wealth for all, too many Australians seem to relish life in a fortress, scarred by growing national inequality.

It was not always so. After WWII the visionary Australian politician Doc Evatt played an important role in establishing the United Nations. In the 1960s the Colombo Plan was based on the principle that training the most capable graduates in our region, and then returning them home, would generate goodwill to Australia and foster improved regional governance. Today, we seek foreign students mostly for their fees, in exchange for adjusting to a model of funding which does not allow teaching to be prioritised in the same way’. 

We cannot reproduce the past, but we can again recognise that long term good is not always guaranteed by the individual pursuit of self-interest. “Health for all” may now be beyond reach, and dangerous climate change seems inevitable. Australians cannot solve either problem. However, we can contribute to navigating the shoals. Civilization’s collapse is not inevitable; a small nudge in the right direction might be crucial.

Why should Human Survival interest the Australian National University?

By any metric the ANU is a leading university. The university’s location in our capital, and the word “National” in its title give the ANU a unique opportunity and indeed a responsibility for public good leadership.
Credible and contemporary concerns about human survival exist, including within academia, such as at Cambridge and Oxford. But these concerns are hard to find in elite discourse, and are easy to dismiss. A centre for human survival, based at the ANU in our national capital would inspire intellectual leadership. 

Warning of the risk we face is not the same as from Hanrahan(1) that we will all be "rooned". Churchill’s alarms had effect, even before Chamberlain’s resignation as UK Prime Minister. The warnings of Russell, Albert Einstein, Joseph Rotblatt and Sagan also, eventually, bore fruit, such as the abolition of atmospheric atomic tests, and treaties which cut nuclear arsenals.

An ANU Centre for Human Survival would give voice in Australia to these concerns, and contribute to global leadership. Of course it is ambitious. There is nothing like this in the Southern Hemisphere and far too little in the Northern Hemisphere. This alone shows its originality. As for importance, is there anything more important than Human Survival?

Universities in Australia still have considerable freedom of thought and expression, qualities vital for a Centre for Human Survival to thrive. Remember, the primary purpose of such a centre is not to foster short-term national wealth, nor even national well-being. It is much larger. It is to catalyse academic and public debate concerning the existential risks that humanity now faces: not in a single discipline (e.g. economics, security, health, environment) — but in the intermeshed, interdisciplinary field some call “sustainability science”. If humans survive, so will Australians.

What would the Centre for Human Survival do?

The Centre would function as a hub for academic work and advocacy concerning the greatest risks that humans face. It would intersect with other centres and individuals at the ANU, such as the Fenner School for Environment and Society and the ecological economist Robert Costanza. It would build on the legacy of Frank Fenner, Tony McMichael, Peter Doherty and Stephen Boyden, each of whom worried or worry about the possibility of civilisation collapse, and, possibly, human extinction (and had or have deep links with the ANU). 
Staff and students would contribute to academic life, within and outside the ANU, just as at any other ANU academic centre. International links, especially with Europe, Asia and America would be important. The centre would host regular seminars, open to the public and to ANU staff, and occasional conferences, giving voice to the critical minority of outstanding people, globally, who express credible fears that human survival is at risk, but also provide hope that we can still do something meaningful about it.


A recurrent annual budget of $2M would enable the employment of a director, deputy director and approximately 7 other staff, including three administrative.  Up to 5 doctoral students could initially be supported and trained.

A goal would be to leverage these funds with grants, from funders within and outside Australia. As the “sustainability transition” progresses, it may be possible to attract funds, building on the ANU’s reputation and the importance of the intellectual problem of human survival. Potential funders include the Wellcome Trust, Rockefeller Foundation, the Australian Research Council and entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk.


It is not enough for the staff and students of the Centre for Human Survival to attain academic excellence. It is vital to have a strong social and mainstream media presence. The message of the Centre for Human Survival is so startling that mainstream media may not, initially, take it seriously. However, its location at the Australian National University would be extraordinary, difficult to dismiss as fantastic or lightweight.


1. To non-Australians, this is cryptic. Hanrahan was a fictional character, always pessimistic, ultimately proven wrong (probably!)