The Global Challenges Foundation (GCF) is a good example of a sustainability-focused think tank that also focuses on risk. Board members include Johan Rockström, whose pioneering work on the concept of “planetary boundaries” has been influential in sustainability. For this report, GCF worked closely alongside a similar outfit, the Future of Humanity Institute, based out of Oxford University and led by philosopher Nick Bostrom whose ideas continually reappear in these spaces.
As the report’s title suggests, they’ve focused on developing definitions of risk that include a new category; infinite risks. The term “infinite” here refers to their potential impact. As the formula below demonstrates, impact is part of how they are essentially “calculating” risk. This simple formula drives their approach, and it’s the kind of criteria-driven classification system we need for triage to occur.
Their argument is, at least partly, that impacts and probabilities are often “masked” by government and business policies, which typically under-report both parameters. Their more cold-blooded assertion is that:
This formula captures what is probably common sense thinking to most: A high probability event with low impact isn’t as risky as a low probability event with high impact. A 90% chance of a common cold isn’t a serious as a 1% chance of terminal cancer, right?
If it seems odd for a bunch of serious thinkers, in a serious report, to be stating something so simple as the above formula, it’s because despite being both simple and true, this idea doesn’t get much traction in the real world.
Using the formula above it might occur to us that some “calculations” don’t quite boil down to numbers: the impact of some risks are essentially infinite. To illustrate this, the report starts with some history, and shows how that guides them today. It’s an interesting story, worth quoting in full:
It is only 70 years ago that Edward Teller, one of the greatest physicists of his time, with his back-of-the-envelope calculations, produced results that differed drastically from all that had gone before. His calculations showed that the explosion of a nuclear bomb – a creation of some of the brightest minds on the planet, including Teller himself – could result in a chain reaction so powerful that it would ignite the world’s atmosphere, thereby ending human life on Earth.
Robert Oppenheimer, who led the Manhattan Project to develop the nuclear bomb, halted the project to see whether Teller’s calculations were correct. The resulting document, LA-602: Ignition of the Atmosphere with Nuclear Bombs, concluded that Teller was wrong. But the sheer complexity drove the assessors to end their study by writing that “further work on the subject [is] highly desirable”. The LA-602 document can be seen as the first global challenge report addressing a category of risks where the worst possible impact in all practical senses is infinite.
The idea from this opening scenario of us igniting the atmosphere is a great example of a risk where the impacts would be so far-reaching and devastating, they are effectively infinite. The end of Earth is not something we can quantify with a number, it is an impact with no upper limits – and therefore infinite, in the author’s minds.
This idea of infinite risk is useful to a triage model of sustainability because it is inherently focused on severity of impacts as a determinant of a risk’s importance. In this model, a broad range of threats is assessed using a new definition of risk, and then, using a criteria (probability and impact) we determine what to prioritize. This is essentially that three-steps model of triage mentioned earlier at work, and the list of threats this model identified as important is notably different from something like the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Another notable point in the report is the way it approaches communicating sustainability and risk specifically. As mentioned elsewhere a risk-based model presents challenges to communicating sustainability, since it can often veer into negative messaging, which in turn can cause disengagement and other undesirable outcomes.
The authors clearly recognize this, and the report has a stated focus on turning challenges into opportunities:
The idea that we face a number of global challenges threatening the very basis of our civilisation at the beginning of the 21st century is well accepted in the scientific community and is studied at a number of leading universities. However, there is still no coordinated approach to address this group of challenges and turn them into opportunities.
The interrelationship between danger and opportunity is worth identifying and targeting, because it is arguably present in many sustainability challenges. The idea here echoes an old truism, famously stated by US President John F. Kennedy: ‘In the Chinese language, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, opportunity’.
Even though he’s not quite correct, the point here is that if it’s good enough for JFK, it’s good enough for me. A focus on positive messaging and finding opportunities from the crises ahead seems to me a better starting mindset than one focused on impending doom.
Of course, as a final note, this assumes we want to change people’s minds, or that we even have an ethical right to. This is a far stickier issue and gets its own examination at the end of this section on risk.
 Global Challenges Foundation. (2015). 12 risks that threaten human civilization – The case for a new risk category. Stockholm: Global Challenges Foundation.
 As an aside: We see this argument echoed elsewhere, perhaps. Economic costings of environmental degradation are criticised at times under the notion that nature is “priceless”, effectively of infinite value and not reducible, once again, to numbers. This resembles arguments that some risks to the environment, such as igniting the atmosphere, are infinite and unquantifiable too.
Although it enjoys less mainstream attention it is important to note that much work has been done already on steps 1 and 2 above, and some groups have even attempted to create ranked lists. Below is a list of such threats, from a report created in 2015.
The list is a mixed bag featuring the familiar (nuclear war, meteors, climate change) and the lesser-known, such as AI development, synthetic biology, and nanotechnology – the bad fruits of unchecked modernization.
Notably, publishing this article in 2020, after it was written in 2018-2019, we can it was spot on to include Global Pandemic as an existential risk:
There are grounds for suspecting that such a high impact epidemic is more probable than usually assumed…The world has changed considerably, making comparisons with the past problematic. Today it has better sanitation and medical research, as well as national and supra-national institutions dedicated to combating diseases. But modern transport and dense human population allow infections to spread much more rapidly.
…and alongside it, Global System Collapse.
An economic or societal collapse on the global scale…Such intricate, interconnected systems are subject to unexpected system-wide failures caused by the structure of the network – even if each component of the network is reliable. This gives rise to systemic risk, when parts that individually may function well become vulnerable when connected as a system to a self-reinforcing joint risk that can spread from part to part, potentially affecting the entire system and possibly spilling over to related outside systems.
[At some point I hope to update this with analysis of a comparable model seen in this more recent report, linked below.]
The Drawdown project spearheaded by Paul Hawken, identified a range of potential methods to reverse climate change, and then prioritized them according to certain criteria. Specifically, they were ranked according to emissions reductions and cost. Emissions reductions is the key component of reversing climate change, and so this was considered the critical indicator of a given solution’s potential impact.
The inclusion of costs is intended to act as a proxy for feasibility in general, suggesting that projects with economic gains are arguably more feasible – although ascertaining costs in some areas was too difficult for this first version of the project. Project leader Paul Hawken also stressed that various co-benefits existed with these solutions that went far beyond economic considerations. Empowering women, delivering rooftop solar, and regenerating our natural environments are all examples of ways to achieve emissions reductions that come with other profound benefits. The image below illustrates this idea beautifully:
This famous cartoon by artist Joel Pett went viral before the Copenhagen Climate Change Conference in 2009, helping promote the simple yet powerful idea of “co-benefits”.
Drawdown demonstrates prioritization, but not triage: The focus is on prioritizing solutions by their effectiveness, rather than ranking threats by level of severity. This isn’t to say Drawdown is bad, however. This is not lazy thinking, simply different. Different approaches should be encouraged because each framework lends different strengths. A drawdown-type approach can be good for identifying lesser-known issues, for example, refrigeration management (a surprising #1 on the list, as shown below) and aligning our capacity for solutions with problems we can solve in a way that maximizes our potential positive impacts. That part is commendable.
More so than the results of Drawdown, their prioritization methodology might end up ultimately as their greatest achievement. One key point here is to examine what the Drawdown project does at this higher level, because it is an instructive example in highlighting a process resembling triage.
Identify candidate issues for consideration.
Develop criteria to rank them.
Apply criteria and develop a ranked list.
As Turner’s previous lamentations would highlight, however, the focus with Drawdown is still problematically on just one domain – the environmental, and even more specifically, on reversing climate change (just one environmental challenge of many).
What if, instead, there was a work comparable to Drawdown that identified existential risks, developed a criteria for prioritization, and produced a ranked list like the one above? Something like the list below?
Unintended consequences of AI development
Global nuclear war
What if we had something like this to help guide us?
Perhaps more humbly, I should ask: What if we already do, but it just doesn’t get the attention it deserves?
 I attended a talk on this report delivered by the editor Paul Hawken, which is where some of the information here is drawn from.
 Pett, J. (2012, March 18). Joel Pett: The cartoon seen ’round the world’. Lexington Herald Leader.
 Drawdown.org. (2017). Summary of Solutions by Overall Rank. Retrieved from Drawdown.org: https://www.drawdown.org/solutions-summary-by-rank Taken from their website in 2017. Notably, much has changed in the years since writing this. The 2020 review of Drawdown appears to have changed things considerably. The extent this undermines arguments here won’t be clear until I get a chance to take a closer look.
The grass ceiling’s role in creating ‘blind spots’
Returning once again to the core problem of our research – that of “over-greening” in sustainability – it is arguable that this issue plays a role in focusing mainstream conceptualizations of existential risktoo much on environmental problems. Sure, the SDGs might mention non-environmental risks like economic inequality, but they say very little on others, such as the risks of unchecked modernization (technological advancement and human progress gone bad, to put it simply – discussed elsewhere under the term modernity).
Still today, we focus on sustainability and existential risks by placing environmental challenges above others. Climate Change is just one existential risk of many, yet it utterly dominates discourse in sustainability, including discourse explicitly related to existential risk.
Previously I spoke about the idea of reframing this era not as the Anthropocene (the era of humans) but instead as the Apeilicene (the era of threats). In 2014, Australian academic Graham Turner revisited the seminal sustainability study The Limits to Growth and found that, 40 years on, the book’s predictions of global collapse due to resource constraints (and not climate change) were still on track to occur. Part of the reason this is happening, Turner argued, is because we have failed to triage effectively: we have given too much attention to climate change as a single issue, at the cost of ignoring other highly pressing threats:
Somewhat ironically, the apparent corroboration here of the LTG BAU implies that the scientific and public attention given to climate change, whilst tremendously important in its own right, may have deleteriously distracted from the issue of resource constraints, particularly that of oil supply.
Turner’s quote here is excellent at illuminating the absence of a triage model and the profoundly dangerous consequences that absence invites – in this case, heading towards global collapse because we are not adequately prioritizing other existential threats.
In an especially important sense, it does not matter whether Turner is actually correct here. It may be the case that climate change is Threat #1 and resource constraints are Threat #2. What matters most is that our frameworks aren’t geared towards guiding us when we encounter conflicts like this.
Turner’s finding is also a good example because resource constraints remain a primarily environmental issue. Of course, just as with climate change, there are elements of this issue that are political, social, ethical, and so on. My argument would be, however, that these considerations stem from what is an environmental issue, or even just one of basic physics: resource constraints. Compare climate change or resource constraints to the existential threat of Artificial Intelligence development, and you can see more clearly the difference between “environmental” threats and others. Importantly, this is not quite the same as the difference between anthropogenic and “natural” threats since some anthropogenic threats can manifest environmentally. Climate change is the obvious example of this.
What Turner shows is that even within an “overly-greened” conceptualization of sustainability like the focus he takes, the absence of triage is still a critically important issue, and still undervalued as an approach. To put it simply, even when we’re over-greening things, we are seemingly still not prioritizing effectively.
This would suggest that the “over-greening” of sustainability, while a key issue, isn’t as important to our survival as how we manage risk.
Certainly, one other factor at play is that we are yet to develop a comprehensive system for identifying and classifying existential risks; a necessary step before we can begin to prioritize them – and doing so will be immensely difficult. Returning once again to the SDGs, we don’t just need them to be ranked but also expanded, to include other areas (blind spots) the grass ceiling has hidden from us, such as the threats from unchecked modernization, which many argue are greater than the environmental challenges ahead of us.
Efforts are certainly underway to develop threat-based frameworks, and there is a growing body of work in this field, but it remains a long way from garnering the attention and profile that other frameworks enjoy (such as the SDGs), and even further away from shaping how we communicate sustainability. So, to help shed some greater light on this work, we’ll look closer at some examples.
 The definition of existential risk, for now, can be considered a global-scale threat of annihilation to our species, or a similarly catastrophic curtailing of our potential. It is explored in greater detail elsewhere in other articles. See: #existential risk.
 The recent release of the IPCC warning that we have only 12 years to address climate change has only amplified the growing dominance of climate change in the broader “risk discourse”.
 In plain speak, the confirmation of the Limits to Growth “Business as Usual” model – in other words, the confirmation that this scenario – in which global collapse occurs – is underway.
 Turner, G. (2014). ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?’. Melbourne: Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne.
 Something unavoidable, to be fair, given his project involves studying an environmental work.
Typically, this term appears in a medical context where it refers to the process of determining priority of treatment based on the severity of a condition. For example, a hospital emergency room may have multiple patients to treat, and its triage that helps determine how to prioritize their treatment. Urgent and severe problems are dealt with first, and so on down the list of patients.
This would probably strike most people as “common sense” – it is clearly stupid to treat someone’s tooth ache while another patient with multiple gunshot wounds dies in the waiting room from lack of attention. Importantly, however, not every situation is so clear cut. Sometimes a patient with an urgent medical problem may not obviously present that way, while someone with a lesser issue can make a lot of noise demanding urgent attention (a tooth ache is a good example – exceptionally painful at times, but rarely life-threatening. The identification and classification of risk is, therefore, just as critical an aspect of triage as the ensuing prioritization that it informs. In other words, we need a way to identify the “quiet” but high-risk patients, just like we need a way to identify the high-risk threats that may not obviously present themselves, like someone screaming about a toothache or something with a gaping chest wound.
[Editor’s comment: The other part of triage which you haven’t mentioned is that patients who are urgent but too far gone are not treated – what are the sustainability parallels? Do we need to jettison certain causes in favour of those that are still saveable?]
The point here is that triage needs two things to work well: it’s not just about ranking threats, it’s also about identifying them in the first place – as many as possible that might be of relevance or importance. A good classification and identification scheme can help us in the more uncertain situations, when multiple high-priority issues present simultaneously. One can easily argue this is the case in sustainability, where climate change, resource constraints, economic equality, human rights, peace and justice, and other issues all present as equally urgent (and frustratingly, are often interrelated – making it harder to separate and then prioritize just one).
The UN Sustainable Development goals exemplifies, quite well I think, how we have frameworks already attempting something like the first half the work of triage – identifying threats. It’s not quite framed that way, but many can be read out of each goal. Eliminating poverty, for example, reduces the risk of harm at a personal level, and reduces the risk of broader societal disorder – and the reason we want to do this is, partly, to reduce such risks. The UN even demonstrates thinking “beyond the grass ceiling” and include issues like economic inequality, justice and peace, and human rights. What the SDGs lack, however, is an explicit risk-based focus, and any kind of serious ranking or triage. In a world of finite time and other resources, should we focus on SDG #1 or #10? Which one minimizes potential risks the most? Clearly, the framework isn’t that useful overall for a triage approach.
Now, perhaps, we need to begin the work of sorting out what’s most important from lists like these. We need something as accessible and well-supported as the SDGs, but we need it ranked, so that we can prioritize. This won’t be easy, since developing a criteria to rank these things would be immensely difficult and complex, and because as said earlier, these issues often interrelate. Despite the challenge of this task, we must take it on. Without a roadmap of prioritized risks, we are blindly hoping the things we focus most on (like climate change) are indeed the biggest threats. It’s fair to question if this focus comes with a cost.
Why can’t we do both?
We can do two things at once, of course. Issues can be “equally important” too. Just as they are interrelated. But we cannot pretend we have infinite resources to tackle sustainability challenges either. Money is limited. People’s attention spans are limited. The time people can devote to the cause actively and consciously is limited. Time, especially, is limited.
It is within the context of these constraints that a simple truth emerges: we need some level of focus here. We can’t just say “it’s all important” and proceed haphazardly, according to our own interests and agendas. Do that, and there’s a real risk we run out of time to fix certain problems in an optimal way. This truth is as uncomfortable as it is obvious – it implies there will be sacrifices; issues deprioritized along the way. A good example of this playing out, as I write these words, is the conflict between quarantine protocols protecting public health, and people’s right to protest. The clash between the Black Lives Matter movement and the restrictions of COVID-19 illustrate well, the kinds of difficult conversations ahead. In the Apeilicene, we are likely to see these situations with increasing frequency, as time-sensitive threats arise and demand extraordinarily difficult choices of us.
Similarly, we can’t expect that the current focal points themselves aren’t the product of political agendas and self-interest. If triage enables progression via focused prioritization, then it demands sacrifice as I’ve said. If sacrifices are required, it’s overwhelmingly more likely to be demanded of the powerless by the powerful. This perspective sheds some light on the landscape of global sustainable development. Often it is rich, industrialized nations pressuring less-wealthy countries to leapfrog coal and jump into more expensive solar – for example. In other words, the powerful expecting the powerless to do the heavy lifting.
What about root causes?
This is an issues-oriented approach, clearly. We might question why we aren’t identifying whole systems as problems. Capitalism, consumerism, and so on. The guy in the emergency room with heart attack symptoms isn’t just there because of his individual circumstances. There are larger, structural forces like globalization, modernism, reductions in manual labour, and consumerism that likely shaped his individual circumstances and the choices he could exercise.
But triage is not about root causes or systemic, structural change. It is what you practice in the emergency room. When someone’s heart is about to stop, it’s that immediate crisis you focus on, not systemic change.
Explaining the lack of triage in mainstream sustainability
In contrast with a triage approach to sustainability, triage in health care is not a peripheral concern – it is a core practice supported by years of research and used in basically every medical institution around the world. Why then, in sustainability, is this same approach not taken?
One possible explanation is that focusing on risks; on problems and challenges, often places a negative frame on a given issue, making it harder to identify potential opportunities. Similarly, focusing on risks can present challenges for communicating sustainability. Research shows that fearful messages cause disengagement, apathy, and a sense of hopelessness and incompetence. Continued exposure causes most people to “tune out the messages and move on to other, more pleasant concerns”. Despite its obvious importance, a threat-based approach to sustainability clearly presents some challenges and considerations, and in looking at some examples of threat-based models, we’ll start to see the devil, as always, is lurking in the details.
 Robertson, M. (2017). Communicating Sustainability. New York: Routledge.
It’s not like we’re doing nothing, but overall, the way we handle risk seems shockingly bad at times, as if we’re a species with a subconscious death wish.
We’re not throw-yourself-off-a-building suicidal, though. We’re more like someone who starts their day with a Vodka and Coke, chain-smoking Marlboro Reds in between downing pizza slices as they binge TV, while living in fear of terrorists being the cause of our demise.
We’re not violently self-destructive, we’re passively, ignorantly, apathetically, and indulgently so. Heart disease and cancer, followed by many ailments found disproportionally in affluent countries (lung cancer, for example) are what kills us Westerners, but rarely what scares us.
‘According to the New America Foundation, jihadists killed 94 people inside the United States between 2005 and 2015. During that same time period, 301,797 people in the US were shot dead’.
Despite this, Americans are more afraid of terror attacks and government-enforced gun restrictions than they are of gun violence.
Clearly, and this is just one of many potential examples, we do not manage risk well. As the cartoon implies, influential societal institutions such as the media play a role in that response; in shaping our fears. The same is true of politicians, stoking our fear.
Our response to these types of arguments is often an irrational and misplaced fear based on a warped view of the threats we face. The same is true elsewhere in how we look at, and manage, risks to our species-level sustainability. The question here is a simple one: If we can’t think about and deal rationally with the threats that we, personally, are confronted with then what hope do we have of thinking about and dealing rationally with the threats that we, collectively as a species, face? Given these include serious, potentially civilization-ending threats, avoiding a cold reckoning of the facts could get literally get us all killed.
This failure of risk management is evident in mainstream sustainability too, I’d argue. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), enjoy a global profile, are highly resourced, and are operationalized around the world. What we seem to lack, however, are any equally high-profile frameworks that identify and classify threats, and using carefully developed criteria, prioritize them. We don’t have an SDG-type list of threats – and that strikes me as not only odd, but dangerous.
[A comment from our editor here:] Where would you place Rokstroms planetary boundaries in relation to this assertion? Obviously it doesn’t prioritise within the 9, but it suggests they think those are the 9 greatest priorities. [A good point that will have to be revisited someday!]
Focusing on risks might seem like a strange suggestion, but it’s quite a common practice in other areas. Every day on my way to university I pass a fire danger rating sign – an amazingly simple and important risk indicator.
If not strange, then it might seem a little paranoid to assemble a list of risks and focus on minimizing them, but that’s what our era calls for. We’re doing things today we’ve never done before.
Tomorrow’s challenges are unlike any our ancestors faced. It’s not (just) dinosaur-killing meteors we must account for now, it’s also things that are closer, nearer-term, and often of our own making. Climate change. Nuclear war. Super viruses. The myriad unintended consequences of AI development or biotechnology. We’re quite good at making brand new problems for ourselves these days. Worse still, we’re not entirely sure which problems are the most threatening. It might end up being something unexpected that wipes us all out.
Recognizing this, there are numerous studies, entire think tanks even, dedicated to a threat-based based approach to sustainability, developed by people who want us to consider worst-case scenarios and all the other negative outcomes our well-intentioned blundering can bring about. With their list of humanity’s potential future sins in hand, they want us to take steps now to avoid mistakes they say could be significant, or even fatal.
This is a new kind of risk identification and management and the body of work around it is growing, but this mode of thinking – a type of triage – is quite a bit more established. It’s going to need to become a lot more prominent in sustainability though, if long-term survival is our goal.
 Anderson, J. (2017, January 31). The psychology of why 94 deaths from terrorism are scarier than 301,797 deaths from guns. Quartz.
 Chapman University. (2016). Chapman University Survey of American Fears. Orange, California: Chapman University.
What do we really fear most? Death or eternal life? The answer seems obvious, but looking at modern, popular culture suggests we have new fears in this STEM-driven era. This discussion was largely inspired as as a response to a paper by Bendell, which suggests that sustainability’s first premise – at this point – should be one of imminent collapse.
The paper is worth quoting at length:
“Deep Adaptation: A map for navigating climate tragedy
The purpose of this conceptual paper is to provide readers with an opportunity to reassess their work and life in the face of an inevitable near-term social collapse due to climate change. The approach of the paper is to analyse recent studies on climate change and its implications for our ecosystems, economies and societies, as provided by academic journals and publications direct from research institutes.
That synthesis leads to a conclusion there will be a near-term collapse in society with serious ramifications for the lives of readers.
The paper reviews some of the reasons why collapse-denial may exist, in particular, in the professions of sustainability research and practice, therefore leading to these arguments having been absent from these fields until now.”
There’s a school of thought in sociology called Terror Management Theory (TMT) which offers interesting explanations of human behaviour. TMT argues that awareness of our own mortality induces terror in us, and we respond to that terror by managing it in different ways – hence the name! How we manage that terror has profound and far-reaching social consequences, even to the point we erect entire social institutions to mediate and manage our fears. This “management” varies, but the theme doesn’t – immortality is the goal.
This might manifest as a literal belief in immortality (religious beliefs about the afterlife, for example, and the institutions that maintain them) or as figurative expressions of it: infamy, posterity, legacy – some aspect of your memory or ‘self’ living on. This is Marilyn Monroe stuff: “The legend ever lives”. Although they don’t offer a literal afterlife, culture and cultural institutions can offer a different kind of permanence that’s real enough for people to enshrine and revere; a figurative immortality –another way we can find peace despite knowing this will all end someday.
What’s always struck me about TMT is that sustainability can promise immortality too. The notion of sustaining over time – and in one especially optimistic conception, of sustaining indefinitely – is essentially the idea of literal immortality at the species level. That thought makes my head spin, because if TMT were true then surely, we’d be embracing sustainability wholeheartedly! Instead of a religious afterlife that requires faith, or an imperfect approximation of permanence through culture and legacy, here we have the science and technology-based version of immortality for our new STEM-based era.
So why are we not embracing it? Why are we moving so slowly on any number of sustainability-related issues? Why are we managing our terror so sub-optimally, according to the theory?
Maybe it’s because sustainability, in the context of TMT, subverts the very concept of “management” itself. Instead of managing our terror by reaching for a faith-based afterlife or an imperfect cultural approximation, this time we can “manage” that fear by eliminating the source of it – and once we do that, there’s nothing left to “manage”. TMT becomes a ladder we would throw away after ascending to new heights. It’s a whole different conceptualization of management to suggest that we can alleviate our fears by removing the source – a kind of TMT 2.0.
It comes down to starting assumptions, ultimately. TMT as we know it assumes that annihilation is inevitable and maps out our responses accordingly. TMT 2.0 assumes that “with strange aeons even death may die” and maps out a different set of responses.
I’m mentioning all this because the same thing is happening in the article I’m responding to (Bendell, 2018). The context has changed from a kind of social management towards the narrower discipline of organisational management, but the same “subversion” of what management means is being driven by starting assumptions. Essentially, this article isn’t that novel. It’s just the original TMT assumption – collapse is inevitable.
Earlier I talked about the existentialists, and they’re another group of many within the discipline of philosophy that could inform this research, too. The concept of collapse and annihilation may be depressing, but philosophy and many other fields have offered up some very good options on how to manage that – different kinds of peace we can arrive at; ones that don’t resemble the options that TMT lays out.
Culture, too, can offer more than what TMT describes. Take this beautifully simple exchange from the show Six Feet Under”
“Why do we have to die?”
“To make life important.”
Maybe it’s as simple – and stupid – as that? There’s peace in that idea.
It is the final episode of the first season of HBO’s Six Feet Under, and no sequence could better sum up the series’ central theme – or its legacy. One minute, it’s funny – refreshingly cold and darkly humorous – and the next it’s deadly serious. Neither element would be as strong without the other: the humour would be too morbid without the occasional touching moment, and the touching moments would be too saccharine without the bite. Just as people have to die to make life important, people on Six Feet Under joke to make the serious moments matter. Death can be just as funny as life.
Protect me from what I want?
Annihilation may be depressing, but immortality can be terrifying.
Perhaps something else is going on too. Maybe, in this STEM-driven era of alarmingly rapid technological progress, our reluctance to embrace sustainability is driven by an even deeper fear than annihilation – in fact, the inversion of it – a fear of immortality.
If you’ve watched Black Mirror, particularly the most recent season, you might still be shuddering at the thought of having your consciousness uploaded to an inanimate object and being trapped for an eternity inside a prison designed by someone who wanted to torture you. Notably, if you know the show well, you’ll realize I could be talking about many episodes there – it’s a recurring theme that creator Charlie Booker is really trying to drive home, and I don’t think it’s an accident he wants to push this concept so hard.
It’s a genuinely heinous concept: eternal torture. Watching it unfold in the show can be deeply, existentially unsettling. Interestingly, this is pretty much the idea of “hell” in religions – the same institutions that offer heaven up as an alternative afterlife.
Returning to the earlier comparisons of TMT 1 and 2: If it’s true that modern sustainability, driven by science and technological progress, can offer us a literal heaven, then it’s also true it could bring us a literal hell! More simply, if there is a STEM heaven, then there is a STEM hell, and Black Mirror shows us many visions of what that could look like. I think Booker’s point, in at least some cases, is that complete annihilation isn’t such a terrible outcome. A mercy kill, of sorts. If someone was trapped inside a machine designed to torture them and was effectively stuck there for an eternity, you would turn it off, wouldn’t you?
Or maybe Booker’s point is a simpler one: we are losing control of technology, and the consequences are going to be dire beyond imagining.
welcome to the Apeilicene
The closing section of Graham Turner’s revisitation of the Limits to Growth is interesting because he doesn’t just conclude that collapse may be underway but lays some of the blame for that on our preoccupation with climate change. Other threats like resource constraints could end up being even more serious, he argues, even more so since we have not given them enough attention.
Unfortunately, scientific evidence of severe environmental or natural resource problems has been met with considerable resistance from powerful societal forces...Somewhat ironically…the scientific and public attention given to climate change, whilst tremendously important in its own right, may have deleteriously distracted from the issue of resource constraints, particularly that of oil supply
… A challenging lesson … is that global environmental issues are typically intertwined and should not be treated as isolated problems. Another lesson is the importance of taking pre-emptive action well ahead of problems becoming entrenched.
Regrettably, the alignment of data trends … indicates that the early stages of collapse could occur within a decade or might even be underway. This suggests, from a rational risk-based perspective, that we have squandered the past decades, and that preparing for a collapsing global system could be even more important than trying to avoid collapse.
Turner’s point can be applied even more broadly. Technological progress is advancing in ways we are struggling to control, and that could pose severe, even existential threats to us. AI, automation, big data, surveillance, genetic engineering, biohazards, nuclear warfare, cyber warfare – the list of potential threats we face of an existential kind are perhaps an even more worrying acceleration than rising global temperatures? Or are they also perhaps in a sense the same threat, as Morton suggests, just differently understood?
The concept of the “Anthropocene” only captures the idea of climate change and human-driven ecological impact, perhaps another term like Apeilicene – the era of threats – better captures the trajectory we are on, and how we should respond. Naturally, a focus on threats alone may deprioritize focusing on assets and opportunities, but that doesn’t mean innovation isn’t possible, or that framing our situation as a terrible and looming crisis can’t still yield positive results. Consider how much innovation past wars and crises have driven, and the advanced nature of military technology and other inventions birthed from a profound necessity. Then again, consider that a “War against Nature” is exactly the thinking that drove us to this perilous place (as the idea of a metabolic rift suggests). Our situation is so complex and bewildering, it’s not even clear how we should think about it at a fundamental level.
Surviving the Apeilicene will require thinking about sustainability in many ways all at once. It will require a combative focus, a defensive, resilience-based mentality. Yet it will also require adaptability, and the ability to recognize not just problems and weaknesses but also opportunities and strengths.
We must rethink what an existential threat can be, too. Annihilation is just one negative outcome. Eternal torture, as discussed, is an infinitely more dire existential threat. Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom’s paper on “existential risk prevention” provides a fantastic matrix of different types of existential threat – capturing perfectly the kinds of outcomes that Booker’s Black Mirror describes and so many more. Creating a rigorous map of outcomes according to varied types of existential threats allows us to see that yes, perhaps we’re living in the Apeilicene after all. Will Steffen’s famous ‘Great Acceleration’ graph paints a trend towards exponential changes across a range of areas. It would be interesting to consider if the threats (and types of threats) against us are multiplying at similar rates, and what the implications of a trend – if one exists – might be.
Praxis and epistemology
An era of renewed interest in the truth
Kellyanne Conway once famously stated she was giving “alternative facts” to a journalist. Although in this case, she was demonstrably lying, the statement (and other developments from the Trump Administration) have since reignited public interest in the concept of truth and verifiability – and perhaps more broadly, remembering the problem of Australia’s infinite coastline, the idea of the paradox. The phrase “alternative facts” has its own Wikipedia page and “post-truth” was declared 2016’s Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries. Despite the often-negative nature of these incidents, what they represent may be a positive development. Perhaps, with rationality now threatened, we will see a reassertion of its value? The media, for example, now increasingly stresses the importance of one of its core purposes – to state the truth.
Our era represents a renewed interest in the debates around epistemology – what is true, what can be verified. Alternative facts, fake news, and the gaslighting of the public by powerful figures are all driving forces behind a rising anti-intellectualism, a distrust of experts, and a fragmentation of our shared reality. Are we in a post-Enlightenment crisis? And if so, what are the opportunities that will bring with it?
 Bendell, J. (2018). Deep Adaptation: A map for navigating climate tragedy. Carlise, UK: Institute for Leadership and Sustainability (IFLAS).
 Lovecraft, H. (1928). The Call of Cthulu. 11(2). New York: Popular Fiction Publishing Company.
 Armstrong, J. K. (2015, August 21). Six Feet Under: ‘It made it okay to laugh at death’. BBC Culture.
 Turner, G. (2014). ‘Is Global Collapse Imminent?’. Melbourne: Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, The University of Melbourne.
 Steffen, W., Broadgate, W., Deutsch, L., Gaffney, O., & Ludwig, C. (2015). The trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration. The Anthropocene Review, 2(1), 81-98.
 “…[the] tactic of getting people to question their direct experience is a type of psychological manipulation scientists call “gaslighting”. A person who is gaslighting an individual or group that they have chosen to target does so by getting them to doubt their own memory, perception, and reality. Through persistent lying, misdirection, and contradiction, the gaslighter attempts to delegitimize the victim’s beliefs by confusing and destabilizing them.” From: Azarian, B. (2018, August 31). Trump Is Gaslighting America Again — Here’s How to Fight It. Psychology Today.
The discipline of philosophy is rich with ideas of use to sustainability, and much common ground is shared between them.
Discussions about how we should act; what is right, what is moral, and what is just – these are the philosophical domain of ethics. Ethical discussions, assumptions, and beliefs underpin much of our society; from how we structure it politically and legally, to what we consider socially acceptable.
The scientific method, a crucial tool for understanding environmental and other problems, is grounded in philosophical ideas too – a mixture of rationality, empiricism, and the logic of induction. These ideas belong to the philosophical domain known as epistemology – essentially, the study of knowledge.
Note that between the concepts of rationality and empiricism, there is a separation of mental and sensory faculties (the mind and the body, more simply). This is discussed in the next section on dualism.
Ethics and knowledge are just two examples. Big ideas too, like how we should think about death, immortality, annihilation and existential risk are all clearly relevant now too, as we face down a multitude of threats.
The dichotomy of “human” and “nature” mentioned earlier (metabolic rift) is echoed in philosophical ideas. Cartesian dualism, which takes its name from the ideas of French philosophe Rene Descartes, introduces the idea that the human mind is different from the human body; that they are two distinct and separable entities. It is also sometimes referred to as mind-body dualism.
The mind, in this idea, is often viewed as non-physical; something that cannot be reduced to explanations that rely on neurobiology (the science of the mind) and physics (the science of basic reality – how things work at every level from atomic to cosmological). This specific claim about the non-physicality of the human mind is referred to in philosophy as property dualism.
It can be argued that Cartesian dualism and property dualism have contributed to our separation from nature. We often view the human mind as the prime point of separation between us and “animals”. It is human ingenuity, adaptability, intelligence, willpower, and genius that we often feel makes us unique. From the perspective of property dualism, the difference is also not just one of “human versus natural”, therefore, but also “mental versus physical”. This model suggests that our anthropocentric bias is partly driven by a belief in a type of human non-physicality. This might explain, for example, our collective reluctance to come to grips with the very physical impacts and constraints of our world, and the very physical consequences of our actions.
Sustainability and your mental health
First published: February 25, 2018 for Woroni. Reworked in 2019 for The Grass Ceiling.
I’m a student of sustainability who has come dangerously close to withdrawing from university – because, in part, what I’m studying can literally drive one crazy.
The first time I studied a tertiary course was at the University of Wollongong. As a promising student with a high ATAR, I’d just enrolled in a special “Dean’s Scholars” Arts degree complete with a hefty scholarship, where I was free to build my entire program however I wanted.
I chose philosophy, and nothing else. For two and half years, I did four philosophy courses every semester, gazing daily into an abyss of endless questions – many of which were impossible to answer. Eventually, as you might imagine, this decision of mine to dwell endlessly on serious topics messed me up badly.
In high school, I’d been a huge fan of the philosophy of existentialism. And as it turns out, it was studying this topic at university that led to a breakdown and my eventual withdrawal. The existentialists ask some of the biggest questions we can. Albert Camus, my favourite existentialist, dealt at length with one very big question. ‘There is only one really serious philosophical problem,’ Camus argued, ‘and that is suicide. Deciding whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that’. To understand why he thought this, it helps to know that Camus saw life as absurd; without meaning or hope of any deeper understanding. It sounds pessimistic, even nihilistic, but there was a life-affirming quality: if life is truly absurd, shouldn’t we simply enjoy the ride? Regardless of where one lands on these issues, there is a cost for those who dwell too long on them. It’s not healthy to go around every day questioning whether life is worth living.
My problem with sustainability
Upon returning to university to study sustainability, I’ve exposed myself to the same dreadful abyss of ideas that broke me all those years ago. Studying sustainability can be a relentlessly and brutally depressing undertaking. Whereas other subjects might stress their students out with too much work, sustainability can sap its students of a will to survive; because we continue to fight in a battle that we are taught may be futile. The enormity of our challenge is daunting. We are constantly subjected to seemingly impossible problems where our existence as a species is at stake. And outside of classes, we are met with a disheartening wall of indifference and apathy when we try to speak of the horrors we’ve witnessed and the need for unprecedented change. At best, we are met with tokenism and the smallest shreds of progress.
How wouldn’t this affect our mental health?!
What I’ve discovered is that sustainability asks the same question suicide does, but on a species level. Sustainability, however, is not of the same philosophical nature that Camus was. In all my studies, I haven’t once seen a scholar question sustainability’s fundamental premise: that humanity is worth saving. It is a given, in every case, that it is worth saving. The profound realisation for me has been in understanding that we are all, to one extent or another, engaged in the conflict Camus described: between a futile endeavour (achieving sustainability) and simply enjoying the ride. Perhaps more subtly, we are engaged in a conflict between where our focus should lie.
As sustainability students, we are taught to fight against our seemingly inevitable demise. We are also taught to consider “business as usual” – enjoying the ride without a care for its inevitably gloomy and fatal end – as the enemy. To evoke Camus’ allegory of Sisyphus, we are taught to push that rock up the hill, and never question whether this is where our energy should be focused.
For me, engaging in that battle sometimes makes me deeply unhappy, because it all feels so futile at times. It’s like I’m wasting my time on a futile task when I could be appreciating other things more. But these binaries are just borne of frustration – there is a middle ground between the two that I’m learning to discover with the support and love of friends. For me, the middle ground is a space where we fight for the greater cause while appreciating that other things in life may matter just as much in the end.
Unlike in philosophy, sustainability has never broached the fundamental conversation about what we’re doing, and why. Sustainability has no Camus. In a very real and problematic sense, we’re not equipped to deal with the feelings we’re inevitably going to encounter because our courses never address them, or the things that cause them.
There is a moment in the show The West Wing when a character recounts a memorable scene from his favourite movie, The Lion in Winter. Three men are locked in a dungeon, about to be executed. One of the men, Richard, tells his brothers not to cower – but to take it like men. One of the other men cannot fathom this. ‘You fool!’ he says, ‘As if it matters how a man falls down?!’.
Richard’s reply is something worth remembering in dark times: ’When the fall is all that’s left, it matters a great deal’.
We are potentially in our own species-level fall right now. And yet, even if all hope for survival is lost, I’d argue that things still matter. How we go out – that matters. It’s okay to go out fighting, despite the odds of success, like our sustainability lecturers beg us to do. It’s okay for us to resist what might be inevitable. There’s profound courage and nobility in that.
But we need to have that conversation. We need to ask what sustainability is: an exercise in ensuring our survival? Or an exercise in dying well? In this time of uncertainty, is it not potentially both? Reflect on that. On how, considering both possibilities, you might want to best use your time.
Finding a way forward
When it comes to sustainability, I would advise you all to be careful how long your own stare lingers. Don’t delve too deeply into serious topics, such as those explored in this column, without making sure you have other avenues open. There is a kind of madness that will find you if you narrow in on existential questions too much. Study other things. I recommend studying the arts, in particular – as it can heal your soul, and give you ways to express feelings that otherwise might remain invisible.
Study poetry, or French, or basket-weaving, or cake decorating memes – whatever makes you happy. Not only can the arts play an important role in communicating sustainability, but it can help you find new paths to happiness you may not have otherwise. It may just be the case that this is all that matters in the end; finding your own happiness on the way down.
The discipline of philosophy is rich with ideas of use to sustainability, and much common ground is shared between them. This episode explores various philosophical ideas and their implications for how we think about and practice sustainability.
We often think of things in terms of a binary or a dichotomy: black and white, right and wrong, left and right. Binary thinking often puts two ideas in opposition or competition with one another. In a situation where one idea’s success comes at the other, we often call it a zero-sum game. Two ideas that are argued to be incompatible (such as it being either daytime or night-time) are mutually exclusive.
These ways of thinking are often at odds with the kind of broader approach we’re taking in this project, as we try to incorporate multiple perspectives at once. The discipline of informal logic, a field within philosophy, has developed a list of what it calls logical fallacies – common argumentative mistakes that people make. One of them, relevant to these ideas, is that of the false dichotomy, which argues that some things should not be compared in a binary way. For example, comparing only two options out of ten and pretending they are the only two? That is an example of a false dichotomy. Once you become aware of this type of thinking, you begin to see it everywhere.
Illustrating this are a few examples of common and relevant binaries within sustainability practice, and theory, some of which often spawn false dichotomies in the way we talk and think.
Objectivity vs. Subjectivity
Like the difference between rationalityandempiricism, the difference between objectivity and subjectivity relates to knowledge; specifically, to our levels of certainty. Subjective experience refers to our personal perspectives, lived experiences, emotions, opinions, biases, and internal thought processes. By contrast, objective experience (especially in the sciences) aims to eliminate that “human” element of observation, and through that, arrive at “hard facts”.
As an example, consider the relatively straightforward task of measuring a tree’s height. Using scientific instruments, we can obtain what we could consider the objectively-knowable height of the tree. Contrast this with asking someone how happy they are. That is a far more subjective question, more difficult to know with the same level of certainty as the height of a tree.
When it comes to sustainability, we typically prioritize objective knowledge: the information science and other experts give us, over subjective knowledge: the stories, feelings, and emotions of individuals and groups. This bias can lead to negative outcomes because a great deal of valuable knowledge is subjective. Indigenous stories and culture are intrinsically related to lived, deeply personal experiences. The fears and anxieties of a society, even though they can be represented by proxy statistics like a Consumer Confidence Index and reflected in our cultures, still don’t fully capture the totality of subjective knowledge.
In our studies here at university, we are pushed towards the scientific and academic model of knowledge; the peer-review and journal publication process, held aloft as a paragon of objectivity. What is telling is that in this increasing age of neoliberal, corporatized universities, we are seeing the truth motive of academic publishing replaced by the profit motive. Objectivity and the relative value of academic knowledge is being eroded here as it is elsewhere (the “post-truth era” being a good example).
The implication is that objectivity is an idea that can be called into question: to what extent is academic knowledge worthy of the attention and support it receives? How do other factors such as the profit motive and commoditization of academic knowledge affect its value?
Even empirical observation can be “tainted” by subjectivity. To return to the example of the tree height measurement, we face the issue of measurement error, a human-induced (subjective) influence on what was supposedly definitive (objective) observation. In science, reducing measurement error often means doing as much as possible to eliminate human mistakes and biases.
Quantitative information is something we can put a number (a quantity) to. The height of a tree is quantitative data. How that tree makes me feel when I look at it, that is qualitative. Measuring the two requires different approaches.
These concepts match with ideas of subjectivity and objectivity. Quantitative data is typically objective, and empirical. Qualitative data is typically subjective and rational (or emotional). This binary between what we feel and what we see again drives much of our thought about sustainability. Just as we bias objective knowledge, we often bias the quantitative – numbers, statistics, and “what we can all see”.
The potential implications here for sustainability are considerable: how much important knowledge is de-prioritized because it is qualitative?
Arts vs. STEM
The war between Arts and Humanities, and their Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) counterparts exemplifies the culmination of these previously mentioned ideas. STEM is the domain of objective and quantitative knowledge, whereas Arts and Humanities embody the subjective and qualitative. Separating the two like this, however, is an example of what I consider a dangerously stupid false dichotomy:
When it comes to sustainability, it becomes hard to disentangle the cultural from the ecological, or as the Ancient Greeks framed it, the scientific from the artistic. They really are two sides of the same coin. When looking at future challenges and opportunities for our species, potentially any discipline is relevant. One key challenge therefore lies in finding as many ideas as possible, and then prioritising them. Under this kind of approach, you become far more hesitant to disregard contributions, regardless of the discipline they originate from.
 Gill, R. (2009). Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia. In R. Gill, Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge.
Even the best ideas “on paper” are no good if they cannot be practically applied in the real world. Theory is often differentiated from reality in this way, with the application or practice of ideas referred to as praxis.
We want to put these theories to work, but do we have a theory about how to put theory to work? What is the theory of praxis?
Our definition of sustainability has a broad scope, focusing on inclusivity and exhaustive consideration of many possibilities. Yet “scoping down” and narrowing considerations comes with benefits too. For reasons of pragmatism, political feasibility, comprehensibility, accessibility, and others, it can be useful to simplify things and focus in on one specific area, one specific need, one specific risk.
In the context of communicating sustainability too much information can lead to a range of negative outcomes such as information overload, decision paralysis. All of this leads to one basic question in practicing sustainability: what should our scope be? And can one like we are taking, with a broad and all-inclusive framework, still be useful in practical terms?
Operationalising sustainability requires a balancing act between broad and narrow perspectives.
The concept of “triage” is useful in highlighting how sustainability can be applied. In this model, prioritisation of one thing over another is based on evidence of urgency. A triage approach the impossible task of doing everything simultaneously, while still leaving room for all things to be considered – allowing us to identify subtle threats and risks, to uncover hidden opportunities, and otherwise benefit from a broader approach that considers many perspectives.
Building a map – maybe even a data set?
The field of medicine has often struggled with a specific problem – managing the different interactions between drugs given to a patient. This is a complex problem made difficult by many factors, including accounting for the variables of a patient’s gender, ethnicity, personal medical history, and other factors.
It is a problem, in other words, often beyond the human mind’s ability to solve.
To get around these limitations, we’ve turned to Artificial Intelligence. AI like IBM’s Watson are learning how to excel at tasks like these and can offer far more comprehensive and accurate overviews of the complex interactions across hundreds of drugs, for any kind of patient (IBM, 2019). The approach here; to collect, combine, and compile that data – and then feed it to Watson – is how something incredible will be achieved.
If the Earth and its inhabitants are the sick patient (and all indications suggest we are), then it’s worth noting that the area of sustainability has no Watson; no all-seeing Oracle we can look to for guidance.
Perhaps we will need something like this someday? Perhaps the challenge of persisting over time is a problem beyond the human mind’s ability to solve alone, without help. Already, we are putting artificial minds to use on singular, discrete sustainability projects, from climate modelling, to autonomous transport, to smart irrigation systems. Perhaps a time will come when these systems are supplemented by something like IBM’s Watson, a more generalized artificial intelligence, capable of insights between complex systems both natural and human-made. Some of these insights we can barely imagine right now. Like the discovery of the microscope, a whole new world – once invisible – could open to us.
What we are doing then with The Grass Ceiling, and what we encourage others to do, is help map this terrain for future travellers. Like cartographers of old, we are exploring a diverse and unfamiliar world, and capturing what we can of it to guide future people to come. And perhaps, appropriately for our STEM-driven era that promises profound technological progress, we are also building something of a data set – a resource that would help us build a “Watson for sustainability”. A catalogue of ideas and areas of investigation that any kind of holistic, integrative system would want to consider.
Lessons from “praxis at scale” in the coastline paradox
Mathematics and real-world situations can highlight how our epistemological approach – specifically, embracing paradox and competing truths – can make sense.
Most of us know idea of the fractal; an infinitely-recurring, mathematically-defined structure that can be viewed in detail at any scale. Fractals are a good mascot for our definition and view of sustainability, for how we’re viewing knowledge: as something protean and shape-shifting, and “true” at all scales. Perhaps even more so, the Sierpinski Triangle should be our motif – a fractal that demonstrates a real-world paradox.
The Coastline Paradox relates to the real-world problem of measuring the perimeter of a geographical area (for example, the coastline of Australia, some of which is shown below). As measurement accuracy increases, so too does the length of the coastline. Because accuracy can increase infinitely, it seems to suggest that therefore a coastline’s length can too. Theoretically, this means that Australia’s coastline is infinitely long – something that violates the laws of non-contradiction – it cannot be true that space is finite if it’s also true that coastlines have infinite length! Both are “true” however, but in different contexts.
Perhaps these kinds of seeming contradictions can illustrate a way to think about sustainability issues: often multiple conclusions or results are true (or at least have merit). What often matters is the context, the scale, and framework we’re applying.