I’m a recovering pessimist about the future of humanity

By 02/05/2018Blog

Written by Jo Alexander, On Purpose Fellow & Chartered Geologist

Geologists are very good at scaring people (including ourselves!).  As a geologist, I have a tendency to be rather dramatic and fatalistic because my science has taught me the power of our natural environment to kill off species: whether that be at the hand of super-volcanoes, earthquakes, meteorites, or climate change and we know that one-day homo sapiens will face extinction too (see… I’m doing it already!).

When I met the climate scientist, Chris Rapley , he reflected to me that if the scientific community wants to galvanize action to tackle the climate problem it should focus less on delivering the raw facts (compelling as they are) and more on embedding them in stories that engage people emotionally and are relevant to their daily lives. My new rule of thumb is that there’s no point scaring someone about climate change if I’m not also helping them understand what they can do about it.  This special power of frightening people needs to be deployed with care.

Which is why a recent talk by Jeremy Grantham, who established the Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment, gave me pause for thought.  He confronted his audience, made up almost entirely of investors, with some hard and frankly terrifying facts about the enormous challenges that lie ahead for humanity.  I presume that the aim of this was to motivate investors, with their enormous power to make positive change, to move capital to organisations and ventures which will accelerate the low carbon transition and contribute to the success, rather than the demise, of our species.

While Jeremy was impressed with the incredible advances we are making in decarbonising our energy supply and reducing birth rates in places such as Bangladesh, he didn’t think it was going to be enough to avoid future humanitarian crises.  We will struggle to meet the increased demands on food supply from the 11.2 billion humans that are predicted to inhabit the Earth in the year 2100 (UN Population Division, 2017), due to the looming agricultural crisis caused by climate change as well as our ravenous and unabated consumption of finite resources:

  • Agricultural land is shrinking as urban areas, deserts and sea encroach upon it; 10% of the world’s grain supply is produced on deltas, which will be easily submerged as sea levels continue to rise.
  • The thickness of soils is declining in some areas due to the erosion that results from heavier and more frequent rain ‘downpours’ (while in other regions water scarcity will limit crop yields).
  • The quality of soil is also declining due to monoculture, and there is a looming phosphorous crisis; this essential plant nutrient is a finite resource with about 75% of the world’s supply concentrated in Morocco and Western Sahara (hint: start investing in Morocco’s phosphorous mines!).

Listening to this barrage of doom is enough to give you a heart attack! While I agree with all of Jeremy’s content and feel that we have a lot of pessimism in common, I think we owe it to ourselves to try and be more optimistic.  We’ve seen enormous scientific and technical advancements over the past century; we need to match this innovation in disciplines such as economics and policy too. Jeremy puts his hopes in policy as the only way to run a capitalist society. I also put my hopes in economists and business people, to reimagine a financial system, which allows us to place a realistic value on natural capital. I don’t want to believe that we’re the victims of our current capitalist system, but that we have the power to fix it where it’s broken.

I am enormously encouraged by what I’ve learnt about the growth in social enterprise and responsible investment as part of my time at On Purpose and A Blueprint for Better Business.  I have realised how powerful it is to support businesses that not only generate profit but also have a positive environmental and social impact; whether as consumers, employees or investors, we can all contribute to a better future.

With my thanks to Professor Chris Rapley, Michael Hilton, Francesca Spoerry, Nadia Schweimler and Amelia Watts for their contributions.