Simply put, global threats are threats that imperil humanity. They have a low probability of occurrence but in the event that they come to fruition, they have the potential to cause immense damage. The panel entitled Catastrophic Risk and Threats to the Global Commons delivered on its promise to discuss threats like nuclear warfare, biological warfare, climate change and global pandemic through multiple lenses.

The all-star panel included:

–       Helene Gayle, President and CEO of CARE

–       Ian Goldin, Director, Oxford Martin School

–       Arianna Huffington, President and editor in chief of the Huffington Post

–       Joe Cirincione, President Ploughshares Fund

Global threats expose the “fault lines of society”

In the days when many people in the scientific community chose to stay away from working on HIV (because it was not yet predicted to be a global pandemic), Helene Gayle began what would become a 25-year journey that led her to CARE International. Her work has enabled her to engage with entire nations – work that “exposes the fault lines of society.” She urged us to work towards closing the gaps in society: between rich and poor, between men and women and between religious groups. While many threats like natural disasters are inevitable, resilience can be built by planning for reaction (i.e. Japan’s reconstruction efforts following the earthquake in Fukushima).

Humanity is at a crossroads

Never before have we accumulated such wealth, never before have we been so connected and never before have we been faced with such imminent global threats. As we are situated at this inflection point in history, Ian Goldin notes that this could either be the best century yet, or the century that wipes us out. Over the course of our existence, migration was one way that we worked to avoid natural threats (i.e. challenging climates for food production and survival). But given that our planet is pretty full, it is clear that we can’t use migration to escape the threats that face us today.

We need not look further than the recent financial crisis to see the effects of inappropriate incentive structures. The short-term thinking that has evolved from our governance systems, have created the fragile world that we live in. As Ian Goldin puts it, “we all live in this village but we have no elders”. We have to ask ourselves about democracy’s ability to think beyond today and put resources, people and firepower aside and find ways to engage in practices of “inclusive globalization”.

To gain wisdom we must start from within

If you’ve never heard her speak, it might surprise you to learn that Arianna Huffington makes a compelling case for why we need to take a break from our increasingly connected world – one where we have become obsessed with what’s new, what’s “trending” and what has most recently “gone viral” – and take time for self-reflection, empathy and … sleep. She argues that taking time to understand ourselves will help us to acquire the wisdom required to tackle the challenges that face our global village. “There is a sense of urgency but paradoxically we need to tap into the timeless to solve the urgent.”

Drawing lessons from her first book, After Reason, she argues that reason is simply not enough to tackle the tough challenges that face us. While we have the smarts, we lack wisdom. Another one of her books, The 4th Instinct, builds on three basic human instincts (survival, self preservation and sex) and argues that the instinct to find meaning in life can explain human’s drive to art, engage in charity and help fellow human. She argues that if we’re disconnected from this instinct, we will pay (and are paying) a heavy price.

Global threats can be reversible

Many global threats, like nuclear destruction, are manmade. Though the advent of nuclear weapons have fundamentally changed the world, the Ploughshare Fund founded by Sally Lilienthal, aims to eliminate all nuclear weapons. In fact, the number of nuclear weapons in the world have declined dramatically since the Cold War. Things that seem to be permanent often have a lot of money behind them – which means that Ploughshares is going up against some big institutions. However, Joe Cirincione reminds us that fatalism won’t get us very far. He believes that  there are no impossible challenges – just ones that are really, really hard.

The way forward

When dealing with systemic change, there are no quick wins. The panel presented a sober but optimistic account of the challenges that face humanity and left the audience with a lot to chew on. If we are to face these threats and emerge resilient, we must all become elders in our global village. To do this we must look inside ourselves, our governments and civil society and work relentlessly to make change for the better. We must invigorate the discussions about pricing negative externalities into market transactions, engage with issues that seem insurmountable and get more sleep.