Existential Threats to humanity; based on a talk by David Nussbaum, CEO of The Elders

Existential threats to humanity

In February we were able to watch a recorded lecture given by David Nussbaum arranged by the Potteries Theological Society at Keele University. David is Chief Executive of the ‘Elders’, who are an independent group of world leaders working for peace and human rights. This was founded by Nelson Mandela and the first Chair was Kofi Annan. Multi-lateralism they say is absolutely essential for all countries. David has degrees in theology and finance and has worked for Price Waterhouse Coopers, the World Wildlife Fund, Oxfam and Christian Aid and is non-executive director of Drax Plc.

He sees existential threats as being nuclear warfare, climate change and disruptive technologies; we humans have made these but have the moral capacity to stem them; will we do that in time ?

He does not consider natural events including the current pandemic as existential threats; they are threats but not a threat to the continuance of humanity. He cited the major impact of solar storms; the large major one being in 1859 which wreaked havoc with infant telegraphic systems. Any such solar storm today would play havoc with the internet but probably not kill us all. Mercifully a solar storm in 2012 missed our planet by 9 days. Even though the current pandemic is terrible it will not wipe out the whole human race; it is a naturally evolved virus. Interestingly, the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (GPM) established by the WHO and the World Bank produced the Brundland Report in September 2019, a ‘world at risk’ report which forecasted a pandemic, a ‘rapidly moving lethal respiratory pathogen’ which would kill between 50 & 80 million people and 5% of the world economy would be affected. Their 2020 report predicts that unless we learn all the lessons from this one, the next will be much worse. He also mentioned the problem of antibiotics and the growth of anti-bacterial resistance. No new antibiotic has been found for 26 years. It is possible that they won’t work for medical operations but this diminution of effectiveness won’t wipe us out.

The Bible mentions natural threats such as famine and pestilence, but they’re not existential. Exodus and Revelation both contain devastating events. However, the existential threats are in a different category. He is concerned that leaders are not reacting to the growing nuclear threat, although now that President Trump has gone maybe the threat has eased somewhat? There is the START treaty of 2010 between the U.S. and Russia and the Nuclear Ban Treaty which came into effect in January of this year but no nuclear state has signed. The nuclear fission bombs (using plutonium and uranium) used in 1945 equated to 20,000 tonnes of TNT; the new fusion bombs have 10 million tonnes of TNT or the equivalent of 14,000 earlier nuclear bombs. There is overwhelming evidence for climate change and its existential threat, but we have been slow to react. There is the possibility of disruptive technologies such as bio-engineered viruses and nano-technology (very small particles), geo-engineering, artificial intelligence, social media algorithms and cyber enabled warfare. If these went out of control, they would pose an existential threat.

In the discussion following the lecture the threat of over-population was highlighted. It was not so much the number of people but the level of consumption. India could double its population if the U.S. reduced theirs by 100,000 and the Earth can still sustain up to 10 billion.

These threats can be brought under control but multi-lateral co-operation is needed. The United Nations has to be at the heart. The regression from a rule based system into a power based system is not advantageous. Threats do not respect national borders. The pace of development seems to outstrip our ability to cope with threats. David reckons that strong and effective leadership is essential and he sees this as the theme of most theological narratives. Good leaders need to be ones who can cope with uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity. Personal qualities are resilience, a sense of purpose to life, empathy with people in their diversity and collaboration.

Christians have played a prominent role in poverty and development but are less prominent in relation to the three existential threats. This is in stark contrast to the Biblical picture of care for creation for each other and the acceptance of diversity. However, they are now catching up in the environmental arena with organisations like Arosha and Green Christians. The problem is that the Biblical basis for involvement is not as strong as for issues of poverty. On nuclear weapons there have been good cases of Christian witness but most hardly know about uncontrollable IT.

There is more emphasis on justice, mercy and finance. It is necessary to go back to Biblical principles rather than actual texts. There is a lot about human greed but it is not often linked to the planet. Christians were often persecuted in history and inevitably then their focus was on identity and survival and not on stewardship and they were not in a position to have much influence. David cited the case of the early Anabaptists in the UK in the early 16th century who were deported or executed. However, Christians had a considerable influence in society in the UK in the 19th & 20th centuries when the threats we now see in various arenas were not as evident. Environmental degradation was not then regarded as significant.

The question now is whether Christians can have as much influence (in a post Christian world) in the sphere of existential threats as they did in the last century? David reckons that we’ve moved away from a position where Christianity had influence and power. Even ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ may be at risk because of the existential threats. The emphasis on individualism in Protestantism sometimes works against empathy and collaboration. He reckons that the Catholic social/common good view can contribute to the theological underpinning of action to tackle existential threat, although his preference is to use the pre-Augustinian church as a reference point, because both Protestants and Catholics have weaknesses in their approach. There is also an economic basis for common good. There can be co-operative action in the market system. Even ardent free marketeers acknowledge that market failure can justify government intervention. The presence of a common threat can bring people together. The current pandemic has brought out the worst and the best in people. Christians should be giving people a sense of hope, especially for the young and there should be a vision for re-creation.

In 2013, when he was Chief Executive of the World Wildlife Fund, he had a meeting with Energy minister, presumably Ed Davey. The minister asked David if he believed in God. David responded in the positive and suggested that perhaps God had arranged it so that we had some coal and oil in order to get the industrial revolution going with all its benefits but ensured that the rest was deeply buried and inaccessible. God was rather puzzled as to why we hadn’t then taken the more easily accessible sources of energy, like the sun, wind and sea. In response the minister said that this was the first time that anyone had given him a theological perspective for energy policy!

Nigel Jones (convenor, North Staffordshire group), February 2021.

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