Manning Clark House organized a unique multidisciplinary conference entitled "Science and Ethics: Can Homo sapiens Survive?" at the Academy of Science in Canberra on 17-18 May, 2005. Drawing upon the expertise of speakers in a variety of fields including law, economics, medicine, politics, journalism, aboriginal affairs, earth sciences, religion, education, nuclear armaments, defence studies and ecology, the conference reached the conclusion that, while at risk from natural global disasters (supervolcanos or asteroid impact) and human-induced global impacts, Homo sapiens is likely to survive for the foreseeable future.
However, and this is just as important as the survival of the human species, civilization as we know it will not survive beyond a few decades unless there is a radical change in human culture, from a society driven by the pursuit of material wealth to one focused on human well-being. Science and the ethics of science are an aid to survival and indeed are necessary to address today’s risks and tomorrow’s possibilities.
There are several reasons for this, all of them reflecting applications and changed behaviours arising from advances in science and technology. Although these advances open doors for improvements in human health, wellbeing, and an increasingly open society, they also increase imbalances in wealth and power, raise barriers and foster exploitations in societies, and cause major changes to ecosystems and global systems.
The self-generated negative impacts include:
1. The explosive growth of the human population in the past sixty years and the inevitable addition of another two to three billion humans to the existing six billion by 2050.
2. The enormous global expenditure of nation states on military equipment, including nuclear arms, and the role of arms trade. The stockpiles of nuclear weapons held by several of the wealthy countries encourage rather than prevent the spread of nuclear arms capability to other nations.
3. The continuing overexploitation and pollution of land, fresh water and fisheries.
4. The increasing degradation of natural ecosystems, which provide irreplaceable "ecosystem services". The atmospheric pollution with greenhouse gases due to overuse of fossil fuels, which have a "life" of several decades, is already at dangerous levels, and emissions are still increasing globally.
5. Unless we focus on human wellbeing in place of material accumulation, the quality of life will decline. The likelihood is that this overexploitation will result in ever increasing conflicts, within and between nation-states, especially over supplies of fresh water needed for food production.
These multiple threats to human lives, health and well-being can only be attacked by a change in the behaviour of human beings from the current preoccupation with material wealth, that is, from a philosophy of "I want" to an acceptance of "I need", just enough to provide a fulfilling life. In fact, a focus on human well-being in place of material accumulation would actually improve the quality of life. Such a change requires a different approach to economic measurement, and the identification of objectives other than material gain.
These changes will have enormous effects on societies such as ours, effects that are likely to be resisted by corporations, advertisers and a public disenfranchised by monolithic mass media, education in decline, and low integrity in politics. In parallel with these changes, governments must ensure that the changes in employment that will follow, if this re-orientation of objectives occurs, are devoted to tackling the causes of each of the items mentioned above.
By Frank Fenner, Stephen Boyden, David Green, Andrew Glikson and Sebastian Clark