Building a Global Superorganism: A New Paradigm for the Era of Climate Change

There is a saying that reality always gets the last word.    The question is: will there be anyone left to hear it?

Once upon a time this question might have seemed like hyperbole, alarmism, crying wolf, the ravings of a doomsday cultist, or evidence of clinical depression (pick your pejorative).  However, a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, written by an international team of climate scientists, put forward a worst-case scenario that envisioned a hothouse Earth driven by a “doom loop” of climate warming feedbacks that might ultimately make the world uninhabitable for humankind, if we remain on our present course.

Even if we don’t allow this kind of ecological Armageddon to happen, the basic survival strategy that has mostly prevailed in Western societies over the past two centuries  (namely, a growth-oriented, free-market capitalism and liberal democracy -- with socialism as an important subplot, of course) is no longer sustainable.  As a species, we have gone very far into an ecological overshoot.

It’s also abundantly clear (at least to everyone who is not a die-hard climate denier) that a relatively stable and benign natural environment has been the prerequisite for our success as a species, and that this ecological support system is already changing for the worse.   To borrow an expression that goes back to the dark days of World War Two, “the future is not what it used to be.”   Our species is in serious peril.  

So, what can we do about it?  As (I presume) we all know, there’s a growing international movement dedicated to reducing, if not reversing, global climate warming.   Many governments and non-governmental organizations have also been taking positive action, as called for in the 2015 Paris Climate Accord.   Many important economic and technological changes are also well underway in various countries.   In this country, the Green New Deal has become a major new policy initiative, though its fate will depend on the 2020 election cycle.

But all this may amount to being too little, too late.  As I document in some detail in my forthcoming new book, our global food production system is deeply threatened;  fresh-water supplies are being seriously depleted;  critical non-renewable resources are rapidly declining;  global population continues to increase at an unsustainable rate;  rising sea levels are already causing serious damage;  and this is just the short list. 

The climate changes that have already been baked in will cause ever-increasing mischief to the environment – severe droughts, floods, hurricanes, tsunamis, wildfires, heat waves, and more – and these will become an ever-greater a threat to our global economy.

Nor have we begun to address the growing political challenges.   The recent surge in authoritarian nationalism and the increasingly polarized, antagonistic relationships between nations is especially alarming.   The liberal, democratic world order that was created after World War Two seems to be unraveling, and the threat of violent international conflict seems to be growing. 

As I argue at length in my new book, we are facing a collective choice like none other in our long, multi-million-year history (and pre-history) as a ground-dwelling bipedal ape.   Will we act for the common good as a species, or will we descend into the “war of each against all” (or each nation against all) as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes long ago warned us?   Will the future be about serving the needs of all of “us” collectively, or will it be about a mutually self-destructive conflict between “us” and “them”?   That is the fundamental question.

Perverse as it may seem, the greatest threat that we may face is each other, and a regression into tribalism.   Indeed, violent warfare has been one of the major themes in human history, going back as far as we can see.   Peace has often seemed like it’s only a brief intermission.   We are facing the very real prospect of an era of “climate wars.”  Or worse. 

I believe that we have only two paths going forward.   We must either create a more integrated and cooperative global society and governance regime or else our species will very likely descend into lethal conflict and perhaps even devolve and go extinct.   There is no stand-pat, status quo option. 

Only an organized process of positive social, economic, and political changes on a global scale offers us genuine reason for hope.   It would be transformative for our species and would be unprecedented in evolutionary history.   Our species is already unique in many ways, but now we need to take the next step. 

To a biologist, the basic challenge for all living organisms is survival and reproduction.   Life is quintessentially a “survival enterprise,” and every organized cooperative society, whether it be in social insects or humankind, is at bottom a “collective survival enterprise.”   The fundamental purpose of a human society is to provide for the basic biological needs of its members, and of the society as a whole over time.   Biological survival is a precondition for any other, more exalted objectives – freedom, property rights, or whatever.   Many biologists use the analogy of a “superorganism” as a way of characterizing any socially organized species in the natural world.   

In my book (which is titled Superorganism:  A New Social Contract for Our Endangered Species), I provide an outline and a roadmap for a new, more legitimate and sustainable economic and political world order – in effect a global “superorganism.”  A key element of this roadmap is a proposal for a new “social contract” designed to create a legitimate and fair global society.   Among other things, it would include a “universal basic needs guarantee.” 

As I describe in my book, the accumulating scientific evidence suggests that humankind evolved over 5-7 million years in small, closely cooperating, egalitarian societies, and every modern society represents an extension of this pre-history.   What this ages-long evolutionary narrative teaches us is that there have been three keys to our ancestors’ remarkable success:  close cooperation, adaptive innovation, and mutually beneficial synergies.   In a very real sense, our species invented itself.  

We all depend on an elaborate division of labor in an intensely cooperative society a superorganism -- in which all the members have a shared stake and, ultimately, a shared fate.   (To be sure, competition is also ubiquitous. It can play an important supporting role, but it’s also double-edged; it can also become very destructive.)

Furthermore, in the 21st century we are increasingly dependent on a vast, interconnected, world-wide economy that generates an immeasurable number of positive synergies.  Consider this factoid, among others.  Some 1.4 billion people in more than a dozen countries cannot even now produce enough food for themselves and are dependent on imports.   Great Britain, for instance, imports 40% of its food.   Even the U.S. imports more than half of its fruits and one-third of its vegetables.   All told, global food exports in 2017 totaled $1.5 trillion, as well as another $1.7 trillion in agricultural products. 

Needless to say, if harm should come to any major part of this global economic system (say  skyrocketing global food prices during a severe regional drought, like the one in Russia in 2010 that temporarily tripled world grain prices), it could metastasize and even undermine the whole.   Like many other complex systems, superorganisms are ultimately susceptible to a catastrophic failure.   The archeological record is littered with examples of long-gone human societies. 

It is this fundamental biological reality and our growing interdependency -- that must guide how we respond to our global crisis, I believe.    We are at a tipping point as a species, but it is a crisis of our own making and, fortunately, we also have many resources at our disposal for how to deal with it.  If we follow the proven pathway of cooperation, innovation, and creating new synergies, there is every reason to hope that we can make the necessary changes and build a sustainable global society for the long term a truly global superorganism.   But this will require bold leadership and an engaged, supportive global society.

This emergent global superorganism must be based on a new social contract and increased global governance, along with many local initiatives and changes in every individual country.  It must be both a bottom up and top down process; major changes require both leadership and broad public support.   Equally important, we will need new financial resources and new international efforts to deal more effectively with our growing environmental crisis, as well as investing in a major upgrade to our global infrastructure and responding to the increasing menace of massive, prolonged climate disasters.

In addition, we will need to rein in our capitalist economic system and subordinate it to the common good.   And all this will depend on broad political reforms in many countries.   Effective governance on behalf of the age-old principle of the “public trust” is the key to everything else.

As I detail in my book, the practical consequences of this sea change would require major political changes at all levels, including perhaps a bold new “Global Government Initiative” at the United Nations that would include significant institutional changes and the creation of two new super-agencies, a Global Infrastructure Fund and a Global Emergency Management Agency.  However, there must also be positive changes in every country and every community.   The aspiration for government that acts for the “public trust” has now become a survival imperative. 

All this is a very tall order indeed.   Some will say that it is much too tall, totally unrealistic, even utopian.   But consider the likely alternative.  

The task we now face as a species is comparable to how the United States mobilized an all-out national war effort in just a few short months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.   We now confront a global Pearl Harbor a vastly larger and more complicated set of challenges, with much higher stakes.   Radical changes are needed -- a global mobilization.

To paraphrase a famous line from Samuel Johnson, nothing concentrates the mind like the prospect of being hanged in a fortnight.  It’s time for us to look ahead and concentrate our minds on the life-and-death threat that we are facing.   And we must think outside the box because the future lies outside the box.  Equally important, we must act outside the box.   And all of us must do our part.   The difference between pessimism and hope depends entirely on the choices we make collectively.   Starting now.   It’s Pearl Harbor day.   Later will be too late.




Prepared by Peter A. Corning for the 63rd Annual Meeting, International Society for the Systems Sciences June 28-July 2, 2019.


Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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