A New Social Contract for Our Endangered Species

As the evidence of our survival crisis continues to mount—with megadroughts, catastrophic floods, rampant wildfires, melting glaciers, devastating hurricanes and more—the word “denial” comes to mind.  “Too little, too late” could very well become an epitaph for our endangered species.

Our global civilization has failed to respond effectively to our ever-growing survival crisis.  Whether we are aware of it or not, we live in an intensely interdependent world and have a shared fate.  We are all dependent on close cooperation.   However, our ultimate fate is now in serious jeopardy. 

One of the threats we face, quite obviously, is global warming and accelerating climate change.  Climate warming is already causing lethal mischief to the environment and to our species in various ways.   Droughts, floods, tsunamis, and hurricanes, for instance, are age-old threats, but they have become bigger and more frequent.  Killer heat waves are having a devastating effect on our food production, and rampant wildfires are consuming our vital forests.  A recent report from a United Nations’ panel on climate change, the IPCC, warned that we have less than a decade left to make drastic reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions, and the response to date has been nothing short of alarming.  

Another major threat is a global food system that is already seriously eroding – with declining topsoil, severely depleted irrigation water supplies, and shrinking fisheries, among other things.  Even now, perhaps 20% of the world’s population are not properly fed.  (The estimates range up to as many as 1 billion people.) This too is going to get much worse, along with growing shortages of fresh water and an increasing potential for water wars between neighboring countries.  Our global fresh-water challenges are detailed in another recent U.N. report. 

A third major threat is our relentlessly increasing global population, now closing in on 8 billion people and projected to grow to an estimated 11 billion by 2100, an increase of 38%.  If unchecked, this trend is destined to become a self-inflicted disaster.  And this says nothing about rising sea levels, where the worst-case scenarios predict that many of world’s major cities may be under water – or become sea-walled fortresses – well before the end of this century.

Then there is our capitalist economic system, with ever-increasing extremes of concentrated wealth at the very top and widespread poverty among the rest of the population.   With some notable exceptions, the world’s economies are falling short, or even failing, in their primary obligation to provide for the basic needs of their citizens.   Add to this the current gridlock of governmental dysfunction, endemic corruption, failed states, self-serving authoritarian leaders, renewed big power rivalries, and, not least, a polarized and increasingly angry global population.

The liberal, democratic world order that was created after World War Two seems to be unraveling, and the threat of virulent nationalism and lethal global conflict seems to be growing. 

“Time to panic,” journalist David Wallace-Wells concluded in a recent article on the subject.  We should be alarmed about the high degree of denial and vested self-interests that have prevented many (not all) of our nations and their leaders from responding thus far with anything other than incremental actions – or nothing at all. 

However, there is an alternative.  We can still make a positive choice going forward.  We can seize the opportunity to create a sustainable global society based on cooperation and   global interdependence.  Positive synergy is the key, for it has always been the driver of our evolution as a species.  But this in turn will require the replacement of an individualistic, competitive (nationalistic) social ethic with new social and political values – and a sublimation of our global economic system to the ancient principle of the “common good.”  In other words, we must reverse the ominous current trend toward increased division and conflict in world politics and economics. 

Biologists would characterize such a cooperative breakthrough as a “major transition” in evolution.  We now know that the rise of complex living organisms over the past 3.9 billion years has been driven by cooperation and synergies – not zero-sum competition.  From the very origins of life to the emergence of socially organized species like honeybees, meerkats, mole rats, leaf-cutter ants, and (of course) humankind, close cooperation, innovation, and synergies of various kinds – mutual benefits that are not otherwise attainable – have played a key role.  I call it “nature’s magic.” 

In humankind, our immensely complex division of labor – or what should properly be called a “combination of labor” – has exerted a powerful influence in determining our extraordinary success as a species.  Because an organized society is much like a living organism, with many specialized parts that depend on each other and on the success of the “whole” (an analogy that goes back to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato in his classic study the Republic), modern-day biologists commonly use the term “superorganism” to characterize this special kind of organized social interdependence.  Now we must take this cooperative strategy to the next level and create a sustainable global superorganism.  We must think outside the box because the future lies outside the box.

Perverse as it may seem, the greatest threat we may face is each other -- and a regression into tribalism and violent conflict.   Indeed, collective violence has been one of the major themes in human history.    We now face the very real prospect of an era of global violence and “climate wars.” Or worse.

Equally important, the challenges we face going forward will very often transcend national borders – from mega-droughts to lethal disease epidemics and the hordes of climate refugees.  (One conservative estimate, from the World Bank, puts the refugee total at close to 150 million during the next 30 years.  Another study, by Climate Central, a science research organization, predicts that 150 million people -- and more, in a worst-case scenario -- may also need to be evacuated from low-lying cities that will be underwater by 2050 due to rising sea levels.  Even more disturbing is an environmental model developed by a global team of researchers in 2019 which projects that, within the next 30 years, the number of people without sufficient food and water could number in the billions.  These unprecedented life-and-death challenges will overwhelm the ability of most countries to deal with them unaided.  They will pose unimaginable humanitarian, security, and military threats.

We have only two paths available to us going forward.  We must either create a more effective global order, with collective governance, or else our species will very likely be convulsed by mass starvation, waves of desperate migrants, lethal social conflict, and perhaps even devolve and go all but extinct. 

There is no stand-pat, status quo option.  As I propose in my new book called Superorganism: Toward a New World Order for Our Endangered Species, only an organized process of major social, economic, and political change on a global scale offers us genuine reason for long-term hope.  It would be transformative for our species, and it would be unprecedented in the history of life on Earth. Our species is already unique in many ways, but now we need to take the next step.  I outline a master plan and roadmap for a new, more legitimate and more sustainable economic and political world order – a global social contract.

Here is a very brief preview of this plan.  It’s derived from my own evolutionary/ biological perspective on the nature and purpose of human societies, and the human condition, and its focus is our basic survival needs and the vital role of synergy in evolution.  

To a biologist, the basic, continuing, inescapable 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.”  Whatever may be our aspirations, or our illusions (or our economic status, for that matter), 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.  Biological survival is a prerequisite for any other, more exalted objectives.  To borrow a line from the TV series Star Trek, this is our “prime directive” – even though it is all too frequently betrayed in practice.   Our basic survival needs – some 14 categories in all – define the priorities for every human society, every human superorganism, and they are at the core of what we mean by the “common good” and the “public interest.” 

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, and cooperation was the key.  

For instance, our remote bipedal ancestors, the australopithecines, were small (about three feet tall) and slow-moving.  They could not have survived the harsh physical challenges associated with living on the ground, nor could they have held their own against the many large predators in their East African environment – such as the pack-hunting Palhyaena – without foraging together in cooperative groups and defending themselves collectively with the tools that they invented for procuring food, and for self-defense (probably digging sticks that doubled as clubs, and perhaps thrown rocks).  The result was a game-changing synergy – cooperative outcomes that could not otherwise be achieved.  (Synergy refers to the unique combined effects produced by two or more parts, or individuals. The classic example is water, a combination of hydrogen and oxygen.) 

This deep-rooted pattern of close cooperation, innovation, and synergy remains the basic survival strategy for complex human societies to this day.  We depend on an elaborate division of labor (or combination of labor) in an intensely cooperative social system in which all the members have a shared stake and, ultimately, a shared fate.  (To be sure, competition is also ubiquitous and can play an important supporting role.)  Our many separate human superorganisms – some 195 individual countries – each represents an elaborate set of jointly created benefits and reciprocal obligations that are designed to serve both the parts and the whole.  Furthermore, in the Twenty-First Century we are increasingly dependent on a vast, interconnected, world-wide economy that generates an immeasurable number of positive synergies.  (I review some of these in my book.) And if harm should come to any of the major parts, it may metastasize and undermine the whole.  

It is this fundamental biological reality – and our growing interdependency – that must guide how we respond to our global crisis.  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.

But this will require a new level of social cooperation that transcends what we have already achieved as a species. Indeed, it will require a reversal of the ominous current trend toward nationalistic rivalries and increasing conflict.  And this, in turn, will depend on reciprocity and fairness.  Social justice is an essential enabler; there has never been sustained (voluntary) cooperation in humankind without it.  (Yes, slave systems can impose cooperation by force, but this approach is costly, unstable, and notoriously short-lived.)

There are, in fact, three distinct fairness principles that play a vitally important role in our social relationships.  They represent the goal posts, so to speak, for achieving a legitimate and fair society.   These principles are (1) equality with respect to providing for our basic survival needs; (2) equity with respect to merit (or “giving every man his due,” as Plato put it in his great treatise on social justice, the Republic); and (3) reciprocity, or paying back for the benefits we receive from others, and society. These are discussed at length in my 2011 book, The Fair Society: The Science of Human Nature and the Pursuit of Social Justice.

As I explain in the book, these three fairness principles – equality, equity and reciprocity – must be bundled together and balanced in order to achieve a stable and relatively harmonious social order.  It could be likened to a three-legged-stool.  All three legs are equally important.  Together they form the framework for what could be called a “biosocial contract.”  So, in addition to what we must do to meet our overarching survival crisis, a new social contract is essential to long-term global security, and it will require a broad array of economic and political/policy changes.

If we hope to achieve a major transition in human evolution, it will require global cooperation and self-governance for the common good, along with many local initiatives and changes in every individual country.  Equally important, new agencies and new programs, as well as greatly increased financial resources, will be needed to deal effectively with the environmental crisis, as well as investing in a major upgrade to our global infrastructure and responding to the ever-increasing menace of massive, prolonged climate disasters.   In addition, we must rein in our capitalist economic system and subordinate it to the common good.  Free market capitalism has made many contributions, but it has also become a part of the problem. It must be enlisted – to a much greater degree – to be a part of the solution.  And all of this must be accompanied by broad political reforms.  Effective governance on behalf of the ancient principle of the “public trust” is a key part of the solution.  (I have more to say about all this in the book.) 

The task we face is comparable to how the United States mobilized an all-out 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.  Yet many of the people who hold the power and resources needed to make these changes have not yet heard the bombs dropping, or so it seems.  Many of them have been lulled by our prolonged period of economic growth and sky-high stock market prices.  Or by technological progress in solar power and electric cars.  Or blind faith in technology.  Or ideological mind-traps.  Or naked self-interest.  Many of these naysayers still reject the very idea of a global emergency, despite the ever-increasing evidence. 

In the summer of 2018, America’s premier scientific journal, Science, published an unprecedented series of papers under the heading “Tomorrow’s Earth,” on how to deal with our multi-leveled environmental crisis.  In the lead-off article for this series, the author wrote: “Today, global human society stands at a decision point.  Business-as-usual approaches are likely to lead to catastrophic changes to our planet and our health and well-being.  What will it take for universal recognition of our perilous position, and how can we begin to make the often-difficult changes required to live in a more sustainable, cooperative, and compassionate way?”

In an important speech in late 2020, “The State of the Planet,” U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres warned that “we must act more broadly, more holistically, across many fronts, to secure the health of our planet on which all life depends… Now is the time to transform humankind’s relationship with the natural world – and with each other.  And we must do so together …Solidarity is survival… Let’s learn [this] lesson and change course for the pivotal period ahead.” 



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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