These global threats are not the only ones that we face, but they form an important subset because they represent kinds of threats that differ in significant ways from traditional threats.
Traditional threats are ones that can be identified with the action or behavior of particular human agents, are local, are immediate or imminent, and are relatively simple to understand and respond to. For instance, common crimes are examples of standard threats. Threats of these kind cause harm through the deliberate actions of identifiable individual agents, and do so in an immediate and obvious fashion. One generally deals with these kinds of threats by attempting to deter them and by restraining or incapacitating the human agents that produce them. There are also various kinds of standard threats that do not arise from the actions of human agents, for instance, infectious diseases, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, and so forth. These have sometimes been termed “natural evils,” and we have been living with them for all of our history as a species. In recent centuries we have been able to devise some effective technologies for containing and controlling these natural threats to human well-being, for instance, in the fields of public health and hygiene and medicine, but preventing many natural threats, such as hurricanes and earthquakes, remains largely beyond our control.
But the global threats we now face have distinctive qualitative and quantitative features that distinguish them from standard threats and also make them particularly difficult to solve.
First, they are global in their scope and potentially affect the well-being of every single person and indeed all living things on the planet. This feature concerns the scope of the problem and also by implication the scale of the changes that need to take place to solve it. Local problems can have local solutions, but global problems require global solutions and our current institutions for global governance are too weak to deal with them.
Second, rather than arising from a specific determinate cause or small set of causes, the etiologies of these global threats are complex and their causes are diffuse. In most cases, the problems mentioned arise as the result of the aggregated behavior of large numbers of independent actors, individual human beings, individual corporations, or individual states. The individual actions that produce the unwanted consequences, e.g. driving ones car to work, producing electricity by means of burning coal, or converting rainforests into grazing land, may not by themselves be very harmful, but when aggregated in massive numbers, they can produce catastrophic consequences that threaten the well-being of the planet and its living inhabitants.
Third, because the harms and risks produced by these threat are the result of aggregated individual actions, the agents who are responsible for causing them cannot (in most cases) be said to have acted with malice of forethought or with the intention to do harm to others. Global threats are unintentional and no one is in particular to blame for having caused them. Because they result from the aggregation of large number of actions it may be pointless to attempt to assign responsibility in the sense of blame or liability for many of them.
Fourth, unlike traditional agent-centered threats, these global threats are slow rather than fast; the costs and harms that results are deferred into the future, and the harms they produce are merely probable rather than immediately discernable in their effects on particular persons.
Fifth, the global threats humankind is currently facing are complex and dynamic. There are complex interdependencies and causal loops connecting the various problems we are facing: for instance, population growth leads to greater demands for resources such as land and water, which produces more pressure to cut down forests, which in turn accelerates soil erosion and water pollution and exacerbates the problem of global warming. One cannot hope to understand these sorts of problem using linear causal reasoning. Their complexity, interactivity, and dynamism require that we adopt a systems theoretic approach to understanding and dealing with these kinds of threats.
The sixth important feature of global threats is they are to one degree or another the result of the human use of modern technology. Many of these problems have arisen in part because of new powers given to us by technological progress, powers which we have not learned to use wisely and responsibly. Part of the problem is that technology has been allowed to assume control of human affairs such that its widespread use has produced unexpected and unpleasant consequences. While there is a temptation to blame our current problems on science and technology, ridding ourselves of modern technologies and returning to some pristine state of nature is not the solution to our problems. If our use of technology is part of the problem, it must also be part of the solution. The problem is not in our having technological power, but in our inability to use it responsibly.
The seventh feature of these threats is that their existence indicates that we are running up against the limits of the Earth’s carrying capacity for a human population, which is currently at about 6.6 billion and is expected to rise to between 10 and 11 billion by mid-century. The patterns of economic development that powered the Industrial Revolution and which produced many of these threats are clearly unsustainable. In the past when human groups despoiled their environments they could usually simply move on to another place. But there are no more places left to move -- the Earth is now fully occupied. While some people continue to dream of space colonies as the last frontier for human exploration, those of us in the reality-based community have understood that the Earth, with its finite resources, is our only home in the Cosmos and we human beings finally have to learn to take responsibility for protecting it and preserving it.