How to avoid early extinction: make Australian students ‘survival literate’


Bob Douglas, Australia21 Director and ANU Professor EmeritusAustralia21 Director and ANU Professor Emeritus Bob Douglas:

Australia should take the lead on research and teaching to avoid the collapse of civilisation and the demise of our species.


A wealth of hard science and a many highly respected authors are now pointing to the likelihood that without a profound change in direction, the human species is headed for extinction, conceivably before the end of this century. A number of distinguished Australians have contributed substantially to our understanding of the knife-edge on which the human species is currently poised.

At the time of his death in 2014, Professor Tony McMichael had virtually completed his manuscript of a book entitled Climate change and  the health of nations: famines, fevers and the fate of populations. With the help of his wife and colleagues around the world, the book was recently published by Oxford University Press and it rounds out the lifetime contribution of an Australian National University academic who played a key role in world thinking on these matters for much of the last 25 years.

Drought with cracked clay and dying treeIn the final chapter of his book, McMichael wrote ‘In 21st-century, populations around the world face unprecedented but broadly foreseeable changes in climate on a global scale, with impacts compounded by other environmental and demographic pressures.  We cannot predict the consequence for human populations but they may be dire – especially if runaway climate change occurs…. Can we find another, safer way forward?’

Stephen Boyden is another ANU colleague who has been a world leading contributor to understanding global ecology and the ongoing dangers of current human behaviour. In his 2016 book The Bio-narrative: the story of life and hope for the future, published by ANU press, Boyden writes ‘I am rather pessimistic. The maladaptive assumptions of prevailing cultures are deeply ingrained. The notion thcold front from outer spaceat economic growth must take precedence over all other considerations and general ignorance of biological and ecological realities do not augur well for the future.’

A third Canberran who is contributing to international thinking on these matters is Julian Cribb, a former science communicator for the CSIRO.  Cribb’s 2017 Springer publication has been widely praised by Australian and international scientists. Surviving the 21st century deals with the 10 existential risks that threaten continued human survival on the planet. These include ecological collapse, resource depletion, weapons of mass destruction, global warming, global poisoning, food insecurity, population and urban expansion, pandemic disease, dangerous new technologies and self delusion. Like McMichael and Boyden, Cribb outlines what he believes humans must, and could do to avoid collapse of civilisation and the demise of our, not so wise, species.

Industrial sunrise with smoke stacks and smog pollution
The University of Oxford has recently begun a major research thrust on the topic the Future of Humanity.

Cambridge University also now has a Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.

A number of us at ANU have been recently arguing that a plan for human survival should be a central element of the mission of our national university and that every one of our graduates should be ‘survival literate’.

For that matter, there is every reason why survival literacy should urgently permeate our entire educational system.

Aerial of rice paddy terrace  motherboard







Observing the national and international political scene, one could be forgiven for believing that all we need to do is promote economic growth and jobs and everything will be okay. We have become besotted with the idea that money and markets will solve all of our problems.

Nothing could be further from the truth.  Indeed, our commitment to endless economic growth and denial and ignorance of its ecological consequences is an integral part of the problem, which must urgently be addressed if our grandchildren are to survive.

glacier and icebergs

At the ANU Emeritus faculty meeting on 3 May, a group of us will be arguing the urgent need for the Australian National University to build on the legacy of some of its great thinkers, and commit in a much more comprehensive way than it has so far done, to the science and politics of human survival.

There is a challenge in this to all of us.Silhouette of the Parliament House flagpole with misty mountains behind

The University is unlikely to act without pressure from the community and funding for such a development will certainly not come from the current government. I urge the Canberra community and all Australians to get behind us, and make human survival a major theme in all our institutions of learning.

Indeed, make Canberra a world centre for the development of solutions to our present risks – instead of a place where those risks are compounded by ignorant politicians.

In his book, Tony McMichael cites Martin Rees, former President of Britain’s prestigious Royal Society, that he thinks the odds are no better than fifty-fifty that our present civilization on Earth will survive to the end of the present century. All parents and grandparents take note!

Bob Douglas was formerly Director of The National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at ANU. He is a committee member of The Canberra Alliance for Participatory Democracy.



Cover of the book 'Climate change and the health of nations' by Tony McMichael   The Bio-narrative, by Stephen Boyden   Cover of Surviving the 21st Century, by Julian Cribb

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