Bob Douglas, Canberra Regional Meeting

Bob DouglasAt least 10 systemic issues that are bearing down upon us are often described as “existential threats”, by which is meant, threats to the continued existence of human and other life on Earth.

These include the progressive collapse of life supporting ecosystems and the massive extinctions of species; the depletion of the earth’s natural resources; the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction; the currently uncontrolled pace of human induced climate change; the extensive poisoning of our environment by man-made toxins, chemicals and pollution; the insecurity of the food system on which the human population depends; the still growing human population and expansion of cities everywhere; the prospect of pandemic diseases spreading like wildfire through huge centres of overcrowding and poverty; the clever technologies that we are devising, that we imperfectly understand and are uncertain how to control; and finally the extent to which we delude ourselves that somehow, by continuing to grow our numbers and economic demands on the planet, we will stumble on a mechanism for outwitting the  inevitable limits to growth.

These 10 existential threats are interlinked and together they add up to the near certainty that, without urgent transformative change in the way we behave as a species, the days of our progeny are seriously numbered. Add to those systemic threats, the appalling inequality of access to resources and protection against these growing threats, and the fear of these threats to millions of people, and we have a perfect trigger for expanding violence among and between human groups.

And yet there is a deep silence in our society about these matters. If they are mentioned at all by our political leaders it is to treat them as single independent problems that will hopefully be be solved by continuing economic growth or by clever innovative technology.

Few brave souls are facing the stark reality of the human predicament, but a notable exception is Pope Francis whose encyclical, “Laudato Si: On care for our common home,”[1] was published in 2015.  The Pope’s letter is being largely ignored by the world to which it was addressed.  In the closing chapter of this remarkable document Francis says

Many things have to change course but it is we human beings above all who need to change. We lack an awareness of our common origin; of our mutual belonging and of a future to be shared with everyone. A great cultural, spiritual and educational challenge stands before us and it requires that we set out on the long path of renewal. We must regain the conviction that we need one another; that we have a shared responsibility for others and the world.

In a recently published book, “Surviving the 21st-Century”[2], Canberra writer and science communicator, Julian Cribb, boldly examines these 10 great existential challenges and identifies the ways we can approach each of them.

Cribb says “The greatest challenge lies not in the physical threats we face, but in our own minds. Our flawed human narrative often diverts and undermines our efforts to work together for our survival”. The author agrees with Pope Francis that this must radically change. “Ignoring existential threats does not banish them. Inevitably, it only renders humanity less prepared. There is no other way to resolve a complex problem than to face it, to understand it thoroughly and then to take resolute and agreed species wide action to prevent it”.

I think that the prevention of the inevitable violence that will result from the deteriorating state of the human world, demands a combination of Mindfulness, Empathy and Compassion, which was the subject of a recent Australia21 Forum held in Melbourne in June 2015[3].

Mindfulness means paying attention to what is happening in the present moment in the mind, body and external environment with the attitude of an observer. This innate human ability, which requires regular practice, is the essence of composure and the source of high-performance by many who practice it. A mindful approach to the existential threats identified above, requires first that we examine them in a non-judgmental and non-emotional way, recognising their complexity and proximity and the fact that they affect first and most seriously, the weakest, voiceless and most underprivileged members of the human and nonhuman world.

Empathy is the skill of stepping into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives and using that understanding to guide subsequent actions. Empathy has been viewed as having a number of components including emotional sharing, a capacity to share another’s emotions; empathic concern, which is the motivation to care for another’s welfare; and finally, developing the ability consciously to put oneself into the mind of another through cognitive and social reasoning. It is often argued that an empathic approach is part of the essential transforming quality we must now develop in the 21st-century, and that we must move beyond empathy in individual exchanges towards a collective empathy to other groups and species as we confront the existential threats of our age.

Compassion provides the motivation for empathy. Compassion has been defined as “being sensitive to the suffering of others, with a deep commitment to try and prevent or relieve it”. The 2008 Charter for Compassion which was drafted by religious leaders from Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, Hinduism and Confucianism, opened with the words “The principle of compassion lies at the heart of all religious, ethical and spiritual traditions, calling us always to treat all others as we wish to be treated ourselves.”

Social activism by Christians has a long and proud history. Many of us are convinced that our human species is hurtling down the road towards an impossible and impenetrable brick wall.  How can and should we act?

Transformative change in the way we deal with each other and with the planet would appear to be the only logical way to avert catastrophe. We need to shift our own gaze from our current preoccupation with the lives of our own privileged group of humans, away from selfish anthropo-centrism to a new and compassionate understanding of the health of the whole human race and of other bio-diverse species and our shared dependence on the natural world and the health of the planet, ie eco-centrism.

Pope Francis is right. We must embark on a change in our understanding of who we are as a species and how we can best promote a viable future for our descendants.

Mindfulness, empathy and compassion are three key elements of the move we must make. A violent future for our descendants seems otherwise inevitable.

Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas is a retired public health academic, a director of Australia21 


[1] Pope Francis. Encyclical Letter “Laudato Si” of The Holy Father Francis on “Care for our common home.”  June 2015

[2] Julian Cribb.  Surviving the 21st Century. Humanity’s Ten Great Challenges and How We Can Overcome Them. 265 pages.  Springer 2016.

[3] Australia21.  Mindfulness, Empathy and Compassion: The building blocks of a mindful nation. The report of a forum held at The University of Melbourne 10 June 2016, and available as a free download from the Australia21 website


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