July 23, 2005

Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior

Paul R. Ehrlich and Donald Kennedy (editor of Science) have got space in Science (subscription required) to promote the idea of creating the Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior -- a panel of "relevant" natural and social scientists to discuss and suggest ways to build a sustainable, peaceful, and equitable global society. Perhaps because they already know which "relevant" scientists will take part they anticipate some of the ideas and recommendations that will come out of the MAHB (caveat: remember that Ehrlich is famously incompetent as a forecaster). They acknowledge that citizens will not like some of the recommendations, such as reducing human-caused greenhouse gas emissions and limiting human population growth and per capita consumption. But the changes in behavior need not be voluntary. Rather, they will be implemented democratically; in other words, governments will have to be the decision-makers. Here are some excerpts:
[S]ociety has no prominent international forum in which such issues (like how we should treat our environment and each other) are publicly discussed. [...]
In approaching sustainability, one needs to determine how the rights of people in the current generation to consume natural capital should be balanced against the rights of future generations. [...]
The steps that most members of the relevant scientific community believe are necessary (e.g., reduction of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, establishment of marine reserves, limiting human population growth and per capita consumption) are disconnected from those measures the rest of society, and especially politicians, are willing to undertake.
We propose to promote the establishment of an ongoing global discussion of key ethical issues related to the human predicament—a Millennium Assessment of Human Behavior (MAHB). [...] [W]e need an institution to conduct an
ongoing examination and public airing of what is known about how human cultures (especially their ethics) evolve, and about what kinds of changes might permit transition to an ecologically sustainable, peaceful, and equitable global society. [...]

One central task would be to integrate the results of the working groups on a continuous basis and to make recommendations for action. The MAHB might, for example, help generate public support for mechanisms to constrain corporate power under certain circumstances. Large-scale private activity may be part of the solution, but many analysts think that some limitation is crucial. [...]

Modern literature has revised the discouraging message of the “Tragedy of the Commons” by demonstrating how even primitive societies can organize fair and sustainable rules for extracting common-pool resources. [...]

This effort will require support from a variety of sectors. [...] The United Nations, the World Bank, and other international transgovernment institutions would be natural candidates. Eventually, governments will have to be the decision-makers.

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