Peace Magazine: Our House is on Fire!

Peace Magazine

Our House is on Fire!

By Metta Spencer • published Jul 01, 2019 • last edit Aug 31, 2019

Get up! Our house is on fire!” a thirteen-year-old girl calls out. Exactly. Get up! We adults have been acting as if there were no emergency, although we are confronting the hardest challenge in human history. So, get up! Hurry!

We must rouse all the other grown-ups too and do everything possible to save the world from six potential catastrophes: militarism (the foolish reliance on weapons and warfare for security); the climate crisis; and four other impending threats— famine; pandemics; massive radiation exposure; and cyberattacks.

These are all real risks and we caused them all, so it’s up to us to handle them. And we may fail. But after all, the most interesting problems are the hard ones. As John Kennedy said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Saving the world will be even harder. But just as much fun!

Okay, What Shall We do?

First, let’s find out what we need to know. Second, let’s talk about it. (All the time! Bring up the subject out of the blue four or five times every day! That’s how to wake the others up.) Third, let’s act—but act according to the smartest plans we can devise.

Unfortunately, no university offers a course called “Save the World 101,” though that is what everyone needs. But I was a university professor who specialized in teaching introductory courses, so I’ve prepared a mini-course for you to take by reading the next eight pages. After you finish it, please go to our website,, which offers lots of resources and a page for each of the six global threats, including a comment column for discussions. And pick one of those problems for your own, if you haven’t already.

The website also shows our Platform for Survival (which was adopted by a two-day exercise of participatory democracy) and an explanation for each of its 25 planks, which are our policy proposals for solving all six problems. However, some of the solutions may make sense only after you have a good grasp of the problems, so we also present on the website a bibliography and over sixty videos (each an hour in length) on various relevant global issues.

If you consider an hour too long to watch a video, you can listen the same talks as audio podcasts instead. In fact, you can subscribe and receive a new one every week on your mobile phone. That way you can listen while walking your dog or washing dishes.

There are seventeen mini-lessons in this mini-course. The first one will introduce the idea of addressing the whole set of threats as a system. Then fifteen lessons will examine the interactions among the six threats that compose that system. The seventeenth lesson will be about “enabling measures”—economic and structural reforms of governance that may be essential for enabling the other solutions. But you don’t have to pass a test or turn in an assignment.

You may reasonably ask: Why these six threats? On what basis were they chosen? Answer: I chose them on the basis of the urgency of each one. We won’t dwell on the chronic problems that have always threatened our survival: illness, hunger, attacks by wild animals and bad weather, for example. These chronic problems are being solved, but two crises are now threatening the survival of homo sapiens: war and weapons (especially nuclear), and global warming.

These two dangers are often called “existential threats.” Indeed, we may be entering the “sixth great extinction.” In five previous geological periods, most living species on the planet became extinct. During the Permian period, 251 million years ago, 96% of all species were lost. Can we now prevent our own extinction?

The other four threats in our list are not, in themselves, quite so risky. Although each one could kill millions or possibly a billion human beings, they don’t threaten our survival as a species,. A few years ago, we even believed that famine had been eliminated. Also, we haven’t experienced a pandemic on the scale of the Spanish flu since 1918, and there are already drugs that can stop the HIV epidemic. As for radiation exposure from something like Chernobyl, well, there have been no known deaths yet from the Fukushima melt-down. And we have not experienced a cyber war yet, so our Internet fears are confined to our irritation about cybercrime, fake news, and election interference. Overall, these four problems are not mortal threats to the future of humankind.

True. Separately, none of these four “minor” catastrophes do endanger humanity’s survival. It is the combination of them that should worry us. And in fact, each of them is causally linked to one or both of the two big threats—militarism and global warming—and they also interact with each other. These interactions multiply the risk that each one poses separately. These six problems interact as a system. Indeed, not one of them can be solved without addressing at least one of the others. Here’s the basic argument of this article: To solve any one of the six problems, we should look at the combinations and interactions between each pair of them. So here we’ll explore the causal connections among all combinations of the six threats. Not all of them are of equal urgency, so I will boldface the ones that should be given top priority.

You may feel daunted by the difficulty of solving each problem separately, much less the whole set. Many people prefer to work on them as distinct, separate challenges—if indeed they even have the courage to work on any at all. To address all six at once may seem overwhelming. And that’s fine! You are probably already working to save the world from one or more of the six perils, and there is no reason for you to change. Just keep up your good work!

Yet when dealing with a system, it can be easier to solve the whole combination of problems together than any one of them singly. That is true when one of the problems is causing most of the other problems. If you solve it, the others will be easy. So it’s important to prioritize—to choose which issues to work on and in which order. Afterward we may all keep specializing in solving a single small part of the problem, but we’ll understand how the parts fit together as a big picture. When you’re working on a jigsaw puzzle, it helps to see the picture on the box lid and get a notion as to where each piece may belong. So, this course is meant to be like a picture on the box of our huge puzzle called “How to save the world.” Let’s begin now.

Lesson One: Our Six Problems Form a Single System

Systems are complicated. Whenever you jiggle one part, it affects some other part, which in turn may reverberate and move another part, and so on. It helps to know in advance how the whole thing works. I cannot explain all of this system. Nobody can; it’s too complicated. But we may make smarter decisions if we consider all of the fifteen possible connections among pairs of our six global threats. Here is a graph showing all those interactions. We will find a causal connection linking almost every pair of them.

I won’t discuss the “knock-on” effects as the whole system reverberates further beyond the pairs of threats. Nor are all of these first-order interactions equally urgent. We should prioritize them so we can devote our energies to solving the most causally consequential of the six threats. We will use evidence whenever possible in prioritizing, but sometimes we may resort to intuition, despite all the risks of error. You may, of course, disagree with my hunches. To save paper, I will print the footnotes on our website,

Lesson Two: Militarism Interacts with Global Warming

Let’s begin with the top cell in our pyramid of interactive problems. These are the two worst threats to humankind and they interact. (I use the term “militarism” interchangeably with “war and weapons.”) There is a real possibility that our species will become extinct because of global warming. It is hard to envision any other outcome if the permafrost and ocean clathrates melt and send their methane into the atmosphere. There is even a possibility (maybe slightly less) that a nuclear war will eliminate the entire human population. I will not review the evidence here, but neither idea is crazy.

What we should think about first is the way these first two existential threats—militarism and global warming—interact, each exacerbating the other. Perhaps the lesser impact is the effect of the climate crisis on the probability of war. People who are affected most by drought or floods often lack the capacity to wage war; instead they may become refugees in a tent city somewhere far from home. However, there seems to be a moderate correlation between temperature and war that sometimes is consequential. If the crops fail and food prices rise, there are often civil disturbances. For example, most food is imported to the Middle East and when the world prices for food shot upward, the result was the Arab Spring,1 which began with nonviolent protests but led to wars in several countries. One of them was Libya, a country that almost uniquely had (thank heavens) abandoned its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The ensuing war was bad enough.

Likewise, according to one somewhat controversial narrative,2 the Civil War in Syria is also a “climate war.” This account attributes the war to drought, for the farmers who could not produce crops had to move to cities, where they were unemployed and hence were easily recruited to insurgent movements. The result was the Syrian Civil War, which is not even over yet.

Whether one accepts this explanation or not, there are also other studies showing some connection between global warming and warfare. For example, the Economist showed that a 1 percent increase in temperature leads to a 4.5 percent increase in civil war in the same year and a 0.9 percent increase in the following year. But another study concluded that the causes of conflict are primarily political and economic, not climatic.3 So we can conclude that global warming is a minor cause of warfare and militarism, but not the most promising way of resolving the whole system of six problems. It is, however, immensely consequential for its many _direct _effects and must therefore be assigned top priority.

The other direction of causality for this pair is unmistakable. Militarism definitely contributes a great deal to global warming —in two different ways. First, there is the direct release of carbon into the atmosphere as a result of military preparations or actual wars. The manufacture, distribution, and training in the use of weapons and other military equipment inevitably emits a huge amount of greenhouse gas, even during peacetime. Military bases, target ranges, and training grounds pollute the air, land, and water, causing long-term damage. And when a war is actually fought, the climatic consequences are obviously even worse, for in the aftermath, whole cities must be rebuilt. The US military is the world’s largest institutional source of greenhouse gases.

The second way in which militarism exacerbates global warming is by its enormous budgets. The world spent over $1.822 trillion on military activities in 2018.4 All national armies are exorbitantly expensive, but especially the American one. The Department of Defense is responsible for about 35 percent of all global military expenditures, including the costs of bygone wars. The US spends 40 percent of its annual budget on militarization.5 Forty percent of the Pentagon’s budget for overseas operations is spent simply for transporting fuel to the countries where the war is being fought—where it is emitted to the air as greenhouse gas.

When governments have to justify these harmful activities and expenditures, they are no longer ashamed to acknowledge their real motivation: to protect profits for the arms manufacturers and jobs for the general population. Indeed, the sale of weapons to oppressive regimes is no longer considered a shameful way to maintain high employment levels. Militarism is taken for granted as normal, even inevitable, in modern societies. One cannot reverse militarism while ignoring its connection to money.

But now we must spend enormous sums to develop new technologies for limiting climate change to 1.5 degrees. This is essential for the survival of civilization, if not our entire species. According to the United Nations Foundation, it will cost between $5 and $6 trillion per year to fulfill the Sustainable Development Goals6 – and they do not count all the changes required for limiting climate change. In the long term, almost all of the measures to halt the climate crisis will save money, but there will be considerable up-front costs, and the only money sufficient for that purpose must come from the huge military expenditures, most of which do far more harm than good anyway as means of security.

Yet achieving this reform is an enormously difficult political goal. All the nuclear powers are planning to spend even more to modernize and improve their arsenals, while at the same time abrogating some of the crucial arms control agreements that limited these weapons. A treaty was adopted at the United Nations in 2017 to prohibit the very existence of any nuclear weapons on the planet, but there is little prospect now that the nuclear weapons states will sign it. This is true even in democratic countries where surveys show that a majority of the voting population favor the abolition of all nuclear weapons. Governments do not respond to such wishes because the voters do not express them imperatively. Indeed, some even vote for candidates who support nuclear weapons and all other forms of militarism. We generally get the governments that we deserve.

The crucial lesson is this: Both militarism and global warming threaten the survival of humankind, or at least of civilization. They interact, with militarism showing more impact on global warming than vice versa. Probably it will be impossible to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees unless militarism is vastly reduced, both because of its expense and its inevitable production of greenhouse gas. Hence, the top priority solution to both problems may be to reduce most national armed forces and divert the money to minimizing global warming. Now let’s analyze the other fourteen possible combinations of threats in this fiendish system of evils.

Lesson Three: Militarism Interacts with Famine

Militarism means war—a systematic plan for killing other people. And, among the many ways of killing others, there is starvation. In ancient times, one army might lay siege to another city—a method that has not escaped the attention of modern war-makers.

But in previous centuries, when large parts of a population died from under-nutrition, it was mainly because of natural disasters—primarily bad weather—or because they could not move food supplies around enough. Sometimes ample food was for sale but people had no money to buy it. And, as Amartya Sen pointed out, mass starvation reflected the lack of responsible governance.7 Where a country was ruled by a reasonably good democracy, food would somehow be provided to stave off actual starvation.

A decade ago it seemed that the world had conquered mass starvation. There were still individuals suffering poverty and hunger, but for a few years no actual famines occurred anywhere in the world. That is no longer the case, but the recent famines are no longer caused by natural disasters or market failures, but rather by deliberate acts of war. The siege is back again. In South Sudan throughout 2017, especially in the north part of the country, about five million people (half of the population) experienced famine because their homes and fields were burned. The South Sudanese Army was paid, not in money, but with the privilege of confiscating cattle and possessions. The UN described this as8 “a strategy to deprive the civilians living in the area of any form of livelihood or material support.”

The following year, famine came to Yemen. Over 17 million of Yemen’s population were affected, including over 3.3 million children and pregnant or lactating women. The famine was compounded by an outbreak of cholera, with about 5,000 new cases per day. These disasters were deliberately caused by air strikes led by Saudi Arabia and the U.S. Navy, which have deliberately targeted water systems and destroyed fishing boats, leaving the fishermen unable to support their families.9 The port of Hudaydah was blockaded, keeping food, medicine, and other humanitarian aid from reaching those in need.10

There is no international law prohibiting the use of famine as a weapon. This situation must change. There is now an initiative urging the adoption of a UN resolution to declare famine a “crime against humanity.”11 It is a measure that deserves universal support. Famine does not cause war or weapons, but war certainly can cause famine. That’s happening now and can get worse unless we break the link to war. How? By creating an international prohibition against depriving of a population of food. High priority!

Lesson Four: Global Warming Interacts with Famine

Although all current famines must be blamed on warfare, that does not mean that climate is irrelevant. Access to food will become iffy in the future because the human population continues increasing and climate is reducing the capacity of land to yield sufficient crops. There are expected to be 9.3 billion people on the planet by 2050.12 This will require a doubling of food production, but rivers and groundwater are already shrinking. The Himalayan glaciers are melting and the North China Plain is running out of water.13

In other areas, it is flooding that presents a worse threat. Most small island states such as the Maldives recognize that the combination of drought and rising sea levels threaten their agricultural production. Islanders will have to emigrate as their coastal lands are inundated. A report declared, “Climate change is one of the biggest culprits in driving hunger. Of 51 nations facing food insecurity, 33 are least developed countries with a combined population of 82 million. Almost a quarter of the population of the least developed countries face food insecurity.”14

As usual with systems, the causal impact between famine and climate change is not just uni-directional, but rather a vicious cycle. The more climate refugees are created by global warming, the more of the planet’s resources must be devoted to supporting them, for they cannot produce their own food and other necessities. Those costs will drain money away from technological improvements to mitigate the climate crisis. Indeed, the solution to this problem can only be an urgent world-wide, top-priority campaign to limit global warming.

Lesson Five: Militarism Interacts with Pandemics

Historically, wars have usually been associated with the spread of infectious diseases. The most obvious example occurred in World War I when the Spanish flu was spread in part by troop movements. The disease sickened an estimated 500 million people worldwide—about one-third of the planet’s population—and killed between 20 million and 50 million victims—far more than were killed in the war itself.15

This connection between military action and disease can be observed in almost all instances. Today there are about thirty civil wars being waged around the world, and they are often foci of infectious disease. For example, although there had not been a single case of polio reported in Syria since 1999, in 2013 new cases began to appear there among children.

According to Paul Wise and Michele Barry, “The Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa exposed glaring weaknesses in the global strategy to control pandemic outbreaks in areas with minimal public health capacity.” But solutions do exist. For example, there is a potential for using satellites and other technologies for the surveillance of remote areas.

However, sometimes these disease outbreaks are not accidental flukes but are deliberately caused. The most famous historical examples occurred when the blankets of diseased persons were bestowed upon an enemy as “gifts” for the purpose of infecting them. For example, William Trent recorded in his journal at Fort Pitt, Pennsylvania in 1753 that, “Out of our regard to [the Native American leaders visiting us] we gave them two Blankets and an Handkerchief out of the Small Pox Hospital. I hope it will have the desired effect.”16

But even today, Wise and Barry write, “At the most basic level, the destruction or withholding of essential health capabilities can be used to coerce adversaries into political compliance, if not complete submission.”17

Germ warfare has not yet occurred in our own day and may be prevented. Biological warfare would involve the military’s use of pathogens to infect an entire enemy population. While the possibility of such actions cannot be entirely excluded, the likelihood was reduced when a treaty entered into force in 1975 that prohibits the development, production, and stockpiling of biological and toxin weapons. This has been signed by 182 countries18 and ratified by all of them except five. What would also help would be the addition of more means of formal verification: the actual monitoring of compliance. However, much has already been accomplished in limiting threat of biological warfare. Pandemics are a high threat that need to be addressed in their own right and in connection with climate change, but the association with war and weapons is not now a concern.

Lesson Six: Global Warming Interacts With Pandemics

Clearly, global warming can cause pandemics, and we have every reason to be alarmed and to prepare for that possibility. Indeed, Bill Gates regularly warns us that the greatest immediate threat to humanity is a pandemic. That is because new pathogens emerge from mutations of viruses, which travellers can transfer by airplane before they even become sick. As the climate changes, there are changes in animal habitat as well. Insects can move into new areas, bringing Zika, West Nile, and other diseases. Forests are felled and with the growing population, people begin occupying land that had been the habitat of animals with viruses they had never met before. Infections arise and spread.

New vaccines are required to manage this challenge, but they take time to develop, and diseases can spread faster. Worse yet, antibiotics have been widely and inappropriately used, even by farmers to fatten animals. All pathogens can acquire immunity over time by evolution, so by now there are new viruses and fungi in hospitals that cannot be destroyed by any of the current array of drugs.19 Now a new fungus is especially worrying—a type of yeast called Candida auris, nearly 600 cases of which had been confirmed in the US in 2019, as well as in Asia, Australia, Europe, South America, and Africa. There is no drug that can cure it now, and infections have occurred already in numerous hospitals.20

But can the causal connection between climate and disease run in the other direction too? Can pandemics cause the climate to change? The idea seems ridiculous, but history can yield some astounding discoveries. Indeed, the most remarkable story involves the indigenous people of America, who were far more numerous before the European settlers arrived than was formerly supposed. There were an estimated 56 million Native Americans on this continent, many of whom were farmers. The white settlers brought diseases with them for which the indigenous people had no immunity. As mentioned in the example above, not all of the exposure was inadvertent; some was intentional genocide, though it is impossible to estimate how much. In any case, the entire indigenous population was decimated, and after they perished their farms reverted to forests and other wild vegetation. The trees absorbed more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which, according to a current account, was so great an increase that it cooled down the planet. The result was a period of history when the entire planet became cooler—a time known as the Little Ice Age.21

There is a lesson for us here: Plant trees! This is a high priority. We don’t need an Ice Age, but we do need a cooler planet, and quickly! *An extra trillion trees will help reduce climate change, which (among other things) spreads diseases that we don’t want. Also, because new viruses are already spreading world-wide, we must give high priority to developing better ways of blocking their spread. *

Lesson Seven: Famine Interacts with Pandemics

Famine and infectious disease are twins. They predictably occur together, for whenever people begin starving, their immune system weakens and they become susceptible to infections that their bodies could otherwise have resisted. Indeed, as the World Health Organization explains, “between starvation and death, there is nearly always disease.”22 The immediate cause of death is the disease. In today’s famine in Yemen, it is not surprising that there is also an epidemic of cholera.

And theoretically, the causal direction could also run in the other direction. When people are sick, they cannot work. Farmers and fishers stay in bed, so little food can be produced or transported to market. A pandemic could, in principle, cause a famine. However, we are not in an immediate risk of a famine-related pandemic, so we need not urgently address the interaction between the two phenomena, though we must certainly pay more attention to stopping the spread of pandemics, as proposed above in connection with global warming.

Lesson Eight: Militarism Interacts with Radiation Exposure

Nuclear weapons require fissile materials that do not occur in nature. Uranium is present in nature, but not in a form that can sustain a chain reaction, so natural uranium cannot make a nuclear bomb. Instead, the weaponeers require highly-enriched uranium or plutonium, which is produced by all reactors.

The only thing keeping authoritarian nations and terrorists from acquiring their own nuclear weapons is the difficulty of obtaining the necessary fissile materials. However, every reactor produces such materials as a by-product of generating electricity. These waste materials are extremely radioactive and cannot easily be captured and used, however, without killing the thief who takes them.

If any aspirant to nuclear weaponry does manage somehow to obtain the mixture of radioactive wastes from a reactor, it cannot be made into an explosive but it can be used as a “dirty bomb.” That is, it can be combined with a conventional explosive and detonated in a crowd where the radioactive substances will scatter and kill large numbers of people. This would be terrible, but less so than a fission bomb.

However, radioactive waste is sometimes reprocessed—put through a chemical process that separates the fissile elements. The result of that procedure enables some of the fissile materials to be recycled—used again in another reactor to produce power or, instead, as the core of a nuclear weapon. Reprocessing is dangerous because it creates the possibility for nations or terrorists to get the material they want for proliferating nuclear weapons.

The best solutions to this problem are obvious: close the reactors that produce about 11 percent of the world’s electricity and close all reprocessing plants. We would still have some problems left: how to guard the existing stockpiles of radioactive wastes from nuclear bombs and reactors.

However, despite the desirability of shutting down almost all reactors, it is not going to happen because we need energy and must, even more urgently, stop using fossil fuels. Nuclear power plants have been considered the main alternative to fossil fuels, so additional ones are even now being built, especially in Asia. The policy to close nuclear reactors is highly controversial among climate change activists, but peace activists are virtually united in their opinion: close nuclear power plants in order to prevent future nuclear wars. Because it is so controversial, I will not boldface it as a top priority measure, though perhaps I should.

Lesson Nine: Global Warming Interacts with Radiation

In a way, the connection between global warming and radiation is indisputable: Our planet’s sole source of warmth is the radiation sent to us from the sun. However, we don’t normally consider it possible to change the amount of sunshine that falls on earth—although there are cases in which something does affect it. When a volcano explodes, for example, it sends particles up into the stratosphere that circle the planet and blot out enough of the sun’s rays to cause a temporary decrease in global temperature. The eruption of Mt. Pinatubo, for example, sent gases and solids into the stratosphere, where they lingered three or four years.23

Some people even wish to apply this idea by injecting sulfur particles into the stratosphere to stop global warming temporarily. Let’s hope that our predicament does not become that urgent, for, although the method would be cheap and easy, there might be harmful side effects that we can’t foresee. (However, it may be wise to study the technology ahead of time, just in case.) Anyway, there is nothing about this matter requiring high-priority action.

Lesson Ten: Famine Interacts with Radiation

Nor is there any immediate reason to worry about the causal connection between famine and radiation. No famine can cause a reactor to explode or any other source of radiation to harm people, nor is it plausible to expect a reactor to create a famine. However, one unlikely possibility does exist and cannot be totally ignored: a reactor explosion could be severe enough to create a plume that would contaminate a region, preventing any agriculture from being possible, which could lead to food shortages.

Still, such a situation supposes that a number of disasters might happen at about the same time. For example, it is possible that in a war, a state might decide to obliterate its enemies by bombing their nuclear reactors at the same time. The effect on the population would indeed be catastrophic, killing large numbers of people by famine, if they had not been killed by the direct effects of radiation poisoning itself. Again, this is a situation where militarism should be considered the primary precondition for the disaster. *Therefore, the essential way of preventing such an outcome is to interrupt militarism itself, as we have seen in other connections. *That is the top priority—more urgent than either famine or the management of reactors and fissile material.

Lesson Eleven: Pandemics Interact with Radiation Exposure

Infectious diseases do not cause reactor explosions or other sources of radiation. They do, however, affect the capacity of people to withstand the radiation. Not all bodies are equally affected by radiation, and “radio-resistance” is determined in part by the immune response. Hence radiation would have a more severe impact on a population that was already weakened by an epidemic of some sort.

Still, the simultaneous occurrence of these two catastrophes seems unlikely unless a third factor is involved, such as a major calamity resulting from global warming or a war in which one side deliberately tried to expose the other population to risk. Thus there is no immediate reason to address this combination of circumstances as a distinct problem. There are urgent reasons, however, to tackle the two predisposing causes of such a calamity: global warming and militarism.

Lesson Twelve: Militarism Interacts with Cyberattacks

Here we come to another top-priority issue. The linkage between militarism (i.e. war and weapons) and cyberattacks is so obvious that some people regard them as the same thing. That is not the case, of course, for we all experience phishing attacks without being at war, and banks lose stupendous amounts of money to cybercrime (far more than they disclose). Even film companies can have their productions ruined if they offend Kim Jong Un by producing a satirical movie.24

Still, it is the prospect of cyberwar that must worry us most. The next world war may be waged by people sitting at their keyboards. The Federal Reserve considers its most serious danger to be a cyberattack on their financial records in a real act of war. The possible destruction of a country’s centralized electric grid, its water treatment facilities, or flight control system staggers the imagination. Even destroying the satellites that control the GPS system on our cell phones would paralyze a modern society. The death toll from a cyberattack could be immense. Yet so far, there are no international laws limiting this.25

Several countries and the United Nations have proposed measures to establish international treaties defining the rules of engagement in such a war. The purpose would be to protect the essential infrastructure of every society from attack. So far, every such initiative has died for lack of support by the countries that now hold a dominant position in the cyberworld. It is, however, one of the most urgent needs of humankind, even if, so far, few of us are aware of our vulnerability.

Lesson Thirteen: Global Warming Interacts with Cyberattacks

Cyberattacks will neither cause nor prevent global warming, but they may determine who will die of it. We must expect enormous, world-wide societal disruptions and migrations when the climate crisis intensifies. Already, immigration has become a huge political issue in the US and Europe. Nations are putting up walls to keep refugees out and preventing humanitarian ships from rescuing refugees on the Mediterranean.

Such aggressive actions all represent the early disruptions of the climate crisis, and as more instances occur, additional military means may be used to protect each country’s “sovereign homeland.” Cyber technologies (even things like killer robots) might be used too. To prevent such horrors, it is necessary to limit climate change, replace militarism with projects that support human well-being, and enact international norms regulating the Internet.

Lesson Fourteen: Famine Interacts with Cyberattacks

As noted above, a cyberattack against an electric grid, for example, would leave everyone living in filthy dwellings in the dark, without food or water for months, possibly years, awaiting repairs to their infrastructure. Millions of people would starve, freeze, or perish for lack of water. This point needs no further elaboration. The question is merely: What can be done to prevent it?

Every effort should be made now to develop something like a “Geneva Cyber-convention” to establiish international norms to protect people before the worst actually happens.

But the real solution is to avert war and militarism altogether. Current military systems cannot protect anyone from cyberattacks, so it is necessary to invest in alternative systems of sustainable common security. Thus a top priority is to replace each nation’s armed forces with measures that can yield real security. The connection between famine and war has been mentioned as a high priority above. Its connection is not specific to cyberattack war.

Lesson Fifteen: Pandemics Interact with Cyberattacks

According to international law,26 hospitals and humanitarian workers are never supposed to be attacked in a battle, and they are supposed to assist all injured or needy people, no matter which side of the conflict they favor. The law states: “Medical units exclusively assigned to medical purposes must be respected and protected in all circumstances. They lose their protection if they are being used, outside their humanitarian function, to commit acts harmful to the enemy.”

Also, according to the principles of “just war,” no civilians, but only enemy soldiers, should be targets in a battle. That rule has been increasingly violated, notably during World War II, and indeed now more civilians than soldiers are killed in almost all wars. Indeed, in the “new wars”, hospitals are themselves sometimes bombed. And cyberattacks are even disproportionately targeting health care institutions in civilian life as well.

Whether or not a cyberattack is perpetrated with the intention of killing large numbers of people, mass deaths could be the outcome. The health care system faces huge threats from cyberattacks,27 especially when it comes to ransomware attacks. The most famous case was WannaCry, which affected more than 200,000 computers across 150 countries, with total damages ranging from hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. The British National Health Service was affected seriously, with the price tag estimated as £92 million in disruption to services and IT upgrades.28 Russian President Putin blamed the US intelligence services for having developed such cyber weapons. However, most other countries pinned the blame on North Korea.29 Was this an act of war? There is no easy answer.

It is clear, however, that not only can medical records and hospital equipment be manipulated by hackers, but there is even a potential for murder to be committed digitally, by someone acting remotely. Researchers in Israel created a computer virus capable of adding tumors into CT and MRI scans—malware designed to fool doctors into misdiagnosing patients.30

These are peacetime exploits. Wartime would be worse. *We should assign top priority to the regulation of the cyber world, for many reasons, one of which is to protect public health from cyberattacks.

Lesson Sixteen: Radiation Exposure Interacts with Cyberattacks

A cyberattack against a reactor would be an ideal way to kill large numbers of an enemy. Even some rebel groups are seeking ways to do it with suicide bombers.

Suppose that a small group of unknown terrorists did manage to crash a plane into a reactor and irradiate the whole region. What would the government of that state conclude? Possibly they would mistakenly blame the attack on an unfriendly nation, and retaliate with a nuclear strike. There is a real possibility of starting a nuclear war by error. And there is no military way of preventing this. The only realistic solution is to reverse militarism—especially by abolishing all nuclear weapons. Non-military sources of security must be developed instead. But what?

Lesson Seventeen: Enabling Measures

We have found that almost all combinations of these six global problems are causally interdependent—but some of them seem more consequential than others. Clearly, global warming and militarism (especially nuclear weapons) are existential threats to humankind and to our civilization and ending them must be our top priority.

Global warming is the more immediately alarming threat just now, since it may even make the planet uninhabitable. But the other existential threat—militarism (especially nuclear)—is a major cause or predisposing condition for all the other five problems: global warming, famine, pandemics, radiation exposure, and cyberattacks. Therefore, we can get more “mileage” by reducing militarism than by any other feasible intervention.

What would be involved in abolishing militarism?

Consider this policy: Reduce all national armed forces by at least 80 percent. Re-allocate those funds and personnel to combatting global warming, famine, pandemics, and cyberattacks.

But the odds of this are almost zero at present. Why? Most people believe they need armed forces to protect their nations from attack. What alternative possibilities exist?

The United Nations was formed for the explicit purpose of abolishing the scourge of war, and it is theoretically empowered to protect weak nations. Yet hardly anyone is confident the UN would protect them—or at least they do not believe it enough to relinquish their country’s military force. If the abolition of militarism is to be accomplished, therefore, it is essential that trust be restored in the UN as a protector of every society, small or large, weak or strong.

This will require various structural changes. The Security Council, which is supposed to intervene to protect countries that are under threat, is not impartial, but reflects its member states’ alliances. Hence the Security Council must change, especially to keep the permanent five members from using their veto privilege for their own interests or to favor their allies.

A partial solution may be to create a new UN Parliamentary Assembly, to be directly elected by individual voters all around the world. It will not immediately be completely democratic because so many member countries are undemocratic, but it can initially consist of delegates who are already elected parliamentarians in their own countries. In time, the UN must become more accountable if de-militarization is to proceed.

Then the UN will need its own emergency peace service—not only a constabulary of peacekeepers, but also teams of civilian medical and humanitarian workers who can rush to any hot spot before violence erupts. Such a service will cost far less than nations now pay for their own armies. It is (or will be) the UN Emergency Peace Service.

The UN will nevertheless need independent funding sources. One promising approach is to tax the transfer of large sums. A fraction of one percent will suffice to fund the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, as well as climate change interventions and projects to reduce the threats of famine, pandemics, and climate change.

But people won’t support such extraordinary new proposals if they are financially insecure—though inequality between rich and poor has increased to absolutely intolerable levels. Moreover, more people will lose their jobs because of artificial intelligence, so the proposed reforms must include major economic reforms, such as guaranteed universal basic income for everyone.

These reforms should be introduced as a single platform or agenda for action, not promoted separately. Some of them will not be acceptable unless others occur at the same time. That is probably the difficulty with introducing de-militarization, for example. Other means of security must be adopted simultaneously or earlier.

A Platform for Survival has already been worked out, with specific plans for policies to prevent all of the six global threats. Look it over and consider how to use it in your own work. Promoting such a platform of complementary reforms will be hard. But hard is more fun than easy.

Now you have completed this mini-course with a grade of A+ so what will you do next? You need partners. Every day you meet strangers who want a chance to contribute and live thrilling, arduous lives tackling hard challenges. Just ask them. Talk every day to at least three people, telling them what you learn about these global threats and inviting them to participate in solving them. Send them to our web site: And keep us posted on your progress.

Thanks, partner, for saving the world!

Metta Spencer is editor of Peace and founder of Project Save the World (


1 PBS News Hour, “Did Food Prices Spur the Arab Spring?” Sept 2, 2011,

2 Lina Eklund and Darcy Thompson, “Is Syria Really a ‘Climate War’? We Examined the Links Between Drought, Migration and conflict,” The Conversation, July 21, 2017.

3 “How to Think About Global Warming and War: They are Linked – and That is Worrying.” The Economist, May 23, 2019.

4 “World Military Expenditure Grows to $1.8 trillion in 2018.” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), report.

5 Florian Polsterer, “Militarism and Climate Change: The Elephant in the Living Room,” Student Energy,

6 Jenni Lee, “How Can We Track Progress on the SDGs? Here’s How,” United Nations Foundation,

7 Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. (Oxford, New York: Clarendon Press Oxford University Press, 1982).

8 “South Sudan: UN report contains “searing” account of killings, rapes and destruction”. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner. 11 March 2016.

9 “Over 100 civilians killed in a month, including fishermen, refugees, as Yemen conflict reaches two-year mark”. ReliefWeb, June 8, 2018.

10 “Saudi Arabia ‘deliberately targeting impoverished Yemen’s farms and agricultural industry’”. The Independent, 5 June 2018.

11 Chris R Albon, “Is Famine a Crime Against Humanity?” UN Dispatch, Oct t6, 2011. See also Alex de Waal, Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine (London: Polity, 2018).

12 Infoplease.

13 Julian Cribb, “The Coming Famine: Risks and Solutions for Global Food Security,” Science Alert, April 18, 2010.

14 United Nations Meetings Coverage and Press Releases, “Devastating Impacts of Climate Change Threatening Farm Outputs, Increasing Global Hunger, Delegates Say as Second Committee Takes UP Agriculture, Food Security,” Oct 12, 2018.

15 Spanish Flu,

16 William Trent, William Trent’s Journal at Fort Pitt.

17 Stanford University, “The Collision of Civil War and Threat of Global Pandemics,” October 19, 2017.

18 Lena H Sun, “Bill Gates Calls on U.S to Lead Fight Against a Pandemic That Could Kill 33 Million.” The Washington Post, April 27, 2018.

19 Laura H. Kahn, One Health: And the Politics of Antimicrobial Resistance. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University, 2016).

20 Maggie O’Neill, “A Deadly Superbug Fungus Called Candida Auris Has Been Detected in 12 States – Here’s What You Need to Know,” Explore Health, May 16, 2019.

21 Sarah Pruitt, “How Colonization’s Death Toll May Have Affected Earth’s Climate,” History Stories,

22 World Health Organization, “Famine and Health,”

23 NASA Earth Observatory, “Volcanoes and Climate Change,” Sept. 5, 2000.

24 Andrea Peterson, “The Sony Pictures Hack, Explained.” The Washington Post, Dec. 18, 2014.

25 Tarah Wheeler, “In Cyberwar, There Are No Rules,” Foreign Policy, Sept. 12, 2018.

26 ICRC, IHL Database, “Customary IHL. Rule 28: Medical Units.”

27 Nicole Wetsman, “Health Care’s Huge Cybersecurity Problem.” The Verge, April 4, 2019.

28 “Cyber-attack cost NHS £92m – DHSC”. Health Service Journal. 11 October 2018.

29 “White House says WannaCry attack was carried out by North Korea”. CBS News. 19 December 2017.

30 Kim Zetter, “Hospital Viruses: Fake Cancerous Nodes in CT Scans, Created by Malware, Trick Radiologists.” The Washington Post, April 3, 2019.

Published in Peace Magazine Vol.35, No.3: Jul-Sep 2019
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