Nobel laureates call for a revolutionary shift in how humans use resources
Eleven holders of prestigious prize say excessive consumption threatening planet, and humans need to live more sustainably
Eleven Nobel laureates will pool their clout to sound a warning, declaring that mankind is living beyond its means and darkening its future.
At a conference in Hong Kong coinciding with the annual Nobel awards season, holders of the prestigious prize will plead for a revolution in how humans live, work and travel.
Only by switching to smarter, less greedy use of resources can humans avert wrecking the ecosystems on which they depend, the laureates will argue.
The state of affairs is “catastrophic”, Peter Doherty, 1996 co-winner of the Nobel prize for medicine, said in a blunt appraisal.
He is among 11 laureates scheduled to attend the four-day huddle from Wednesday – the fourth in a series of Nobel symposia on the precarious state of the planet.
From global warming, deforestation and soil and water degradation to ocean acidification, chemical pollution and environmentally-triggered diseases, the list of planetary ailments is long and growing, Doherty said.
The worsening crisis means consumers, businesses and policymakers must consider the impact on the planet of every decision they make, he said.
“We need to think sustainability – food sustainability, water sustainability, soil sustainability, sustainability of the atmosphere.”
Overlapping with the 2014 Nobel prize announcements from 6-13 October, the laureates’ gathering will focus on the prospect that global warming could reach double the UN’s targeted ceiling of 2C over pre-industrial times.
Underpinning their concern are new figures highlighting that humanity is living absurdly beyond its means.
According to the latest analysis by environmental organisation WWF, mankind is using 50% more resources than nature can replenish.
“The peril seems imminent,” said US-Australian astrophysicist Brian Schmidt, co-holder of the 2011 Nobel physics prize for demonstrating an acceleration in the expansion of the universe.
The threat derives from “our exponentially growing consumption of resources, required to serve the nine billion or so people who will be on planet Earth by 2050, all of whom want to have lives like we have in the western world,” said Schmidt.
“We are poised to do more damage to the Earth in the next 35 years than we have done in the last 1,000.”
Ada Yonath, an Israeli crystallographer co-awarded the 2009 Nobel for chemistry, said sustainability should not just be seen as conservation of animals and plants.
Humankind should also be much more careful in its use of other life-giving resources like antibiotics.
The spread of drug-resistant bacteria through incorrect use has become a key challenge in “sustainability for the future of humankind”, she stressed.
Several of the laureates suggested a focus on energy.
Dirty fossil fuels must be quickly phased out in favour of cleaner sources – and, just as importantly, the new technology has to spread quickly in emerging economies.
If these countries fail to adopt clean alternatives, they will continue to depend on cheap, plentiful fossil fuels to power their rise out of poverty.
“This will lead to major climate change in the future, and might well destabilise a large fraction of the world’s population due to the change of [climate] conditions,” warned Schmidt.
The climate impact of Asia’s rapid urbanisation will be one of the meeting’s focus areas.
Another concern aired by laureates was the need to strip away blinkers about the danger, while remaining patient in explaining to people why change would be to their advantage.
George Smoot, co-awarded the 2006 physics prize for his insights into the big bang that created the universe, gave the example of LED lighting, a low-carbon substitute for inefficient incandescent bulbs.
“A great innovation is not enough,” he said. “It must be adopted and used widely to have major impact and that starts with general understanding. But until people move from old incandescent bulbs to the new ones, the impact is much less.
“So we need the solutions, for authorities to authorise or encourage their use through regulation, and for people to adopt them.”
And that could only work once everyone understands the benefits for humanity as a whole, but also for themselves, said Smoot.