During the past summer we have been served news of extreme drought, vast forest fires and massive floods in different parts of the world. All the while, updates from the war in Ukraine have nevertheless dominated the headlines. A year earlier many would most likely have said that the covid-19 pandemic was the biggest catastrophe of our time.

If one widens the perspective, into the future and the past, it is hardly meaningful to start ranking catastrophes.

Admittedly, Covid-19 affects the whole globe, but the climate catastrophe also has consequences for all of humanity. The publicity for, and commitment to the victims varies from country to country, and from one part of the world to another. Ukraine may be forgotten in Africa, and while the flooding in Pakistan initially creates headlines in the US and Europe, the rebuilding process quickly loses its newsworthiness.

After each great catastrophe, pious hopes are expressed about the fact that the international community, humanity, and the nation state have learned their lessons and will be better prepared for future disasters. In the light of history, I dare to doubt this assumption. During my twenty years working for the Red Cross, a slogan was: “Prevention is better than cure”. But those in charge rarely listened, and by the time the next catastrophe rolled around it often turned out that the preparedness hardly had improved.

Some countries are almost regularly affected by natural disasters: Earthquakes, droughts, forest fires or floods. The preparedness for all of these can be improved, if only resources and determination are mustered. But nature keeps throwing us curveballs. The tsunami in Southeast Asia caught the world by surprise.

“Black Swans” - new and unexpected catastrophes are unfortunately our likely fate. The Covid-19 pandemic has stimulated pessimistic predictions for the future. The realization that humans are not all-powerful, and that nature cannot be mastered and instead fights back is creeping into our self- image. From having been the dominating agent and object, the virus has shown that humans can still be the subject and the victim.

When Australia wanted to get rid of their rabbit problem, a virus was introduced which killed off 99% of the population. If a bioterrorist was to succeed in introducing a similarly effective virus - which is probably possible - one percent of humanity would be left before an immunity was developed. One percent is not enough to recreate our current civilization…

But we are optimists. We assume that we will always have time to develop new vaccines, don’t we? The delusion that nature is benevolent towards Homo Sapiens is widely held, but the truth is that nature is either neutral or indifferent; the stronger species survives.

Neither can we forget scourges such as aids, Ebola, Sars, and the bird -and swine flus. The international Biological Weapons Convention has a secretariat with four employees. Not much to cheer about if any of these scourges were to be weaponized.

I have not yet mentioned perhaps the most destructive catastrophe model; the conflicts which escalate and can lead to use of nuclear weapons when one side finds itself at a
disadvantage. At this moment, the centers of conflict are in Ukraine and the Taiwan Strait. Despite probable restraint, mistakes are always possible.

Two more elements of danger need mentioning: bio-manipulation and artificial intelligence. Both can lead to experiments which go too far and have devastating consequences.
Sooner or later, a climate catastrophe leads to mass migration, writes Gaia Vince in her topical book, Nomad Century. Also, this can lead to chaos and collapse.

I admit that it is easy to blame me for exaggeration or instigation of panic. But I believe, and hope, that the survival instincts of humanity will contribute to preventive measures which will secure the future of the Earth.

Pär Stenbäck

Translated by Daniel Westö

Pär Stenbäck is a former Finnish politician who has been an MP, Minister of Education, and of Foreign Affairs in the years before 1985. For a period of twenty years, he held leading positions in the Red Cross movement, among these as Secretary-General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (Geneva). He is a founding member of ICG and the European Cultural Parliament ECP. He received the honorary title as Minister in 1999. Today he is chairing the New Foreign Policy Society in Finland (NUPS) since 2017. He contributes regularly to news media.