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Awakening a global conscience

By Keith Suter - posted Thursday, 25 January 2018


Will humankind end by apathy and inertia? The warning signs of major problems are there - but many people are simply ignoring them.

The death has occurred of pioneering British writer Ronald Higgins who drew our attention to this problem. After serving in the British Foreign Office as a senior diplomat, he became a journalist with The Observer newspaper in London.

In 1975 he wrote one of the most remarkable articles ever published in a British newspaper: "The Seventh Enemy". 7,000 letters were received as a response. The article was expanded into a best-selling book in 1978 (The Seventh Enemy: The Human Factor in the Global Crisis) and then a popular BBC documentary in 1979.

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The seven "enemies" or "challenges" were: population explosion, food, scarcity of resources, environmental degradation, nuclear abuse, misuse of science and technology, and personal blindness and political inertia. He continued his work as a public speaker into his 80s.

I came to know Ronald Higgins in the late 1970s and remained in touch with him over the decades. He maintained an interest in world affairs right up until his death, aged 88.

The book is important for four reasons. First, it appeared shortly after the 1972 Club of Rome study Limits to Growth (the biggest selling environment book in world history). The first pioneering UN Conference on the Environment also took place in 1972 (the word "environment" does not even appear in the UN Charter). National departments of the environment were also being created at this time.

His book therefore appeared at the time there was an emerging awareness that the "environment" consisted of more than cleaning polluted rivers and preserving castles and stately

homes. He was in the right place at the right time.

Second, Higgins argued that it was important to see the interconnectedness between the challenges. To this day many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have their own subject matter and keep narrowly focussed. Government departments and the United Nations system are just as fragmented.

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There is a lack of a grand narrative in politics which draws issues together. We seem to be very active in our own parts of the body politic but missing out on the big picture.

Third, Higgins warned of the looming struggles between the developed "North" and the poor "South". He foreshadowed today's mass migration of peoples to avoid conflict and natural disasters (for example, 890,000 Syrians entered Germany in 2015). Climate change and poverty will force many more people away from their homelands and onto the lands of other people (possibly triggering armed conflict).

Fourth, in all this, Higgins identified the key role of political inertia and individual blindness (the "seventh enemy"). Humans seems to have an ingrained inability to do what needs to be done to solve our problems. They may recognize the problems but do not take sufficient action.

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About the Author

Dr Keith Suter is a futurist, thought leader and media personality in the areas of social policy and foreign affairs. He is a prolific and well-respected writer and social commentator appearing on radio and television most weeks.

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