At what point did you start to think more deeply about global risks? Did something specific happen or was it a gradual realisation?
The realisation that something must be done about politically motivated violence is something that I have carried with me ever since World War II. My awareness of the other risks grew gradually. After I quit actively trading in 1987, I had time to read other things than financial statements and business texts.
I originally intended to write a book about our moral decisions. This was in the early 2000’s. But because I had simultaneously become aware that new global risks – such as climate change, other environmental degradation, and population growth – posed an even greater danger than nuclear weapons, I realised that our moral decisions in these areas are also among the most important ones. The part that involved these global problems was originally planned to be the last chapter in the book on morality. But the text had grown to the extent that it became its own little book – “The Greatest Challenges of Our Time”, which was published first, due to the urgency of the subject, and appeared in 2010. The book on moral decisions was published a year later.
What made you set up the Global Challenges Foundation? Why not donate your money to some charity working with issues that are relevant to you?
I had the same thought, so I researched whether there was an organisation with the same aim as the foundation I was planning. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find one.
Then I discussed the issue with my wife. I wanted us to donate our 10 million shares in the real estate company Castellum – the lion’s share of our assets – to the foundation. My wife disagreed. She wanted us to give, or bequeath, half of the shares to our children and grandchildren. The upshot was that we decided to split our assets between us. I donated 5 million shares to the foundation, while my wife kept the rest.
What is it that drives you in this work, what motivates you?
Throughout my life I’ve tried to think logically and act rationally. When I look at the global problems and the risks facing humankind today, I can only see one rational solution: We have to find a new, more effective way to cooperate globally. Today we live as much in a global community as in national communities. This means that the inhabitants of each country impact the vital interests of the inhabitants of all other countries by their behaviours and decisions. For example, greenhouse gas emissions in each country impact global climate change. But technological development and the rise in population have happened so fast that the global political system has not had time to adapt to today’s global community. Sovereign nation-states are unable to manage the global challenges in a satisfactory way. We are trying to solve the problems of today with the tools of yesterday: multilateral negotiations. The result is that the actions taken are inadequate or too late, and this leads to increased risks of global catastrophe.
When I look at the global problems and the risks facing humankind today, I can only see one rational solution: We have to find a new, more effective way to cooperate globally.
Therefore, we urgently need to find a new system of governance, which would effectively and fairly manage the major global challenges – for our own benefit and, not least, that of future generations.
If the Foundation’s work can bring us closer to this goal, it is worth all the effort it takes.
What, in your view, are the most serious risks threatening humanity?
In the big prize competition we are now launching, we have stated that there is a great risk and problem complex which the world urgently needs to address. It consists of the following challenges: Climate change, other large-scale environmental degradation, political violence (including nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction), extreme poverty, and rapid population growth.
I believe that climate change and population growth are the greatest risks to humankind. Climate change, for two reasons: firstly, because at worst it may make Earth uninhabitable because of our insufficient countermeasures, and secondly, because unforeseeable threshold effects could steer the development of the climate in that direction no matter what counter-action we take.
The enormous rate of population growth – quadrupling the population over the last century – is the main cause of the climate and environmental problems we are facing today. According to UN forecasts, the population is expected to increase by another 50 percent by the turn of the next century. This brings, all things equal, a dramatically increased threat of more greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental degradation, as well as a risk of more politically motivated violence, while at the same time making it harder to fight poverty.
In addition to these direct risks, politically motivated violence also poses a very big indirect problem. Even though every nation says it wants to live in peace, we spend nearly five billion dollars every day to defend ourselves against each other. This is the worst conceivable waste of money. And that doesn’t even take into account all the human suffering caused by the killing, the wounding and the refugee streams in all the wars. If we solved the problem of politically motivated violence, we could free up most of today’s military spending to solve the other problems faster and with significantly less sacrifice.
Why are today’s political leaders not taking responsibility?
I am certain that most world leaders realise how serious the problems are, and that the risks urgently need to be managed. The Paris climate agreement from 2015 shows this. The problem for political leaders is that they are elected for a short period of time and are evaluated locally, not globally. A substantial part of the electorate lacks a global outlook, and focuses on short-term and local problems. The politicians in turn try to solve global problems with multilateral negotiation. This doesn’t work, since these negotiations are heavily influenced by national interests. When the politicians don’t reach the goals, it is always possible for them to put the blame on others. No national politician is accountable for the good of all humankind.
Why launch a prize competition to look for new models of global cooperation?
First: For the reasons I just described; humanity urgently needs a functioning model of effective global cooperation. Global problems require global solutions, which in turn require global decisions, and therefore global decision-making bodies.
Second: Today there exists only a few proposed models of this kind, and hardly any of them meet all the requirements that need to be made of such a model.
Third: Because new and better models can start a much-needed global debate: On the one hand, about the need for a new system, and on the other hand, about how the new system can be optimally designed.
Fourth: I am convinced that the ingenious and enthusiasm that has brought humankind this far will also be able to shape ideas that can secure our common future.
Isn’t this rather an ambitious goal for a prize?
Considering the number and serious proportions of these problems, and the urgency of finding a solution, it would be unreasonable to be less ambitious.
What makes you think that there are new ideas out there that we don’t know about yet?
I believe that this has been a valid question since the beginning of time. Yet the world has, for better or worse, evolved in a way that has defied everything we have thought possible. Why would we now suddenly find ourselves at road’s end? I don’t think so.
I’m convinced that new ideas will continue to hatch as long as humans exist. I also believe that the hatching can be sped up with the help of favourable conditions and exciting challenges.