Humanity needs a project with the vision and budget of the Apollo space programme if it is going to make the necessary giant leap towards sustainability, says Owen Gaffney. In this week's Green Room, he says researchers from all scientific disciplines are developing a project that may just fit the bill.
At night, the extent of humanity's footprint on the planet is clearly visible
"One small step for man," began Neil Armstrong, 384,000km from Earth, on 20 July 1969.
Armstrong's speech marked the culmination of the $25bn Apollo mission.
It all began in May 1961 when US President John F Kennedy, under enormous political pressure, announced that his grand challenge was to put a man on the Moon by the end of that decade.
At night, the heart, arteries and organs of humanity are laid bare, and humanity is revealed as the prime driver of change at the planetary scale
The Apollo mission had three decisive factors in its favour: a clear goal, strong leadership and shed-loads of money.
Armstrong returned to Earth two months before I was born, yet the Apollo programme had a profound effect on my life.
Like many children, then and now, space posters covered my bedroom walls. I wanted to become an astronaut (I still do).
Remarkably, every aspect of my professional work today relates directly to one of the posters stuck to my bedroom wall all those years ago. The poster is made up of hundreds of satellite photographs of the Earth at night.
Astronauts at the time said the only signs of humanity visible from space were the Great Wall of China and the wakes of ocean liners passing between continents.
On my poster, what hits you like a fist is that - far from feeling humbled by humanity's small role on the planet - every town, city, settlement and burning oil well blazes out.
At night, the heart, arteries and organs of humanity are laid bare, and humanity is revealed as the prime driver of change at the planetary scale.
Forty years since Armstrong planted a flag on the moon, the International Council for Science (ICSU) says the world needs a second "Apollo" mission, but this time to manage the planet sustainably.
Images of the Earth focused attention on the planet's finite resources
The council convened a meeting in June to bring together some of the world's leading specialists in climate, biodiversity, political systems and global change.
The group was there to put in place the final part of what will become a 10-year research programme to put society on track towards a (metaphorically) brighter future.
Instead of one grand challenge, ICSU has five. These range from the mundane - making environmental forecasts more useful and developing observation systems - to the truly inspirational and essential.
The third challenge is to anticipate, avoid and cope with dangerous global environmental change, while the fourth is to change the behaviour of people and organisations.
The fifth outlines a plan to develop new technologies. We desperately need technologies to wean ourselves of fossil fuels, feed a growing population, and supply our demand for fresh water.
The new Apollo will also look at the risks of geo-engineering - intentionally manipulating the Earth's climate by, for example, erecting giant sunshades in space, or adding small particles to the upper atmosphere to reflect heat away from Earth.
The architects of the new programme aim to go beyond the traditional boundaries of Earth-system science, and corral experts from other fields to tackle the technological, institutional and behavioural changes required if we want genuine global sustainability.
The scale of this challenge alone cannot be underestimated.
The Apollo mission was an engineering feat; engineers talk the same language.
After 20 years of coercion, some social and natural scientists speak to each other, but not always in the same language.
The case for international co-operation is a no-brainer: everyone needs the research findings. But who will stump up the money?
Presently, four sprawling acronym-laden international programmes research various aspects of global change. In one guise or another, they all fall under ICSU. More than 40 nations provide the cash.
The World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) began in 1979 to determine if the climate was changing and if so, what was causing it.
The International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) kicked off eight years later when it was realised climate change was really part of a much larger issue: global change.
The term "global change" refers to the rapid growth since the 1950s in the human population, the economy, resource use, energy use, the transport sector, urbanisation and communication.
This "great acceleration" has led to a knock on effect on the planet's carbon cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the water cycle, sea-ice loss, sea-level rise, food webs, extinction rates, deforestation, pollution, fish stock collapse, and more.
When UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said last year that "Our foot is stuck on the accelerator and we are heading towards an abyss," this was the accelerator he was talking about.
Two others programmes, the International Human Dimensions Programme (IHDP) and DIVERSITAS, co-ordinate research on global change that focuses on social and economic impacts and biodiversity.
All of these programmes have spawned dozens of international projects to piece together the jigsaw that is the Earth system.
ICSU argues the four programmes should combine, refocus and grow considerably to become a mega-programme on global sustainability research. This would, in theory, attract serious money.
The money, as always, is an issue, particularly in an age of austerity. An Apollo mission requires Apollo-like funding.
If the money hurdle can be overcome - and it can - then another prerequisite, leadership, is on hand.
The world needs both the conviction and vision of the Apollo programme
Stockholm Resilience Centre director Johan Rockstrom, who is directing ICSU's new vision for global change, is emerging as a strategic and visionary leader on the international stage.
In 2009, he published "A safe operating space for humanity", in the journal Nature, in which he and others argued that to live sustainably on the planet we must remain within nine boundaries.
But their first assessment of those boundaries states that we have already crossed three: climate, biodiversity and nitrogen.
While the concept needs considerable refinement, it does provide the beginning of a blueprint for effective planetary management, going way beyond the carbon issue.
Humans are a territorial species; we understand boundaries. A reason why many societies function so well is enforced respect for boundaries.
With some radical thinking, Professor Rockstrom could bring the international programmes together under one roof, and maybe even unite the world's top 20 research institutes that study issues like global change, climate, sustainable development and resilience.
If successful, this would lead to a formidable intellectual powerhouse.
But with all large science projects, there is a danger of wading in the mire as you untangle one set of projects and begin others.
The last thing the world needs now is a 10-year hiatus in global-change research. If the timing is right, the new programme for global sustainability research could be launched at a major international science conference, Planet Under Pressure, to be held in London in 2012.
The conference will help the world focus on global change science in the run up to the 2012 Earth Summit, Rio +20.
If the Moon landings did anything, they demonstrated the ingenuity of humanity's brightest sparks. But at this level, brains are not always enough.
What of the final decisive factor for success, a clear goal on par with the first Apollo mission?
Forty years on, all evidence indicates that to live on Earth sustainably, humanity needs to overcome inertia: the goal should be nothing less than a giant leap for mankind.
Owen Gaffney is director of communications at the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP)
IGBP is funded by 40 nations and has its headquarters at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences
The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website
Do you agree with Owen Gaffney? Does humanity need a sustainability project on the scale of the Apollo space programme? Is there a danger of putting all of our scientific eggs into one basket? Or do we need to have a shared vision on how to cope with the future challenges the world is facing?
Until our beloved leaders stop bending over for big business little of any consequence will be done.However much the likes of Mr Moon go on about our predicament ,which we can all see, without having the power to affect change , entities such as BP and other multinationals will continue to do as they please in the cause of the Holy Grail of shareholder profits. What we really need is some political leaders with balls.
Julius Bell, Haverhill, Suffolk,UK.
Looking out not in is the only way humanity ever moves forward.Since Apollo we as as humankind have languished in our own backyards.Risk taking is regarded as dangerous and ambitious projects as expensive and wasteful. We have become cautious, introspective and boring.We are drifting towards extinction.Adaption requires co-operation and collaboration Without it we are finished.
An effort like Apollo? Do you remember Apollo 13? A simple fall of one the tanks during the assembling was understimated consequently it exploded approaching the moon.
Lowell and his mates came back alive, but they were very, very, very lucky.
Eric, london, UK
The most critical factor that needs to be addressed is the growth of the world's human population. This is forecast to show an increase of nearly fourfold in the century to 2050 with serious implications for all aspects of life on our planet. This could be reduced voluntarily; if not, what are we leaving for the future ?
Alan Bristow, Shipbourne, Kent. UK.
The damage has already been done in my opinion, we just have to face the harsh consequences from now on and believe me, it will get worse...
Andy L, Stoke on trent, England, UK
Yes and no. The basic problems are very simple and the solutions well understood. It is a problem of scale - the scale of the economy and human activities in relation to the biosphere. The solution is to radically reduce throughput of energy and materials through the human economy - but this means a radical reduction in material consumption....politically/culturally difficult to sell. So the 'Apollo' programme should really focus on large scale experiments in truly low energy/low throughput living. But this means reversing much globalisation and developing much more bioregional/local self-sufficient economic systems. High-tech has a role within this - for instance in developing artificial photosynthesis as a mechanism for partial trophic detachment - i.e. food production without land, releasing some of the Earth's surface back to non-human nature.
Steve Quilley, shrewsbury
The fundamental problem is overpopulation and lack of will to do anything about it. Contraception and education needs to be pushed especially in Africa, and developed countries should implement a policy requiring prospective mothers to obtain permits before having a child. The number of permits each year would be adjusted to maintain a constant population level. Aside from these measures, the other main ways to solve our current crisis are to massively increase science funding and incentives, stop wasting money giving it to corrupt african governments and take it directly to the people instead until the governments get their acts together, and also to require government ministers to have some experience of their field of control. For example, to require Chris Huhne, the sectretary of state for energy and climate change, to have some relevant qualifications ensuring he has some idea of what he's in charge of. Having said all this, I predict a bleak future for our race over the next century or so, as we're all to stupid and short-sighted to co-ordinate ourselves well enough to actually get out of this mess. I must however point out one further point that people so often seem to miss - it's not the planet which is in danger, it's us. No matter what we do to the planet, even if we nuke the surface with everything we have, after a few million years life will resurface and begin again. It's not within our capability to "destroy the planet", as many melo-dramatic people would have us believe, and it's arrogant to think we do
Our greatest challenge is to reduce the rate of population increase and for the size of the human population to actually decrease below current levels. Everything else is only a sticking plaster over an ever growing wound that, at current rates of population increase, will never heal.
Rachel, Shrewsbury, UK
The most important challenge is how we human beings worldwide can live in a finite world with an ever increasing population. We have to learn that we cannot go on and must all show love for our children by not bringing more into the world than will take our place when we die. If we fail they will face shortages of food water space ending in conflict. I do not think they will thank us.
Richard Grant, London
I totally agree with Roger, of Milton, Canada. The very best investment we could make would be to provide birth control to the millions of women in the world who have no access to it at present, and encouraging those who do to stop at two births. Only thus could we start to live sustainably. Population numbers would start falling, demand on resources likewise, carbon emissions also, climate change would slow, and, who knows, even reverse. It makes sense, it's simple and effective: birth control before all other massive projects.
Venetia Caine, Poitiers, France
I hope and pray that no such massively invasive terraforming efforts as those proposed actually come to be suffered upon our one and only outer space survival platform to date, being our planet Earth. Let there be instead a consequent development, production and public domain sharing worldwide of actually environmentally clean technologies in motorisation, energy supply. And let there come into being a consensus across all religious and other world views that we truly all need to embrace "live and let live" rather than "live and let die" respective our fellow humans and other Earth dwelling life forms.
Robert D. Martin, Berlin, Germany
"Instead of one grand challenge, ICSU has five". That's actually a fundamental problem. Give everyone a clear, bold, simple, ambitious vision that's easy to see whether it has succeeded, then they can get behind it, feel pride in it, feel motivated to achieve it. For the same reason it's hard to have five lovers simultaneously, it's hard to get emotionally involved in simultaneously fulfilling five dreams. So the question is, how can we transform fixing the complex mess we've created into a single, simple, measurable, ambitious vision?
Jonathan Melhuish, Birmingham
Bill Hicks said: 'You know all that money we spend on the military ever year - trillions of dollars? Instead, if we use this money to feed and clothe the poor of this world, which it would do many times over, then we can explore space, inner and outer, together, as one race.' The man was right, but rather than exploring the galaxy we could start with saving the planet that we're all on.
This is the worst idea I have ever heard by science. It bad enough to worry about global warming without some people wasting money trying to control a natural system.
We're constantly being told to stay calm and carry on. Until it's too late that is. Short term greed and an eye on the next vote drives our economy and our society. Unless we have a major war or natural disaster that significantly reduces the world population while uniting countries to survive, there's no way we'll ever agree to act in time. Sad fact is that we long ago crossed the boundary or tipping point and can now only redress matters via draconian action. WWIII in 2012 anyone?
Chris Findon, shirley west midlands
Owen's article is inspired and courageous, but Johannes is also right - a global sustainability solution would be orders of magnitude bigger, in both financial and organisational terms, than the Moon landings. The Allied war effort from 1941-1945 is a better comparison; we won WWII, we can win the battle for ssustainability. Uniting all relevant research and development efforts by 2012 - without slowing or downsizing them - would itself be a tremendous achievement.
Nicholas Wordsworth, Leeming, Uk
We will all get what we deserve as the reckless specie that we are... look at what it is left of an orange after squeezing for its juice... that will be the earth in the not very long term future.
Time will come when humans will handle the population issue the best way we know: killing each other.
Alberto Mendietan, Brussels, Belgium
That would be an "Apollo sized mission" to stabilize the human population (of this country and the world) at a level no higher than today. If you don't get that right all the tinkering with 'alternatives' and 'renewable' is just delaying the inevitable.
Mark K, London, Uk
Yes, humanity need a sustainability project on the scale of the Apollo space programme. Sustainable development meets human needs while conserving the earth's life support systems - has emerged as one of the grand challenges facing society in the 21st century.
Engr Salam, LGED,Bangladesh
What the Earth needs is a resource based economy.A global survey of natural resources to determine the carrying capacity of the Earth.This will allow us to plan development accordingly. We must fully utilise existing technology for renewable energy immediately.For a sustainable future we must put the environment ahead of profit and adapt our culture to recognise our dependance on this planet. Traditional politics is outdated and corrupted my money-backed lobby groups. We should , instead apply the scientific method to all decision making and the self-evident conclusions will be arrived at, rather than moving forward based on opinions alone. We have the capability to do this today. Surely we have the motivation also. As for the cost, the question is not, "How much will it cost?". The question really is, "Do we have the technology and the resources to do it?".
Multiply the Apollo mission by a thousand and maybe you get an idea of the effort that is going to be needed to tackle this problem. Owen underestimates the problem greatly.
Johannes, Den Haag Netherlands
Superb, Owen. Truly superb. One question for debate is essential though: What would you say is your biggest resistance to all this ? (Could it be the juggernaut of vested commercial interests ? If so, HOW do you address this ?)
Andrew Smith, Milton Keynes, UK
Oh go ahead waste my money. If i've ever seen a propaganda piece it's this.
DirkH, Braunschweig, Germany
I feel this shared vision is exactly what we need as a species. We have become too concerned with who owns what (be it fuel or land or any other commodity in use today), and forgotten that the planet we live on can only take so much abuse. The time will come when options will be needed and this collaboration seems like the smartest route to take to ascertain these options.
Sean Jones, Dover, Kent, England
The case for bringing science to the environment instead of leaving it to corrupt politicians who base their actions on re-election campaigns and the gravy train of war is huge. Research in science is hugely wasteful as was building ever higher catherdrals in the middle ages but sooner or later nature is going to need help to keep the planet stable. Keeping us all afraid of Osama Bin Laden is certainly a folly in our age.
Peter Gardiner, Belgium
The simple fact of the matter is that there are far too many people on this planet and until something is done to reduce the population down to a more reasonable, sustainable level, we will keep lurching from crisis to crisis.
Roger, Milton, Canada
The great advantage of a formidable research and monitoring programme like this is it might, just might, provide the impetus to finally ensure Governments act on climate change, biodiversity and other key environmental issues at the level the urgency of the situation requires. If it can do that whilst presenting its science in a transparent way (thus avoiding IPCC pitfalls), it could become a well-respected and heeded body - whatever happens, it would have a significant role to play and I think the world will be better for it than without it.
Historyjamie, London, UK