THE BLOG
10/29/2014 11:42 am ET Updated Dec 29, 2014

Scared of Ebola, ISIS, Putin, or Climate Change? A New Global Panel Tackles the Social Plagues That Generate Our Problems

Regis Vincent via Getty Images

We have entered the Anthropocene. This means that our activities change the planet. But beyond the chilly thought that we now are in charge and not fully ready to handle the situation, there are two remarkable facts about our time. First, most of our problems are our own doing. Second, we know a lot about the causes and the solutions. This combination is new. Old civilizations have died because their lifestyle was not sustainable but, unlike us, they didn't understand the mechanisms.

Let us emphasize the first point: most of our problems are our own doing. This is obvious for social and economic problems induced by inadequate policies, such as austerity wastefully generating unemployment and poverty. But, more strikingly, few of the threats that we currently face can't be traced to our own mistakes. Ebola wouldn't be a problem if a minimally decent health care system was in place in developing countries and if basic education made their populations aware that they should welcome the helpers instead of stoning them to death.

More importantly, the deeper observation to make here is that the root of the threats lies in deficiencies of our economic, social and political institutions rather than in natural or technical glitches. Ebola illustrates it clearly, but consider climate change, Russia, or ISIS. It is tempting to think that these issues belong to "the environment," or, in the case of Putin and ISIS, to psychology or diplomacy rather than institutions. But look at the deeper causes. Wouldn't the climate outlook be very different in absence of strongly concentrated interests in the fossil fuel industry and of glaring inequalities in development? Wouldn't Russia be a much more peaceful country toward its neighbors and the West if democracy had taken root there? How would the Iran-Iraq area look like if the focus of politics there (and of external interventions) had been on development? Only volcanoes still seem to explode and wreak havoc without our help.

Now to the second point: how much do we really know about the solutions? A lot, but we do not know how to implement them with our current institutions and decision-making processes. It requires a great deal of vision and imagination to think about how to improve our institutions and our organizations, which means both envisioning goals and long-term possibilities and mapping out the road to get there.

A new international panel (International Panel on Social Progress) gathering hundreds of experts is being launched, that will try to do just that. It will revisit what "progress" and "social justice" can mean for our time and our societies, and review the state-of-the art knowledge now accumulated in all relevant social sciences that can help inventing solutions and defining enticing objectives for the long term. The purpose is not just to alleviate our fears and address the current threats, but to develop reasons to hope in the future. We are in charge of the planet and if we get ready to handle it, great things can be done for the benefit of all.

The panel will deliver a report in 2017, and, during the preparation, will organize a global debate with decision-makers, actors, and all interested citizens, to mobilize not just the knowledge accumulated in universities, but also the many local and community experiences that explore new paths toward well-being and justice. Please follow our work at www.ip-socialprogress.org, and support it.

Marc Fleurbaey is Robert E. Kuenne Professor in Economics and Humanistics Studies at the Woodrow Wilson School and the Center for Human Values, Princeton University.

Ravi Kanbur is T. H. Lee Professor of World Affairs, International Professor of Applied Economics and Management, and Professor of Economics at Cornell University.