Recently Professor Robert Shiller, famous for having predicted the current global financial crisis, came to speak to the World Fellows. He casually mentioned in the course of his presentation that he had been asked to contribute an essay to a book that would attempt to describe the state of the world in 2113. This sparked off some thoughts of my own on what 2113 might look like.
Of course, it is virtually impossible to predict accurately. 100 years ago, who would have foreseen the advent and widespread use of cars, aeroplanes, electric lighting, computers, mobile phones and the internet? So I can’t pretend that this blog is anything other than a wild guess. But it’s an interesting exercise anyway, and unless the advances of the next 100 years include freely available immortality, I will be safely dead by the time that anybody can call me to account.
I very much doubt that it will be mostly business as usual in 2113, that the world will have progressed smoothly from where we are now. I believe that we will see an increasing number of disruptions caused by environmental challenges and increasing social unrest. I would be surprised if we are not seeing significant population migrations as deserts expand, oceans rise, and glaciers melt cutting off the flow of water to the 40% of the world’s population that relies on glacial meltwater. It is likely that there will be more frequent and more serious storms and other extreme weather events.
By 2113, the descendants of my friends in Kiribati (my second stopping point during the Pacific crossing) may well have had to abandon their country altogether as the ice caps melt and sea levels rise. Storms will more often send high waves crashing over the fringing reefs of their coral atolls, contaminating the freshwater lens that they depend on for their water supply. These and other mass migrations may lead to overwhelm of the infrastructure in the regions accepting the climate refugees.
It is also highly probable that we will have exhausted our supplies of economically viable fossil fuels and will have had to switch over to renewables. However, given the current lack of investment in renewables, there may well be a period when energy supplies are inadequate to meet demand, leading to riots in the streets and interruptions in industry.
Some academics suggest that we will continue to find ways to innovate our way out of trouble. They say that advances in finance will allow us to create mechanisms to regulate our behaviours, and/or that new technologies will allow us to continue our trajectory of growth and rising standards of living. I am not so sure. As Professor Tim Jackson says in Prosperity without Growth: Economics for a Finite Planet, you simply can’t sustain infinite growth on a finite planet.
I have also been influenced by Paul Gilding, author of The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World, who believes that we won’t get to grips with what is going on until we experience a sufficiently serious environmental disaster to really get our attention. This will then lead to the Great Awakening, as he calls it, when we collectively slap ourselves on the forehead and wonder what the heck we were thinking, and resolve to immediately transform the way we treat our planet.
I would like to think that this disaster could be perfectly proportioned, to get our attention while not resulting in too much death and destruction. But from what I have seen of our reactions to disasters so far, this would have to be one seriously big disaster to make us wake up from our apathy and denial.
Could such a disaster happen in the next 100 years? I believe that it could. I make no claims to scientific expertise, but I can imagine that, as an example, the Arctic ice will continue its current trend of melting more and more each summer. Once that ice is gone, and with it its ability to reflect the sun’s rays (albedo effect), the feedback loop would accelerate and Greenland could also lose its ice sheet. The dumping of a large quantity of freshwater into the North Atlantic could affect the conveyor belt of currents that links all the world’s oceans (thermohaline circulation), with catastrophic results. That is just one example of many different crises that seem likely to happen sooner rather than later. I’m sure you can think of others.
(For a fantastic sci-fi read, check out Kim Stanley Robinson‘s trilogy of books portraying exactly this scenario, Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting. I listened to them on audiobook on my way across the Pacific. Highly recommended.)
I don’t know what scares me more – having a crisis, with all its humanitarian and ecological consequences, or what will happen if we don’t have a crisis, which we will take as tacit permission to continue degrading the Earth. Looking at this from the perspective of which scenario would bring the greatest good to the greatest number of creatures, a crisis could be exactly what the Earth needs. (Ever seen The Day The Earth Stood Still? “If you live, the Earth dies. If you die, the Earth lives.”)
While it is immensely challenging to imagine a world 100 years in the future, it is vitally important that we try. Traditional Iroquois philosophy holds that chiefs making significant decisions should consider the impact on the seventh generation into the future (about 200 years). In a Western culture that now seems unable to think beyond the next presidential election, or the next company report, I propose that it would be better for the world if we all were more mindful of the impact of our actions on the people of 2113.
What do you think? Are we heading for disaster? Can we still turn it around in time? Or is everything tickety-boo? What kind of a future do you envision?