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.

Would these dudes have predicted the iPhone?

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.

Thermohaline circulation

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?

20 Comments

  • Hi Roz,
    i haven’t checked in to your site for a while, and immediately regret that i have failed to do so – you have a great way with words, and i’ve always enjoyed your penchant for the bigger questions.
    What world are we likely to see in 2113?
    As a child of the preoccupation with nuclear end-of-the-world books (Day of the Triffids, Wrinkle in the Skin, etc, etc), my preference is actually IN FAVOUR OF one of the environomental disasters that you suggest could happen.
    This isn’t from a dislike of the human race or some weird superiority complex requiring the decimation of all non-alike people – but rather an outcome of a rather pessimistic view of the lack of social progress in a post-modern world trying to cope with massive populations and wildly uneven wealth or social development.
    It’s a bit like the population trends of species – massive growth, depletion of resources leading to increased competition and conflict before the eventual decline and return to whatever “equilibrium” means. As you say, those who claim technology and innovation will come to the rescue of the human race may be correct (they arguably have been so far) and all those obstacles of population and resource may be turned into nothing more than mere bumps in the road ahead.
    However, environmental, technological or innovative problems/solutions all presuppose a certain level of social harmony. This is actually the great unknown that grips my mind when trying to think to the year 2113.
    Will the human race be able to avoid the huge dislocations, misery and suffering caused by human conflict, once it escalates to global levels? So far, post-WWII, developed worlds have managed to export conflict to developing worlds but if this perverse reality were to be reversed then all assumptions for 2113 for environment, innovation or technology change helping deal with resource depletion will fall by the wayside.
    Reading what i have written, it all sounds awfully negative. i am not actually that negative at all – but an incessant worry about the inability to resolve even basic social tension forces social development to blur my ability to think coherently on alternative outcomes.
    So i’m just going to take the easy route, and look forward to an environmental disaster as being a far more acceptable form of mindset change than the revolting alternative of escalating human conflict.

    • Hi Still Thinking – I know what you mean. On my bleaker days, when major cultural shift in the timescales necessary seems just too remote a possibility, I occasionally cheer myself up (!) by contemplating a huge natural disaster that ideally leaves just enough enlightened human beings to create a new, more harmonious civilisation.
      I hope we can do this in a more proactive, less traumatic way, but if all else fails, we can be sure that ultimately nature will win.

  • Hi Roz.
    It’s always fun to make predictions about the future but except in the very short-term all attempts at doing so have failed miserably. And to be fair, Prof. Schiller was far from the only person to predict the current financial crisis; even I could see it coming and was able to prepare for it. The cause was that certain politicians believed that, because they had been elected, everything that they wanted to happen would do so. And they were wrong. It was ever thus; from the Roman Empire to today.

    And yes; we are headed for disaster; we always are. The whole of human history consists of and depends on disasters and their outcomes.

    So if you really want to change peoples’ behavior there’s no point in trying to use any governmental system because the outcomes of legislation will not be successful. You need to use social pressures and aim at everyone, not just the western world but the whole of the world’s population. If you can get the peoples of Africa, the Middle East, Russia, China, and so on, if you can energize them to act then “the West” will be forced to follow.

    I’m sure that you will gain a lot from your Yale time but you must remember that there is a substantial disconnect between academe and practical reality.

    (On a different note, I assume that you are aware that Kiribati is sinking into the sea bed as are the volcanic Hawaii islands and for the same reason.)

    Keep both feet firmly on the ground, Roz; I bless you for what you are doing and hope that you achieve success.

  • Roz, I believe the crisis is out of our hands and already in motion. The only questions in my mind are: 1) what butterfly will flap its wings and trigger the calamitous chain reaction of chaos, and 2) how will it be manifested? I believe our definition of “recession” and set point for 2% growth or 3% growth or 4% growth (or whatever is the contemporary conventional wisdom) that defines a “healthy economy” is incompatible with our approaching the boundaries that Mother Nature has determined to be the limits of our finite earthly “play ground” beyond which we shall not venture. Read this http://bit.ly/ConsumPop and this http://bit.ly/FoodPriceRiots and this http://bit.ly/SustDevSim … extra credit and possibly the spark for lively discourse …

    I believe our preparation and protection lie in this: Go Slow Quickly. Srsly!

    For humanity

  • Roz, I would like to broaden the discussion by adding a new dimension, the spiritual dimension.
    William Blake, the English mystic claimed that ‘Prisons are built with the stones of of the law, Brothels with the bricks of Religion’ – Proverbs from Hell. Karl Marx we all know gave us the saying ‘Religion is the Opium of the Masses’.
    Today we stand at a juncture in history, where the religious and scientific communities are set on a collision course, in their efforts to describe the origins of our species and the future of mankind.
    A crisis is foretold by biblical sources, esoteric tradition and all the major religions.
    The traumatic times we are living through, could herald not the end of civilization, but the dawn of a new era. Astrology teaches that we are living in an age between two astrological eras, and for the last forty years we have been moving from The Age of Pisces to that of Aquarius. According to astrologers under the influence of this new sign there will be an emphasis on science being used in the service of humanity. Could therefore the predicted ‘crisis’ bring about a reconciliation between science and the ageless stream of spiritual consciousness.
    There is agreement that the world and all humanity faces a coming crisis, evidenced by the forces of nature unleashed by the actions of humankind, though to what degree this crisis effects us and future generations is uncertain.
    One human trait that plays an important role here is that we generally believe that these future events will not directly effect us living right now, for they are a problem for the far off future, and by then science will have an answer. If you asked the man in the street the question what will our world be like in the year 2113, the purely abstract nature of your question would I dare say affect the resultant answer. However if you asked the same question and qualified it by suggesting that a crisis on a global scale would occur in his lifetime, then it would be interesting to hear his answer. The coming ‘crisis’ may be sooner than anyone can predict. So how should we confront it?
    Well I believe we should seek personal transformation, integration, harmony and unity in human affairs. A vast new global constituency is arising made from the spiritually aware who seek peace, justice and harmony. The current path of material advancement for the strong at the expense of the weak in our finite world, the race to be a winner in the global market economy ( quote; David Cameron – UK prime minister) is not only outdated but dangerous. The only dictate that our politicians can offer is that the only course open to humanity is economic growth, and therein lies the problem.
    For humanity’s sake, we must listen to the heart and not be ruled by the head.

  • Hey there… I largely agree with Doug below. I think it was Bill McKiibben who likened the situation we’re in to an impending ice berg collision. We see it out there, and the collective decision that needs to be made is how we’re going to hit it. Will it be head on under full steam, or will we reduce speed and match course to minimize damage?

    When he have the the candidates for president of the US fixated on $4/gal gasoline it looks like we have asked the engine room for “all ahead full”.

    Simon Winchester’s “Atlantic” ties it together so well…the way fossil fuels have warped our sense of size and effort. His discussion of the Canadian Cod fishery is excellent as well; and I see that as a sample of what we are looking at as we face the climate dilemma.

    If the seventh generation is going to enjoy electricity we need to start using our remaining oil to start developing renewable resources now, and our transportation infrastructure will require big changes as well.

    People are starting to notice the increasing frequency of “100 year storms”…maybe we’ll weather this change with a touch of grace.

    • Thank you all for these great comments. I’m on a World Fellows field trip in New York today (currently standing outside the UN waiting for the others to arrive) but just wanted to post a note to say how much I appreciate you all getting involved in this discussion.

      • Roz, it’s cold, rainy, windy and blustery (pardon the overlapping adjectives) here in Audubon, IA where I’m checking in en route to visit a favorite cousin in the Twin Cities area. Then onward up into Ontario to meet friends in Red Lake and the “Creation in Peril: Protect What You Love” conference in Winnipeg. Hope NYC is not so wet and wild as we are here in middle America. Cheers! ;-D

    • Thanks for mentioning “Atlantic” by Simon Winchester. I haven’t read it but have loved his other books, so am now downloading it from iBooks.
      If you haven’t already read it, you might enjoy The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight by Thom Hartmann. http://www.amazon.com/Last-Hours-Ancient-Sunlight-Revised/dp/1400051576. He very much agrees with you that we need to use our last remaining oil in the manufacture of units capable of producing renewable energy.

  • Sp. Homo Sapiens has existed for centuries without electricity, petroleum and pesticides. I wonder if it would be possible to stop using these, or at least start limiting their use. Not to go back to the stone age but to advance to something new Scientifically and Spiritually. After all most of us can walk.

    • This is an interesting line of enquiry. I believe that we CAN go back to less, without going back to the stone age – it all depends on what we want to believe is possible.

  • FWIW, I think the future popularity of electric lighting and cars was already pretty clear in 1912–over 30 years after the invention of the light bulb, and 1 year before completion of the Lincoln Highway across the United States!

    We’ve already discussed Kiribati’s problems. The islands are sinking faster than sea level is rising, and even if neither phenomenon were in play, most of the people have to leave anyway, because their population growth is unsustainable. (I believe this has already happened, no?)

    According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_population#Fluctuation Oceania’s rate of growth is second only to Africa’s (but not globally problematic because Oceania’s total population is under 40 million).

    Population growth–not per-capita energy use–is pretty much the driver of nearly all environmental problems (and many others). In 1804, world population was less than one-seventh of today’s. No amount of environmentalism can solve the major problems of high growth countries (India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Sudan, Zaire, Egypt, to name a few of the most problematic). The most pressing reform needed in most of the world is reduced birth rates (and therefore some set of reforms that would make family planning appealing to individuals in each of those countries).

    You err in conflating oil with fossil fuels. While peak oil will be long behind us in 2112, there is enough economically viable coal known today to push us well past the point of no return on CO2/global warming–regardless of what you estimate that point to be! Note that coal has already completely displaced oil for electricity production, and electric cars can allow coal to replace oil for ground transportation.

    Unfortunately, Obama’s being in Big Coal’s back pocket has delayed the phase-out of coal in the U.S. by at least 4 years, and I seriously doubt Romney would be any better. Alas, while most Republican politicians claim they don’t believe in global warming (and act accordingly), most Democrat politicians claim they do believe in global warming, but their actions show that they don’t. (I believe they say they believe only to distance themselves from the Republicans rhetorically.) Like the Republicans, the Democrat politicians are sitting on their hands, waiting for events to prove that doing something about global warming (beyond the most trivial window dressing) would be popular. (On the other hand, the majority of rank-and-file voters of all parties now believe in global warming, so maybe there’s hope.)

    Are we heading for disaster? Yes. In fact we’re already there, in so many ways, and generally hiding our heads in the sand. Can we still turn it around in time? Technically, yes. Politically, I don’t know. If politicians–and this is rare–surprise me, and do the right thing, it is almost always for the wrong reason. I’m afraid it would take quite a constellation of wrong reasons to do something significant and good about global warming.

    • Hi Christopher – much as I hate to admit it, I can’t disagree with anything you say, although it doesn’t cheer me up to say it. Something’s gotta give, and I’m just wondering what it will be. I try not to worry about things, but when the answer to the question “just how bad can it be?” is so very bad, it can lead to a certain amount of despondency.
      But despondency never got anybody anywhere, and so I metaphorically pick up my oars again and start sticking them in the water, one oarstroke at a time….

  • Here is something to consider: http://bit.ly/MyceliuM which is just one example of individual initiative, imagination, investigation and ingenuity. Fungi may replace us, if not save us. I believe to make time and space for innovation, we need to begin phasing out the carbon-based energy infrastructure rather than expanding it, thereby forcing our focus on the urgency to replace it quickly. We’re running out of time and cannot wait for the devastating manifestations of the crisis — on the other hand, there are rumblings that some kind of collapse is happening now and will become apparent sooner than we expect. We can’t hold our breath in anticipation. We’re running out of time.

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