Remember the Future ?

Written in response to a comment on a previous post.

As a kid in the 70′s and 80′s I was a huge science fiction fan – I still am.

If you’d asked me aged 10 what I wanted to do when I grew-up, I’d have said “go into space as an astronaut” !

Do you remember what the future was supposed to look like from the 1970′s ?

Tomorrow’s World and Star Trek promised us a utopian world filled with domestic robots doing our mundane chores, transport by jet-pack and hover car and perhaps the chance to explore the universe in sleek futuristic spacecraft.

But sometime during the 80′s the future began to look different – from Soylent GreenBlade Runner, and Robocop,  to the more recent Children of MenHalf-Life and The Road, popular visions of the future became far darker. Not that dystopias are anything new of course, but these pessimistic visions, loaded with societal breakdown and environmental degradation have now largely replaced any images of optimistic utopias in our popular cultural landscape.

Obviously much of this is just because imagined dystopian futures make for more exciting fiction, but I wonder to what extent it does reflect our deeper fears and anxieties about our future, facing possible economic collapse, social breakdown, pollution, peak oil-water-food, overpopulation and climate change ?

We seem to have no shortage of dire warnings and predictions of doom from many of the world’s scientists and commentators.

James Lovelock writes in his recent book The Revenge of Gaia, that the world’s climate tipping point may already have been reached, and he paints a possible apocalyptic future for coming generations.

Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, compares the current degradation of our civilization’s supporting ecologies with those of previous civilizations before their collapse.

Slavoj Zizek, one of the world’s most influential living philosophers, believes the film Children of Men contains many signals and portents for our future.

Michael Ruppert’s film Collapse predicts the impending collapse of post-oil, consumption-based global economics, with his Collapse Network website helpfully offering a chilling collapse preparation checklist !

What are we to make of these predictions of catastrophe and urgent warnings ?

How should we respond ?

Just like every other problem we face in life we have a choice: run and hide, surrender or fight.

Running away and hiding from problems rarely works, and certainly denying the reality of the current global threats won’t! The more serious the situation, the more important it is to quickly face-up to it, accept it and understand it correctly, in order to be able to apply the right remedy.

It’s undeniable the world does face a number of significant challenges, and simply burying our head in the sand will inevitably lead to disaster. Psychiatrists sometimes use the term ‘panglossian’ (from the character Dr Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide) to describe those who unreasonably and naively believe all is well in their life and the world, a form of extreme, almost pathological, optimism.

Similarly, giving-in and surrendering by asserting the hopelessness of the situation, and the pointlessness of even trying to remedy it, is just as ineffectual as denial. Defeatist ‘doomer’ pessimists don’t even get to enjoy the blissful ignorance of those in denial !

The result of groundless optimism or hopeless surrender is inevitably inaction, with the result that we continue on our present course, to its inexorable conclusion.

I believe that the only positive response is to choose to fight.

Fight in the sense of facing-up to the reality of the situation, and then doing everything we can to positively change our future, collectively and individually, and doing so with a sense of both urgency and hopeful optimism.

I think making changes in our lives to live more sustainably, be more compassionate and generous to others and, where possible, encourage others to do likewise, not only represents the greatest possibility of overcoming the various challenges the world faces, but is also likely to make our lives happier and more fulfilled, both as individuals and as communities.

I am generally a glass-half-full type of person, and am genuinely optimistic about the future. There are significant and urgent challenges ahead, but I’m confident we will, over time, succeed in building a better future for everyone on the planet. Of course there will be setbacks, perhaps some very significant ones, and things will never be perfect, but I like to think of myself as trying to be ‘part of the solution’, rather than the alternative . . .

I didn’t manage to become an astronaut, but I suppose I did get to travel through space . . . in the same sense that everyone living on the planet has :)   and in the words of Marshall McLuhan:

“There are no passengers on spaceship Earth, only crew”

Photo by NASA

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The Methuselah Tree

High in the White Mountains of California can be found the world’s oldest individual living organism – The Methuselah Tree.

A Great Basin Bristlecone Pine, the Methuselah Tree is 4,842 years old – 100 years older than the start of Ancient Egyptian ‘Old Kingdom‘ and the building of the Sphinx and Great Giza Pyramids and 2,000 years older than the founding of Ancient Rome.

“Civilization is revving itself into a pathologically short attention span.

The trend might be coming from the acceleration of technology, the short-horizon perspective of market-driven economics, the next-election perspective of democracies, or the distractions of personal multi-tasking. All are on the increase.

Some sort of balancing corrective to the short-sightedness is needed-some mechanism or myth which encourages the long view and the taking of long-term responsibility, where ‘long-term’ is measured at least in centuries.” - Stewart Brand

The Long Now Foundation is an organisation that exists to creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility for the next 10,000 years.

Photo by Jim Gordon

The Elephant in the Room

When considering the most urgent problems of our age: climate change, food and water security, peak oil, scarcity of resources, pollution, environmental destruction, war and conflict – a lot of people think that an important obvious truth is being ignored.

There are more of us than there used to be.

A lot more.

On October 31st this year, the UN will announce that world population now stands at 7 billion people.

It’s stating the obvious, but there have never been this many people on the planet before. Back in 1350, around the end of the black death, the population of the world was just 300 million, and since then the number of people alive has increased every single day, with only a few exceptions as a result of major disasters.

By the start of the industrial revolution the world’s population was around 1billion, at the start of the 20th century around 1.6billion, and by the start of the second world war 2.3billion. If you’re around 40 years old or more, then it’s sobering to consider that global population has more than doubled during your lifetime!

That’s a lot of mouths to feed, a lot of clean water to be found, a lot of energy needed and a lot of homes to build – not to mention cars and mobile phones.

And there are more of us on the way – the UN is currently projecting a median global population stabilisation figure of around 10 billion people (increased from the previous 9 billion estimate in May). So we will also need to find room and resources for another 3 billion who aren’t here yet.

So will we be OK ? Can the we do it ? Can the earth provide for us all ? Or will we overload and destroy the environment that sustains us ? Do we have enough vision and ingenuity ?

There are a surprisingly wide range of views about the issue of population.

On the one hand organisations like Population Matters (which has David Attenborough, James Lovelock and Jonathon Porritt as patrons) are intensely concerned about the effects of rising population, and campaign to raise awareness and promote global access to fertility control. On the other hand, there are a small number of individuals and organisations who argue that the world continues to be better off, and more resourceful with more people in it, such as the late Julian Simon, the so-called Doomslayer ! Simon argued that human ingenuity will continue to push back the natural limits to growth, and that simply, more people = more ingenuity!

For me the problem with this argument is that it’s true, until suddenly it isn’t – we have been pushing back our limits by becoming more efficient at growing food, drilling for deeper water and oil etc, and hopefully will continue to do so for a while yet, but ultimately we will encounter limits we can push back no further. Many of our current practices are far from sustainable, and we will need to show a great deal of ingenuity simply to continue to provide for the billions of people already here.

There is another, far stronger argument against blaming all of the world’s woes on rising population, though.

It’s not just the number of people that matters, it’s also how much each person’s consuming !

There’s more than enough food, water and energy to sustain everyone on the planet, as well as the projected additional three billion, if we utilise and share it efficiently. But there won’t be enough to sustain ten billion people with the current model of Western, consumption-based lifestyles. We’re going to have to change the way we do things.


The global ‘population bomb’ will largely have to be defused by the world’s poorest women, through having fewer children – and this looks as if it will be achieved, with stabilisation now projected by around 2050.

The global ‘consumption bomb’ is the responsibility of all of us, especially those of us in the rich West – the more pressing question for us is: how are we getting on ?


Just as Europe was emerging from the black death, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean the isolated population of Easter Island were cutting down the last of their large trees from the island’s once lush palm forest. With the trees mostly gone, the resulting soil erosion destroyed much of their agriculture, the lack of wood for canoes curtailed their fishing, and the lack of tree trunks to use as rollers, even stopped the quarrying and carving of the moai statues, they had become obsessed with.

While uncertainty remains on the details of what happened at Easter Island, the lessons for us seem clear.

As Jared Diamond writes in his book on the decline and fall of civilizations, Collapse:

…Why were Easter Islanders so foolish as to cut down all their trees, when the consequences would have been so obvious to them? This is a key question that nags everyone who wonders about self-inflicted environmental damage. I have often asked myself, “What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?” Like modern loggers, did he shout “Jobs, not trees!”? Or: “Technology will solve our problems, never fear, we’ll find a substitute for wood”? Or: “We need more research, your proposed ban on logging is premature”?


Photo by Henrick Jagels