The Shape of Things to Come

172 - Things to ComeHG Wells wrote his prediction for the next 150 years or so of history as The Shape of Things to Come in 1933. He predicted the second world war, the collapse of the world economy, a global pandemic, the global use of English, the collapse of the nation state and the rise of a benign ‘dictatorship of the air’. . . it would be generous to award him half-marks.

The Shape of Things to Come is far from a great novel, but along with Brave New World and 1984, it does now provide an interesting historical example of the ‘futurology’ of its time.

Futurology, the tricky art of predicting what will happen next, is an interesting career path or pastime, as it inevitably tends to end in failure.

But perhaps that’s a little too simplistic ?

The real value of predictions isn’t only that they allow us to make plans for the supposed future, but also that they also enable us to take action in the here and now either to help bring that particular future into existence, or stop it from coming true.

Presenting visions, which we can either support or oppose, affects how we act in the present.

This is true both for our own personal futures – perhaps we might have a 65% chance of coronary heart disease by the time we’re 60 (if we don’t loose some weight), and for society as a whole - perhaps there will be 1.8 billion people living with absolute water scarcity by 2025 (if we don’t change how we manage water resources).

Both of these examples are typical of the warnings we’ve become used to hearing – we must ‘change our ways’ to reduce our risk of diabetes, risk of cancer, risk of food shortages, risk of energy shortages, risk of habitat destruction, risk of species extinction, risk of global warming . . . but I’d humbly suggest we also need to change our ways to avoid the risk of be overwhelmed by too many negative messages.

One of the criticisms often leveled at the environmental movement (fairly in my opinion) is that it tends to focus far too much on negative concerns and behaviors, and do comparatively little to promote a positive alternate vision for how we should live. It’s all too easy for detractors to present environmentalists as ‘crazy tree-hugging kill joys’ who want everyone (except the very rich) to stop flying, using our cars, heating our homes, buying cheap (non-fairtrade or non-organic) food, buying new electronic gadgets etc.

We need a more attractive vision of a sustainable future.

Another criticism (again, probably fairly in my view) is that the vision that is on offer, can seem very focused on those of us who are middle-class and middle-income, living in the developed economies of the world. This is perhaps understandable – but the world, in fact, looks pretty different to this.

Last year global population passed the 7 billion point, with another 2 or 3 billion or so predicted to arrive during the next 50 years – mostly in the already sprawling mega-cities of Asia and Africa.

We need a more global vision of a sustainable future.

If we’re to have the positive and sustainable future we all no doubt want, both for us and our children, it seems likely it will have to incorporate both technological and societal change:

More use of personal devices and smart systems to improve efficiency and coordinate resources. A greatly expanded digital and virtual economy, both to replace physical things, but also to provide work opportunities and reduce transport needs. A more comprehensive ‘circular economy’, reusing and recycling materials as a matter of course. More use of biotechnology in everything from farming to medicine. Much more focus on resource efficiency – whether water, food, land or energy. In addition it’s unavoidable were going to need a quite a lot more of each, if we’re going to allow most of the people in the world an improved standard of living.

At the same time it seems to me we’re going to have to change both our personal mind-sets and some of our economic models. We will need to stop exploiting cheap labour in the developing world for the benefit of the rich world. We will need to stop and possibly reverse the destruction and loss of natural habitats and the oceans. We will need to rebalance our economies to take account of the massive shifts towards an aging population in the developed world, and a far younger population elsewhere. We’ll need to do all this in a way that avoids conflict, whether over competition for resources, alternate ideologies, or due to tensions between the world’s haves and have-nots  (both between and within nation states). We’re also going to have to find governments that can deliver all this in an acceptably accountable way!

It’s going to be hard.

There are difficult questions to answer:

- How can we decouple economic growth from consumption ?

- Does fracking have a place as a transition energy source, if it displaces coal emissions ?

- Do GM crop varieties have a role in maximising food production ?

- Does the developed world need to get used to eating less meat ?

- Does nuclear energy have a future as a global low-carbon energy source ?

- Do we need to refocus our economies away from a ‘work-money-consumption’ model ? To what ?

- How can we create a more equal society, while not disenfranchising those either at the top or the bottom ?

If you want something to read or watch while pondering the answer to these questions, the internet abounds with futurology resources, try: twitter, reddit, TED or the Economist,

In the meantime, I’d suggest, those of us working to create and promote a fairer, more sustainable future for us all, would probably do well to turn down the volume on our ‘doom and gloom – don’t do that’ messages, and turn up the volume on our ‘enviro-optimist – it could be like this’ messages . . .

I’d be interested to know your thoughts ?

Photo by NASARobonaught, via Flickr (Creative Commons)

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