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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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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