Friday, 15 August 2014

What next for Humanity and the World?

This entry is really going to be mostly a note - a work-in-progress, reflecting my recent research and interests, and responding to stimuli from various sources online. It may be necessary to follow this up with more detail, but I'm thinking of the content as a starting-point for discussion rather than a fixed view. So, please feel free to discuss...

Two related matters have come up recently which are related. The first is the shape of our future. This is a subject I have been informally researching for many years, and studying in more detail for the last eight years, off and on. Having spent much of this time exploring avenues of possibility focussed around climate change and global warming, more recently I have extended my study to include social, political, economic and ethical considerations.

Which leads neatly in to the second matter - the question of values, which has come up directly at Tobis's place, and is an ongoing personal fascination. I still maintain that unless we have a clear sense of the ethical foundations for action - what we want, or what we think is good for the future, then we cannot properly determine the optimal course of action. This is not to say that some actions are not already, in principle and in practical terms, evidently necessary, such as emissions reductions and environmental protection.

Back to the future (sic.): what do we expect the future to look like? A number of Futures Research groups have been exploring this question, some since the 1960's, more since the Club of Rome report in 1972. In addition, the themes and consequences of some of the possibilities have been extensively explored in literature, specifically in Science-Fiction, or speculative fiction writing, but also in recent literary fiction, such as David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas or more directly, John Brunner's 'Club of Rome Quartet'.

One such group, the Tellus Institute (With the Stockholm Environment Institute), has helpfully categorized future scenarios into three broad divisions, which I reference here simply because they resemble vaguely my own imagined scenarios; these are depicted below:
Taxonomy of the Future

The group's emphasis is on the contrasts between the 'Conventional Worlds' (which elsewhere might be equated to 'BAU' scenarios for climate, for example) and the 'Great Transitions', which is characterised by: " socioeconomic arrangements and fundamental changes in values. They depict a transition to a society that preserves natural systems, provides high levels of welfare through material sufficiency and equitable distribution, and enjoys a strong sense of social solidarity. Population levels are stabilized at moderate levels and material flows through the economy are radically reduced through lower consumerism and massive use of green technologies..."

It may be worth noting here that the 'eco-communalism' pathway vaguely resembles the 'degrowth' meme which is currently fashionable.

The problem I have with these is that they are filled with good intentions but may be unrealisable - just a bit too idealistic and vague. The other problem with them, as with many other scenarios, is that they are strong on 'what we want', but weak on 'how we get there'. They also make presumptions about the values which lead us to see them as preferable objectives.

A third problem I have with the scenarios is that they deal more in what is possible (hypothetically) and desirable, than with what is likely.

During my study, I came across several pieces of speculative work from within the UK government framework, under the auspices of the Foresight projects. These are useful in that they are based as much as possible on evidence, they avoid exaggeration, and they are broadly pragmatic - in other words, they make sense to me.

<One such report, headed by the Government's Chief Scientist, from 2011, is about global migration in relation to climate change. In the contect of their work, the group produced a scenarios outline which covers the major drivers of migration and their relative significance, as well as outlining plausible world-views out to 2060. Why do I say plausible? Because they are, where available, derived from other, important, credible and well-researched sources, such as the IPCC, WHO and UNEP, and because they avoid both pre-evaluation (there's no discusion of 'better' or 'worse' futures) and they are not unduly alarmist (which is not to say they are not alarming in some ways).

I also present them here as a backdrop, because I think they find a useful balance between several factors which are consistently discussed on the blogs I frequent, and in the Guardian, for example.  The scenarios are described in detail here, the report itself is here.

In our extended discussion on Natural Capital (is it a good idea?), here, in relation to how we place a value on Nature, or move beyond concepts such as Sustainability, which appears to have been completely redefined by Corporate and Political interests to mean almost the opposite of what it  was originally supposed to mean, MT expresses the wish: "..
My wild hope is to join or nucleate some conversation that would come to some well-thought-out alternative...(to a Natural Capital  agenda)"

Some time ago, I suggested that 'Resourcefulness' might function as a better criterion, but I now believe that this is too close conceptually to the problem that 'Natural Capital' raises, the evaluation of the natural world in terms of its pure utility to humans (though it might avoid the purely econometric issue of putting a price on nature).

In response to the various scenarios of possible world futures and the problem of balancing the relative values placed on the drivers of change, I am currently suggesting that the world we are heading closer to is somewhat closer to the Tellus Institute's 'Fortress Worlds' scenario, though with significant differences. Broadly, I see a world more divided, not more integrated, with greater inequities, but with distinctive geophysical boundaries defining the disconnects between the largely Urbanised and progressive 'modern civilization', the largely agrarian  and protected 'supply zones', rural environments with connections to the urban, and the 'lost places', wastelands where social, political, environmental and ecological damage has resulted in insufficiently productive, isolated and borderline uninhabitable zones, occupied by a sub-underclass of humanity fighting for survival; in other words, a world a bit like ours, but more so, with the differences exaggerated rather than ameliorated. One such imagined world is described in David Wingrove's Chung Kuo series of books, though climate change is not incorporated as a factor. Though it diverges from my own vision, it contains some useful speculations and themes in the early volumes which make it worth exploring.

One main reason for imagining this kind of future scenario is a concept which undoubtedly exists in the literature but which I have not yet seen described, which is that of the inherent inertia of the Global Society, generated by the presence and influence of institutions (governments), corporations, economy and markets, habits, apathy, caution, and history. In other words, I think that, in spite of our best intentions, it is most likely that change are going to come relatively slowly (unless there is a Force Majeure which intervenes), too slowly for some people and parts of the world, and that a complete breakdown into a Fortress World scenario is improbable (though not impossible).

Furthermore, I fear that we have already passed the stage (in relation to development over then next 50 years) where we can hope for anything much better than this; the same inertia which is likely to mean avoiding total annihilation is also likely to result in irreversible changes, desertification, drought, regional famine, political instability, local wars, etc., which will leave a residue of inequity and damage for the generations beyond to address.

This then has already gone beyond an idea of what sort of world we want, to a speculation about what sort of world we are likely to end up in. Which is where the challenges, questions and arguments might begin. Is this a vision you believe is plausible, or do you see things differently? Is this the kind of inheritance we would wish for? Is there anything we can do to reduce the inequities, damage and risks? Can we do better, realistically, given the timeframe and the problem of inertia? Is my vision too conservative in your eyes, or too radical? 

I'd really enjoy feedback if this has stimulated your imagination. As for Michael's wish for a new pathway to get us beyond sustainability - well, if we can work out what we want and what we expect, we can start to defines a value (or set of values) which will help get us somewhere a little better...