Over the last five centuries we have seen the rise of a global civilisation on Earth, but now our global civilisation is in crisis and the next three decades will be critical ones.
There are the obvious problems: global warming threatens extinction; the Cold War is back, even as the US moves to take on China and the Middle East destabilises; the global economy limps along as politics goes feral in many countries; energy supplies become more expensive and less reliable. And there are a bunch of interrelated issues less obvious in terms of cause and effect, such as the relationship between climate, poverty, disease and war.
How then will the next few decades play out? Will we overcome these threats, or is this the end for our vaunted civilisation, and maybe for humans generally? The problems, as with modern life, are complex and large scale, but we must confront them in order to prevent the worst from happening. In this piece we'll consider the main drivers of change in contemporary life, and present three possible scenarios for the future.
The main drivers of modern history are: human population growth and the associated use of resources and generation of waste; technology, in both quantity and quality; energy availability; and dominant ideas on how modern society could and should be run.
The population of humans on Earth is expected to level off at around nine billion in a couple of decades, but we seem to have reached some basic material limits already. All the basic requirements for human life, from arable land to water resources, are being stretched beyond capacity. Furthermore, our current population is only possible because of modern transport systems which rely on cheap energy. Our fast through-put, mass-industrial economy is highly inefficient and generates huge amounts of increasingly toxic waste. The pollution problem, of which carbon is only the worst, has reached critical dimensions.
Technology is now the main driver of productivity gains, but at the cost of increasing waste and growing unemployment. Our mass-industrial economy, now global in scale, generates vast amounts of goods but also of waste. In addition, the increasing complexity and sophistication of technology is causing a growing problem of control. We are approaching the point where we may lose control over our own creations.
The modern world has been shaped by the availability of energy, from wind to power sailing ships and mills to coal to oil and now renewables like wind, solar, tidal and thermal rocks. In particular the mass-industrial age is built on cheap and reliable fossil fuel energy. But that is all ending as the supplies of cheap oil and gas decline and the costs in terms of pollution become too great. An energy crunch is at hand, only slightly delayed by the rise of unconventional sources such as fracking.
The issues discussed above are the main material factors, the interaction of material things (including people) and energy. But in the final analysis it's ideas that shape a society and make it work, or fail. Historically these ideas rested on basic concepts of religion and the power that came from that. In modern times we saw the rise of humanism, individualism, rationalism, nationalism, and democracy as core ideas. Most recently we saw the rise of a complex of ideas involving a focus on materialism, economic essentialism and the realisation of our global society that was termed globalisation and was actually a form of neo-liberalism. The 24 hour global financial system and the Internet seemed to epitomise this idea of one great unified market and society.
For a couple of decades, following the end of the Cold War, these ideas seemed to dominate, but they are failing now. The rise of environmental problems, the almost collapse of the world economy in 2008 and the subsequent inability to fix related problems, and the return of international tensions between the US, Russia, China, Japan and the whole Middle East are all aspects of this failure.
Whatever happens one thing is certain, there is dramatic change ahead. So let us consider then three possible scenarios for how this change might work out. These scenarios are not predictions as such, but ways of thinking about how the main drivers might interact.
Scenario 1: Global collapse.
In this scenario no great solutions arise to respond to the global crisis. The decline in US leadership continues, open warfare flares up (including new forms like cyber warfare) and the global economy founders. Forced mass-migrations, increasingly caused by the effects of climate change, fuel further violence. Food supplies diminish and are not transported to areas of greatest hunger, resulting in wide-spread famine. The combination of hunger, thirst and disease kills multimillions. In the rich countries the economy erodes and internal security declines. While the rich seek to isolate themselves from the growing troubles, famine and violence stalk even these once affluent places. If global warming ceases before the critical runaway point is reached (probably around 2 degrees warming), civilisation could revive in a century or two; otherwise, it's the end for civilisation and perhaps the human species on earth.
Scenario 2: Technological fix.
In this scenario new technology comes to the rescue, but at a price. The ongoing growth in the capacity of digital technology enables ever greater wealth accumulation and general communication and processing of information. This might be actualised by market or other mechanisms, but the overall intention is to allow economic forces to operate more efficiently. Environmental threats, such as depleted resources and growing waste, are countered by more efficient processes of production.