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Visions of the 21st Century

The Future: A Bumpy Ride

The future is about as strange a place as the past. All too easily we forget how differently past, present and future appear to each human generation.

I found this out for myself in discussion with a monk from Mount Athos. For him the world had been created only a few thousand years ago. God intervened in human activity at every point. Hell was waiting over the horizon for heretics and even schismatics. People who knew nothing of Christianity were excused, as ignorance was not their fault. The apocalypse was coming soon, when the Emperor John would rise from his tomb, draw his sword, and slay the enemies of God. After a few minutes we found it hard to communicate. I suspect that most of us would find it equally hard to chat with people living only 150 years ago.

Since then there has been a mind-boggling stretching of time and space in all directions. Even 70 years ago most astronomers believed there was no galaxy but our own. Meanwhile the stretching process continues. 150 years ago some sort of predictions would have seemed feasible. But by the 1960s even a ten year forecast had become hazardous. In 1963 I was involved in an effort to look at the likely world of the 1970s. We got a few things right, but we fatally misjudged energy issues. By 1973 the rise in oil prices had changed everything else. It was the unexpected which dominated, and so, I suspect, it will continue to be. In the last decade the rise of information technology as part of the process loosely called globalization has changed all outlooks and calculations. If we cannot guess ten years ahead, how can we try and look forward a hundred?

Unfortunately we must. The consequences of the actions we take today, particularly over the environment - whether in use of resources, treatment of land, water and air, disposal of waste, and extinction of other species - will be a legacy which will profoundly affect our great grandchildren. So we have to do our best, while recognizing our best is bound to be no more than provisional, and in many respects wrong.

It is, I think, healthy to begin by looking around at what other human societies have left behind them. There have been thirty or so such societies since the end of the last ice age, each geared to a particular environment which it sought to adapt for its own ends. None really survived as it was, and all degraded their natural environment. The extent of such degradation varied from society to society, and contributed in different measure to their disintegration whether fast or slow.

The present condition of Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, the Maya heartland in central America, the southern shores of the Mediterranean, even parts of China, carries the message: humans passed this way; they created complex societies; these societies gradually used up or damaged their resource base; they could not maintain themselves as they were; so their members changed or died or moved on. Put another way, complexity in a society indicates that complexity once seemed the best way of solving a set of problems. Complexity carries enormous costs. Eventually those costs become overwhelming, and the system subsides under its own weight.

Human history falls into ever shortening phases. It begins with hunter-gatherers using primitive tools. They lived in small bands, sometimes operating from tiny clusters of dwellings. Governance was by elders and family within a strong culture of self-sufficiency. This phase lasted with many vicissitudes from the first identifiable people of our kind over hundreds of thousands of years to some 12,000 years ago.

The next phase was much quicker. Land had already begun to be cleared for certain crops (notably rye) and animals. There was a rapid increase in numbers. Communities became villages, and villages became towns, each with more complicated systems of governance. This led to increasing division of labour and elaboration of tools. By around 5,500 years ago language began to be written down, towns were turning into cities. From this came development of nation states with different political complexions and elaborate hierarchies and bureaucracy. With big fluctuations and yet more people, cities became bigger still. Drastic changes took place on the surface of the earth.

We have just ended what has been well called the prodigal century which has seen the most drastic changes of all. They have reached a point which endangers the good health of the planet as a whole.

First humans are victims of their own success as an animal species. There has been a giddy making increase in their number rising from around one billion at the time of Thomas Malthus (who first drew attention to the relationship between population and resources) to two billion in 1930 and now over 6 billion. Since the Rio conference of 1992 the world population has risen by over 450 million people, more than the populations of the United States and Russia combined. Improvements in medicine, particularly in the last century, have frustrated the usual constraints of natural selection and helped boost population which is likely to exceed 9 billion by 2050. Although there are indications that the rate of increase is slowing, at least in some parts of the world, the trend is still upwards. The steepest growth rate has been in cities where around half the human population now lives.

More people need more space and more food. Soil degradation is estimated to affect 10% of the current world agricultural area. Although more and more land, whatever its quality, is used for human purposes, increase in food supplies has not kept pace with increase in population. Today many of the problems are of distribution. But even countries generating food surpluses can see limits ahead. Application of biotechnology, itself with some dubious aspects, could never hope to meet likely shortfalls.

In the meantime industrial contamination of various kinds has greatly increased. To run our complex societies, we need copious amounts of energy, at present overwhelmingly derived from the world's dwindling resources of fossil fuels laid down hundreds of millions of years ago. We also have to deal with the mounting problems of waste disposal, including the toxic products of industry.

No resource is in greater demand than fresh water. Such demand doubles every 21 years, and is accelerating. Yet supply in a world of 6 billion people is the same as at the time of the Roman empire in the west and the Han empire in the east in a world of 200 to 300 million people. At the same time there has been increasing pollution of water, both fresh and salt. Some rivers, for example the Yellow River in China and the River Jordan have dwindled into noxious streams. It can be no surprise that coastal areas are at particular risk from materials brought down by rivers to the sea. There is an increasing incidence of toxins produced by blue green algae along rivers and coasts, and in the deep oceans fish stocks are rapidly declining. Indeed fishing fleets are 40% larger than fishing stocks can sustain.

Likewise there have been changes in the chemistry of the atmosphere. Acidification from industry has affected wide areas down-wind. Depletion of the protective atmospheric ozone layer is permitting more ultra violet radiation to reach the surface of the earth with so far unmeasured effects on organisms unadapted to it. Greenhouse gases are increasing at a rate which could change average world temperature, with big resulting variations in climate and local weather as well as sea levels. There has been controversy about the consequences of such changes, but more about the degree of change than about change itself. Some areas may suffer from more droughts while others could be affected by increased flooding. Either may cause enforced migration of animals and plants as well as people on a scale unknown in the last ten thousand years. The recent Nino phenomenon has well illustrated what vast changes can be caused by small perturbations in the climate system.

Lastly human activities are causing extinction of other species at around a thousand times the natural rate. Indeed the rate is reminiscent of previous extinctions in the long history of the earth, such as that which befell the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Too easily we forget the degree of human dependence on other species.

Reduction of biodiversity affects food supplies (already heavily dependent on a few genetic strains) and medicine (heavily dependent on limited plant and animal sources). But more important are the ecological benefits: we rely on forests and vegetation to produce soil, to hold it together and to regulate supplies by preserving catchment basins, recharging ground water and buffering extreme conditions; we rely on soils to be fertile and to break down pollutants; and we rely on nutrients for recycling and disposal of waste. There is no conceivable substitute for such natural services. At present there is a general impoverishment of the biosphere.

Together these changes amount to an acceleration of environmental change unprecedented since humans became an identifiable animal species. As hunters and gatherers, our effect on the earth was confined to relatively small areas. Even the great agricultural societies of the past affected only a small proportion of the land surface of the earth. In all such cases recovery might be slow but it was possible, even likely, over hundreds of years. Only during the last prodigal century has the scale of human expansion reached the point where it can change the planet as a whole and make recovery more doubtful in a measurable future.

We have been running down the world's natural capital of resources, and thereby changing the character of life on its surface. Evolution itself, whether of plants, animals or micro-organisms, could now be taking new directions. Even humans may be changing under the influence of two new factors: the enlargement of human capacities brought about by technology; and the possibility that memes (or units of information) may henceforth be a bigger factor for change than genetic inheritance.

The implications for our future are incalculable. In 1972 a prophetic book was published entitled The Limits to Growth. Many people poured scorn on it as an extrapolation of existing trends. This was somewhat unfair as the authors were simply trying to warn about what might happen if such trends continued. Twenty years later the same authors published Beyond the Limits. In it they showed that on current models with expanding human population and continuing economic growth, the world economy as it is now known would eventually be unable to function: not for the obvious reasons, but because governments and communities would simply be unable to cope. There would be a creeping contagion of breakdown in different countries at different times. We can see this happening already in various parts of the world, notably in Africa and parts of south east Asia, including Indonesia. Some cities are virtually unmanageable.

Meanwhile our value system remains obstinately anchored to short term advantage: acquisition of greater material wealth and possessions; crude notions of economic growth and ever increasing consumption; the belief that technology will always solve whatever problems we create; and industrialization for all, with globalization not far behind, as the indispensable if not inevitable way forward. It is often forgotten, in the words of one economist, that "the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment". An index put together by the World Wide Fund for Nature showed that while stock market indices had risen enormously between 1970 and 1995, the world's natural wealth, measured by the health of its ecosystems, had fallen by around 30% in the same period.

Already we see something of a three way movement of power away from the old nation states with which we are familiar. Power is moving upwards to international institutions and corporations, still poorly equipped to cope with their responsibilities and generally unaccountable: it is moving downwards to local communities seeking to recover a sense of identity; and it is moving sideways since citizens can communicate directly by electronic and such other means as radio, television, the internet and the world wide web.

This is mostly a tale of woe. But unless we listen to it and confront these problems in their many aspects, we cannot even hope to cope or have any vision for the present century which does not include the risk of a deterioration in the human condition and in the functioning of the planetary ecosystem.

I now want to leap ahead a hundred years, not to attempt extrapolations or still less predictions but to isolate what could be the issues which would most affect humans at that time. In doing so I make the generous assumption that humans will still exist.

First come factors affecting the natural environment over which humans have not even thought about exercising any control until very recently. No one can foresee the state of the world's climate and the height of sea levels a hundred years from now. Global warming could well be accelerated. But this could bring about changes which could induce cooling. What is certain is that the climate could be drastically different from today. Its character will drastically affect distribution of fresh water and other renewable resources, and the character and distribution of ecosystems, including micro-organisms. Nor can we yet assess extra planetary influences, whether in the form of asteroid or other meteoric impacts, or variations in the earth's relationship with the sun. Within the earth's system there could be important volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and small changes with big consequences in tectonic plate movement.

Next there are the human factors, some visible today, but all changeable in different degrees, with each having its impact on the condition of the earth. For example we cannot now assess the size, distribution and condition of the human population, including its health, longevity and employment. Nor can we judge its effects on other organisms, and on the course of evolution generally. There may be some surprises, particularly among bacteria and viruses. The same goes for human use of resources, including agriculture and energy generation, and disposal of wastes. Still less do we know about future communications systems, including personal transport, and the uses of information technology in all its aspects: nano technology; robotics; and genetic engineering. The best we can do is to make a few guesses. Whether they amount to a vision for the future I leave to you.

The first guess relates to the human population. It is hard to believe that there will be anything like current or future human numbers in their present urban concentrations or elsewhere. Whether weeded out by warfare, disease, deteriorating conditions of life, or other disasters, numbers are likely to fall drastically. We must, I believe, expect some breakdowns in human society before the end of this century with unforeseeable outcomes.

Already we see a widening gap, both within countries and between them, between the rich and sophisticated on one side, and the poor and uneducated on the other. So far the processes of globalization have if anything made this gap wider. We also see the possibility of the long term differentiation of the human species into distinct varieties and subspecies through genetic manipulation. It could lead to biological emancipation for some, and relative servitude for others. This has long been a subject for speculation. There were the Eloi and Morlocks in H G Wells's Time Machine of 1898; there was the classification according to the Greek alphabet in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World of 1932; and there was the division of humans into GenRich and Naturals on the principles of reprogenic technology in Lee Silver's Remaking Eden of 1997. There are also the possibilities of human cloning opened up by the cloning of Dolly the sheep a few years ago.

Such a division of humanity could be geographical by region. Or it could be hierarchical within a region or society. The GenRich could prolong their own lives, manage their own health, and secure access to resources in ways they could deny to the Naturals. It would be a profoundly unstable but not impossible arrangement. No society can live for long in conditions of gross inequity.

The second guess relates to use of resources. We must, I think, assume that by the year 2100 current debates over genetically modified, chemically driven and organic agriculture will have been resolved, and that in one way or another humans will have found stable ways of feeding themselves within prevailing conditions. We can also assume that they will have eliminated their current dependence on fossil fuels, and will have developed renewable technologies ranging from hydrogen to fuel cells. The bonanza of resource exploitation and depletion which characterizes current industrial society will have been over long ago. I suspect that the disposal of wastes from these and other times will remain a major problem. Some high level radio-active wastes will be dangerous for tens of thousands of years.

I think we must also assume that better understanding of - and care for - the environment will long have overtaken our current obsessions about free market economics and the tyranny of the consumer. As has been well said "markets are marvellous at determining prices but incapable of recognizing costs". These lessons often have to be learned the hard way. But in the next hundred years it is hard to believe that they will not have been learned, and that some sustainable balance between supply and demand on the one hand, and the public interest on the other, will not have been established.

The third guess flows from the likely development of technology. Without looking into the ever accelerating changes in any detail, three central points stand out. By 2100 humans will have become still more dependent on information technology to run their personal as well as their collective lives. This could on one hand enlarge their freedom and capabilities, and reduce drudgery; but on the other render them vulnerable to such major hazards as breakdown, sabotage, malevolent viruses and externalities. In short they will lose a measure of self sufficiency. The technophobes foresee an abridgement of the human spirit. The technophiles foresee its liberation. Either way there will be new patterns of human relationships.

Next there could be a globalization of human knowledge on the analogy of a world brain. H G Wells once forecast "a widespread world intelligence conscious of itself". Such a system would evolve by natural selection in the same way as organic beings evolve. It might even include some direct linkage with humans, for example through chips inserted into the brain.

Another range of possibilities is opened up by what has been labelled geo-engineering. To cope with water shortages major river systems or ocean currents could be diverted; or even more ambitious, space-based solar shields could be erected to combat global warming, or soot could be spread over the Arctic and the Antarctic to combat global cooling. Somehow I doubt whether these manifestations of faith in the technological fix will happen. The problems and risks are too great.

The fourth guess is the most cloudy because it involves almost everything else. It concerns the way in which we live and organize ourselves. Whether or not there is a drastic fall in human numbers or greater differentiation between humans, the contrast between the living conditions of the rich and sophisticated, and the poor and uneducated, in cities and countryside will persist.

Pessimists and optimists will take very different views. Pessimists can point to the relentless human pressure on natural resources, and increasing environmental hazards in almost every field. Major sources of conflict could arise not only over water and other essentials but over the movement of refugees against barriers erected by the well favoured to protect themselves. Optimists can point to a variety of technological opportunities: for example the introduction of renewable energy resources, which could bring electricity to poor communities worldwide, and thereby bring at least younger generations into electronic and other communication with their peers elsewhere.

Both pessimists and optimists need to be aware of the vulnerability of all human society to shocks, whether internal or external, as it presses against the natural limits of the planet. All should increasingly recognize the interconnectedness of life and the coupling of physical and biological processes embraced in the concept of Gaia. Humans share many of their genes with daffodils. Daffodils cannot grow and spread for ever. Nor can humans.

Complex societies do not have to collapse, but they do have to adapt rapidly to changing realities. I have already referred to the current movement of power away from the nation state: upwards to global institutions to cope with global issues; downwards to communities of manageable human dimensions; and sideways to citizens everywhere. What are the implications for our guess work?

There are several possible extremes. Perhaps I should call them nightmares, but they are nonetheless real: one is of a global dictatorship in which power is exercised, without real democracy or accountability, through the mechanisms of information technology. It would be an extreme consequence of current processes of globalization, which anyway reduces differences between cultures, traditions and languages. Such a dictatorship would be as much cultural, spread by memes, as it would be political, maintained by global institutions, business corporations and other vested interests, including the media and suppliers of raw materials, food and energy. There would be few checks and balances. Big Brother, or Big Brothers, would simply control access to the effective levers of power and influence.

Another disagreeable possibility, much favoured in science fiction, is that some of our inventions become not only self-perpetuating, but also out of our control. This has already come up in current debates on genetic engineering, nano-technology and robotics.

The other extreme is fragmentation of human society. As after the disintegration of other societies in the past, people would revert to small relatively closed communities. The classic example is what happened to Easter Island. It was discovered by a small group of Polynesians around 400 AD. The population grew to around 7000 in small principalities by 1500 AD. This greatly exceeded the carrying capacity of the island, and with deforestation people had no means of escape. It was followed by social collapse into internecine warfare and cannibalism. When rediscovered by Rogeveen in 1722, the population was down to 300, living in primitive conditions in ruins which had become incomprehensible to the inhabitants. There are other happier examples of societies simply returning to subsistence. Some can be seen in Africa today.

There are many intermediate possibilities. We can all think of them. In my view the most likely and in some respects the most promising prospect is a disaggregation of global society such as it is, and a return to clusters of communities of a size and character which enable them to live with population, resources and the environment in broad balance. All would be linked by information technology as well as other means of communication, and the ethos of a unified human society would remain intact. Whether it would simply be a repository of wisdom by network, or become a brain of its own remains to be seen.

The problem of how to run such a society in unresolved. At local level, or even at national level (assuming there are still nations of the kind we recognize), the difficulties are familiar. We must assume some dispersal of power and authority, and increasing identification of citizens with their local institutions. Here the lessons of history are not encouraging. We are all too close to petty nationalism, terrorism, conflicts over resources, competing ideologies and ethnic intolerance. But such is humanity and such is life. There is no magic formula.

Particularly difficult is governance at global level. At present the United Nations is fundamentally an association of sovereign states, even if real sovereignty is leaking away from them all the time. The element of democratic accountability goes back to those nation states which have to answer to their citizens, at least in theory. Beyond and above the babble of the General Assembly are the Specialized Agencies and Associated Bodies with poor co-ordination between them; the Security Council in which the key nations of the world try to regulate issues of peace and war; the multilateral corporations, the banks, the media controllers, the drug empires, the criminal syndicates and others, essentially outside the system; the non governmental organizations which, though unaccountable except to their members, try to represent the citizens' interest, particularly in the field of the environment and human rights; and now increasingly the information systems of the internet and the world wide web, also outside the system.

My guess is that we will find a way through this maze if only because circumstances will compel us to do so. For example conflicts of interest over trade and protection of the environment will eventually require institutions to cope with the problem. There will be many muddles and unsatisfactory compromises. Somehow we have to establish greater citizen participation at all levels of political structure without creating chaos. Somehow we have to establish forms of accountability, and ensure that government, whether through nation states or not, is by broad consent. Somehow we have to establish checks and balances to protect the public interest, and ensure enforcement without abuse. These are the ancient and abiding problems of politics, and they have not changed in essence for thousands of years. They will be with us in the year 3000 as they are today.

My last guess relates to the future of human communities. If there is to be any disaggregation of global society, their cities would become more like towns, towns like villages, and villages like clumps of dwellings relatively self sufficient in food and energy. At present cities are the great demographic magnets of our time. In principle they represent everything that is good and bad, from culture to employment, and the daily tides in and out of them are part of many people's lives.

A generation or so ago, some people, including architects, referred to cities as mechanisms, and the houses in them as living machines. The image of the super organism seems to me much more appropriate. Every city, every house, every individual, absorbs resources and emits wastes. The resources include food and water, fuels and energy, building materials, timber and pulp and of course processed goods; and the wastes include sewage, exhaust gases, household and factory discards, both solid and liquid, and such other materials as concrete, metals and plastics.

Cities and their support systems thereby create an environment of their own. Depletion of the resource base outside with deforestation, soil erosion, and import of water and energy materials from ever further afield, can create spreading brown circles from the centre, rather like the Australian grass spinifex which grows outwards leaving a devastated middle. It has been calculated that the land area required to supply London's environmental needs is 120 times that covered by the city itself. No wonder that Lord Rogers once wrote that:

"Cities have become parasites on the landscape - huge organisms draining the world for their sustenance and energy; relentless consumers, relentless polluters."

The truth is that however much we like cities, most of them are unsustainable in their present form. The individual has been lost. Los Angeles has been well called the Nowhere City. Clusters of huge concrete stalagmites are deeply oppressive to the spirit. Some planners still long to create ghettos in the shape of commercial districts, industrial districts, dormitory districts, shopping districts and the rest without realizing the social cost to the individual. I sometimes think that the good mental health of citizens suggests that we should go back to the notion of city walls to preserve the coherence of urban life within, and to prevent the destruction of it from without.

With urban decay has come the emptying of village life, and the loss of local identity. Shops, local activity, public transport services of all kinds have been reduced. Cities and villages alike are suffering from the dagger wounds caused by the intensive splitting effects of roads to carry everyone's favourite and most convenient toy, the motor car. Part of this process has been greater polarization of rich and poor. In broad terms the better off have gradually organized things to suit the needs of a more mobile, less integrated society. This is particularly evident in the United States where neighbours scarcely know each other and where suburbia, interlaced with motorways, is in constant expansion. With this has come the growth of less social and more commercial communities in which human activities have prices rather than values attached to them.

My guess for the future is that cities will become small and compact with greater diversity of activities within them, in other words high density centres in which citizens feel a strong sense of participation and identity. Some conformity of buildings in terms of size and materials is essential to create the human environment. I often think that planners, architects or builders who design or build out of kilter - for example tower blocks - should be obliged to live in them for at least a year. There will be far less dependency on cars. Such model cities as Curitiba in Brazil already exist to show what compact cities with good public transport can achieve.

What is true for cities will also be true for towns and villages. Disaggregation could be caused by environmental degradation leading to social breakdown. But it could also rise from natural pressures as people return to living in units of human-size dimensions. I am not expecting fundamental changes in human nature. Old Adam and old Eve will be with us still, as competitive, arbitrary, difficult, various, peaceful, violent, disciplined and undisciplined as ever. The ethical system may change as it changes from society to society. But what makes ethical systems work, or not work, will remain the same, even if they now enjoy a global reach. They evolve all the time.

In so far as we can peer a hundred years ahead, we can wish our successors well, and hope that they will enjoy more of an equilibrium than is possible in our own unsustainable and crowded but creative society. By then they may have worked out and will practice an ethical system in which the natural world has value not only for human welfare but also for and in itself. They may also be involved in spreading life beyond the earth and colonizing Mars or other planets. I suspect that they will look back on us as a messy, short-sighted, wasteful, crude, and aggressive lot. Let us hope they are not the same.

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