What Does the Near Future Hold?

Last week I wrote about my love for the future.  In the comments, several people said the 800-pound gorilla of climate change looming over every thing these days makes it impossible to think positively about the future.

No way to imagine utopias, or even “protopias” – worlds in which things are gradually improving – this theory goes. We are destroying ourselves. Dystopia is the only likely outcome.

Now I certainly worry about climate change, and not just in the future. At the farmer’s market this week, the blueberry seller said his berries were a month early. “We’re getting LA’s weather,” he said. “I don’t want to live in LA.” Me either.

Having moved first from an area getting nastier winters than it used to, and then from one drought-ridden region of the country to another, not to mention having returned to Austin after 30 years to find a different climate from the one I left – the people who used to grow azaleas now grow prickly pear – I can see the changes happening. And since the only people taking serious action to deal with it are working on such a small scale, the problems aren’t slowing down yet, much less getting turned around.

I don’t think we get out of the 21st Century without major disasters and massive suffering due to climate change.

But at the same time, we’re on the cusp of more and more amazing knowledge. The human genome. Digital technology. Renewable energy. An abundance of earthlike planets in the universe. Greater understanding of human nature – cooperation appears as hardwired into our biology as competition. A decline in violence and – perhaps more important – in tolerance for violence.

Those things make me optimistic – with reservations. If we can survive the crises of the 21st Century without losing the knowledge we’ve gained, we will continue the haphazard journey of human beings toward real civilization.

But it’s not going to be easy.

In a conversation on Facebook after that blog post went up, a friend asked me for a recommendation for non-dystopic science fiction. That sent me looking for the online link to my story “Or We Will All Hang Separately” (which originally appeared here on Futurismic and is also available in my Book View Café collection Walking Contradiction).

On Futurismic, I found this essay on what the future holds by Paul Graham Raven. He criticizes this essay by Kevin Kelly.

In a nutshell: Kelly put out a call for 100-word “haikus” describing “a plausible technological future in 100 years that I would like to live in.” He got 23 submissions and also published his own. For the most part, the scenarios assumed technological advancement: cheap renewable energy, open engineering, a post-scarcity economy. One odd one focused on getting rid of graffiti, which seems like a trivial response to a complex question. There’s also one that assumes that the destruction wrought by climate change will bring us to compassion and generosity as heritable traits, which, nice as it sounds, implies magic.

Raven, a futurist himself, faulted both the submissions and Kelly’s own version for falling into the “standard blindspot” of futurists focused on information and communications technology. He provided his own 100-word description of changes that can be made right now that have nothing to do with technology. It starts out “No one goes hungry” and goes on to describe a world without second-class citizens and with quality products made to last.

To those who call his idea “impossible,” he points out: “We have everything we need already” to make it happen. Nothing has to be invented.

Kelly’s own contribution begins, “2121: Population 4 billion.” It’s a disconcerting beginning, because that’s just over half of the current population. The human race and the planet are going to go through a lot of pain and suffering to get to his utopia (or protopia).

It’s not that I wouldn’t like to see the world population drop by that much; it’s that I think the suffering from such an extreme drop in a short period would be catastrophic. I think it might happen, though. I even think the reduction in population might be what reins in climate change and makes it possible for the human race to thrive. But I can’t ignore the suffering it would cause.

I’ve taken a stab at my own 100-word “haiku” on a plausible sustainable future:

2121: A hellish century ends. Billions dead from famine, disease, disasters. Islands, even cities disappear. Landscapes are changed forever. But things are improving. No more drilling and mining of fossil fuels. Worldwide wealth taxes reduce inequality. Renewable energy widely available. Guaranteed incomes common. Scientific research expands. Medicine based on genomes in wide use. Settlements on the Moon, mining in the asteroids, more space exploration. No slave labor; more opportunities for all. Less international shipping, more local farming and manufacturing. Information and knowledge expand; simple lifestyles predominate. Violence continues to decrease. Cooperative economic systems expand. The human race might become civilized.

Feel free to add your own take on things in the comments.



What Does the Near Future Hold? — 8 Comments

  1. The most wonderful book I have read on this subject is The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Stephen Pinker. A book that convinced me that, however awful it looks in the short term, we are indeed gradually trending better. Homo sapiens is now ubiquitous enough over the earth that some of us, like cockroaches, will surely survive any habitat damage that occurs. That it probably will not be you and me is sad, but I am not saddened by it. There may be a bottleneck, but probably not an extinction, and on the other side of that bottleneck we will be better.

    • I agree about Pinker’s book. I suspect one reason so many people think the world is more violent rather than less is because so many more of us have come to deplore the violence.

  2. No one has mentioned how/when/if we rid ourselves in this part of the globe of white supremacy, which is the foundation of so much of the inequality and suffering right now and for previous centuries, in this part of the globe. Slavery fueled capitalism and the industrial revolution. We have to change institutions and economic thinking – desire. Do people believe that massive population crash will affect any of this?

    • I don’t think we get a sustainable future (with or without population crash) without a major change in our institutions and economic thinking. To me that includes changes in our core attitudes about race and assumptions about white supremacy.

      One of the things I liked best about Paul Raven’s view is that he started with the idea that no one goes hungry and everyone has a home. That is, he started with the assumption that every human life matters. I think a lot of us are getting to this point intellectually, but our systems are still based on the assumption that people are either labor to be used and thrown out as needed or in the way.

    • Slavery was and is a huge problem regardless of race because wanting to use others for economic or personal gain is not a trait tied to skin color.

      We definitely agree that slavery and exploitation is a huge problem, but focusing on skin color won’t help tackle the serious economic and cultural issues that make owning people desirable or tolerated in countries around the world.

  3. Alas, I fear you are right.

    I hear folks talk about “stopping climate change,” which is akin to closing the barn door after not only the horse but the sheep and chickens, not to mention a bat or five, have escaped. The question is how do we as a species distribute wealth in a way to empower and therefore protect our most vulnerable populations.

  4. That is, he started with the assumption that every human life matters. I think a lot of us are getting to this point intellectually, but our systems are still based on the assumption that people are either labor to be used and thrown out as needed or in the way.

    OTOH, that’s what Christianity supposedly teaches and that hasn’t made any difference in thousands of years.

    I am entirely cynical about the future. Also about the present and the past for that matter, because I do study one and live in the the other.

    • I am optimistic about the future for the same reasons! That is, I compare the past and present and I see progress. Sometimes it’s like finding wheat among the chaff to see it, but I see it.

      But my optimism is for the long, long term. I think there’s a good chance the human race will survive long enough to evolve into something that would merit the term civilized. I hope it happens within centuries, though I wouldn’t be surprised if it took millennia.

      The fact that the human race is intellectually getting to the point where it recognizes that each life matters and that people are not “human resources” is a necessary step to changing the system.

      Right now people are marching up the street three blocks from here making that precise point. It’s May Day, and there are enough anarchists in Oakland to take that seriously!