We now face many complex challenges, and there are reasons to be both pessimistic and optimistic. The outcome will depend on our commitment to take action. Experience has shown we can tackle the most difficult challenges when we work together. ISN is privileged to work with organizations and communities that are collaborating intentionally to create a better future.
In the last century we have seen exponential gains in the global standard of living, and a dramatic increase in life expectancy. Technology has made goods cheap and abundant. The world seems to cater to our every need. Notwithstanding that there are still stark disparities, even the disadvantaged seem to be materially better off. What is progress though? What will the future hold? When people contemplate the future, they generally describe four possibilities: two pessimistic, two optimistic. Four doors.
Two Pessimistic Scenarios
The subsistence scenario anticipates a future driven by continued growth in human numbers. The world population has increased from 1.0 billion in 1800 to 2.5 billion people in 1950, 6.5 billion in 2005, and 7.6 billion today. It is forecast to reach 8.5 billion by 2030, 9.7 billion by 2050 and 11.2 billion by 2100. The Earth’s resources are finite, and we are already using more than the planet is able to replenish every year. Annual consumption is now equivalent to one-and-a-half Earths.
Expected consequences of overpopulation include increased pollution; water shortages; loss of arable land; species extinctions and reduced biodiversity; starvation, malnutrition and disease; increased mortality; falling life expectancy; elevated crime; and global conflict.
The apocalypse scenario anticipates the end of life as we know it, due to the upheaval caused by global climate change. Increased concentration of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere is closely correlated with a rise in global temperatures. By 2015, the Earth’s average temperature had increased by one degree Celsius over pre-industrial levels. Estimates are that by 2100 this could grow to 2.0-4.9 degrees. The latest projection points to an increase of 3.2 degrees.
In addition to sea level rise, other expected consequences include more extreme weather events; destruction of ecosystems; extinction of species; crop failures and declining crop yields; adverse impacts on human health; mass migration of displaced populations; and global conflict.
Two Optimistic Scenarios
The technological solutions scenario anticipates technology will provide breakthrough solutions for the problems described above. Peter Diamandis – chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation, and co-founder and chairman of Singularity University – acknowledges the existential challenge of scarcity, with a growing population on a small planet. The answer, he writes in Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think (2012) is to use transformational technologies to raise the living standards of billions of people. “Imagine a world of nine billion people,” he says, “with clean water, nutritious food, affordable housing, personalized education, top-tier medical care, and nonpolluting, ubiquitous energy.”
Renewable energy, biotechnology, nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence, digital manufacturing, networks, sensors, and other emerging technologies, Diamandis says, will change the world. Breakthroughs are now possible that could barely be imagined a few decades ago.
Many people believe even global warming can be countered by modifying the Earth’s climate through geoengineering. Incoming solar energy could be bounced back into space by deploying orbiting mirrors, increasing the reflectiveness of clouds, or introducing small, reflecting particles into the atmosphere. Other strategies include creating algal blooms in the ocean to consume CO2, and capturing and storing greenhouse gases through a variety of technologies, including direct capture from the air.
The planetary consciousness scenario anticipates evolving awareness of the interconnectedness of humankind and the Earth that will make us caring stewards of this small planet. In The Phenomenon of Man (1959) French philosopher and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin argued the driving purpose of evolution was to increase consciousness. Russian scientist Vladimir Vernadsky saw this as the third step in evolution, with consciousness emerging after inanimate matter and life, and changing the world.
Futurist Peter Russell used the term “global brain” in The Global Brain Awakens: Our Next Evolutionary Leap (1995). He described our current reality as a crisis of consciousness.
“Valuable as sustainable economic models may be in reducing ecological damage, they will not on their own be sufficient to meet the challenges ahead. The changes we need to make go far deeper. In order to develop a caring attitude towards the world, we need to develop a new model of ourselves, a new sense of who we are and what it is we really want. … We must come to value our inner development as much as, if not more than, our material development.”
Philosopher Pierre Levy – a writer on collective intelligence and an advocate for human agency – described our responsibility to choose in “Collective Intelligence, A Civilisation: Towards a Method of Positive Interpretation.” (International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society, 2005).
“[I] believe that imagination, and especially collective imagination, produces reality. In choosing imagination over prediction, I mean to underline the fact that the future has not yet been written and that we are probably much more free than we think. We are responsible for the world which we create together through our thoughts, words and deeds.”
Which door will we choose?
This article is an excerpt from a book in progress on complexity, collaboration, and the challenges of transformative change. It was first posted on April 3, 2018, on LinkedIn.