Which scenario will prevail?
All four scenarios described in the prevous two pages could apply in different parts of the world and differently to different people. The sumtotal of all this will become the overall global reality. For a period it might be very confusing. In our own day the best money, the most political support and the largest research grants are invested in a manageable option, while the best cinema box-office takings lie in a disastrous option.
Business, media and finance buffs prefer business-as-usual, spiced with tweaks and adjustments. Governments are notably unvisionary in their policies and practices, whatever their fancy words. Crisis advocacy is bad for careers, bad for votes, for market confidence and public credibility. Some will question the conclusions drawn here: they are welcome to suggest alternatives.
When the chips are down, our power to decide is not entirely in our hands. This is partially a consequence of leaving things too late. Many of the issues before us could have been addressed when we first became aware of them in the 1960s. Had we started changing things around 1970, we would have made noticeable progress by 2000 and, by now, further results would be emerging and we would notice their impact in very real terms.
There could be less conflict, fewer fierce weather events, less economic instability, a socially-richer society, less friction over religion and beliefs, far smaller extremes of poverty and wealth, fewer extinctions and fewer existential threats. Complications would have arisen but we would have had more time to deal with them. In failing to address the global situation in a timely way, we tempted fate, losing some of our options.
Therefore it can be argued that we have left things too late for a manageable scenario to be realistic. For a manageable transition to succeed, the necessary changes would need to be more fundamental, systemic and deeply-rooted than most people would prefer to see. Under today’s conditions, many would fight against such changes or attempt sabotaging them.
So perhaps a manageable scenario is less likely than many of us might prefer. This leaves a difficult or a disastrous scenario. If positive changes and adaptations were made soon, a disaster can conceivably be reduced to a difficult scenario – barring unknowns and black swans. But then, unknowns and black swans can help and resolve things as much as they create problems.
There is virtue in crisis, though it is painful, tragic and, to some, a killer, and it might hit you and me, not just other people. Its virtue lies in the fact that the chop comes down, removing many options and prompting definitive responses. Cascading situations can remove the possibility of default strategies such as throwing money at problems or sending in the army. Things could go downhill, moving toward disaster, or they could turn around, moving toward transformation.
Judging by our current behaviour, it is unlikely that humanity will transition directly from today’s situation to a transformative scenario. We cannot entirely rule out this possibility, but it is more likely that we enter a difficult or a disastrous scenario first, perhaps within decades and for decades. There is then a possibility of transitioning to a transformative scenario, perhaps later in the century.
Crisis and Change
It is not possible to foresee every eventuality or to predict the course of future torrents of events, but certain critical issues could precipitate a deep crisis. Two things are important to consider here: the issue itself and its impact, and the wider interdependencies and issues it affects, bringing a risk of cascading consequences. These issues, presented below, are not listed in any order of likelihood, timing or impact, and neither is it a conclusive list.
- The financialised and offshore economy – turbulence in these sectors can destabilise real economies, transactions, trade and economic dependencies.
- Critical market spikes affecting commodity supplies, insolvency and social consequences.
- Mass migrations, sudden or spread over time, that are so large that they fundamentally change recipient countries and noticeably empty source countries.
- Pandemics. Whatever their cause, they can shock the international system, bringing multiple repercussions, causing large-scale mortality.
- Sovereign collapse. For fiscal, legitimacy, conflict or other reasons, some governments could lose authority and functionality, leading to very complex ‘failed nation’ outcomes.
- Disasters – large or multiple, especially if they hit key cities, regions or economies.
- Weather extremes and events, if they cause multiplex outcomes with wider consequences.
- Conflicts – conventional, cyber or nuclear – hitting key world nodes, disabling the world system or creating global-scale impacts.
- Political aberrations such as shifts of regime, mass movements and socio-political situations that affect the wider world or change or disable the international system.
- Food supply crises with rapid-acting social consequences and wider repercussions.
- Cyber-security risks, affecting global operational systems.
- Artificial intelligence being misused, misaligned, introduced too rapidly or without consent.
- Coronal Mass Ejections – solar storms that can disable electrical and digital technologies.
- Black swans. Completely unforeseen triggers or tipping-points that could cause cascades of further events and consequences.
Before it happens, a crisis looks threatening. Once it hits, it quickly becomes incorporated into our reality as a new normal. We live in a crisis today. The key issue is that, in our time, the equations do not square up. There is a degree of will to address global problems but levels of commitment, priority and resources are insufficient.
We are in a bargaining phase where we hope that, by making token gestures and the right noises, things will resolve themselves without demanding too much sacrifice, and meanwhile we can continue more or less as before.
At the time of writing (2018) a global economic crisis is foreseeable, yet it is unpopular to mention such an eventuality. It could be sparked by over-leveraged or zombie debt, Western or offshore economic subsidence, overvalued oil, banking or digital companies going insolvent, a blockage of the Persian Gulf or Malacca Strait seaways, an unexpected event undermining market confidence or other causes.
Then a series of events begin and we start entering a different reality. Coming decades will probably see a series of crunch periods deriving from a number of sources, such as those listed above. Crisis becomes a game-changing catalyst of quantum adjustment.
We need to think the unthinkable, beyond our current mindset, stepping over our customary, cynical, tired expectations. This involves far-sighted, uncomfortable, outside-the-box thinking, embracing previously inconceivable possibilities.
An example: antibiotic resistance. The default response is to research ever new forms of super-antibiotics to replace old, ineffective ones – applying the same logic, this time with nano-medicines, gene editing and other biotech fixes. But this can be interpreted as ‘kicking the can down the road’, since further resistance and complications can foreseeably develop from such a strategy a generation or two later. Antibiotics work by killing harmful microbes, and the principle of conducting wars against perceived evils is part of the old logic. The answer could be to change the logic, making friends with the enemy. Microbes, when threatened, either fight back or hide. So the answer lies in finding ways to pump up natural immunity, creating treatments that bond with microbes to satisfy their evolutionary needs so that they become harmless without arousing their evolutionary fightback potential. Thereby antibiotic resistance can be turned around. Change the logic. If we don’t do so, we just get more of the same, further down the road.