There are two things to worry about. The ever-heavier imprint that our expanding population is imposing on the planet, and the risk that we won’t properly control powerful technologies. – Prof Lord Martin Rees, UK Astronomer Royal.
A 2016 World Economic Forum survey of 26,000 Millennials in 181 countries concluded that they rated the world’s top ten problems to be:
1. climate change and natural resource destruction (45%);2. large-scale conflict and wars (39%);3. religious conflicts (34%);4. poverty (31%);5. government transparency and corruption (22%);6. safety, security and wellbeing (18%);7. lack of education (17%);8. political instability and lack of political freedom (16%);9. food and water security (15%) and,10. unemployment and lack of economic opportunity (14%).
One planet, many worlds
Our attitudes toward the future are influenced by our predispositions – we all sit somewhere on an optimism-pessimism spectrum. Attitudes are also affected by our situation, much depending on:
- whether we live in the developed or the developing world. Generally, developed world people are disinclined to change radically – many are reasonably comfortable, accepting that what they have is what life is about. Developing world people feel ‘it has to get better than this’, thus there is more impetus for change, and new thinking, innovations and possibilities are emerging as a result. These very different perspectives affect our perceptions of the future;
- the generation we belong to. With exceptions, older people tend to draw on existing thinking, positions and solutions, even feeling rather jaded, while younger people tend to look at the future with more imagination, questioning and sense of possibility;
- our life experience, and whether we have had a life of relative security, regularity and safety, or one of instability, risk and living day-to-day – and whether we see change and flux as threats, opportunities or more of the same old thing.
We live on one planet and in many different worlds. The main issue here is that our perceptions are very varied, and the future, riddled with uncertainties, cannot reliably be forecast. The judgements made in this Conclusion reflect the way the author assesses the possibilities and probabilities. In later life, by degrees he has changed from an earlier 1970s position when he considered the future to be potentially more catastrophic and also more transformative than he now sees it to be.
Many people believe what they are told more than what they see with their own eyes. Some want change as long as they don’t have to change. Some take on the world’s guilt, acting as its conscience in concern over the present, regret over the past or fear of the future. Some experience mental illness – indeed, it’s a mad world, and perhaps they are more perceptive and less mad than many people want to believe. Some engage in self-sacrifice or activism to try to change things. Others just get on with eating their dessert.
Some believe a mighty conflagration will surely kill off most people except themselves. Some expect Jesus, the Mahdi or extraterrestrials to come down to save the world, or at least a select few. Some wish to impose their own picture of what’s right on everyone else. Some of the super-rich fantasise about settling on an isolated island or even on Mars, leaving the rest of us to roast or fight it out. Most people just get on with life as best they can, with little time to think about big issues. This state of global disarray is a crucial matter because the world needs to unite around a shared mission – if, that is, humanity does genuinely wish its great-grandchildren to have a decent life.
Michael Herr, scriptwriter of Apocalypse Now, about the Vietnam war, once said: “Those who remember Vietnam need to forget it, and those who have forgotten it should remember it”. Similar applies to our awareness of the state of the world: its future needs to become a shared, collective concern, with the burdens and benefits of change shared more evenly than today.
Dissonances and Dilemmas
A global and systemic dissonance exists. Sectors such as the arms and the fossil fuel industries create jobs and generate profit, deemed a good thing from one viewpoint, yet they kill people, pollute landscapes and harm the world’s climate, a bad thing from another viewpoint. Many such dissonances exist and we’re faced with dilemmas and uncertainties that are often dealt with by disregarding whole swathes of inconvenient issues – but this is no solution.
Running a dissonant system like this is like driving a car with the handbrake on – it’s heading for a problem. Before 2050 we’ll probably find that such systemic inefficiency becomes unsustainable, prompted by events that precipitate issues, widen cracks and narrow options. It seems we are approaching a critical global reality check, or a series of them.
How successive UN Secretary-Generals sleep at night is one of the big unanswered questions of our era. They are among the few who take a genuinely non-national approach to things and they must be acutely aware of issues the world is evading, avoiding, denying and blocking. All they can do in their role is make the best of a bad situation, moving the world forward a centimetre at a time while knowing that progress is dangerously slow.
If ETs came down tomorrow, asking to be taken to our leader, how would the UN Secretary-General explain that he has insufficient powers to implement any recommendations they might surely make? Three of the UN’s key members (USA, Russia and China) have a habit of vetoing proposals that are crucial to the world’s future. These three powers possess enough weapons to end life on Earth, and the ETs might have good reason to believe that something is not quite right with that. It might also bewilder them to see that few Earthlings worry about it.
This highlights a core question: we have little resembling world-scale governance except for a bundle of transnational laws and institutions, to which quite a few UN member countries count themselves exempt. We also have an underperforming, underfunded UN held back particularly by nations’ own self-interest.
Westerners in particular have a distrust in global governance, even though they initiated the globalisation process and shaped the world’s transnational institutions. Enormous global bodies can be unaccountable and captured by elites, so many people are suspicious, but this does not remove the need for some form of global governance or solve the problem of arbitrating between self-interested sovereign nation states. Self-interest has led us into a global crisis. This is a critical weakness in humankind yet there’s a paradox here: this very exceptionalism makes humans rather interesting, creative and culturally diverse – that’s a strength, a weakness and a big dilemma.
Those of us who do our best to help the planet by using eco-products nevertheless pollute it by doing so in millions. If everyone used them we would have less of a problem but we would still have a problem – rivers polluted with chamomile and organic surfactants rather than polyphenols. A billion electric cars replacing a billion oil-powered cars is also a problem. As a mass of people approaching 8 billion in number, simply breathing creates an impact. So we have a further dilemma: even if we were all thoroughly eco-friendly and human-friendly, our vast numbers present an enormous planetary-management issue.
A big source of underlying collective guilt today is not badness and evil but complicity, indifference and omission – softer crimes in which we disregard and set aside important issues until we run out of distractions and alternatives. We are party to enormous crimes – such as the ubiquity of plastic in the oceans – yet, when such a problem is exposed, we look on in horror, demanding it be stopped and quietly forgetting that we ourselves used plastics for our convenience and we did it. Meanwhile a lot of irreversible damage is done. This is endemic globalised cognitive dissonance.
Is Earth capable of supporting ten billion people in the mid-to-late 21st Century? No one knows: we are living in a global experiment to find out. But here lies a major clue: much of the problem lies not in the size of Earth’s population but in the way our population treats the Earth and each other. Many people who die in earthquakes do so because of corruption, improper application of construction standards and lack of attention to earthquake-resilience. The impact of droughts is often increased by government policies and business practices, and by deficient public forethought – human stuff. This brings up a question frequently raised in this report: who decides?
So, what should we do? How far does this issue go? How much change is needed?
How, in some future time, will we know when we have rendered the world safe?
How will we know that we have reconciled the imbalanced equations we face today?
The equations are irreconcilable as things now stand. We know we need to wean ourselves off fossil fuels but we wait until we are forced to. Even if you are a climate-change questioner, just stick your nose by the exhaust outlet of any car and you will know quite quickly that fossil-fuel burning needs to end. Transitioning takes time and corporations supplying fossil fuels are ‘too big to fail, too big to jail’, so if such firms rapidly lost market value this could hit financial market confidence and the world economy. So the process goes slower than it should, and we are caught in a conflict between the contradictory rights and needs, real and perceived, of the individual (me in particular), social subgroups (us in particular) and nations (especially our own). In the meantime, we ignore the collective rights of humanity and the needs of the planet we live on.
As individuals we can make a difference only moderately, and such action is riddled with issues and compromises. The author’s aid work with Palestinians and the Tuareg in Mali burns up air miles, energy in internet data centres, and it squeezes money out of donors who themselves are implicated in harmful activities, no matter how ethical and good-hearted they try to be. This report’s production consumes resources and, the more it is read, the more resources it consumes, though its net contribution is hopefully positive. So damage is done even when we’re trying to help move things forward. This is another dilemma.
There are clearly many small things we can do. Perhaps the simplest norms to follow are: minimise harm and do to others as you would like them to do to you. But none of us has the right or power to insist that others do what we believe they should do. So we have a freedom problem – our freedom is fine, but other people’s freedoms create a problem.
Freedom is an asset we are unwilling to sacrifice, yet it becomes a limitation: to quote former BBC war correspondent Martin Bell, “Peace and freedom can be defined as the peace that makes traffic jams possible and the freedom to sit in them”. Personal freedom, jealously guarded by some and much sought after by others, is a resource that, like many others, has passed a peak. If everyone worldwide had a comfortable middle class lifestyle and a million in the bank, humanity would not survive. This is yet another dilemma.
Signs of hope
The developing world is beginning to build sustainability, affordability and simplicity into its ideas and development models, without suffering quite the same obstruction from vested interests and conservatism that the developed world suffers. They have their vested interests, yes, but not quite as deeply embedded as in ‘advanced economies’. Improvements in the ‘third world’ follow a different, more sustainable track from that of the heavy-footprint rich world.
Of the big countries, the most sustainable (this may surprise you) is India, because a large proportion of its rural farming population lives simply, with relatively sustainable traditional patterns of resource use – though many are poor and disadvantaged, and something still needs to improve for them. The country with the biggest and most proactive sustainability and resilience programme is China. The frontline of democratic development and good governance currently lies in Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. The centre of world manufacturing is Asia. The majority of world trade now passes between developing countries, home to 85% of world population.
In many nations across Asia, Africa and Latin America there is a significant sense of the need to attain greater sustainability and food security. This is seen as plain and simple commonsense, with little need for high-faluting terminologies and rationales. They’re taking the best of the developed world’s offerings but not the rest, and adapting them, innovating a lot and working out simpler, cheaper and more accessible solutions to the issues they face. This tide is gathering momentum. Increasingly it is driven by women.
New generations think differently. This matters a lot in countries where younger people are in the majority – mainly in Africa and parts of Asia. Ideas in USA, Europe and Japan tend to follow existing tracks and the higher income markets they cater for are increasingly part of the problem more than the solution. Meanwhile, the best young brains seek jobs in Bangalore, Shenzhen, Bogota and Nairobi. A gap is widening between younger and older parts of the globe and, in a world faced with insecurity and change, the younger will tend to prevail.
The 2-3 billion of the world’s population at the low end of the market is an enormous market. Countries and businesses catering for them will do well. This population has the biggest economic growth potential and their need for high-utility, durable, repairable, no-frills items and solutions is not really understood in the stuff-saturated richer world. Richer people hire taxis for themselves while poorer people share taxis to cut costs – a simple sustainability solution. Ideas around sustainability are gathering momentum among even the least educated: solar power and cookers, dry farming, recycling, re-use and repair all make sense, and if innovations are cheap, simple and reliable, they will propagate vigorously.
There is an emergent morality amongst younger generations who connect the dots ethically and in terms of overall systems thinking. They see connections between things more clearly than previous generations. They see the paradox between plenty in rich parts and inadequacy in poor parts. They see the waste involved in conflict and consumerism. They’re concerned about the inefficiency of a system that burns up resources, privileging some and disadvantaging others. This viewpoint is very logical and not exactly political. Yet it constitutes the politics of the future.
Large numbers of people alive today have an underlyingly positive attitude. This is so even if they feel they cannot do much in the larger social and political sphere, or if they are too busy to express their feelings fully, or if they fear coming out with their true values and beliefs. A strange attribute of civilisation is that we develop bicameral, schizoid double standards where we try to adhere to the rules and demands of society while nevertheless having reservations and deeper personal values.
When it comes to the crunch, this delicate balance tilts, the hidden side of ourselves emerges and our values and actions can change significantly. This is a complex psychosocial dynamic yet it means that, when prompted by circumstances, human values can change quickly when the chips are down, especially when a momentum builds amongst large numbers of people.
These are signs of hope – though whether we see these as an asset or as wishful thinking depends very much on how we see things. Events of the 21st Century will test this, and much rests on it.