Future Scenarios and Probabilities:
Manageable or Difficult?
In the Introduction, four possible 2050 scenarios were chalked out: manageable, difficult, disastrous and transformative. It is time to review them again. Two on this page, two on the next.
A Manageable Scenario
Most of us would opt for a manageable scenario, for obvious reasons. Much progress will be made with the right legislation, regulation, progressive taxation, technological change, universal education and healthcare, socially responsible business practice and implementation of the UN Millennium Development Goals, and some progress has already been made. However, much rests on the thoroughness, completeness and universality of implementation, not just appearances, iconic interventions and hollow claims. Herein lies a serious problem.
As things currently stand, systemic fundamentals are unlikely to change sufficiently under this scenario to make it really work. Socially and environmentally responsible business will develop to a point where investors prove unwilling to forego profit growth for overall environmental and social benefit. Governments will be proactive up to the point where they lose support from constituencies, media or the powers-that-be.
Put another way, the future will be shaped on roughly the same basis as before unless something happens to change our overall priorities. This critique is not specific to capitalism or democracy since other systems, socialist, Islamic, plutocratic, state-controlled capitalism or anything, are equally capable of wreaking similar damage: instead we must look at the mindset and the emotional disposition driving any system that exists. We need a revolution of the heart, and socio-economic and political systems will follow suit.
Many commentators believe that changes being made thus far are insufficient to counteract population growth, resource depletion, pollution, climate change, pervasive social problems and so many more issues. The 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change was insufficient even at its signing. When it takes years to ratify such an agreement, with some nations refusing or failing to comply, some submitting false figures and some masking their responsibilities, we have an implementation problem. More is needed.
A manageable transition needs to dig deeper, changing the roots, not just the branches, of human life. It involves more than converting to electric cars or establishing social enterprises, avoiding microplastics or reducing waistlines. It means addressing fundamentals and ensuring global compliance without exception – including USA and China. Such systemic changes require global consent, support and cooperation, and this looks unlikely.
Either this, or superpower force might be needed – but USA has had its chance and, while China could conceivably do similar, its capacity to dominate world affairs and apply force to the extent USA has done is questionable. China has succeeded in producing sustainable technologies that underprice older technologies, making them far more viable, but there is a long way to go. Some things, such as fashions, toxic chemicals, gas-guzzlers and convenient disposables need to rise in price to reflect their true environmental and human costs – and that’s not China’s speciality.
Things could change, but an almost miraculous global shift would be needed in three main areas: business needs to prioritise social, environmental and wider benefit over private profit; regimes need to shake free of oligarchic control, widening the benefits they bring and regaining people’s support and trust; and ordinary people – electorates and consumers – need to become a greater driving force for change, willing to make sacrifices, setting aside self-interest, collectively acting for the global good. Unless such changes arise, an organised transition is unlikely.
A manageable option involves facing inconvenient truths, talking to the enemy, hard talk, working together, turning swords into ploughshares, social and international collaboration, forgiveness of the past and a genuine sense of being in this together. Otherwise a difficult scenario looks more likely than a manageable scenario.
To achieve a successful manageable scenario we needed to start around 1970, or latest 1990, when the evidence and knowhow were already sufficient. For a manageable option to work now, measures taken would need to be draconian, and the world is currently unready and unwilling for that. Perhaps we need to be forced.
The various sections of this report reveal a series of issues that need to be addressed before fundamental progress can be made toward rendering the world safe. These include:
- population stabilisation and eventual longterm reduction;
- economic reform to narrow inequalities and reconnect economic values with genuine energy and resource use;
- reformulation of societies to improve social justice, cooperation and basic contentment;
- worldwide introduction of universal healthcare and education;
- large-scale ecological, climatic and resource-use corrections and adaptations;
- harnessing technological and scientific progress to benefit humanity as a whole, to avoid dividing humanity into ‘haves’ and ‘left-behinds’;
- reduction or elimination of conflict;
- increased intercultural dialogue and coexistence;
- improved geopolitical cooperation;
- wholesale dietary and agricultural change and the establishment of food security for all;
- an ethical change to increase communal care, inclusion and empathy.
This is a tall order under current conditions. It is at present unlikely to be instituted voluntarily through international conventions or democratic and consumer choice. Something far more is needed to prompt such change. Hence that a manageable scenario looks improbable.
A Difficult Scenario
Perhaps we might enter a difficult scenario. We are likely to find out whether or not things are heading this way by 2030 or 2040. We might see more loss, deprivation, sacrifice, crisis and detriment than we prefer, and it could involve engaging in something like a ‘war effort’, with rationing, evacuations, mandatory labour and obligatory sharing. It could be an all-hands-on-deck scenario. Or it could be chaos and everyone-for-themselves.
This sounds threatening but, if faced with such a reality, humans have a tendency to get on with what they are presented with, when there is no alternative. Ahead of a crunch, anticipations can wax large and things can look worse than they land up being after the crunch. When reality strikes, a rapid shake-out happens and much changes. It’s not at all easy, but life goes into a different gear.
At times and in places people could be faced with extreme emergencies. There could be tragedy, horror and destitution, as some people experience today, but more so and in more places. Much could go wrong – biodiversity loss, climate change, economic stress, food and resource shortage, social disintegration, geopolitical disarray and uncomfortable levels of hardship, cruelty and death.
A difficult scenario could see the overwhelming of social and government services, uprooting of populations, social unrest, conflict, piracy, armed convoys, intense climatic extremes and weather events, currency breakdowns, dictatorships and mad regimes, terrible moral dilemmas, battles over control of weaponry and strategic assets, technology breakdowns and a host of other problems. In such circumstances, the bit we can change is the way we deal with them: much depends on human responses, at street and village level, across civil society and in government.
The big question is: do we fight amongst ourselves or do we pull together to share what is available? Were there unstoppable mass migrations, how would recipient populations respond? If there were shortages and supply-line breakdowns, would we make do and improvise, or scrabble and fight? The choice is between degeneration, leading toward a disaster scenario, or the beginnings of a transformative scenario, leading toward eventual revival. Much would depend on leadership, social consensus and maturity, for a virtuous cycle of developments to lift off.
We would be presented with a new factual reality, with no going back. In such circumstances there can be redeeming factors: it is possible to live on one meal a day, and at least a billion people do so today; disasters and tragedies can prompt remarkable acts of bravery, improvisation, compassion, cooperation, resource sharing and sheer commonsense, amidst the devastation. Some people are already accustomed to it or they have living-memory precedents to follow. Solutions that previously were impossible because of laws, property rights, political control and customary default social patterns, suddenly become possible.
Crisis can loosen things up. This was demonstrated with the fall of the Soviet Union around 1990: things were very difficult for Russians but most survived, there was no ruinous civil war, there were no enormous disasters, remarkable exchange and barter systems evolved, and the vast majority lived to see another day.
So, in a disaster scenario there can be glimmers of light in a darkened situation and, although much can be lost, people often survive. In so doing, they become changed, confronted with moral options to work together, make the best of a bad situation and organise sharing and protection systems.
Change is accelerated in such circumstances since former realities have been swept away and people quickly grasp new behaviours as a matter of survival, setting the past behind them and choosing to operate according to a new moral and social compass. Those who survive wars or disasters often report tales of endurance, improvisation, courage, sharing and togetherness amidst the devastation and pain. Herein lies some hope.
But, this said, times of crisis can also give opportunity to advantage-takers, black-marketeers, troublemakers, looters, murderers and rapists. They can give an opening to dictators, populists, militias, ‘false prophets’ and exploiters.
Philosopher Bertrand Russell once said, “War is not about who is right, it’s about who is left”. One observation from protracted wars is that sanity does eventually dawn – not least because people get plain tired of madness and hardship. Exhaustion can be the greatest of peacemakers. On this basis, if human society turns bad in a difficult scenario, fighting over peanuts, sanity eventually dawns amongst those who are left once the bullets run out and the atrocities get repetitively fruitless.
A difficult scenario could last for decades, testing people’s capacity to persevere and survive. It could go through many phases, with worse and better periods. Attempts to revive could be stymied by socio-political situations, weather events, scarcities, fighting and mishaps – though equally there can be outbreaks of luck, genius, serendipity and energy. Experience and skill levels grow and social stresses can subside, be suspended or resolved, often by simple pragmatism. Any or all of these permutations can happen differently in different places.
A difficult scenario could conceivably lead toward a disastrous or a transformative scenario. We could be faced with serious global dissonance and dysfunction, making for painful conflicts of interest and encounters with hard reality. Or there could be a stand-off in which different parts of the world go their own way – though global threats such as climate change, nukes, pandemics or dictatorship wouldn’t go away. Chances are that societies that cooperate and pull together might survive more successfully than those that lapse into tragedy and dissension.
Whatever is the case, humanity could survive a difficult scenario, emerging in a very different state – either transformed and following a path of revival or in a much diminished state but surviving. A billion people might lose their lives but many would remain. New generations would take the reality they are faced with and make something of it. We can only theorise and imagine what this would look like. But it is necessary and advisable for humanity to contemplate such a scenario. Is this what we want?