What might the future look like?
No one including me, can predict the future. All we can do is try and take a balanced view using current knowledge. Even then any sort of projection into the future remains difficult; as the finance industry says, past performance is no guide to future performance. If you want to see the next business failure look at those who are fat and happy now.
In the future, not only is the devil in the detail, but things can get better or worse. Broad shapes can be discerned but history happens one day at a time and each action causes a reaction. The various serious challenges we face cannot simply be extrapolated into the future: that would be a case of giving dominance to a single factor.
One way of thinking about what might happen is to consider how optimistic/pessimistic we are and relate that to our view how change happens
- We can suppose that people tend to be optimistic or pessimistic about the way things will work out in the future; they will be better or worse than they are now which might be related to what we think about people - if they are basically sensible and conscientious or feckless and lazy (Note: Theory X and Theory Y).
- We can suppose that life will carry on in much the same way as it does/always has or we think something completely different and unexpected will happen – this may be linked to the nature of the threat and/or the change driver (Note: Fast and Radical Change)
By using these two axes we could create a 4x4 grid beloved of management consultants. Much better to treat these are continuums giving zones. This also allows for a set of outcomes around the crossover point – precisely where the future is contingent.
Lets deal with one of the big changes first. Even the contingent view may be overtaken by an extinction level event that is beyond our control and understanding when it happens. Apart from monitoring space for large objects (which we do) this is probably a case for fatalism.
A completely different future
The are other potentially big changes that do warrant some consideration. The danger here is how easy it is to be pessimistic. I dealt with this at some length when considering the perception gap (What stops change - gaps and why they matter). Remember dog bites man is common but not news, man bites dog is uncommon and so is news.
By “normal pessimism” I mean the stuff we can all comprehend. The idea that collapse and disaster is imminent is a recurring theme in history and is present in our culture; it happens as fin-de-siècle at the end of centuries, for some Christians the 2nd coming is expected with the end of days.
There could be a perfect storm that creates a worst-case scenario – it may just be the accident of timing but if you are going to be fearful, fear this;
There is a pandemic which weakens the social fabric just as global warming reaches a tipping point causing additional widespread disruption, populism (present now) that runs rife (it is also driven by mass unemployment and dislocation caused by automation) and morphs into a new fascism, which combined with increased power block competition and population pressures on raw materials leads to a local war that escalates into world war III.
It may not all happen but potentially any one thing can be bad enough
- Global warming, it is said, changes everything, and so far it is beginning to do bad stuff before we have really started acting. Even though international cooperation fixed the ozone hole and attitudes to plastics are changing very quickly we need a radical different and far reaching approach to make progress (Klein)
- An older, and equally sobering view of the world we need only to look at The Limits to Growth and its update The New Limits to Growth . A recent article pointed out that these projections might be spot on (Note: Limits are Being Reached)
- The wave of migration to Europe we are seeing may be the start of a longer-term trend; it is not all from Syria it is also coming from places where resources are scarce and desertification is taking place – migration is a natural result of climate change – it has been throughout history.
We have to collectively control the variables in this equation;
[Catch up Development (Note: Catch Up) x (Resource depletion(Note: Finite) + Power Bloc Competition for resources)] + Population Pressure (Note: Population Growth) + Climate Change (Note: Climate Change)= Death, Famine, War and Pestilence (Note: The Four Horsemen)
Its worth looking at this again here since it sums up the problem precisely https://www.gapminder.org/videos/population-growth-explained-with-ikea-boxes/
Some of this bad stuff will happen (even if it is not catastrophic) the question for political engagement is how we moderate it and maintain civility whilst doing so.
All that may be bad enough, but there is another extreme view of the future which is known as the “the singularity” (Note: The Singularity). This is transformation point where homo sapiens are overtaken by machine intelligence. Those who subscribe to this view start with the J curve represented by continued economic growth and scientific progress. They observe that it is rising exponentially propose that at some point there is a flip-over to a completely new reality. There are many, some influential (including the late Steven Hawking) who see the creation of machine intelligence as a game changer. In the worst-case scenarios it outstrips and replaces us.
The next stage of history
Karl Marx projecting from Manchester in the 1840’s foresaw Communism as the final stage of history; after the phase of capitalist industrialisation the workers would seize the means of production and the wealth they produce would be shared (held in common).
It is often forgotten that the revolutionaries who followed Marx had debates about which societies (where capitalism had progressed far enough) were industrially developed enough to make communist revolution a realistic prospect. In Russia the communists were unanimous that a process of industrialisation was needed before it could be considered revolutionary. At first they all expected events in Russia to trigger revolutions in the industrially developed capitalist countries exhausted by the war. Lenin had to invent the theory of the vanguard party and the centralised state capable of war communism. This gave Stalin the tools to purge those who expected revolution in more than one country, and later through paranoia anyone who dissented, with all the suffering that entailed. When it came to agrarian societies a whole new strand of thinking had to be developed, also with disastrous consequences.
Now that the rest of the world is catching up and technical change is again putting the debate about a society without work some are beginning to look again towards the next stage of history, for an example of this see Post Capitalism by Paul Mason (Mason)
The optimistic singularity
There is an optimistic version of the singularity in which human become technically enhanced or people live in a symbiosis with machines.
More of the same in the future
It seems to be clear many things are getting better(Rosling op cit) (Pinker, Enlightenment op. cit.). For optimistically looking at how technology can be used for progress and improving future possibilities take a look at The Oxford Martin Schools work (just one example), and the websites of Max Roser and Gapminder (Note: Evidence of Better).
There can be no doubt that we have and continue to get a lot better at some things, less people die violently than 30 years ago, life expectancy is increasing. Indeed the opportunity is for us to apply data to what we do and accelerate the process. There is a lot of good news (largely hidden in plain sight). So what is the problem?
The opposite danger to pessimism is to believe that everything is just fine and do nothing. The fact that we have, or are on the way to solving a lot of problems does not mean that the way we organise ourselves now is as good as it gets.
The hubris of the (current) winners
It is not just that the winner’s write the history, it is that they often fall prey to the hubris of thinking their version of things has triumphed and banished all opposition. Daniel Bell wrote The End of Ideology in the 1960’s. Francis Fukayama wrote the end of history and the last man in 1992 (Note: The End of History)
For us this means the peculiar form of “Capitalist-Democracy” as it is currently practiced in the USA and Europe. Since 1989/2008 the mood of triumphalism has waned, the whole neo-con (reference) endeavour is looking decidedly lacklustre and naive. Nevertheless it has had a profound effect on the world over the last 30 years and we should try to understand it.
This “triumph of now” based on who is curretly “winning” takes a number of forms.
One example of this school of thinking can be found in The Heel of Achilles (Bobbitt). This not only foresees the triumph of capitalism but the end of the dominance of the nation state and the emergence competing market states, some of which do not need to be territorial. This a a work on foreign policy from a US point of view it says little about the rights and duties of the citizen.
Another version is Francis Fukuyam's, The End of History and the Last Man. This saw history as being the battle for ideas that was (with the end of the cold war) now solved. All that followed would be, as Henry Ford said of History “one damn thing after another”. This view meant that those in charge were ill equipped to deal with the aftermath of 9/11, Afghanistan and the 2nd Gulf War; Since then reinvigorated terror, 2008 and the Syrian Civil War have just piled on the agony.
Power block competition does seem to be back on the agenda (one of the challenges we face) and it is complicated by the political uncertainties caused by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump – that seem to me, at best to leave the initiative with the up-coming contenders such as a revanchist Putin.
And yet it does seem as if there is a lot more new and positive thinking going on and left thinking is becoming more willing to challenge accepted nostrums. A generation change is taking place (1989-2019 is 30 years). It seems to me a moot point that the development of these new ideas can be completed in time to defeat the populism that is resurgent in the face of conventional failure. There is a widespread feeling of dissatisfaction; the unsuccessful ideas and their excesses (that led to the crashes of 2001 and 2008 and ill thought out foreign interventions) are being contested (Podemos, etc). It is beginning to feel as if old ways of doing things and established patterns of behaviour are no longer as secure as they have been for the last 30 years (Note: Possible Unfreezing).
We may get lucky, but can we afford to leave it to luck?
Unless you take the “this changes everything” view of global warming, the extreme predictions of the limits to growth, or believe in the singularity, the likelihood is that there will be a lot in the future that is recognisably from now.
It is possible that battery technology has a breakthrough, or we invent a machine that does what plants do (takes in air and recycles it minus the carbon dioxide), we can see population will peak at 10-13bn but it declines after that.
Whatever happens, and we cannot know what will, we still have to manage our way through it.
Our politicians don’t seem to be plugged into any of this – the political debate is dull nasty brutish and (anything but) short. We should surely be reinforcing the positive and taking concentrated action to avert the problems. What is taking us so long to respond – for now it seems the distraction of Brexit. A word of caution here – for remain or leave there is no doubt that this is monopolising the political agenda. If luck depends on timing this could be an example of luck running out. Just when there are big problems to challenge us we are deep in the minutiae of our trading relations with our neighbours.
Entrenched and incumbent power is also a problem. The criticisms contained in The Establishment and How they Get Away with it, and overlap of vested interests in the House of Commons (Jones and Williams) show that insiders control the rules. When things go wrong in this system the individual consumer can be blamed for making bad choices and the structural problem of the combination of salt, fat and sugar used for no good (nutritional) purpose but good for the maximisation of profit that goes unaddressed. Putting people in a narrative of blame is the most common way of helping those with power escape responsibility (Note: More Research Needed...).
Using the projection of trends
The difficulty of making projections has already been stressed. However in History Overview - The recent past, I proposed "the pattern of our time" as a representation that captures some of the characteristics of recent history. We know that continued exponential growth is unlikely.
We know with reasonable certainty that population itself will peak. People have less children as the survival chances of the ones born increase - Hans Rosling makes this case crystal clear in the video I linked to in Political Challenges. However it still adds as many as half again to the people now on the planet.
However exponential growth also stops for other reasons and in maths we have, at least two areas which illustrate it well. The wave form eventually collapses, and in some systems we get chaos (Glick and Stewart). What happens eventually is that a new equilibrium is reached. So we can expect the steep upward trend to be interrupted, this is entirely consistent with the ways of thinking about the future I have described above;
- If the singularity happens (radical change, good or bad) it stops abruptly and something else emerges - this is the only future which can ignore the problems of population , resource competition and its political consequences (Note: Technology Optimists)
- If there is a radical change, which is bad, that could be collapse (Diamond, Collapse)
- If there is more of the same we can have better or worse futures - in a world with unlimited resources these curves represent the natural slowdown of population - in other scenarios involving power bloc conflicts, resource exhaustion and global warming the line on the graph is the same but it includes crashes in living standards as well before a new equilibrium is reached
Represented pictorially it looks like this.
Contingency and action
The point is that not all of the future is pre-determined; we can either leave it to chance and other people (because you still believe that our culture and society is just the by product of our brawling and rapacious natures) or you can let those with money and power fight it out (because we accept hierarchy).
Alternatively we can take control of our political processes, start managing things for ourselves and bring things back under control - we are social primates who have evolved by cooperating as well as fighting, we have grown our numbers to the point where running away is not an option, we have used our inventiveness to devise ways of killing that make war a loosing option; the only sensible (self interested) strategy is more cooperation and collaboration.
But, and this is just as big a challenge, we need to do it fast. In this picture my birth is at the time shown as "my mother was born"
The argument so far has addressed the realism of holistic political economy in terms of human behaviour and the need for it in the context of our history and possible futures. The next set of questions to be addressed are what exactly is it, what does it look like and how we set about bringing it about from where we are now?