This will be an extraordinary century, says Oxford benefactor and futurologist Dr James Martin, because humanity is outgrowing this small planet.
Like the tension building in a suspense novel, the dangers from future climate change are ratcheting up year after year. The world’s media have become increasingly full of images of collapsing ice shelves, stranded polar bears, raging hurricanes, lands stricken by drought, fires sweeping across southern Australia and deserts spreading. The ice caps are melting in both the Arctic and Antarctic. But all this is only an overture to trouble on a much grander scale. The runaway transformation of the Earth’s climate may become the worst crisis of human history.
Meanwhile, technology will bring increased wealth, improved healthcare and entertainment, great creativity and brilliant media-assisted education. People will have more leisure time and use it better. Environments of very different design will be wonderful places to live. The future is a tapestry of immense problems and great improvements in society. To comprehend and improve this future needs research and understanding of the highest order, an area in which Oxford University is pre-eminent. The grim news is that humanity has been overspending the Earth’s resources for decades, like a wealthy family running up extreme debts at a bank that it could never repay. Earth scientists know we are in trouble. Too much carbon in the atmosphere is causing weird weather and a slow rise in the temperature of the Earth which, if not stopped, will lead to devastating consequences. Correcting this will need a massive effort to replace carbon energy sources and make rainforests absorb as much carbon as possible.
Detailed computer calculations make it clear that dangerous climate change can be prevented only if action is taken quickly. Procrastination incurs a heavy penalty but the world is procrastinating. The longer it does so, the more difficult the problem will become. Problems of runaway change can be prevented if humanity acts together, with powerful leadership, but this seems unlikely to be the case. Almost certainly, the average world temperature in the late 2030s will exceed 2° Celsius above the baseline that has existed since civilization began. If we don’t act strongly to stop it, it will keep climbing to 4° or higher. When the average temperature is 4° higher, some parts of the Earth will be much higher. The climate will be in danger of sliding into a new state hostile to humans. This is studied with very detailed computer models that divide the atmosphere into small blocks and show the gases and heat that flow from each block to adjacent ones. Unfortunately politicians and most of the public ignore the predictions of the models, like the crew of a ship happily sailing into a hurricane.
The Earth has vast, ancient underground reservoirs of water called aquifers, which are essential for agriculture. Independent of climate change, we are emptying many of the aquifers. The amount of water we are taking from them is over four hundred million tons a day more than is being replaced by rain. If that amount of water were carried in water trucks, it would need 25 million of them – a convoy 30 times the Earth’s diameter – every day without being replenished. This cannot go on much longer.
If you sail across the oceans, you can go for weeks without seeing another vessel. It’s incomprehensible that we’ve fished out 90% of the edible fish, and are building bigger fishing fleets. When I was a kid, the Earth had about 2 billion people, and humanity’s ecological footprint was well within a range that the Earth could support. It was a land of plenty. However, our consumption of its resources increased until, by the mid-1980s, we not only exceeded a consumption rate that was sustainable but went far beyond it. By 2030, we’ll need the equivalent of two Earths to keep up with our demands.
There is a rich diversity of solutions to these problems. However, generally today, there is immense resistance to implementing or even understanding them. Small underground nuclear power units called ‘nuclear batteries’ will be ultra-safe and maintenance-free. New types of photovoltaics will make electricity from sunlight cheaper than that from coal. Changes in the monsoons will cause extreme flooding, as in Pakistan, and the water will be funnelled into aquifers. It amazes me that water-stressed areas today don’t capture their rainwater, which is easy to do. China may gain access to Lake Baikal, which contains about one-fifth of all the fresh water on Earth. There is also much research on improving food-growing productivity.
A particularly important concept is ‘eco-affluence’. It is possible to immensely improve our quality of life without increasing greenhouse gases or using up an unsustainable share of the planet’s resources. The term eco-affluence refers to a rich, enjoyable and sometimes complex way of life that does no ecological harm. The economy can grow in new ways without harmful consequences. Eco-affluence is one of the most important concepts for humankind’s future.
Slow global warming will make some places more pleasant. By 2030, Scotland may have the climate that Cornwall had. Many people will be buying homes in Finland. People will want to move from where the weather is hostile to where the weather is welcoming. This will occur at a time of radical redesign of cities with stunning new architecture. Instead of being dominated by the car and petroleum industries, new cities will be dominated by social interaction and beautiful environments. These may be called climatechange cities. Patagonia, perhaps the most beautiful place on Earth, will be covered in wildflowers and have climate-change cities. There will be a booming economy in the era of eco-affluence, nano-robotics and accelerating machine intelligence.
We tend to deal with severe problems only after a catastrophe forces us to. A catastrophe-first pattern is observed in many different areas. Public indifference changes to shock or terror when a catastrophe happens. The catastrophe-first pattern is a not a good way to run the planet because the possible catastrophes will become much larger. To avoid a catastrophe-first pattern, politicians and the public must listen to scientists. Sooner or later, there will be large-scale panic about climate destruction. By then, it may be too late to lessen the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Catastrophes in our future will not be caused by malicious intent but by an endless babble of misinformation, the determination of executives to focus on stock prices, and politicians seeing only as far as the next election.
Our stolen future
A major conference in New York in March 2008 called ‘Global Warming is not a Crisis’ opened with the main speaker saying, “The science is settled. Climate change is not caused by human activity.” The conference concluded that because climate change is caused by natural forces there is nothing that humans can do to stop it. There are many climate deniers, some of them in high places. There is remarkable opposition in the US government to taking action about global warming. The public wants to avoid any form of carbon tax. We have reached a time when the understanding of science is vital for our existence. A major concern today is that powerful voices with no knowledge of science often make themselves heard much louder than scientists. Many scientists avoid the public stage. Most politicians haven’t a clue about science. This is a time on Earth when we desperately need to get our act together, but it is an age of dangerous misinformation. Highly skilled PR organisations earn a fortune by persuading the public of anything that will increase the profits of the corporations that hire them. Strong and urgent actions are needed to slow down climate destabilisation, but clean energy would lower the profits of the coal industry. Such PR ought to called ‘PM’ – Public Misinformation. PM copywriters are highly paid.
Humanity’s behaviour today will have consequences a long time in the future. For example, climate change will cause many farms to close at a time when the population is reaching 9 billion and many developing countries are changing their diet from rice to meat. Newly affluent Chinese will want to eat like Americans. There will not be enough food-growing resources to cope with such a situation. A variety of catastrophes will come from the long-range consequences of our activities, possibly including gigafamine, cyberterrorism and global pandemics. There are many ways we could change course, but today we seem unlikely to do so because a long-range map of consequences is understood by only a few people.
It is interesting to ask whether board members of corporations that pay for misleading PR about the climate know that they are hoodwinking the public. They are highly intelligent people who should be aware of the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Control (IPCC), which states that top climate scientists are certain that emissions resulting from human activities are causing climate change. How many board members vote to increase the future value of their stock options, although it endangers their children’s future? Does a top US senator really believe it when he says that global warming is a hoax, and that all thousand top scientists in the IPCC are liars, and that they all tell the same, meticulously detailed lie?
If we continue as now seems likely, a crunch is coming – in fact three crunches – our global footprint greatly exceeding what the Earth can support, climate destabilisation becoming severe, and fresh water becoming insufficient to feed the Earth’s large population. These crunches will not, by themselves, destroy humanity but they will cause a Darwinian situation; when the going gets tough there will be survival of the fittest. By mid-century, the Earth could be like a lifeboat that’s too small to save everyone.
To be politically correct, organisations don’t use the term ‘Darwinian’ or talk about ‘survival of the fittest’, but I am increasingly finding that at elite dinner parties there is already discussion of who the survivors will be. China has enormous fighting spirit and will soon be the world’s largest economy. In 2030 it will have 1.4 billion people. The average footprint of a Chinese person is a small fraction of an average American. The Chinese government does more detailed future planning than perhaps any other government and is determined that China will be one of the survivors. China has been buying the steel and resources it will need in the future. To the largest extent possible it has already cornered the market in rare Earth metals needed for high technology.
The USA combined with Canada will be a survivor, because it is economically powerful and resourceful, and with Canada it has a large amount of land, much of which will benefit from global warming – the breadbasket of the future. Europe, in my mind, is a question mark. Japan will struggle. It is a small country, short of farmland, and will have a seriously ageing population. Russia may muddle through with a massive consumption of vodka. It has a similar population size to Japan but its land area is 45 times larger. Much of its land will benefit from global warming and it has a large amount of fresh water.
A perfect storm
Later in this century a set of trends will coincide, like a perfect storm in the movie of that title, leading to a new era. For a long time technology will have raced like an out-of-control express train, past the situation called the Singularity. At the time of writing, the Chinese have the fastest computer; it executes 2.5 thousand trillion operations per second. By 2040, supercomputers will perform a trillion trillion operations per second. Narrowly focused machine intelligence will become millions of times faster than human intelligence. Quantum computers will become powerful and robust. Some applications running on them would take millions of years on conventional supercomputers. Society will be burnt out by diverse catastrophes and extreme technology.
Extreme reaction to mid-century traumas will bring a determination to make major changes. Much of society will want lifestyles of higher quality and often spirituality. Human longevity will increase and many young people with creative lives will expect to live to 120. Media-assisted education will spread to every nook and cranny of the planet. As robots become highly intelligent there will be a great increase in leisure time. The power of consumer marketing will make techniques for human enhancement widely accepted. There’ll be glossy websites of 24th-chromosome genepacks and we will expand people’s cognitive skills and enrich their emotional awareness.
Part of humanity will survive the 21st-century catastrophes and be on a highway past the time when there was extreme poverty and destitute nations, past the many debates about genetic engineering and transhumanism, past the times when large-scale war was a viable option, into an era in which we consider how to avoid risks to our existence. It will be a time when conventional work is done by machines, and humans spend their time on things that are uniquely human. Higher levels of happiness will come from higher levels of creativity. Michelangelo’s words set the tone for his era: the greater danger for most of us lies, not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low and achieving our mark. The cathedral building of the 12th century or the grand temple complexes at Angkor set their aim as high as possible. It will apply to our future.
An extraordinary type of thinking about our future is to reflect what civilizations are now becoming possible. What sort of lives could our grandchildren have? Homo sapiens, the extraordinary creature that took a billion years to evolve, is at a time when it is going to build its finest works and automate evolution itself. The world of our grandchildren could be magnificent. Whatever will civilizations be like in a thousand years’ time – a mere eye-blink in the history of evolution?
The Oxford Martin School was founded as the James Martin 21st Century School at the University of Oxford in 2005 through the vision and generosity of Dr James Martin. It is a unique interdisciplinary research initiative tackling global future challenges, in accordance with Dr Martin’s vision for “a new era in academia, intended to greatly improve humanity’s future”. The mission of the Oxford Martin School is to foster innovative thinking, interdisciplinary scholarship and collaborative activity to address the most pressing risks and realise important opportunities in the 21st century. Today, the school has over 30 institutes and projects, more about which can be found at www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk