Changes

2x2 Matrix: possible futures, by Gaurau Mishra. CC-BY-2.0

2×2 Matrix: possible futures, by Gaurau Mishra. CC-BY-2.0

Almost four years ago, I posted Change is the Only Constant, a discussion of the December, 2012 report of the National Intelligence Council, a consortium of the 16 major U.S. intelligence agencies. Since 1997, they have issued comprehensive reports on future trends after each presidential election and posted the reports online. We can expect the next installment this winter.

The 2012 edition, which predicts alternate futures for the year 2030, outlines some things that are certain, like aging populations in the developed world; some which are possible, and some “black swans” – potential surprises for good or ill. Here are two key predictions.

  • The rate of change in all areas of life will continue to accelerate and will be faster than anything anyone living has seen.
  • World population will grow from 7.1 billion (in 2012) to 8.3 billion in 2030. Demand for food will increase 35% and for water by 40%.

Keep this in mind as we look at a some current events.  I should preface these comments by saying I’ve long had a rule of thumb: never trust a politician who says, “I have a plan to create jobs.” Both presidential candidates have said those exact words this year.

The fantasy is that by pulling the right levers – cutting or raising taxes, threatening or cajoling China, building a wall at our southern border, and so on, we can restore whatever American golden age our imagination conjures. Maybe the 50’s, when we were the only industrial nation not ravaged by WWII. Maybe the 90’s dot com boom, when even your Starbucks barista had stock tips to share.

We all know that’s not going to happen. The truth is even harder to face than any elected or would-be elected American official has yet been willing to share.

On May 16, the BBC reported that China’s Foxconn, the largest electronics manufacturer in the world, where Apple and Samsung smart phones are made, replaced 60,000 workers with robots.  Chinese manufacturers are investing heavily in robotics. So much for bringing jobs back from China.

For an article in the August 1 issue of Time, (“What to do about jobs that are never coming back”), Rana Foroohar spoke to Andy Stern, a former head of the Service Employees International Union:  “Stern tells a persuasive story about a rapidly emerging economic order in which automation and ever smarter artificial intelligence will make even cheap foreign labor obsolete and give rise to a society that will be highly productive–except at creating new jobs. Today’s persistently stagnant wages and rageful political populism are early signs of the trouble this could generate.”

In a Common Dreams article published last week,  You Can’t Handle the Truth,  Richard Heinberg, steps back for a much longer view of our situation and says:

“We have overshot human population levels that are supportable long-term. Yet we have come to rely on continual expansion of population and consumption in order to generate economic growth—which we see as the solution to all problems. Our medicine is our poison.

“And most recently, as a way of keeping the party roaring, we have run up history’s biggest debt bubble—and we doubled down on it in response to the 2008 global financial crisis.

“All past civilizations have gone through similar patterns of over-growth and decline. But ours is the first global, fossil-fueled civilization, and its collapse will therefore correspondingly be more devastating (the bigger the boom, the bigger the bust).

“All of this constitutes a fairly simple and obvious truth. But evidently our leaders believe that most people simply can’t handle this truth. Either that or our leaders are, themselves, clueless. (I’m not sure which is worse.)”

“…any intention to “Make America Great Again”—if that means restoring a global empire that always gets its way, and whose economy is always growing, offering glittery gadgets for all—is utterly futile, but at least it acknowledges what so many sense in their gut: America isn’t what it used to be, and things are unraveling fast. Troublingly, when empires rot the result is sometimes a huge increase in violence—war and revolution.” (emphasis added)

The last major decline of empires, he notes, resulted in World War I. The US and the rest of the world are, in Heinberg’s words, “sleepwalking into history’s greatest shitstorm.”

“…Regardless how we address the challenges of climate change, resource depletion, overpopulation, debt deflation, species extinctions, ocean death, and on and on, we’re in for one hell of a century. It’s simply too late for a soft landing.

“I’d certainly prefer that we head into the grinder holding hands and singing “kumbaya” rather than with knives at each other’s throats. But better still would be avoiding the worst of the worst. Doing so would require our leaders to publicly acknowledge that a prolonged shrinkage of the economy is a done deal. From that initial recognition might follow a train of possible goals and strategies, including planned population decline, economic localization, the formation of cooperatives to replace corporations, and the abandonment of consumerism. Global efforts at resource conservation and climate mitigation could avert pointless wars.

“But none of that was discussed at the conventions. No, America won’t be “Great” again, in the way Republicans are being encouraged to envision greatness. And no, we can’t have a future in which everyone is guaranteed a life that, in material respects, echoes TV situation comedies of the 1960s, regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation…”

Heinberg’s conclusions aren’t easy to digest, and are tempting to deny. Keeping attention on even a few of the significant points in the articles referenced here leads to disturbing conclusions.

If 16 US Intelligence agencies are anywhere near correct in their numbers, in 14 years, 8.3 billion people will be competing for 40% less water and 35% less food (in this case, living up to their name, the intelligence agencies don’t waste anyone’s time denying the effects of climate change).

Can we imagine “global efforts at resource conservation” in which nations co-operate, and at least try to send relief where it’s needed?  Like after tsunamis or the earthquake in Nepal? Or are we headed toward a survivalist wet dream?  Futures aren’t set in stone, said the NIA. It all depends on how we behave (sinking feeling in the gut…).

I can see it both ways. Speaking of our current election, someone recently said to me, “I haven’t felt this bad about things since 9/11. Maybe it’s even worse.”  Maybe so. In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, we were a nation and a world largely united in awareness of our fragile humanity and revulsion at senseless suffering.

It strikes me that communities often pull together in the face of disaster when our leaders and governments won’t. That is Heinberg’s conclusion as well. Given our lack of competent leadership at the top, how can we build “local community resilience?”

I wish I knew. But since Iceland has more sense than to open it’s doors to American refugees, I’ll have time to think it over!  Meanwhile this quote from the Dalai Lama comes to mind:

“We can live without rituals. And we can live without religion. But we cannot live without kindness to each other.”

Changes are certain but futures aren’t set in stone…

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7 Responses to Changes

  1. Matt says:

    Morgan, thanks for a really thoughtful and well-written post. You’ve articulated very eloquently the pervasive sense of dread echoing through the zeitgeist these days. Are you familiar with the Dark Mountain Project? It’s a collective of artists and writers focused on addressing similar themes to those you’ve discussed here.

    http://dark-mountain.net/

    Thanks again for the post.

    Best regards,

    Matt

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  2. Very thought provoking, Morgan. I also have been feeling completely hopeless about this election and where any outcome might lead us. I ache for my grandchildren and what their lives will be like. But changes are often out of our control. I have gone though some hard changes this year, and that feeds into my being so off kilter. The idea of the population growing so fast is really frightening. This was not a fun post to read, but it’s an important one, and I hope many people see it. Thanks for the post.

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    • Thanks for your comment. It reminded me of two articles I posted in 2013, after the PBS Newshour ran a week-long series on food for a hungry planet. One was centered in Singapore, with 5 million people and only 250 acres of available farmland. A 50 year old engineer developed “vertical greenhouses” with pulleys and counterweights, that provide fresh veggies to the market at a cost of $3 per month. Another had to do with with reclaiming farmland, otherwise ruined by the salt after the tsunami inundated several miles of coastal farmland along the Bay of Bengal. People had saved 19th c. salt-resistant rice seeds that allows that land to produce food again. https://thefirstgates.com/2013/07/05/good-news-on-the-food-front/ There was a followup post, showing efforts in Africa to proliferate rooftop gardens. And another effort to use smart greenhouses in Qatar, which gets only about 3″ of rainfall a year.

      The series was a great affirmation and reminder of human creativity. These more recent posts raised, for me, the critical question of how we use it – to heal or harm?

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  3. Never bet against Malthus. We are about 200 years past the last cycle’s end.

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    • That is on my mind a lot. One of the “black swans,” i.e., possible but unpredictable game changers noted by the NIC was global pandemic. I think too of antibiotic resistant germs, and I’m pretty sure I’ve read that the our largest source of antibiotics is from agribiz grown livestock. The law of unintended consequences…

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  4. Very interesting read. 🙂

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