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…

Good News on the Food Front

In several recent posts I’ve expressed the opinion, and quoted others expressing the opinion, that traditional institutions and governments are no longer able to deal with the most serious problems facing nations and the world (see Notes on Tricksters, The North Wind’s Gift, and The Unwinding book review).  An image that comes to mind is the Titanic, whose rudder was simply too small for her bulk.

Titanic at Southampton (public domain).

Titanic at Southampton (public domain).

At the same time, I’ve been watching for stories of positive change that appear under the radar when people and organizations try out new things in new ways.  One of the most dramatic was a series on agricultural innovations called “Food for 9 billion” that aired on the PBS Newshour the week of June 10-14.

Those who watch PBS, as well as those who have read Dan Brown’s Inferno, know what the title means:  nine billion is the UN projection of world population in 2050.  Eighty percent of those billions will live in cities, dependent on food from shrinking acres of arable land.  Food will have to be trucked or shipped in even as oil supplies decrease.  Dickson Despommier, an ecologist at Columbia University, puts it in simple terms:  “We’re going to reach a tipping point really soon where traditional agriculture can no longer provide enough food for the people living on the planet.”

One of the PBS stories centered on Singapore, where five million residents crowd an island with only 250 acres of available farmland.  Jack Ng, a 50 year old engineer,  founded Sky Greens, a vertical farming configuration that features four story greenhouses.  Stacked beds of vegetables rotate through nutrient baths, then back into the light, like slow-motion ferris wheels.  They are driven by gravity-fed water wheels, and the energy cost of each greenhouse is $3 a month!  Singapore’s population embraces the fresh vegetables Ng provides, and the Directer of Singapore’s National Institute of Education says, “I think, eventually, urban factories for vegetable production will take the place of electronic factories in Singapore.”

Each greenhouse stands 30' high and costs $12,000 to build.

Each greenhouse stands 30′ high and costs $12,000 to build.

Another Newshour account centered on farmers along the coasts of India and Bangladesh who directly experience the effects of climate change.  Rising oceans take 600′ of land a year along the fertile Ganges delta, and increasingly powerful storms, like Cyclone Aila in 2009, flood rice fields and farms with saltwater.  Four years after the cyclone, the only crop that will grow where the storm surge reached is a salt-tolerant strain of rice, developed by small farmers a century ago.  Crops promoted by government and agribusiness, which promised high yields with the use of chemical fertilizers, were the first to fail.

One farmer on the Ganges delta says the old seeds are worth more to him than gold.

One farmer on the Ganges delta says the old seeds are worth more to him than gold.

The so called “green revolution” in India, the introduction of high yield and sometimes genetically modified seeds along with nitrogen fertilizers, began in response to the loss of agricultural land to growing cities.  After several decades, however, yields are falling, the required amount of chemicals are rising, and scientists like rice conservator, Debal Deb, are trying to collect the old seeds, adapted to local conditions and weather extremes.  One 64 year old farmer grows 30 different traditional varieties of grains and vegetables on two acres of land, using seeds developed a thousand years ago.  The crops can withstand salt, drought, flooding, and local pests, so they need no chemical fertilizer or pesticides.

A third program in the PBS series shows efforts to improve dry land farming in the desert nation of Qatar.  It shows that agribusiness can play a positive role in adapting farming to a changing climate.  Two large fertilizer companies helped fund the The Sahara Forest Project, which has an experimental desalination plant in an urban industrial zone.  The plant also aims “to produce food and water and energy that actually reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”  

Jonathan E. Smith, now with the Qatar National Food Security Program, grew up on an Oklahoma farm, with grandparents who were dust bowl survivors – he knows about drought.  Saying it would be foolish for the nation to place all its hope in a single technology, he demonstrated a low tech solution developed by one desert farmer, who reduces water usage and waste with a series of inexpensive plastic greenhouses.

Notably absent in this series are agricultural innovations from the developed nations, which have not, in any collective sense, admitted there is a problem.  Countries already familiar with scarcity and rising food import costs do not have the luxury of delaying work on long term solutions.  Here, as in many other arenas, innovation tends to come from outside the status quo.

This echoes the European trickster stories I recently discussed (links at the top of this post).  In this genre, the heroes are often middle-aged or older, having worked on a farm or served as a soldier for decades.  The stories begin when these protagonists wake up to find they are on their own.  Increasingly, I think this is the story of people in all modes of life, from all countries, who no choice but to find new paths through the world.