Baseline Predictions for the Next Sixty Odd Years
Today, I read this article on how the Ocean is dead: How the fish and birds are gone from huge swathes of it. You should read it.
Most people are absolutely lousy system thinkers, they don’t understand break-points: How you get long trends that suddenly break up or down, how self-reinforcing cycles work, and so on.
For some time, my baseline scenario has been as follows: We are so screwed.
We can expect a complete collapse of the ocean’s ability to provide fish. Japan, the worst offender in this, will also be the worst hit. That doesn’t make me happy, but it does make me laugh. This affects the oxygen cycle and, in the worst case, we could kill ourselves off entirely. Assuming we don’t, however…
We are currently seeing a hiatus in climate change. My friend Stirling predicted this years ago, and predicted it would be used simply to double down on stupidity like fracking. And it is being used thusly. If/when the sun warms up, we are fried. Various processes are past the point of no return; we are going to see huge methane releases from Russia, for example. We are going to have worse global warming than the worst mainstream predictions.
Climate change will continue to present itself as more and worse extreme weather events, like the nasty hurricanes we’ve been seeing hitting further and further north. We are going to also see changes in rainfall patterns; these will continue to devastate agriculture.
Aquifers are being drained dry, in ways that permanently damage them. This is happening in China, the US, India, and other places. This water will not come back. Large areas that are currently agriculturally productive will cease to be so, independent of climate change.
We will see huge dust bowls form, including in India, China, and the US.
There will be widespread hunger, because agriculture is going to fail. Period. Right now, hunger is due to distribution issues: We grow more than enough food to feed everyone, we just don’t care about feeding everyone. In twenty to thirty years, this will not be the case. Instead, we will just not have enough food.
Water will be as precious as hydrocarbons, which is, in part, because creating hydrocarbons requires water. Expect much of the world not just to be hungry but thirsty.
All of this is baked into the cake. We are past the decision points on all of these items—they will happen. They can no longer be stopped. Even if you concoct the most optimistic scenarios, we would need to act radically, right now, and we aren’t going to.
Let us now move the social sphere. We are creating an unprecedented panopticon state, one in which various technologies will conspire to make it so that individuals are tracked nearly 24/7, not just online but physically. Linking all the various cameras, RFID tags, aerial drones, satellites, phones that act as spies in our pockets, and so on, with algorithms which recognize our gait, our heat profile, our face, and so on, is a project which is well underway. The NSA may be the best at this, but every major Western government is playing this game, the NSA is merely the worst offender or the best at its execution. Private tracking is likewise ubiquitous: Companies have cameras which link your face to your credit card and purchase as you pay at the cashier, for example. Everything is tied together, and anyone stupid enough to think that these companies don’t share your information is a fool.
The preferred business model today is to make it so that no one owns anything. Everything is unbundled, and instead of owning it, you lease or rent it. The moment you can’t pay, it all goes away. This is what “cloud” computing is about: a revenue stream. Lose your revenue, lose everything. Ownership of DNA sequences, ownership of seeds, effective ownership of your intellectual property because it appears in someone else’s pipe (like Google using people’s endorsements without compensating them), you will own nothing, and all surplus value you produce in excess of what you need to (barely) survive will be taken from you.
To put it another way, the current business model is value stripping. All excess value is stripped from the social sphere (as with Google taking almost all of the value that content producers create by taking almost all of the value of ads, and they control almost the entire ad market). People who cannot gain enough of the excess value they create become economic cripples. Because the companies that make almost all the profit today are either financial companies, IP exploitation companies, or are taking value from the environment (like oil companies), there is not enough real economic growth, whatever the GDP numbers show (financial innovation isn’t, and JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs’ profits actually damage the real economy, stripping out value, not creating it).
There is no coherent ideology opposing this, no coherent alternative. Marxism died with the USSR, whether it should have or not. No new alternative to what is laughably called “capitalism” (what we’re seeing now isn’t) has arisen. The closest we have seen is the Pirate Party, but their ideology is too far from comprehensive and has too many holes in it, as they are concerned almost entirely with a set of issues around IP and privacy, which, while important, are not sufficient to create a new society complete with a new, humane, and ecologically sensible mode of production.
So we have runaway asset and value stripping, combined with truly insane damage to the conditions for production of food and energy. And no, photovoltaic solar is not going to save us. Certainly it is better than coal, natural gas, or oil, but most energy use in the world is not electrical, and Solar PV cannot produce the necessary baseline. Thermal solar and improved nuclear power made in breeder reactors are probably necessary for the transition, but the word “nuclear” scares everyone spitless (not without reason), so that’s off the table. And we’re going to burn.
There are always counter-reactions. I expect one when the Millennials come of political age, in the early 2020s. And I expect that the first round will fail, since it will be run by Millenials picked by their elders. The second round may succeed, but at that point we are into the 2030s.
While much of this is unavoidable, the amount of death and suffering is variable. We could lose a few hundred millions over the next eighty years whom we shouldn’t have lost, or we could lose a few billion. We could see billions descend into hunger and poverty, or we could find solutions which avoid most of that.
We will not avoid it if we continue with our current ideology of, simply, Greed. As long as we put ourselves first, as long as we decide that what is good for someone is what they’re entitled to do so long as the courts don’t actually put them in jail (and we don’t even enforce the laws on the book), we are not going to manage this chain of events to come down on the optimistic side of estimates.
We will need to create a whole new ideology, we will need to radically revamp our societies , and we will need to give up much we have cherished. Fortunately, much of what we have cherished has been, objectively, bad for us. People may want to live in suburbia, but it isolates them socially and makes them fat, sick, and unhappy. People may think they want pretty plastic packaging, but it’s why they eventually won’t have fish to eat that aren’t lice infested. People may think they want healthcare, but what they need is to be healthy, and that means healthy food and an environment that isn’t laden with unhealthy chemicals. People may think they want jobs, but what they need, and what they would be happier with, is the ability to produce what they need without working for a pointy-headed boss.
We’re going to run into this wall. Whether we run into it at a hundred miles an hour and go splat or hit it at ten miles an hour and get bruised and pick ourselves up is our choice. So far, our choice has been to run faster, but we can make another choice.
Most people who read this website are middle aged or older. If so, you’ll miss a lot of the worst of this. Your kids won’t. Your job, if you’re old, is ideological: To help create the ideas that are lying on the floor, the ideas that are used when people are desperate. When things change in crisis, they change fast, and the ideas that are used are the ones lying around. If all that’s lying around is neo-liberalism, that’s what will be used. Of course ideology isn’t enough, people can still choose the wrong ideology, the wrong ideas (and often have, don’t tell me otherwise), but if it isn’t there, all they can do is pick up what is there. That’s when you start getting idiots talking about “bending the curve,” as if slow incremental change won’t be overwhelmed by vicious cycles already in play, as if we aren’t already past key decision points, as if we shouldn’t already be in crisis mode and doing not dishwater reforms, but a radical remake of our societies.
We’re going to hit the wall. We’re going to have to fight a dystopic panopticon police state in which ordinary people are not allowed to own anything of real value, let alone keep any of the real value they create. We’re going to do this while the environment comes apart, while we get battered by “extreme weather events,” droughts, water shortages, and hunger.
That’s the baseline scenario. That’s what we have to be ready to deal with, to change as much as we can, to radically mitigate to save hundreds of millions or billions of lives, and to make billions of lives good, instead of meaningless existential hells.