I’ll start this essay by leading with my conclusion: do we make it through this century? Yeah, but not all of us, and it’s neither as spectacular nor as horrific as many people imagine.
Techno-utopianism is heady and seductive. Looking at the proliferation of powerful catalytic technologies, and the potential for truly transformative innovations just beyond our present grasp, makes scenarios of transcendence wiping away the terrible legacies of 20th century industrialism seem easy. If we’re just patient, and don’t shy away from the scale of the potential change, all that we fear today could be as relevant as 19th century tales of crowded city streets overwhelmed by horse droppings.
But if you don’t trust the technological scenarios, it’s not hard to see just how thoroughly we’re doomed. There are myriad drivers: depleting resources, rapid environmental degradation, global warming, international political instability, just to name a few. Any of these forms of “collapse” would pose a considerable challenge; in combination, they’re simply terrifying. Most importantly, we seem to be unwilling to acknowledge the significance of the challenge. We’re evolutionarily set to look for nearby, near-term problems and ignore deeper, distributed threats.
But here’s the twist: the impacts of these broader drivers for collapse and of technosocial innovation aren’t and won’t be evenly distributed globally. Some places will be able to last longer in the face of resource and environmental collapse than will others—and (not coincidentally) such places may be at the forefront of technosocial development, as well. The combination of collapse and innovation will lead to profoundly divergent results around the world.
One disturbing aspect is that the slowly-developing/late-leapfrog world may not be hurt nearly as badly as the recent-leapfrog nations—it may be worse to be China or Brazil than Indonesia or Nigeria, for example, because rapid industrialization based on carbon-age technologies still leaves you more dependent upon the collapsing resources than you had been, but not yet in a good position to leap past the collapse itself. The key example here would be China and India’s growing dependence on coal (and, to a lesser extent, old-style massively-centralized nuclear power). In order to support their rapid economic development, they’re stuck using energy technologies that are devastating both locally (through pollution) and globally (through carbon footprint). Add to this that China’s economic and demographic situation is more unstable than many people think, and that India faces significant political threats—including terrorism—both internally and along its border.
So the dilemma here is how to construct a global policy that can take into account the sheer complexity of the onrushing collapse. If it was “just” resource depletion, it would be tricky but doable; but it’s resource collapse plus global warming plus pandemic disease plus post-hegemonic disorder plus the myriad other issues we’re grappling with. It’s going to be difficult to see our way through this. Not impossible, but difficult.
The aspects that are on our side:
# We do have the technology to deal with a lot of this stuff, but not the political will. But we know that we can change politics and society, arguably better than we know we can build some new technologies. A major disaster or three will change the politics quickly.
# To a certain extent, the crises can cross-mitigate—for example, skyrocketing petroleum prices has measurably reduced travel miles, and are pushing people to buy more fuel-efficient cars, thereby reducing overall carbon outputs. Economic slow-downs also reduce the pace of carbon output. These are not a solution, by any means, but a mitigating factor.
# We have a lot of people thinking about this, working on fixes and solutions and ideas. Not top-down directed, but a massively-massively-multi-participant quest, across thousands of communities and hundreds of countries, bringing in literally millions of minds. The very description reeks of innovation potential.
Here’s my best guess, for now:
Over the next forty years, we’ll see a small but measurable dieback of human population, due to starvation, disease, and war (one local nuclear war in South Asia or Middle East, scaring the hell out of everyone about nukes for another couple of generations). Much of the death will be in the advanced developing nations, such as China and India. There will be pretty significant economic slowdowns globally, and US/EU/Japan will see significant unrest. Border closings between the developed and the developing nations will likely spike, probably along with brushfire skirmishes.
The post-industrial world will see a burst of localization and “made by hand” production, but even at its worst it is more reminiscent of World War II-era restrictions than of a Mad Max-style apocalypse. In much of the developed world, limitations serve as a driver for innovation, both social and technological. It’s not a comfortable period, by any means, but the Chinese experience and the aftermath of the Middle East/South Asian nuclear exchange sobers everybody up.
Imperial overreach, economic crises, and the various global environmental and resource threats put an end to American dominance, but nobody else can step up as global hegemon. Europe is trying to deal with its own social and environmental problems, while China is struggling to avoid full-on collapse. The result isn’t so much isolationism as distractionism—the potential global players are all far too distracted by their own problems to do much overseas.
Refugees and “displaced persons” are ubiquitous.
I’m near-certain that we’ll see a significant geoengineering effort by the middle of the next decade, the one major global cooperative project of the era. The global economic crises, near-collapse of China, and faster-than-expected shift to non-petroleum travel will slow the projected rate of warming, limiting the necessary climate hacking. Solar shading works reasonably well and reasonably cheaply, so the clear focus of global warming worries and new geoengineering efforts by the late 2020s is on ocean acidification.
A mix of nuclear, wind, solar, and a few others (OTEC, hydrokinetic) overtakes fossil fuels in the West by 2020s, but China & India retain coal-fired power plants longer than anyone else; this may end up being a driver for significant global tension.
Technological innovation continues, though, with molecular nanotechnology fabrication emerging by 2030—not as a deux ex machina but as a significant boost to productive capacities. The West (including Japan) stabilizes around the same time, and finally starts to focus on helping the rest of the world recover.
Then the Singularity happens in 2048 and we’re all uploaded by force.
(I’m kidding about that last one. I think.)