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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Engineering the Physical and Political Future

Patrick Tucker

The Futurist

April 21, 2010

In this third installment of the 2020 Visionaries series [Part1] [Part2], we look at the future of the global environment and of democracy — two areas of concern that will increasingly intertwine in the next 10 years.


Over the course of the last century, humans took over the evolution of our species from nature. From huge public works projects visible from space to designer protein species that companies like Maxygen can manufacture on demand, evidence of our escape from the Darwinian imperative is all around us.

This artificial evolution has proceeded 10 million times faster than natural evolution, according to one scientist with whom I spoke. The results include not only exponential scientific progress and increased longevity and quality of life, but also human-engendered global warming, pollution, deforestation, and the threat of mass species extinction. The eventual collapse of the ecosystem is becoming the overwhelming issue for our time, as the European Commission on Key Technologies first declared in 2005. There are 30% too many people for the ecosystem to support sustainably.

The time has come to evolve the way that we evolve.

How do we reduce our species’ impact on the planet? Or has the opportunity to apply that solution already passed? If so, what are the last-resort options available to us, and what are the risks and obstacles?

In these essays, Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at the NASA Langley Research Facility and a WorldFuture 2010 featured speaker, provides an overview of the scope of the climate crisis and the weapons against it that we have at our disposal. The problem is larger than you’ve probably imagined, but the tools to use against it are more numerous.

Next, IEET Senior Fellow Jamais Cascio, author of Hacking the Earth, will explain the potential and pitfalls of geoengineering, which refers to the deliberate manipulation of the earth’s natural systems to fight global warming. Both foresee a radical break in the way human beings relate to the Earth. It’s a change that’s long overdue.

Ian Bremmer, head of the world’s largest political-risk consultancy, is widely regarded as the go-to expert on the intersection of geopolitics and business. In his new book, The End of the Free Market, Bremmer describes the rise of a new geopolitical force — state capitalism — a form of government where political elites use state-owned companies and sovereign wealth funds to entrench their power, and where markets are rigged for political gain. China is the quintessential example; after recording year-over-year expansion while the United States experienced the worst recession since the Great Depression, China has also become the poster child for state capitalism’s success. This has changed the landscape for the United States, the spread of democracy, and the future of free markets.

In his previous book, The J Curve, Bremmer argued that information technology in the hands of citizens would make it increasingly difficult for authoritarian governments to operate. In his new book, he acknowledges that advances in communications technology have not yet proven their ability to topple dictatorships. He argues that, unless there is widespread, grassroots demand for democracy, “these new tools will simply be used for other purposes.”

We asked Bremmer about his new book, the future of Sino-U.S. relations, and the changing face of freedom and prosperity in the next decade and beyond. We contrast his answers to those of American Enterprise Scholar Michael Rubin, who also generously donated his time to the project.

We also spoke to Azar Nafisi, human-rights advocate, fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies, and author of the international bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran. In her second memoir, Things I’ve Been Silent About, she tells of life growing up in Iran as the daughter of the mayor of Tehran, before and after the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

In one poignant section, she retells a story by Shahrnoosh Parispur about an old man who meets a British foreigner. The British colonialist confronts the Iranian with the fact that the earth is round. For several days, she writes, the old man “contemplates the foreigner’s presence, the roundness of the earth, the future changes and upheavals and finally announces ‘yes, the earth is round; the women will start to think, and as soon as they begin to think they will become shameless.’” The anecdote serves as a metaphor for globalization and the clash of cultures that follows the spread of Western ideals. The story also inspired Nafisi to write about her life and the lives of others she calls women without shame. We asked her about what Iran’s history means for its future, and the effects of technology on democracy around the globe.

Patrick Tucker is a senior editor and writer for THE FUTURIST magazine, an international magazine about technological, environmental, and societal trends.


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