Solving the future

Knowledge brokering17 Feb 2011Andrew McKillop

The greatest task facing mankind is managing the future – but given the paroxysmal intensity of so many accumulated and emerging problems or challenges that we face today we need to and will treat our mission as Solving the Future.

Solving the future means not only resolving current problems such as the need to launch energy transition away from the fossil fuels and adapt to changing climates, provide water, food and housing for a world population still growing at about 70 million a year, and anticipate a growing number of future problems. It also means that we have to develop both short-term and long-term solutions within a compressed time span – perhaps less than 30 years – because of failure to act in the past. This problematique of stacked and layered systemic challenges to a stable and liveable future goes far beyond the simple question of how much might it all cost to solve and how do we finance our action, a simple question that itself has no clear answer due to leapfrogging needs, and ever rising costs for meaningful action.

The reasons why we have a short time span for starting the process of solving the future can be grasped by jumping back 30 years – to 1981 – and comparing that era with the present: we can quickly see how little and how much the world has changed, but this is of little solace. As one example, in those 30 years world population increased by around 2 500 million, about the combined total population of China and India today. Imagining the stress that would be placed on world mineral, energy and food resources by another addition of their current populations, to our current 7 000 million, can be scenarised and quantified, but the read-out is of permanent, possibly dire shortage of many key resources, and vastly intensified damage to world ecosystems, if that came about, under what can be called business as usual global economic activity of the current type.

We therefore must expect that under any scenario except the most naive, we are in a new dimension for the intensity, rate and sweep of change that is needed through 2011-2041. For a liveable future, this change will vastly exceed anything we have known in the period from 1981 to now. Such past projects as the Marshall Plan for aiding post-war reconstruction and economic recovery in Western Europe in the 1950s, are dwarfed by the size of the plans and programs needed for Solving the Future.

Due to massive and unprecedented change being necessary, one first task is to make an inventory of the change needed, but this also sets a major problem: how do we inventory our challenges and prepare our response? This inventory problem is in itself complex, due to the nature of the nested and interrelated, sometimes self-reinforcing set of problems that can be defined, always creating the danger of ignoring or underestimating, or overestimating certain specific challenges and designing responses only for that identified problem. Examples are many, for example in the field of global energy transition, where the accelerating development of shale and fracture gas and coal seam gas will provide much larger reserves of natural gas, than was estimated as recently as 2006.

The solution is defining and setting numbers to one particular problem, for example adequate food for all using FAO minimum daily calorie and protein requirements, we also entrain or generate a number of related goals, such as arable land conservation and development, water supply, food distribution systems, sustainable farming and fisheries technology and methods, biodiversity requirements, and so on. Once we define our food goals for 2041, we immediately have to coordinate and confront it with our other goals.

One clear danger for any futurist planning is that we may have exceeded what can be analogized with the concept of the event horizon in astrophysics. Taking the example of “trends continued” or BAU modeling for the global economy we find that a break in series, and a switch to another paradigm is almost inevitable. Even by the 2025 horizon, a BAU projection shows that while in theory both China and India could simply replicate the conventional economic development history of Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, New Zealand, Australia and other OECD countries, for example for growth of their car fleets, this is simply not possible in resource terms for “cars as we know them”.

The main dangers of our present problematique or system of difficulties and challenges include the inability to change due to the lead weight of globalising culture and the globalised economy. This in facts only postpones the date of change, and makes it almost certain that change will be catastrophic and fast. Our human societies will then transit to a long-term suboptimal mode of existence, with major limits on being able to claw back to a reasonable living standard for all, due to having passed through so many event horizons without reacting to the danger signals.

Avoiding this lose-lose outcome is the great goal for enlightened persons, everywhere. Several of the subjects discussed are already well known and acted on, generally in a confused and ineffective way, such as energy transition away from the fossil fuels. But a global and systematic approach to transition, for Solving the Future, is still almost totally absent from the preoccupations of world deciders and our economic, environment and development institutions, such as they exist. In particular no agency or entity yet exists for the task of Solving the Future, that is global transition to a liveable and sustainable future for all.

The global Economy has no intrinsic staying power and could or might collapse almost overnight – like an Arab despot fleeing in his personal airplane in the night. Major change will occur. It can come through discussion, negotiation, planning and organisation, or through chaos and violence. The choice is still available, but the world clock implacably ticks on.