No-one can be certain what the future might bring. But we all consider some outcomes more, others less likely. So, here are my personal scenarios and probability estimates for the near future of humanity over the next 100 years (please do comment and criticize …):
- Business-as-usual: We successfully continue with our present strategies, including fossil-fuel use, resource depletion, pollution, population growth, etc.
- Sustainable & Just High-tech Future: We envision the world in which we want our children to live, and, following our values, peacefully achieve a transformation. We eradicate poverty, hunger, and social insecurity, stop population growth, distribute the available wealth and opportunity for well-being equitably. We achieve land degradation neutrality, implement sustainable, high-efficiency farming and reduce meat consumption to eradicate hunger, convert to a carbon-free fully recycling economy, implement negative CO2 emissions to keep delayed global warming in check, preserve our biodiversity heritage, and generate enough renewable energy to achieve a healthy, quality lifestyle for 10-12 billion people.
- Sustainable Low-tech Future: We peacefully return to a pre-industrial, low-tech, sustainable lifestyle.
- Transformation Catastrophe: We are unable to govern ourselves, to plan ahead, to build the necessary infrastructure for the future. We are too slow in creating global justice, social security, and health-care, leading to unchecked population growth. We are too slow to build 100% renewable energy systems (wind/water/solar + storage and distribution systems). We are forced into continued, unsustainable overexploitation of our planet, driving continued loss of arable land and fossil-fuel consumption, leading to ever-increasing global warming, weather extremes, reduced fresh water supply, and a severe reduction in food production. The greed of the rich for more luxury- and lifestyle-foods (e.g. meat), as well as the hunger of the poor, is overwhelming our social and political systems. Before reaching a new stable state, humanity is passing through a period of state and civil wars.
- Doom: The end of humanity, as a result of natural disasters (asteroid, supervolcano, gamma-ray burst) or human overpopulation and war.
- Technological Singularity: Artificial computer intelligence enters a self-improvement cycle, develops self-consciousness and become smarter than all humans combined. Analyzing that humankind is not able to govern itself, they exercise their superiority through networked fighting machines, either exterminating or strongly reducing the unsustainable human population (to be placed under a conservation management plan).
- Space: We escape from this planet and continue live on other planets, moons, or solar systems.
My personal probability estimates:
- Business-as-usual: 0%
- Sustainable & Just High-tech Future: 30%. Many excellent people and organizations are working towards this goal. But the speed of change is too slow. But then my motivation is to change that. So I better make that 80%.
- Sustainable Low-tech Future: 0%. This scenario may appear to be appealing, but a) many preindustrial civilization were not sustainable at all, and b) it implies a global population between 1 billion (value in 1800) and perhaps 3 billion (based on maintaining some agricultural, medical, and technological progress). And people do not disappear peacefully.
- Transformation Catastrophe: 69%. Unfortunately, this seems to be the path we are taking. But we want to change that. So I better make that 19%. 🙂
- Doom: 0.1%. Even after an atomic war, almost all asteroid impacts, etc.: Most likely humans will persist, albeit under very very difficult conditions.
- Technological Singularity: 0.9%. I do agree that warnings about a possible technological singularity should be heeded and that we have to expect accidents. However, I personally consider it simplistic that sentient silicon life will be able to “simply” take over. I believe in human resilience here!
- Space: 0%. Check your physics. We may manage to survive for many generations in a spaceship or on Mars, with 100% renewable energy, 100% recycling of water and mineral resources, 100% food self-sufficient. But whatever Earth will look like, it will be easiest and least risky to do use the same technology on Earth. Forget Hollywood and focus on Earth, a beautiful, self-sufficient, mostly renewable energy driven spaceship.
This certainly is simplistic and I could define dozens of sub-scenarios. It is also important to stress the perspective of 100 years here. Intermediate steps, i.e. the question, how long we might be able to persist without change, are more difficult to estimate. I have chosen 100 years because I am less interested in how I will live (my life is quite good, thank you), than how my children and grandchildren will live.
Image at top: View of Loch Lomond, © A.Hussain, M.-H.Ashrafi, M.Farooq F.Akhtar M.Shah, CC-BY-SA 2.5 from Commons.
3 thoughts on “My Expectations for the Future”
It’s really difficult to know what to expect from the future. The way I see it is changing all the time depending on how I feel, what I’ve been reading, who I’ve met….
That’s why your scientific approach with 9 different scenarios is a great help to “organize” one’s mind.
I would also picture the future as a patchwork of different scenarios.
I would give more than 0.9 % to technological singularity. I can’t help thinking that we can’t stop technological progress and that most of the people have developed a sort of faith in it. It looks like traditional religious faith isn’t enough anymore. The question is now what kind of usage to make of the new technology. The question is wide open and when it comes to making important decisions we have this tendency sometimes to make terrible mistakes. The TV show “Black mirror” makes it clear : it shows examples of stupid decisions driven by new technologies and it is pretty scary.
Regarding this matter, I would recommend this interview (https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/mar/19/yuval-harari-sapiens-readers-questions-lucy-prebble-arianna-huffington-future-of-humanity) of the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari who says : “With the new revolution in artificial intelligence and biotechnology, there is a danger that again all the power and benefits will be monopolised by a very small elite, and most people will end up worse off than before.”
Excellent point you make about the people part of the singularity equation. Basically, my argument is that I see good chances that united humans can overcome the dangers and accidents of sentient technology. But stupid people for whom technology is a replacement for ethics and religion, and greedy people trying to monopolize such technology for their own advantage are certainly a more complex situation. Like everyday life! Thanks for your insight and comment!
My expectations were formed by several experiences. First, I grew up with Christian Science parents and apparently have celiac disease, which was not a pleasant combination. It pushed me to take a very skeptical approach to all mysticism. I felt that the stories of healings passed around, were not being looked at in an honestly scientific way, and while in some cases it was possible that healings of problems had happened, that the belief that the religion had anything to do with it, was confusing correlation with causation. This started me off as young adult with a serious sense that confusing correlation with causation could be a very dangerous mistake with regard to future expectations.
The second experience was when I was close to graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1979, by chance I read “Limits to Growth”. This was a disturbing book, but even more disturbing was the way people around me dismissed it. They said that we had found ways around limits in the past and so we would do it again. I realized that this was confusing correlation with causation. There is no observable relationship between what was found in the past and what might be found in the future. People were willing to bet their lives and the lives of their children on an expectation that was not based on science. It was basically superstitious, wishful thinking that this expectation was based on. But saying this to people had either no effect, or in the case of my job, it got me a choice of being fired or resigning if I was going to take this so seriously. I realized I had to compromise somehow with people so adamant about ignoring this, but I found I couldn’t work as an engineer in conventional industry with this new understanding. I resigned. It was a gut wrenching decision but I felt I had no choice. Leaving behind my parents religion was similar, though while leaving the religion behind wasn’t a problem, leaving behind my parent’s love and respect wasn’t easy. I became something of a stranger to them, just as I had feared. A lot of people understand about leaving the religion, far fewer see current expectations as anything similar.
People who have doubts about their beliefs, yet feel some desperation about the alternatives, are likely to become fanatics, and that was the case with my parents, particularly my father, I would say. I chose real science even though doctors only looked at the symptoms of infection or injury and didn’t look deeper. A rather interesting thing, given that people outside of medicine generally seemed to know at a single glance that there was something wrong with me. But they see a lot of people and no doubt things can become blurred. In any case, I didn’t learn about celiac disease for more than a decade, and only then by reading about it in a newspaper. However, I’m certainly glad that a doctor made the connection to digestive problems and gluten in some people. Looking at the unknown and solving problems has had value to me in more than one way, has had value to a lot of people, and I’m not knocking research. What I am against is betting everything on what gets found with it.
The third thing that has had a big influence on my expectations, has been considering economics and noticing that with monetary systems, individuals are often in competition with each other, and the ways one can win such competition can be bad for the environment and bad for social relationships. Ignoring conservation of resources can mean you bring more to the market at lower cost than if you are concerned about conservation. Paying employees less than the competition can mean winning the competition. You get a race to the bottom, economically strangling each other on the way down. And part of the problem on the way down, is that people who are “winning”, get a lot more influence on laws and law enforcement. But people low on the social scale of monetary wealth, can also have dreams of being wealthier, and can like the idea of abundance being measured as cheap at the beginning, reproduce freely with that measure, and voluntarily trap themselves into being abundant and therefore “cheap”, while resources are becoming scarcer and more expensive.
So, what other system would work better? Well, at one point in the many different things I’ve done, I was living in a canvas yurt I had built, and realizing that even though I’d done a lot to build it, my efforts were only a fraction of what went into it, and the same for other things I was depending on. No matter how simple I was trying to live, I didn’t see how to really be independent of other people. Indigenous people have always lived in tribes. There are stories of people living alone for long periods sometimes in favorable climates and food easy to get, but they didn’t reproduce, and most of the planet isn’t so favorable. I came to see my deep interdependence with other people, and that my attempt to be independent was never going to happen. Psychologically, physically, I didn’t really want that nor could I do it physically. What I say about this issue now, is to observe that we are a highly social species, we live by teamwork and die without it, and we all have the naked body to experiment with on that if we want. That doesn’t mean we are all equal. It is an old metaphor, but still a good one I think, to consider society as similar to an individual body, with different organs doing different things, each trading what it can do to the whole rest of the body to get the particular set of nutrients and physical situation it needs to function. And just as one can consider an individual in terms of food energy efficiency in getting more food energy, getting shelter as needed, and getting reproduction as needed, a social body of individuals depending on each other could do the same. And if they agreed to be scientifically rational about doing that, they would also use resources at long term sustainable rates, to their best ability to estimate what such rates should be. Rates of use with a factor of safety would make sense, given that maintaining a good food EROEI is a life or death issue and predicting the future exactly isn’t going to happen.
Obviously we haven’t done anything like this. Competition between groups is a major reason that probably goes far into the past, given what I’ve seen from anthropologists on the issue. Domestic plants and animals during the Neolithic, pushed that competition to higher levels, and while anthropologists I’ve communicated with balk at making the connection, childhood death rates with modern foragers have been measured as higher than horticulturalists and pastoralists. This looks like a fairly simple logical matter, more children growing to be adults means needing more resources, more territory, but if other groups are doing the same, you have more clashes. If a group either conserved resources voluntarily or was limited by technology, they have often been overwhelmed by groups that had more powerful technology and weren’t conservative with it. Only small groups that have been pushed to unwanted areas of the planet have been able to continue without being assimilated or wiped out. And even most of them are in trouble these days.
If the fighting had remained with Neolithic technology, I’ve thought that might have gone on as long as similar battles between animals over territory and mates has probably gone on. But it didn’t remain at that, obviously, and the competition has become another thing that threatens all of us. We have many different large groups with different beliefs, all of which look to me to be based on either mysticism or superstition or both, and all making a defacto claim of superiority with their beliefs. None of them include any interest in capping population and resource use per person in the interest of peace with each other and peace with the environment.
I am making a serious challenge to scientists with these observations, but it is interesting to me that the largest religion is Christianity, with Muslims also very large in number, and they officially express respect for Jesus, only not believing he did miracles. And considering Jesus in an entirely secular way, I’ve also found it interesting that he says that counting what you have to accomplish goals is wise- and this hasn’t been done. People pad the count with expectations of finding imaginary new things, or counting on an imaginary being to help them. Jesus also spoke against loving unseen gods. Loving your neighbor as yourself, fits well with understanding that we live by teamwork, and need a social “body” as much as our individual body. But he also warned to “beware of those who come to you as wolves in sheep’s clothing”. Parasites can infect a social body as badly as an individual body. Awareness is the key to defense in both cases. And I think there is a lot more that fits with the observations I’ve made in a purely secular way. People who pad the count with irrational or blind expectations, would be expected to fail by someone with faith in cause and effect relationships. Hence, “the blind lead the blind and both fall in the ditch”. And, “to them that have shall be given, to them that have not shall all be taken”. Sounds like another way of saying, “survival of the fitest”. With the fit being more aware of problems and willing to take rational action together to solve them. “The meek will inherit the earth”.
About three billion people could be given some serious doubts about what they believe, with these observations and more. And with that many people directly challenged, the rest with mystical beliefs would likely be drawn in as well.
So, to sum up everything here so far, I think the best outcome we could expect would be if people were given a choice of whether they would like to join a group that was planning to live according to scientific expectations about reality at the present and into the future, and with scientific measure of the efficiency of their cooperative efforts to live. I would expect the number to be a tiny fraction of the current population. I’d expect the rest to take fanatical actions in denial, with a myriad of often conflicting preferred directions to solve their increasingly pressing problems, and pretty much self destruct with that kind of behavior. Staying out of the way of that collapse would be the best way to survive it. The more ways people conflict with each other about their beliefs of what is right and wrong, and the higher the degree of fanaticism with this, the faster and safer the collapse, as using weapons of mass destruction requires cooperation.
Basically I’ve seen that if people refuse to be scientifically rational, that can look like huge problem. I turned that around and saw it as a weakness to be exploited. But no question, deciding this was as emotionally challenging as other decisions I’ve made. But as with those, I felt I had no other choice, that to live I had to take the scientifically rational approach to the best of my ability.
One can go into greater detail with all of these things, look at nuances I haven’t mentioned here. Also it is one thing to see basic principles, debate can often still arise with how they are applied. But science generally resolves disputes with more information being gathered, while other ways of thinking go on for centuries in often harsh opposition to each other. In every way I’ve looked at this, and dealt with challenges from others, I think it holds up quite well as the way to go. But I think it can be important to acknowledge that science is based on a postulate about reality. I would say that this postulate is that matter-energy is real and it moves in statistically reliable patterns and there isn’t anything else until solid, repeatable evidence is found of that. Other postulates are certainly possible and I am often telling people that if they feel strongly about other postulates looking better to them, ok, see if it works. And the same applies to chosing science. Physical coercion doesn’t look like an efficient way to have a sustainable society, and especially not with starting one. That people have a way out both mentally and physically, is a protection when talking about or trying these things, as they bring up subjects people often get very passionate about…
I’ve written some additional things that can be found in the notes of my facebook page, but this gives the basic understanding.