Solving the Future

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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, which now openly includes the scourge of worldwide food shortage, 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 timespan - 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 timespan 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 one mega trend is obvious. 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 total 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 BAU-business as usual global economic activity of the current type.

DEFINING CHANGE

We therefore must expect that under any scenario except the most naive, we are in a new ballpark for the intensity, rate and sweep of change that is anyway inevitable, and is needed through 2011-2041. For a liveable future, this planned change will vastly exceed anything we have known in the period from 1981 to now. Such past projects as the Marshall Plan for aiding postwar 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 sets an immediate and major problem: how do we go about inventorying our challenges and prepare our response ?

This inventory problem is complex, due to the nature of the nested and interrelated, sometimes self-reinforcing set of problems that can be defined. There is always the danger of ignoring or underestimating, or overestimating certain specific challenges and designing responses only for that identified problem. Examples are many. One concerns 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, while the three other fossil fuels (oil coal and uranium) face serious and growing supply limits.

A summary of the main inventorying challenges should at least include the following:

Major current and predictable future problems
Long-term goals, quantitative and qualitative
Action for enabling and achieving long-term solutions

All three are interdependent: by 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.

THE EVENT HORIZON

One clear danger for any futurist planning is we may have exceeded what can be analogized with 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 often 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”.

Staying with this example, the event horizon for conventional oil-fuelled mass ownership car fleets is partly acknowledged, and clumsily responded to by attempts to develop mass production of EVs or electric vehicles for widespread use within about 10 – 15 years.

The problem is what the keyword “widespread” means, given the reality of the world's 98% oil-fuelled conventional car fleet attaining about 950 million units, growing at a net rate (after scrapping of old cars) of about 55 million a year, as of 2011. As we know, some national car fleets have an average age per unit of about 8 – 10 years and current technology private cars are often built to last 15 years. To be sure, the coming boom for unconventional gas supply could attenuate the fuel problem, but in several major car owning countries and regions, notably Europe, diesel fuelled cars often account for more than 70% of national fleets – and converting these to run on natural gas is for the least very difficult.

An event horizon in and for restructuring and re-energizing world car fleets is possible.

The nested, stacked and layered nature of the problem pie continues, in the above subject area where mass transport solutions are the logical solution – but with large economic, employment and taxes, social and urban planning impacts or implications. Many governments are as dependent on mass private car ownership, for generating employment and state revenues from taxation, as are citizens for getting to work. Urban planning and morphology is car oriented, there is a basic assumption of continued mass privately owned car fleets and acting to ensure car-lean or car-free cities, in the real world, will be revolutionary.

Much more revolutionary, in fact, is the speed and one-way nature of the emerging world food crisis, already moving out from the shadow status of “only a pessimist fantasy” in the 3 years from about 2007. After reaching price peaks in 2008 then crashing in 2009, world food prices are again at record levels. World food and agricultural land shortage is a classic example of the complex and multiform system of crises faced by humanity, because of so many cross impacts operating. We can simply note the FAO's key statistic, that the world's current 7 billion population has a total of about 1.4 billion hectares of arable land available, with this stock of productive land currently losing more each year, notably through desertification, urban development, industry and roadbuilding, than gaining each year from agricultural development.  As we know from past history, generally before the past 2 centuries, food shortage and famine have been potent destroyers of civilization.

SOCIAL COHESION AND PROBLEM MULTIPLIERS

Food shortage and high prices has returned as a potent force in world politics and social change, initially multiplying problems rather than solving them. Concerning the death and decay of corrupt dictatorships and one-party states sweeping the Arab world, Tunisia's January 2011 Jasmine revolution and ouster of its long-time dictator Ben Ali, supported by the Western democracies until the very last moment, was in large part triggered by rising food prices. Knock-on to Egypt also faced by rising food prices and ruled for 30 years by a Western-backed demagogue, has been very rapid and can be explained in the following way

Egypt, the world’s biggest wheat importer, announced additional spending of as much as 3.5 billion pounds ($600 million) in October to cover the country’s rising food bill, increasing the strain on a budget deficit that widened to 8.1 percent of gross domestic product in the fiscal year that ended in June. Wheat futures in Chicago, the global benchmark, have surged 74 percent in the past 12 months. (Bloomberg News, 28 Jan 2011)

Incoming governments, after a long period of dictatorial rule will tend to be fragile and run by shifting multi-party coalitions, both politically and morally bound to deliver higher levels of consumption to the people. Their ability to take tough decisions with a long-term goal of stability and sustainability will likely be low, even lower than the Western-backed dictators, pursuing neoliberal growth economy notions, who preceded them. Pushing ever forward the date at which tough decisions are made, the risk of going beyond the event horizon necessarily rises.

Contemplating the emerging menace of event horizons beyond which no action or solution will be permanent, but only palliative, may be highly interesting for academic study, but reinforces the general policy we apply for Solving the Future. Solutions needed in many cases will inevitably be radical, and light years away from BAU.

SOLUTION MULTIPLIERS AND THE GLOBAL ECONOMY

Perhaps the largest, most ramifying but also highest level problem is the Global Economy. Why this is a problem generator, not solver, is obvious: it is in permanent unstable equilibrium due to needing permanent growth of output, predominantly based on the throughput of depletable and depleting natural resources. Pricing of production and supply passes through the distorting lens sloganized as the markets will decide which in the real world means frenetic speculation on any and all basic necessities of organized social life, like food prices. This is one facet of the global economy that must be eliminated. The global economy has no single “master brain”, nor master plan, but through a complex of human desires, past practices, established processes and infrastructures, what we can call the momentum effect of BAU, it pursues impossible goals for world per capita mineral, energy and bioresource consumption and has no  effective feedback in the shape of adaptive response.

In this respect the global economy can be likened to non-adaptive and non-teleological evolutionary change in living species, of which typically 99%-plus is a failure: the change is by mutation only, bringing only adventitious short-life new species – such as the cult of traders and trading in the latter day global economy – which at best have a few generations of staying power, that is almost zero long-term survival capability.

Looking at the operating process and short history of what we call the global economy, we see that survivability is totally absent from the series of accidents, or mutations that enabled it to exist, and the predatory, dysfunctional system of human relations that it generates.

Nearly all the complex of resource, energy and environment challenges that we face are linked with or generated by the global economy. Several of them are directly generated, while others are indirectly linked, for example uncontrolled and explosive urbanization, culture change towards a global uniform, simplified model devoid of humanism, with the result of this one size fits alldelivering anomic societal states and loss of identity, intensified social, community and inter-generational conflict, and an inevitable loss of economic output, profits, and growth of turnover. These and other direct and indirect diseconomies then “hurt” the continued growth of the global growth economy.

There is a growing body of social, community, political, NGO and other opponents of the global economy, from a very wide set of standpoints, but solutions or alternatives to to it are usually sketchy. The basic weakness is usually the avoidance of clear quantitative and qualitative goals for a process aimed at replacing the global economy. This in itself presents dangers, ironically because of two major traits of the global economy:

Operation of the global economy is exclusive of, and destructive to any alternative or preceding model for economic organisation;
The global economy is structurally unstable and can quickly collapse, almost black hole style, but with no existing plans and programs for an agreed and organised transition to an alternative model.

ADAPTIVE RESPONSE: ABANDONING THE GLOBAL ECONOMY

 Focusing the cultural and social reasons and requirement for de-growth, or the antithesis of the global economy we can start “upstream” with its cultural impacts, finding that the so-called No Alternative of the global economy exerts a strong degenerative impact on all societies and their formerly diverse cultures. Homogenization, uniformity and simplification are the monolithic trends for society and culture within this single economic framework and model. The bulldozer cultural impact of the global economy makes it difficult for either social groups, or individuals to exercise freedom of choice in their value systems, mores and lifestyles, or to retain and develop traditional value systems, mores and lifestyles.

A few basic premises can be outlined:

Cultural regeneration is intrinsic and basic to replacing the global economy and Solving the Future;

Cultural regeneration is a necessarily complex subject, but however generates simple qualitative goals;

Economic de-growth is a key problem solver for creating a long-term stable future.

De-growth is defined not as recession and economic or financial collapse, nor the stagnation of the economy and society, but a process twinned with cultural regeneration. Defined this way (see also Annexe 1), it will provide problem solving multipliers. De-growth is in no way 'a bourgeois value', and inequitable because it appears to favour already rich against would-be rich (denial of aspirations), impractical or not feasible because of this, and inefficient because human ingenuity will flag and fall without the spur of resource depletion encouraging the search for new resources and the invention of new techniques.

These, and a large number of other rhetorical tricks for sidelining the basic concept of de-growth will be of lower and lower credibility in stifling debate on this subject, as we advance into the crisis of the global economy, in major part due to its intrinsic and basic diseconomies. One other major argument against de-growth, that very few precedents of it ever occurred in human history, merely serves to indicate the depth and severity of the present and emerging crisis of the global economy, due to the world presently facing a global crisis of survivability and sustainability, which has no precedent.

DE FACTO DE-GROWTH

There is a good case for arguing that de facto “de-growth” already operates in the world's largest and richest economies, the OECD group, for as long as 20 years in some cases and depending on criteria utilised for defining de-growth. Japan can be posited as a major economy (2nd equal largest economy in the world, with China), that has been experiencing a form of de-growth since about 1990.

To be sure, much of this is “harmful de-growth”. Since 2008, following the 2007 US subprime crisis and rising oil, food and other natural resource prices, the straight majority of EU-27 countries exhibit many aspects of the "de-growth economy". These indicators of harmful de-growth start with declining annual GDP, rising unemployment and rising national debt and/or the application of hasty and ineffective austerity cures, but in an unstable or even chaotic economic, financial, and political context, in which all major current political deciders and economic institutions are attempting to restore growth.

Methods employed for attempting to restore economic growth are "classic Keynesian", AKA Quantitative Easing, that is they feature printing money and engaging in competitive devaluation of national or regional moneys (like the Euro), with the hope this could or might increase exports and restore or re-trigger conventional economic growth. This would for example include increased car production and sales, airline passenger numbers, urban building, highway building, major public works to facilitate future economic growth such as power plant construction, increased agricultural intensity and output, increased energy exploration, attempts at increasing birth rates to prevent population decline, and so on.

The single goal of restoring the global economy to growth is shown by the basic indicators of a supposed partial return to economic health, that is conventional economic recovery, which  feature a return to growing oil demand, the growth of car output and sales, and a return to rising house prices in countries such as the USA. In the case of oil and due to world oil production capacities being very difficult to increase, this restored demand quickly restores oil prices to high levels, which further aggravates the trend of rising food prices, due to the oil intensity of current agriculture and fisheries.

Despite the very clear, ever growing number of factors making it increasingly difficult to first lever up growth, then maintain it even a few years, our present political and economic deciders, and the media owning and opinion forming elites treat de-growth as unacceptable and unwanted. For one reason this is because they have no alternative to the supposed best possible economic process and model called the Global Economy. Another reason is because – in the conventional or BAU economy – any fall in economic growth is associated with growing unemployment and further growth of national debt and budget deficits.

At their most extreme, de-growth opponents present it as 'a death wish' for society and the end of humanity, a challenge that calls forth all human ingenuity, and the printing of money to restore conventional economic growth. One example is the call for massive development of nuclear power to compensate geologically depleting or geopolitically limited oil resources and oil supply, and produce supposedly cheap energy to compete with, and drive down the price of supposedly expensive oil.

The de-growth strategy that we must develop and define therefore must avoid the pitfalls of being able to be discredited as “yet more harmful de-growth”, must particularly address employment, the satisfaction of basic needs, and a place for everybody in society.

DESIGNING A DE-GROWTH STRATEGY

Due to resource, environment and climatic limits on conventional economic growth, and for both social and cultural reasons, planned and organized de-growth is a key solution, as well as a solution generator and multiplier, for transition to the long-term sustainable society. This in no way presupposes that economic collapse must first occur, through “harmful de-growth”, before beneficial de-growth is applied and a stable economy is set in place.

Cultural value restoration is basic to the mission. Without the constant pressure to produce more and consume more, and constant competition to find and keep a job, the creation of multiple and self-reinforcing structures tending towards a more stable and homeostatic man-environment relationship, and the processes and values associated with that goal can become normal and treated as such. This sets the human, social and cultural parameters to the foreground, and requires their integration in all plans and programs for de-growth.

This is because the negative image, and the negative impacts of current "de-growth", which in fact is economic decline and economic recession, only generate pent-up demand for further and faster conventional economic growth, and the search for new or better-paid jobs once the period of "de-growth" ends. In other words, real and beneficial de-growth is above all not permanent economic recession, nor social and cultural regression. In addition, de-growth will not be a temporary condition, but a long-term stable economic framework for an entirely new and regenerative social and cultural process.

Defining culture in its broadest sense to include technology, the arts, communication and politics, the homogenization, simplification and impoverishment of choices, options and variety is itself a factor that will certainly and surely undermine, or even destroy the global growth economy, with time. De-growth as defined in this program, as the mission to attain and then sustain long-term stability in world society and man-environment relations. It is therefore in finethe only option due to the global economy and globalizing culture and society being locked-on to a trajectory of final breakdown, perhaps with very grave geopolitical sequels, and possibly within as little as 5 years.

ADAPTIVE RESPONSE: GLOBAL ENERGY TRANSITION

By a curious, almost total mismatch of real needs and policy goals, effort to develop alternate and renewable energy (ARE) sources and systems is mostly targeted at developing low income countries, by major donor agencies, finance providers and development institutions including UN agencies such as UNDP and ILO, the IMF, the IBRD (World Bank) and its IFC and CFC, and the IBRD's regional banks operating with national private corporations.

In the OECD countries and the Emerging economies including China, India and Brazil the role of private investors and corporate entities is believed able to “move the world” towards ARE. Recent abandonment of or major cutbacks to very costly government subsidies  for accelerated ARE development in the OECD countries, worldwide overcapacity of industrial capacity in leading ARE such as solar and wind power, and the simple economic superiority of fossil energy solutions for most conventional economic development projects underscore another key failing of the global economy. Its stolid and obsessional focus only on the short-term and only on profits result in the inefficiency, and ineffectiveness of “letting the market decide” for energy transition, in energy economies that already utilise intense amounts of energy.

In the low income developing countries there is a different, but equally strong barrier to accelerated ARE development. The margin of choice for deciders, between high cost low carbon, and cheaper and conventional fossil energy is lower than in the high income countries, meaning that even more unaffordably high subsidies would be needed if these countries were to push faster towards making energy transition before the developed world. The net result for policy makers and deciders is confusion.

Major reasons for this confused or even chaotic situation include major uncertainty on future world fossil energy supplies, which for natural gas as already remarked is now set to become more abundant, in stark contrast to the 3 other fossil fuels oil, coal and uranium. When we integrate the need, and possibility of the de-growth economy being created, future energy need forecasts can vary even more than the very large variations forecast by major agencies, like the IEA and US EIA, for the relatively short term period of 19 years forward, to 2030.

We could for example posit a plausible and possible capping of world total energy consumption within 5 years, with initial de-growth of OECD energy intensity and total consumption compensating continued energy demand growth in other countries, the OECD bloc simply applying programs similar to the EU's “20-20-20 plan” (see Annexe 2), which includes a target of 20% reduction in EU-27 fossil energy consumption by 2020. Following the achievement of zero energy growth worldwide, the de-growth plan could target a 2.5% annual reduction of world total energy demand. Continued at this rate from about 2017, this could result in a halving of world total energy demand by around 2040, relative to demand in 2011. Very obviously, if demand is cut, both CO2 emissions are cut, and remaining reserves of fossil fuels will be stretched, for long periods if the de-growth program is sustained.

Under this de-growth plan and scenario, the stretching of world fossil energy lifetimes will provide much more elbow room for decision makers facing the challenges of maintaining the stable and sustainable world society through the second half of this century, from 2050-2100. Approximately doubling reserve/production (R/P) ratios for all the fossil fuels through compressing demand, solution multipliers will be generated for the global energy transition component of our program for Solving the Future, avoiding the event horizon effect of running out of cheaper fossil fuels to invest in ARE before we have achieved transition to a mainly renewables-based energy supply system.

The critical role of energy economics and the existence, or not of the global growth economy is clear to see. Maintenance of the growth economy, and energy transition is one clear reason for the ineffectiveness and high cost, and economic unworkability of recent attempts to force the pace of transition.

ADAPTIVE RESPONSE: FOOD SUSTAINABILITY

The period of so-called “partial economic recovery” from the crisis of 2008-2009 is a copybook example of speculative excess, both downward and upward, for all commodity prices. Since 2009 they have bounded upwards, from the speculative lows they experienced in the period of so-called retrenchment and consolidation, driven by what the IMF called “the worst economic crisis since 1929”. Today however, it is not oil prices which draw the headlines or encourage Western democrats to “liberate and democratize” major oil producer countries, but the massive price rise of all food and bioresource commodities, from the grains, oilseeds and sugar, to rubber and cotton.

In a similar resource-limited paradigm to that for oil, coal or uranium supply capacities, world food supplies face basic arable land availability and water supply constraints: world total arable land resources, according to the FAO are about 1.4 billion hectares. For a world population of 7 billion, this is about 0.2 hectares per capita. According to the IBRD, about 78% of world water is used in agriculture and food production. Increasing water supplies faces resource, infrastructure and technology constraints, making it difficult to produce more food by the most water-intensive and energy-intensive type of farming: agroindustrial irrigation.

An effective culture of food poverty already exists, and is well exploited and disguised by the global economy in the form of fastfood, dependent on pesticide and herbicide intensive grain production, soy fed feedlot meat, fish farming using antibiotic-intense methods, and so on. All these, as we know, are resource and energy intensive and are environmentally damaging resulting in low survivability, over and above their inferior nutritional status.

Much as with energy transition away from energy-dense and intense but depleting and pollutive sources and systems, the transition to stable and sustainable food production implies a complete paradigm change. From intensive food production with harmful environment impacts, to the opposite, within a culture change where nutritional quality and sustainable production and supply become the main goals. Presently disfavored food production systems such as localised urban regional horticulture-based multicropping, pisciculture (rather than fish farming), seaboard mariculture, range farming and lightly adapted natural ecosystem intervention by human society for food extraction become major features of post-transition sustainable food production. On the downstream, localised and semi-autonomous processing and distribution of foodstuffs will also be favored, rather than the opposite. 

SOME CONCLUSIONS

As many times remarked in this article, 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.

As of early 2011 the world is changing rapidly, especially in the Arab world, away from the toxic social, cultural and economic notion of neoliberal no alternative export platforms replacing and superceding the very concept of living nations and human societies. The dictators and juntas who have served that process, for their Western “democratic minded” masters, are now paying the price for setting out to destroy their own societies in return for the tawdry promise of the global consumer society's fragile benefits. The global economy, as many times noted in this article, has no intrinsic staying power and could or might collapse almost overnight – like an Arab despot fleeing in the night with his gang of thieves in his personal airplane.

Major change will occur. It can come through discussion, negotiation, planning and organisation, or will come through chaos and violence. The choice is still available, but the world clock implacably ticks on.

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