Glocal educator, activist and consultant, generalized in whole systems design and transformative innovation for regenenerative cultures
The Three Horizons of innovation and culture change
In the autumn of 2009, I was invited to join the International Futures Forum (IFF) as one of a small group of ‘next generation’ members. The IFF is an international collaborative network of people committed to pooling their experience and insights to explore “the complex and confounding challenges that our world faces”, to “support a transformative response to those challenges” and to “enhance our capacity for effective action”.
One common perspective shared between the members of the IFF is that we need a more systemic approach to the complexity of the interconnected problems and opportunities that we face. Another shared belief is that, in order to appropriately respond to the changes around us, organizations, communities, businesses and governments must not only pay attention to possible short-term responses to symptoms of these crises, but must also address the underlying structural and systemic causes that drive these symptoms.
In addition, working with complex systems requires us to befriend uncertainty, change and unpredictability. We aim to engage communities in the deeper cultural dialogue that asks the kind of questions and proposes the kind of provisional answers that drive cultural transformation and continued learning.
IFF members and other futures practitioners (see Hodgson & Sharpe, 2007; Curry & Hodgson, 2008; Sharpe 2013) developed the ‘Three Horizons’ framework collaboratively over the last 10 years. ‘Three Horizons thinking’ is an effective method for making sense of and facilitating cultural transformation and exploring innovation and wise action in the face of uncertainty and not-knowing.
The framework has been applied in a variety of contexts, including the future of intelligent infrastructures in the UK, technological foresight in the IT industry, transformative innovation in the Scottish education system, the future of Alzheimer’s research, rural community development, and executive leadership programmes. It is a versatile methodology for inviting people to explore the future potential of the present moment through a number of perspectives that all have to be considered if we are to steer our course wisely into an unpredictable future.
The ‘Three Horizons’ framework is a foresight tool that can help us to structure our thinking about the future in ways that spark innovation. It describes three patterns or ways of doing things and how their relative prevalence and interactions evolve over time. The change from the established pattern of the first horizon to the emergence of fundamentally new patters in the third occurs via the transition activity of the second horizon.
The model not only makes us think in interactive patterns, but more importantly “it draws attention to the three horizons always existing in the present moment, and that we have evidence about the future in how people (including ourselves) are behaving now” (Sharpe, 2013: 2).
The framework helps us to become more aware of how our individual and collective intentions and behaviours actively shape the future today. By mapping three ways of relating to the future from the perspectives of the three horizons we can bring the value of each of them to the conversation in a generative way that fosters understanding and future consciousness as the basis for collaborative action and transformative innovation.
I believe the three horizons offer an important framework for thinking about transformative innovation that can be used to facilitate the transition towards regenerative cultures. It can help us to structure our collective exploration as we start living the questions together as conscious participants in this transition. In this context, the first horizon (red) represents the currently prevalent systems that are beginning to show symptoms of decline and shortening cycles of crisis and temporary, but never fundamental, recovery.
In other words, Horizon 1 is ‘business as usual’, or ‘the world in crisis’ (H1). It is characterized by ‘sustaining innovation’ that keeps ‘business as usual’ going. Horizon 3 (green) is how we envision a ‘viable world’ (H3). We may not be able to define this future in every detail — as the future is always uncertain — yet we can intuit what fundamental transformations lie ahead, and we can pay attention to social, ecological, economic, cultural and technological experiments around us that may be pockets of this future in the present. Horizon 2 (blue) represents ‘world in transition’ (H2) — the entrepreneurial and culturally creative space of already technologically, economically and culturally feasible innovations that can disrupt and transform H1 to varying degrees and can have either regenerative, neutral or degenerative socio-ecological effects.
At the point where these H2 innovations become more effective than the existing practices, they begin to replace aspects of ‘business as usual’. Yet some forms of ‘disruptive innovation’ ultimately get absorbed by H1 without leading to fundamental and transformative change, while other forms of ‘disruptive innovation’ can be thought of as a possible bridge from H1 to H3.
Within the context of the transition towards regenerative cultures we introduce a value bias into our use of the Three Horizons methodology: solutions that create conditions conducive to life and establish regenerative patterns are valued more highly than those that don’t. Throughout this book I refer to H3 as perspectives and patterns that intend to bring about a ‘viable world’ of regenerative cultures able to creatively transform in continuous exploration of the most appropriate responses to a rapidly changing socio-ecological context.
Cultivating future consciousness with Three Horizons perspectives
The essence of Three Horizons practice is to develop both an individual and a shared awareness of all three horizons, seeing them as perspectives that must all come into the discussion, and to work flexibly with the contributions that each one makes to the continuing process of renewal on which we all depend. We step out of our individual mindset into a shared space of creative possibility. — Bill Sharpe (2013: 29)
Horizon 1 is based on practices that have worked for a long time and have a proven track record based on past experience. H1 thinking — dominated by the narrative of separation — has shaped most of the practices that seem vital to our continued existence. Our education systems, our systems of production and consumption, our health system, communication infrastructure, transport and housing infrastructures, all of these systems and the vital services they provide will have to be transformed during the transition towards regenerative cultures.
From the perspective of the present moment, H3 describes regenerative cultures capable of constant learning and transformation in adaptation to and anticipation of change. Yet, as we approach H3, it recedes, or better, it transforms in response to wider systemic change. By the time we reach the cultural maturity that we today describe in terms of the third horizon, this H3 will have turned into the new H1 and we will face new and unpredictable challenges that will require us to take a new H3 perspective. The pilgrimage towards a sustainable and regenerative future has an endless string of false summits. As we reach the top of the green summit (H3) of our horizons map, we stand on the red ground of our new H1. Looking ahead with future consciousness we see the new second and third horizons stretched out in front of us.
Since the process of cultural evolution and transformation is continuous, there is no arriving at and maintaining an H3 scenario forever. Moving towards the third horizon always entails acknowledging our ‘not knowing’ and therefore staying with an apprentice mindset — ready to learn from experience; humble enough to regard no solution as final; and open to acknowledging the valuable perspectives of all three horizons.
While aspects of today’s H1 are obsolete and among the root-causes of unsustainable practices, other aspects of H1 are also helping to provide vital services without which we would face almost immediate collapse. The transformation has to occur while these vital services continue to be provided. It is not possible for humanity to switch off the lights, leave the room, and start afresh in a different room that holds more promise. We only have one home planet. We have to find ways to transition from a status quo that is now deeply unsustainable to a new one. Sustainability and regenerative cultures are not end-points to be reached but continuous processes of collective learning. As we move towards the third horizon we are likely to be surprised by the emergence of new challenges. To respond wisely to these challenges the perspectives offered by all three horizons should inform our actions.
Three Horizon Thinking transforms the potential of the present moment by revealing each horizon as a different quality of the future in the present, reflecting how we act differently to maintain the familiar or pioneer the new. — Bill Sharpe (2013: 10)
In order to avoid the common mistake of ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’, it is important to see all that is valuable about H1 and understand the importance of the contributions it makes to co-creating regenerative cultures. Bill Sharpe compares the H1 perspective to the role of the manager responsible for keeping the lights on and the business operational without massive disruption to its basic functioning. The H2 perspective is that of the entrepreneur who sees the potential advantage of doing things differently, challenging the status quo in operational ways but often without questioning the cultural narrative that maintains the H1 culture. The perspective of the H3 visionary calls for profound transformation towards a better (more just, fair, equitable, thriving and sustainable) world.
In the transition context, H3 thinking is informed by the new cultural narrative of interbeing and the scientific evidence for our interdependence with the rest of life. As such, it is defining a new way of being and relating based on a fundamental shift in worldview acknowledging the valuable contributions of H1 and H2 perspectives and putting them into the context of wider eco-social transformation.
In charting a path to regenerative cultures that aims to avoid massive disruption and suffering, we need to value the bridge that certain types of H2 innovation offer. Most H1 systems might be in need of profound transformation, but still have to be valued as a basis from which innovation and transformation become possible while we avoid the often regressive rather than evolutionary effects of revolution and systemic collapse.
The H3 perspective itself is populated by many different visions of the future. In the context of this book I concentrate on those that value viability and regeneration, yet it is important to stay open for the lessons we can learn from all three horizons and the diversity of perspectives on the future they represent. Maintaining an open mind and learning from multiple perspectives can help us to develop ‘future consciousness’ as we chart our path into a future that will always be characterized by the emergence of novel conditions — some predetermined and inevitable, others unpredictable.
Diverse H3 visions and experiments are needed to take our collective conversation about the future to a level that is inclusive and participatory. We need to question our own cultural conditioning and the myopia caused by H1 education and cultural discourse. H1 managers can often be locked into a specific way of doing things and a specific mindset (the narrative of separation) — a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. H3 visionaries remind us to see future potential and possibilities beyond the rigid H1 mindset that resists change, in particular those kinds of change that invite cultural transformation.
The bridge between H1 and H3 is constructed by paying discerning attention to the space of innovation and the period of transition that is opened up by the second horizon. The H2 perspective sees opportunities in the shortcomings of H1 and aims to ground the visionary possibilities of the third horizon with some practical next steps. Many of them are likely to be ‘stepping stones’ or transitional innovations. Since H2 innovation takes place in an economic climate and within power structures dominated by H1, many of the proposed H2 innovations are ultimately captured to serve H1 goals. As the second horizon is about experimentation and entrepreneurship, many of its initiatives fail, offering opportunities for learning. Only a small percentage of innovations succeed in building an effective bridge between H1 and H3, enabling implementation of H3’s high visions in tangible, convincing and ‘positively infectious’ ways.
Three Horizons thinking allows us to acknowledge what is valuable in each of the three horizons’ distinct perspectives and ways of relating to the future. It helps us to see the opportunities and future potential of the present moment. It can help us to ask deeper questions as we engage in conversations informed by ‘future consciousness’ that turn rigid mindsets into valuable perspectives.
Transformation happens as the emergent result of everything going on in the world — there is always an emerging third horizon at every scale of life from the individual to the planet and beyond. Some things will be the result of conscious intent, others will surprise us for good or ill. The way we live now was once the third horizon, partly imagined and intended, largely unknown. Future consciousness will not bring the future under control, but allows us to develop our capacity for transformational response to its possibilities. — Bill Sharpe (2013: 15)
Three Horizons thinking offers a methodology and practice of seeing things from multiple perspectives and valuing the contribution that each perspective makes to the way we bring forth the world together. Simply holding a facilitated conversation using the Three Horizons framework in your local community group, business, organization or local council already has the potential for transformative cultural innovation within it.
Mischa Dohler es experto en telecomunicaciones. Habló con El Espectador sobre la internet de las habilidades, que permitirá que ocurran cosas como una cirugía a distancia. Reproducir el tacto y el olfato, entre los principales retos.
Mischa Dohler, orador en el Congreso Internacional de Espectro./ Cristian Garavito – El Espectador
Internet de las habilidades, una tecnología para humanizar
Mischa Dohler habla seis idiomas, es pianista y también el director del Centro de Investigación de Telecomunicaciones en el King’s College de Londres. Su descripción en Twitter es sencilla: “red shoes”, zapatos rojos. Al encontrarnos para la entrevista, lo comprobé. Llevaba unos tenis colorados, después de bajarse del escenario del Séptimo Congreso Internacional de Espectro, organizado por la Agencia Nacional del Espectro y que termina hoy en Bogotá.
Allí habló sobre uno de los temas que mejor conoce: la internet de las habilidades, que permitirá emplear las capacidades propias de forma remota con base en 5G, la próxima generación de conectividad, que consiste en optimizar la comunicación para que todo —celulares, carros, fábricas, casa, etc.— esté conectado. Es la puerta para que, por ejemplo, su mecánico pueda repararle el auto desde Bogotá si se quedó varado en cualquier carretera del país o para que un doctor en Estados Unidos pueda operar a un paciente que está en África.
En diálogo con este diario, Dohler habló de la importancia que tiene en esto la gestión del espectro radioeléctrico —la autopista invisible por donde viajan las telecomunicaciones—, así como de las similitudes o aplicaciones que artes como la interpretación del piano pueden tener en la automatización de las labores, mas no del trabajo. Para él, el ideal no es que los robots reemplacen a los humanos, sino que la tecnología mejore el oficio de cada quien.
¿Cómo ve a Colombia en materia de espectro y conectividad?
No es sólo Colombia la que se está planteando preguntas sobre este tema. La capacidad (de comunicación) inalámbrica se ha multiplicado un millón de veces durante los últimos 35 años. En gran parte ha sido por el uso que se le da al espectro. Sin duda seguiremos necesitándolo. Lo que pasa es que no sabemos para qué lo necesitaremos. Cuando empezamos a desarrollar la tecnología 3G, internet no estaba siquiera a nuestro alrededor. En el caso de 4G, ni siquiera había teléfonos inteligentes. Tuvimos la infraestructura y el espectro listos, hasta que algo transformador llegó y lo usó. Hay que tener más confianza en que con 5G —la próxima generación de telecomunicaciones— ocurrirá lo mismo. Y una opción es la internet de las habilidades. El llamado es a conseguir espectro hoy. Si no tiene el dinero, tómelo prestado. Si no, mañana se arrepentirá. Quien tenga el espectro será dominante en el mercado.
Cuando surgió 4G no había teléfonos inteligentes. Hoy, que se desarrolla 5G, ¿qué dispositivos es posible imaginar?
No sabemos. Tratamos de ir en cierta dirección. Pensamos en cosas de las que se ha hablado mucho: realidad virtual, por ejemplo. Pero quiero hacer algo más transformador, construir internet para democratizar las habilidades, que se puedan usar desde cualquier parte del mundo: pintar, tocar piano, reparar máquinas u operar. Nunca se ha hecho eso de forma digital. Se puede negociar o agendar por Facebook o Linkedin, pero para concretar el trabajo hay que ir, tomar un carro o un avión.
¿Cómo ve el desarrollo de cara a 5G por regiones? Con seguridad, África o América Latina no son iguales a Europa o Norteamérica.
A escala global, trabajamos con el cuerpo de estándares llamado 3GPP, que nos permite armar un sistema global. Pero es como un elefante o un iceberg. Si mira internet, uno no ve a Facebook y Microsoft sentados cada 10 años inventando una nueva internet. La razón es que (el desarrollo en internet) está atomizado, ahí todo el mundo puede innovar. En (tecnología) celular no tenemos eso. Tenemos un gran bloque y por eso toma tanto tiempo hacer las cosas. La ventaja es que se hace un sistema que funciona en todas partes. Llegué en la madrugada, a las 3, prendí el teléfono ¡y funciona! A nivel de espectro creo que los asuntos son diferentes según la región: Europa no es como Asia, en donde todo el tiempo quieren probar cosas nuevas, ver Netflix. En Europa, la demanda es menor y hay más espectro disponible. Entonces la pregunta es por qué alguien pagaría por espectro si la demanda es baja. La demanda en Norteamérica es alta y la cantidad de espectro es baja, así que para vender 5G, para el regulador, será muy fácil. Lo mismo pasa en Asia.
¿Cuáles son los principales retos para que todo el planeta “hable el mismo idioma” en telecomunicaciones? ¿Los estándares técnicos, la regulación…?
La armonización del espectro. Por eso la Conferencia Mundial de Radio de 2019 será muy importante, así como las relaciones transnacionales. Uno quiere asegurarse de que aterriza en algún lugar y se puede “sintonizar”. Asimismo, hay que hacer la tecnología lo suficientemente económica para que pueda ser aplicada en un nivel costo-eficiente.
¿Algún día el espectro será insuficiente?
Si en este edificio quiero poner una antena, esperando que llegue a toda Bogotá, entonces el espectro se vuelve un factor limitado muy rápido. Pero en teoría podría hacer celdas cada vez más pequeñas, con el mismo espectro. Esa ha sido la estrategia de los últimos años. Ahora, las preguntas sobre espectro no son sólo preguntas sobre espectro sino sobre infraestructura: ¿dónde se pone la estación base? ¿Cómo la conecta? Desplegar estaciones más pequeñas con menor alcance requiere negociación sobre el uso de los techos, por ejemplo, y el costo del espectro: es el juego que están jugando, por eso las subastas (de espectro). Eso también significa que el cuerpo a cargo del espectro tiene que hablar con las autoridades de infraestructura y discutir asuntos como la posibilidad de desregular para que los operadores tengan acceso al mobiliario urbano.
Si la internet de las habilidades está pensada para casi cualquier profesión, ¿cómo integrar o transformar el sistema educativo?
Apenas estamos dando pasos de bebés en esto. Es como haber diseñado internet hace 50 años: no se pensaba que debía ser parte del currículo años después. Pero sin duda transformará la forma como aprendemos. Por ejemplo, podemos enseñar a escala. En cirugía, por ejemplo. El problema con la cirugía robótica es que no se puede enseñar a los estudiantes a escala, sólo a un alumno a la vez. Después de semanas se hace el examen y si le fue mal perdió todo ese tiempo. Con la digitalización de las habilidades se pueden usar exoesqueletos, dispositivos mecánicos que se ponen en las manos y hacen los movimientos por usted mientras entrena el movimiento muscular. Así se toca piano. La razón por la que se necesita practicar ocho horas diarias es que la memoria del músculo (de la mano y el brazo) es muy corta, no la maneja el cerebro, sino la materia gris, que tiene menos conexiones neuronales. En cambio, las tablas de multiplicar se las aprende una vez y difícilmente se olvidan. Mi idea es poner al ser humano en el centro: no es sobre automatización, no quiero traer robots porque la gente confía en la gente. No estoy muy seguro de que confiara en que un robot lo opere, pero sí un cirujano. Apunto a que se automaticen los empleos al tiempo que se humaniza el trabajo.
Hablando de confianza, ¿el desarrollo de la seguridad digital va al mismo ritmo?
La seguridad es de los grandes temas de los que hablamos. Es menos del lado del cifrado, es más del uso. Cuando era ingeniero y trabajaba para Orange hicimos pruebas para “smart meters”, unos pequeños dispositivos que miden el consumo de energía y agua. Lo aplicamos en los hogares y como ingenieros no queríamos digitar largas contraseñas. Dejamos la seguridad en cero, pero al irnos se nos olvidó dejarla arriba. Fue un error humano. Los ataques de seguridad de los últimos años han sido en su mayoría por error humano, por no usar el protocolo correcto. Hay una preocupación en el panorama y es la computación cuántica, porque puede romper el cifrado. Todo lo hace más rápido que los computadores ordinarios. En efecto, uno no querría que la gente equivocada tenga acceso a tu cirugía de ojos. Estamos tratando de desarrollar un canal end-to-end seguro, para que nadie lo pueda hackear, y la solución es la cuántica, canales de seguridad cuántica.
¿Sería entonces un problema interminable?
Eso parece. No prometo 100 % de seguridad. No importa cuánto te esfuerces, siempre habrá fisuras. Microsoft es un buen ejemplo. Es un sistema complejo, trata de poner parches de seguridad, pero siempre hay alguna pequeña cosa que entra. Cuando construyamos un lenguaje que sea matemáticamente seguro podremos tener ese tipo de seguridad, pero por ahora toca tomar el riesgo.
Para los médicos, el olor y el tacto son importantes para un diagnóstico. ¿No ve un problema práctico en ese sentido?
Dentistas de Londres me pusieron el mismo reto. Hicimos retroalimentación táctil, la habilidad de sentir remotamente. La cuestión es que la gente más cualificada por lo general vive en zonas urbanas. En zonas rurales es donde más abandono hay. Usaríamos la internet de las habilidades para ejercer en áreas realmente con necesidades, y no quiere decir que allí no vaya a haber nadie: habrá enfermeras, personal, pero no necesariamente quien tiene la más alta cualificación.
¿Y el olfato?
Hay trabajos en internet del olfato de colegas en Liverpool. Es una unión de ingenieros y químicos que están construyendo los sentidos midiendo ciertos componentes del olor que se transmiten a través de válvulas que al otro lado reproducen el olor.
Once upon a time there was money. It has lubricated our civilisations from the earliest days. But how many people really understand it? And if people dont understand money, how can they understand the implications of banks being increasingly in control of, and knowledgeable about, our transactions? Then along come cryptocurrencies, which can take banks out of the equation. A fascinating evolution, or is it a battle?- Paul Holister The Future Now Show: Cryptocurrencies with Hardy F Schloer “ULTRANOW briefingsby Lise Voldeng are advisory bullets traversing every sector of civilization – providing forecasting, analysis and advisory insights on how to prosper integrously.
Once upon a time there was money. It has lubricated our civilisations from the earliest days. But how many people really understand it? And if people dont understand money, how can they understand the implications of banks being increasingly in control of, and knowledgeable about, our transactions? Then along come cryptocurrencies, which can take banks out of the equation. A fascinating evolution, or is it a battle?. – Paul Holister …… watch the video
by Cooper Quintin, Staff Technologist, Electronic Frontier Foundation
Womens health is big business. There are a staggering number of applications for Android and iOS which claim to…… read full article
We often tend to ignore people and books that we have strong disagreement with. And yet, often times it is precisely those interactions that are very productive in helping us re-evaluate our own positions and see things from a fresh perspective. I find that, more often than not, confronting rather than ignoring a good argument, is not only a more honest approach but can also be quite rewarding in a variety of ways. And my interview with Prof. Richard Jones is a perfect example of that. So, while I may disagree with him on his general verdict on transhumanism, I found an impressive amount of specific things we agree on. And, more importantly, I managed to learn a thing or two about nanotechnology and the human brain.
During our 75 min discussion with Prof. Richard Jones we cover a variety of interesting topics such as: his general work in nanotechnology, his book and blog on the topic; whether technological progress is accelerating or not; transhumanism, Ray Kurzweil and technological determinism; physics, Platonism and Frank J. Tipler‘s claim that “the singularity is inevitable”; the strange ideological routes of transhumanism; Eric Drexler’s vision of nanotechnology as reducing the material world to software; the over-representation of physicists on both sides of the transhumanism and AI debate; mind uploading and the importance of molecules as the most fundamental units of biological processing; Aubrey de Grey‘s quest for indefinite life extension; the importance of ethics and politics…
Richard Jones is Professor of Physics and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation at the University of Sheffield. His first degree and PhD in Physics both come from Cambridge University, and following postdoctoral work at Cornell University, U.S.A., he was a lecturer at the University of Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory. In 1998 he moved to the University of Sheffield. He is an experimental physicist who specialises in elucidating the nanoscale structure and properties of polymers and biological macromolecules at interfaces.
He is the author of more than 190 research papers, and three books, including Soft Machines: nanotechnology and life, published by Oxford University Press in 2004. He was the Senior Strategic Advisor for Nanotechnology for the UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council from 2007 to 2009, and is currently a member of EPSRC Council. In 2006 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and in 2009 he won the Tabor Medal of the UK’s Institute of Physics for his contributions to nanoscience.
At present, the fastest trains in China, which have their top speed capped at 300km/h, are named Hexie, or Harmony, a key slogan for Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao.
China had briefly tried a maximum speed of 350km/h, but a deadly train crash in Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, in 2011 forced the railway authority to reduce the upper limit.
However, the desire to up the speed on the world’s most extensive high-speed network remained strong as the country tried to stay ahead of Japan, Germany and France in a technological race.
China’s bullet trains and railways are now a key product for Beijing to sell to other countries, especially under the “Belt and Road Initiative”.
The Beijing-Shanghai route is one of the most used lines, with around 600 million passengers using the service a year since it opened in 2011, according to China Railway, the state-owned operator.
The line is also one of the most profitable in China. China Railway has not released financial data for specific lines, but a bond issuance prospectus last year said the corporate entity running the line made a profit of 6.6 billion yuan in 2015, or about US$1 billion.
According to the current train schedule, the fastest bullet train running between the cities takes four hours and 55 minutes, and most bullet trains take around 5½ hours. A one-way ticket costs 553 yuan (US$83) for a regular seat and 933 yuan for a first-class seat.
It is not known whether China Railway will raise ticket prices after the speed is increased.
Authorities tested the 350 km/h services on some parts of the line last month and the results convinced officials they would be able to run at higher speeds along the whole line.
According to Xinhua, the trains are capable of going even faster and have a maximum speed of 400km/h.
Zhao Jian, a professor at Beijing Jiaotong University and a leading researcher on the country’s high-speed railway network, told the South China Morning Post that the higher speeds could increase the risk of collisions, so to avoid accidents the railway operator would have to reduce the number of trains on the line.
China’s bullet trains have developed rapidly over the past decade since the opening of a service between Beijing and Tianjin in 2008.
By last year there was about 22,000km of high-speed line, or about two-thirds of the world’s total.
The central government now plans to boost that to 30,000km by 2020.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as:
World’s fastest train enters service
China claims its bullet train technology was stolen
Rapid digital technological advances are penetrating every sector and forcing firms of every size to think about the potentially far reaching implications of these powerful new tools on jobs, privacy, security, and the way we communicate. A failure on any or all of these fronts could damage the brand and its ‘licence to trade’. This realisation is driving many to develop codes of ethics specifically in relation to the uses of such technologies. General codes of businesses ethics are becoming more commonplace and are often encouraged by trade bodies. However, there is less widespread adoption of analogous codes of digital ethics. Business leaders, CEOs and heads of departments are in pivotal positions to guide the formation, implementation and compliance with such codes. This article aims to identify upcoming areas of concern and strategies that business leaders can adopt in forming digital ethics codes – drawing on key themes highlighted in our recent books on The Future of Business and Technology vs. Humanity.
The use of powerful technologies is increasing in firms of every size as prices falls and access becomes easier – particularly using online Software as a Service (SaaS) solutions. These can make high functionality software applications and services available to even the smallest of firms for a relatively affordable monthly fee – thus enabling them to compete with larger and better resourced players. Many are exploiting the transformative potential of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), cloud storage, big data, the internet of things (IoT), wearable devices, and blockchain. The goals are typically to enable new offerings, enhance service, maximise efficiency, cut costs, and improve marketing and sales effectiveness.
These technologies raise new ethical questions; notions of privacy and ownership are being challenged; questions arise over who owns customer data and how it can be used; what licence do we have to aggregate, analyse and interpret information gleaned from hundreds, thousands or millions of customer interactions? Informed consent processes are becoming necessary; and ideas on what constitutes harm and fair use are being called into question. These challenges are arising across industry value chains, so no one is surprised to see businesses develop digital codes to ensure employees, clients and partners know they are operating within acceptable ethical standards. Those in organisational and functional leadership roles are in key positions to instigate and steer the ethical discourse to enable each company to form its code.
There are many potential ethical questions being raised around new technologies. The ubiquity of the IoT may raise concerns about the extent to which employee behaviour can be monitored; is the amount of food staff consume something the company could or should monitor? Should company’s aggregate and analyse data from employees’ wearable health trackers – is such wellness monitoring beneficial or invasive? Brain scanning technology is already in place to monitor employee concentration, is this appropriate or invasive? Is tracking health and mental activity a natural extension of monitoring productivity? Powerful technologies are no longer simply mechanical tools, they are increasingly redefining the nature and scope of employees’ work and their relationship with the employer. Hence it is critical for those in leadership to set the tone around the use of technology and data. What is commercially sensible may seem ethically questionable – challenging the boundaries of privacy and sensitivity. Just because we can, does it mean we should?
With an accelerating pace of digital disruption across society, critical ethical questions are moving up the public agenda faster. For example, 2016 has seen intense public debate around fair presentation of information on social media, the rise of the ‘post truth’ society and the employment implications of AI. Corporations cannot sit on the sidelines in these discussions. In some senses, there is no template to follow; there is no gold standard or global consensus over what is considered ethical. Businesses must engage in continual public and professional dialogue to determine what is permissible, what is acceptable and what would be best for shareholders, employees and customers.
Regular discourse highlights emerging issues and potential solutions. For example, if unbridled monitoring of employees’ health trackers is generally considered invasive, informed consent systems can be adopted with clear options defined for employees. Choices can be agreed with staff on the extent of monitoring, with clearly defined employee opt out clauses.
As business leaders, we must stay abreast of technological progress and engage with the questions being raised by the technologies, other organisations’ choices and societal responses. This engagement can help inform choice – providing alternative scenarios and ideas that drive our own ethical guidelines.
Compliance and Consistency
A clear internal view of what is considered ethically permissible is vital for any organisation. Once ethical frameworks have been established, these guiding principles must become cornerstones of strategic policy with regular monitoring of adherence. To be effective, the guiding principles must underpin subsequent actions consistently. Conformance with digital ethics cannot be a grey area or easily bypassed because of commercial considerations. Alongside driving home the message in regular communications and public statements, leaders need to demonstrate case examples of clear choices that have been made or rejected because of digital ethics. Corrective measures must be clear and applied consistently when these guidelines are bypassed.
Leading the Way
The necessity to form codes of digital ethics will increase, and the next 3-5 years will see widespread adoption – with some firms losing out where they don’t meet customers’ ethical expectations. In a world where the public discourse is almost impossible to control, CEOs must lead the way in ensuring their firms adopt and hold themselves to the highest standards of digital ethical behaviour and respond accordingly when gaps in the framework emerge. As the world becomes increasingly digital, and it becomes harder to distinguish our offerings from the competitors, who we are being and what we stand for will be become critical differentiators.
More strictly, indefinitely extended youth and effectively unlimited lifespans. Transhumans, humans and their nonhuman animal companions don’t grow old and perish. Automated off-world backups allow restoration and “respawning” in case of catastrophic accidents. “Aging” exists only in the medical archives. SENS Research Foundation – Wikipedia
“Magic” rules. “Augmented reality” of earlier centuries has been largely superseded by hyperreal virtual worlds with laws, dimensions, avatars and narrative structures wildly different from ancestral consensus reality. Selection pressure in the basement makes complete escape into virtual paradises infeasible. For the most part, infrastructure maintenance in basement reality has been delegated to zombie AI. Augmented reality – Wikipedia Virtual reality – Wikipedia
5) Transhuman psychedelia / novel state spaces of consciousness.
Analogues of cognition, volition and emotion as conceived by humans have been selectively retained, though with a richer phenomenology than our thin logico-linguistic thought. Other fundamental categories of mind have been discovered via genetic tinkering and pharmacological experiment. Such novel faculties are intelligently harnessed in the transhuman CNS. However, the ordinary waking consciousness of Darwinian life has been replaced by state-spaces of mind physiologically inconceivable to Homo sapiens. Gene-editing tools have opened up modes of consciousness that make the weirdest human DMT trip akin to watching paint dry. These disparate states-spaces of consciousness do share one property: they are generically blissful. “Bad trips” as undergone by human psychonauts are physically impossible because in the year 3000 the molecular signature of experience below “hedonic zero” is missing. ShulginResearch.org Qualia Computing
The intensity of everyday experience surpasses today’s human imagination. Size doesn’t matter to digital data-processing, but bigger brains with reprogrammed, net-enabled neurons and richer synaptic connectivity can exceed the maximum sentience of small, simple, solipsistic mind-brains shackled by the constraints of the human birth-canal. The theoretical upper limits to phenomenally bound mega-minds, and the ultimate intensity of experience, remain unclear. Intuitively, humans have a dimmer-switch model of consciousness – with e.g. ants and worms subsisting with minimal consciousness and humans at the pinnacle of the Great Chain of Being. Yet Darwinian humans may resemble sleepwalkers compared to our fourth-millennium successors. Today we say we’re “awake”, but mankind doesn’t understand what “posthuman intensity of experience” really means. What earthly animal comes closest to human levels of sentience?
7) Reversible mind-melding.
Early in the twenty-first century, perhaps the only people who know what it’s like even partially to share a mind are the conjoined Hogan sisters. Tatiana and Krista Hogan share a thalamic bridge. Even mirror-touch synaesthetes can’t literally experience the pains and pleasures of other sentient beings. But in the year 3000, cross-species mind-melding technologies – for instance, sophisticated analogues of reversible thalamic bridges – and digital analogs of telepathy have led to a revolution in both ethics and decision-theoretic rationality. Could Conjoined Twins Share a Mind? Mirror-touch synesthesia – Wikipedia Ecstasy : Utopian Pharmacology
8) The Anti-Speciesist Revolution / worldwide veganism/invitrotarianism.
Sentient beings help rather than harm each other. The successors of today’s primitive CRISPR genome-editing and synthetic gene drive technologies have reworked the global ecosystem. Darwinian life was nasty, brutish and short. Extreme violence and useless suffering were endemic. In the year 3000, fertility regulation via cross-species immunocontraception has replaced predation, starvation and disease to regulate ecologically sustainable population sizes in utopian “wildlife parks”. The free-living descendants of “charismatic mega-fauna” graze happily with neo-dinosaurs, self-replicating nanobots, and newly minted exotica in surreal garden of edens. Every cubic metre of the biosphere is accessible to benign supervision – “nanny AI” for humble minds who haven’t been neurochipped for superintelligence. Other idyllic biospheres in the Solar System have been programmed from scratch. CRISPR – Wikipedia Genetically designing a happy biosphere Our Biotech Future
10) The formalism of the TOE is known. (details omitted: does Quora support LaTeX?)
[Which theory is most promising? As with the TOE, you’ll forgive me for skipping the details. In any case, my ideas are probably too idiosyncratic to be of wider interest, but for anyone curious: What is the Quantum Mind?]
12) The Meaning of Life resolved.
Everyday life is charged with a profound sense of meaning and significance. Everyone feels valuable and valued. Contrast the way twenty-first century depressives typically found life empty, absurd or meaningless; and how even “healthy” normals were sometimes racked by existential angst. Or conversely, compare how people with bipolar disorder experienced megalomania and messianic delusions when uncontrollably manic. Hyperthymic civilization in the year 3000 records no such pathologies of mind or deficits in meaning. Genetically preprogrammed gradients of invincible bliss ensure that all sentient beings find life self-intimatingly valuable. Transhumans love themselves, love life, and love each other. https://www.transhumanism.com/
13) Beautiful new emotions.
Nasty human emotions have been retired – with or without the recruitment of functional analogs to play their former computational role. Novel emotions have been biologically synthesised and their “raw feels” encephalised and integrated into the CNS. All emotion is beautiful. The pleasure axis has replaced the pleasure-pain axis as the engine of civilised life. An information-theoretic perspective on life in Heaven
14) Effectively unlimited material abundance / molecular nanotechnology.
Status goods long persisted in basement reality, as did relics of the cash nexus on the blockchain. Yet in a world where both computational resources and the substrates of pure bliss aren’t rationed, such ugly evolutionary hangovers first withered, then died. http://metamodern.com/about-the-author/ Blockchain – Wikipedia
15) Posthuman aesthetics / superhuman beauty.
The molecular signatures of aesthetic experience have been identified, purified and overexpressed. Life is saturated with superhuman beauty. What passed for “Great Art” in the Darwinian era is no more impressive than year 2000 humans might judge, say, a child’s painting by numbers or Paleolithic daubings and early caveporn. Nonetheless, critical discernment is retained. Transhumans are blissful but not “blissed out” – or not all of them at any rate. Art – Wikipedia http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2009/05/earliest-pornography
16) Gender transformation.
Like gills or a tail, “gender” in the human sense is a thing of the past. We might call some transhuman minds hyper-masculine (the “ultrahigh AQ” hyper-systematisers), others hyperfeminine (“ultralow AQ” hyper-empathisers), but transhuman cognitive styles transcend such crude dichotomies, and can be shifted almost at will via embedded AI. Many transhumans are asexual, others pan-sexual, a few hypersexual, others just sexually inquisitive. “The degree and kind of a man’s sexuality reach up into the ultimate pinnacle of his spirit”, said Nietzsche – which leads to (17).
In 3000, everyone feels physically and psychologically “better than well”. Darwinian pathologies of the flesh such as fatigue, the “leaden paralysis” of chronic depressives, and bodily malaise of any kind are inconceivable. The (comparatively) benign “low pain” alleles of the SCN9A gene that replaced their nastier ancestral cousins have been superseded by AI-based nociception with optional manual overrides. Multi-sensory bodily “superpowers” are the norm. Everyone loves their body-images in virtual and basement reality alike. Morphological freedom is effectively unbounded. Awesome robolovers, nights of superhuman sensual passion, 48-hour whole-body orgasms, and sexual practices that might raise eyebrows among prudish Darwinians have multiplied. Yet life isn’t a perpetual orgy. Academic subcultures pursue analogues of Mill’s “higher pleasures”. Paradise engineering has become a rigorous discipline. That said, a lot of transhumans are hedonists who essentially want to have superhuman fun. And why not? https://www.wired.com/2017/04/the-cure-for-pain/ http://io9.gizmodo.com/5946914/should-we-eliminate-the-human-ability-to-feel-pain http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140321-orgasms-at-the-push-of-a-button
18) World government.
Routine policy decisions in basement reality have been offloaded to ultra-intelligent zombie AI. The quasi-psychopathic relationships of Darwinian life – not least the zero-sum primate status-games of the African savannah – are ancient history. Some conflict-resolution procedures previously off-loaded to AI have been superseded by diplomatic “mind-melds”. In the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” Our descendants have windows into each other’s souls, so to speak.
19) Historical amnesia.
The world’s last experience below “hedonic zero” marked a major evolutionary transition in the evolutionary development of life. In 3000, the nature of sub-zero states below Sidgwick’s “natural watershed” isn’t understood except by analogy: some kind of phase transition in consciousness below life’s lowest hedonic floor – a hedonic floor that is being genetically ratcheted upwards as life becomes ever more wonderful. Transhumans are hyper-empathetic. They get off on each other’s joys. Yet paradoxically, transhuman mental superhealth depends on biological immunity to true comprehension of the nasty stuff elsewhere in the universal wavefunction that even mature superintelligence is impotent to change. Maybe the nature of e.g. Darwinian life, and the minds of malaise-ridden primitives in inaccessible Everett branches, doesn’t seem any more interesting than we find books on the Dark Ages. Negative utilitarianism, if it were conceivable, might be viewed as a depressive psychosis. “Life is suffering”, said Gautama Buddha, but fourth millennials feel in the roots of their being that Life is bliss.
Invincible ignorance? Perhaps. Negative Utilitarianism – Wikipedia
21) The Reproductive Revolution. Reproduction is uncommon in a post-aging society. Most transhumans originate as extra-uterine “designer babies”. The reckless genetic experimentation of sexual reproduction had long seemed irresponsible. Old habits still died hard. By year 3000, the genetic crapshoot of Darwinian life has finally been replaced by precision-engineered sentience. Early critics of “eugenics” and a “Brave New World” have discovered by experience that a “triple S” civilisation of superhappiness, superlongevity and superintelligence isn’t as bad as they supposed. https://www.reproductive-revolution.com/ https://www.huxley.net/
22) Globish (“English Plus”).
Automated real-time translation has been superseded by a common tongue – Globish – spoken, written or “telepathically” communicated. Partial translation manuals for mutually alien state-spaces of consciousness exist, but – as twentieth century Kuhnians would have put it – such state-spaces tend to be incommensurable and their concepts state-specific. Compare how poorly lucid dreamers can communicate with “awake” humans. Many Darwinian terms and concepts are effectively obsolete. In their place, active transhumanist vocabularies of millions of words are common. “Basic Globish” is used for communication with humble minds, i.e. human and nonhuman animals who haven’t been fully uplifted. Incommensurability – SEoP Uplift (science_fiction) – Wikipedia
23) Plans for Galactic colonization.
Terraforming and 3D-bioprinting of post-Darwinian life on nearby solar systems is proceeding apace. Vacant ecological niches tend to get filled. In earlier centuries, a synthesis of cryonics, crude reward pathway enhancements and immersive VR software, combined with revolutionary breakthroughs in rocket propulsion, led to the launch of primitive manned starships. Several are still starbound. Some transhuman utilitarian ethicists and policy-makers favour creating a utilitronium shockwave beyond the pale of civilisation to convert matter and energy into pure pleasure. Year 3000 bioconservatives focus on promoting life animated by gradients of superintelligent bliss. Yet no one objects to pure “hedonium” replacing unprogrammed matter. Interstellar Travel – Wikipedia Utilitarianism – Wikipedia
24) The momentous “unknown unknown”.
If you read a text and the author’s last words are “and then I woke up”, everything you’ve read must be interpreted in a new light – semantic holism with a vengeance. By the year 3000, some earth-shattering revelation may have changed everything – some fundamental background assumption of earlier centuries has been overturned that might not have been explicitly represented in our conceptual scheme. If it exists, then I’ve no inkling what this “unknown unknown” might be, unless it lies hidden in the untapped subjective properties of matter and energy. Christian readers might interject “The Second Coming”. Learning the Simulation Hypothesis were true would be a secular example of such a revelation. Some believers in an AI “Intelligence Explosion” speak delphically of “The Singularity”. Whatever – Shakespeare made the point more poetically, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy”.
As it stands, yes, (24) is almost vacuous. Yet compare how the philosophers of classical antiquity who came closest to recognising their predicament weren’t intellectual titans like Plato or Aristotle, but instead the radical sceptics. The sceptics guessed they were ignorant in ways that transcended the capacity of their conceptual scheme to articulate. By the lights of the fourth millennium, what I’m writing, and what you’re reading, may be stultified by something that humans don’t know and can’t express. Ancient Skepticism – SEoP
OK, twenty-four predictions! Successful prophets tend to locate salvation or doom within the credible lifetime of their intended audience. The questioner asks about life in the year 3000 rather than, say, a Kurzweilian 2045. In my view, everyone reading this text will grow old and die before the predictions of this answer are realised or confounded – with one possible complication.
Opt-out cryonics and opt-in cryothanasia are feasible long before the conquest of aging. Visiting grandpa in the cryonics facility can turn death into an event in life. I’m not convinced that posthuman superintelligence will reckon that Darwinian malware should be revived in any shape or form. Yet if you want to wake up one morning in posthuman paradise – and I do see the appeal – then options exist: http://www.alcor.org/
******************************************************************** p.s. I’m curious about the credence (if any) the reader would assign to the scenarios listed here.
“Ya estamos en la era de la tecnología inteligente”
Fernando Ortega Alertó que los Estados deben invertir más en tecnología y educación.
Carlos Morales Peña /EL DEBER
http://www.eldeber.com.bo/economia/Ya-estamos-en-la-era-de–la-tecnologia-inteligente-20170806-0002.html Agosto 6, 2017
Fernando Ortega es uno de los mayores especialistas en economías del futuro de América Latina. Asegura que ya estamos en la Cuarta Revolución Industrial y en la Era de la Tecnología Inteligente. Llegó a Bolivia invitado por la Universidad Privada Franz Tamayo (Unifranz) en el marco del foro internacional sobre Jóvenes y Empleo que organizó las Naciones Unidas y el programa Siembra Juventud. Destacó que los países de la región están rezagados en sus sistemas educativos, científicos y tecnológicos para enganchar con una sociedad de cambios acelerados que demandan nuevas capacidades y ofertas de consumo.
¿Cuáles son las claves de la nueva economía global?
Estamos viviendo la cuarta revolución industrial. Es lo que, técnicamente, llamamos la Era de la Tecnología Consciente. El punto de inflexión se dio en 2011, dado que en ese año ocurrieron dos hechos fundamentales para esta transformación. Uno popular y otro técnico. El primero ocurrió durante el programa de concurso sobre cultura general que se dio en la televisión estadounidense llamado Jeopardy! Todas las semanas acuden cientos de personas a tratar de responder preguntas sobre arte, ciencia, política, geografía, historia, deportes, cine y música. Aquel año, los ejecutivos de IBM propusieron a los productores del programa hacer una competencia Hombre vs. Máquina. Enfrentaron, entonces, la supercomputadora Watson sin conexión a internet; es decir, disco duro contra el cerebro de los dos humanos más ganadores del concurso. Aceptaron la propuesta. Un millón de dólares era el premio. ¿Quién cree que ganó? No ganaron los genios, sino la máquina. Era la primera vez que una máquina superaba al hombre en un concurso abierto. Ya había ocurrido en 1998 cuando otra supercomputadora, la Deep Blue, también de IBM, había superado a Gary Kaspárov, campeón mundial de ajedrez. Pero se trataba de un juego con reglas simples y que podía ser fácilmente programable. En este caso se trataba de un concurso de conocimiento con preguntas con doble sentido, con adivinanzas. Entonces, la máquina fue capaz de discriminar todas estas posibilidades, tener respuestas coherentes, y entender el lenguaje natural, igual que los humanos.
La tecnología comienza a superar al ser humano…
El segundo hecho fundamental es el surgimiento, en 2011, de la primera generación de computadoras cuánticas comerciales. Este es el nuevo paradigma de la computación. Ya no se trabaja con el sistema binario, 0-1, sino por vectores. Es decir, pueden tener un valor 0-1, o cualquier valor, dado que es un vector, con lo cual se multiplican miles de veces las capacidades de procesamiento de datos. Estamos frente a una nueva revolución tecnológica. En 2013 se lanzó la segunda generación de computadoras cuánticas y recientemente la cuarta generación de este tipo de equipos. Esto implica un cambio muy drástico con respecto a lo que hoy tenemos por conocido. La Era de la Información ya murió, duró desde la primera PC en 1974 hasta 2011; es decir, unos 30 años.
¿Qué consecuencias tiene esta realidad?
La revolución de la tecnología consciente plantea un cambio total de los paradigmas. El mundo, como lo conocemos ahora, ya no será el mismo. Pensar que la inteligencia artificial nunca va a superar la inteligencia humana es falso. De aquí a 2030 se espera que ocurra la “singularidad tecnológica”; es decir, el momento en que la inteligencia artificial equipara las capacidades de la inteligencia humana. Las grandes corporaciones incorporarán en su directorio a un dispositivo de inteligencia artificial. Ese será el hito de este cambio trascendental. Votará con su propio criterio y dirá que esto debería hacerse. Ya verán los humanos si lo siguen o no lo siguen. Antes fue el test de Turing, ahora vamos más allá de eso.
Esto conllevará a que muchos oficios serán desplazados por las máquinas…
Hasta este momento, todas las revoluciones anteriores, la Revolución del Vapor, la Electricidad y de la Informática, lo que hicieron fue generar más empleo. Más crecimiento, más empleo. Ahora, será al revés. Más crecimiento, menos empleo. Porque lo que se va a buscar es productividad y, en ese sentido, las máquinas ganan a los seres humanos. La máquina no tiene vacaciones, no tiene ocho horas de restricción a su trabajo, no sale con licencias de embarazo ni de enfermedad, ni tiene beneficios sociales, no tiene que ir a visitar al colegio el Día del Padre o de la Madre. Las máquinas trabajan 24 horas, 365 días al año y, entonces, aumentarán la productividad de forma sideral.
¿Y a qué nos vamos a dedicar los seres humanos?
Allí viene el siguiente paradigma. La principal fuente de ingresos de las familias hoy es el empleo, es el trabajo. Por eso tenemos el ‘trabajo digno’ y los conceptos laborales que manejan la OIT y las organizaciones no gubernamentales. Hagamos un poco de teoría económica. ¿Cuál es la base del sistema capitalista? El consumo. Si hay consumo, hay oferta. Si hay oferta, tenemos producción y las empresas. Pero para que haya consumo necesitamos un ingreso. La principal fuente de ingreso hasta este momento ha sido el empleo. En el futuro, por la sustitución del empleo por las máquinas, la crisis de empleo va a ser terrible. Entonces surge el nuevo paradigma: UBI (Universal Basic Income). El Ingreso Básico Universal. Todo ciudadano al cumplir los 18 años va a recibir un sueldo del Estado sin trabajar. Eso le debería cubrir los gastos básicos. Si quiere ganar más, deberá trabajar. Pero que se la busque a través del autoempleo o que desarrolle capacidades para que sea de los pocos humanos que tengan contratos dependientes. Esto funciona en economías desarrolladas y ordenadas donde la informalidad es mínima. Pero no se aplica en países como los nuestros. En América Latina la informalidad va entre un 60 y 70%, por lo tanto la presión tributaria es muy baja, un 14 o 17% del PBI. Pese a todo, Canadá y algunos países nórdicos están comenzando a armar sus UBI, lo cual es una solución donde todos ganan. Desde la izquierda hasta la derecha, todo el mundo estará feliz. Desde la izquierda dirán, se logró el socialismo. Los de la derecha dirán que va a seguir funcionando la maquinaria capitalista porque la gente va a tener que consumir. Puede sonar políticamente incorrecto, pero esta será una solución que no la vieron ni Marx ni Engels ni Lenin. Al socialismo se va a llegar por la tecnología, no por la lucha de clases.
Entonces, ¿hay esperanza?
Eso ocurrirá en los países de-sarrollados. Aquí tenemos problemas serios sin resolver todavía. Sobre eso tenemos mucha gente que está desfasada pensando en los paradigmas anteriores. Muchos hablan del Bono Demográfico y dicen que América Latina tiene un momento especial porque va a tener una gran población de jóvenes. Vamos a tener jóvenes sí, pero ¿vamos a tener capacidad de emplearlos? Y no ven el crecimiento de los Ni-ni, que ni trabajan ni estudian.
Estas son las señales que ya nos indican el problema que vamos a tener. Estos chicos van a entrar al mercado laboral en un momento en que ya no se va a demandar gente.
Se las tienen que buscar ellos solos, el autoempleo y el emprendedurismo.
Pero hay que pensarlo muy rápidamente, porque cada año ingresan millones de jóvenes al mercado laboral en América Latina y esta es una bomba social incontenible.
¿Qué debilidades tiene América Latina?
Tenemos, en primer lugar, un serio problema de capacidad de generación de conocimiento. Esto va desde la educación en todos sus niveles, pero también tenemos un problema de retención de nuestros talentos. Nuestra gente se va a otros países desarrollados. Nuestros chicos más promisorios se van. Y nosotros hacemos el papel de tontos. Ahí están los concursos de Google, Facebook o Intel sobre innovación, donde hacen un screaning (escaneo) de todas las ideas brillantes de los chicos. Entonces eligen a la crema y nata del conocimiento local, a los que les ofrecen ir a Silicon Valley para implementar sus ideas. Cuál es el problema. Economía de escala. Si a China tú le quitas 100.000 talentosos no le pasa nada. En China se gradúa medio millón de ingenieros todos los años. Si le sacamos 1.000 talentosos a América Latina, y la cosa se complica. Educar sí, pero también retenerlos y atraer nuevos talentos de otros países para que aporten al desarrollo científico y tecnológico de nuestros países.
Lamentablemente lo que les podemos ofrecer es muy poco por la falta de financiamiento, por la inseguridad creciente en nuestras ciudades y falta de condiciones para otorgar una calidad de vida adecuada. Lo otro es la brecha de infraestructura. Déficit que viene de atrás y que necesitamos generar para adelante. En octubre, Corea del Sur lanza Internet 5-G (5 gigas por segundo) y la cobertura de Internet 4-G en América Latina recién se está desplegando.
from ‘Design for Human and Planetary Health’ D.C. Wahl 2006
Visioning is more than painting an idealistic picture of the future — it is a process of evaluating present conditions, identifying problem areas, and bringing about a community wide consensus on how to overcome existing problems and manage change. By learning about its strengths and weaknesses, a community can decide what it wants to be, and then develop a plan that will guide decisions towards that vision. … Having a shared vision allows a community to focus its diverse energies and avoid conflicts in the present as well as the future. — Sandler, 2000, p.216
The essence of the design process is to envision novel solutions in order to meet certain real or perceived needs and express a certain intention through novel interactions and relationships.While science tends to focus on how the world is and how it came to be — an essentially backward looking activity that may venture to predict the outcome of experiments based on abstract linear extrapolations from past observations — design tends to focus on how the world could be in the future and proposes feasible pathways to create such a future.
In 2005, the UK Design Council published a report on Sustainability & Design. The report admitted the urgent need to re-contextualise design theory and practice in a more holistic and encompassing way that acknowledges the complexity of challenges associated with creating a sustainable society. It identified a wide range of specific skills that are important for designers in the 21st century. This thesis has addressed almost all the skills mentioned in the report, for example: the need for trans-disciplinarity, multiple perspectives, eco-literacy, dialogue and communication, sensitivity to different scales and the need to reconsider environmental ethics.
After interviewing a wide range of people engaged in mainstream product design as well as a number of sustainable product designers, the authors of the Design Council report offered the following summary of essential design skills (see Box 6.1). The ability to vision is the last but certainly not the least important skill on their list.
Any design strategy is useless if there is no clear vision of where that strategy is supposed to take us. The process of creating a collective and trans-disciplinary vision for a future of human, societal, ecosystem and planetary health will emerge as the central means of catalysing the transformation towards a sustainable human civilization during the 21st century. This process will define the quality of life and meaningful existence of current and future generations.
The process of collective visioning based on an integration of multiple perspectives will be central to the creation of locally adapted sustainable communities that cooperate locally, regionally and globally in order to meet true human needs for everyone and within the biophysical limits of local ecosystems and the global biosphere. It is through this community based process of life-long learning and dynamic adaptation of our guiding visions that design will be able to act as trans-disciplinary and trans-epistemological integrator and facilitator (see also chapter one).
“Visioning processes provide a mechanism whereby diverse interests are brought together to develop and reach agreement on a common, preferred vision for the future of an area and/or community” (Baxter & Fraser, 1994). Visioning is therefore centrally important for a community-based approach to designing humanity’s appropriate participation in natural process.
… the transition towards sustainability in its everyday dimension, can be described as follows: in a short period billions of people must redefine their life projects. Although differing greatly, the new directions they can and will want to take have a common vector — one which should take us in all our diversity towards a sustainable future. — Manzini & Jegou, 2003
The intention to increase human and planetary health, as the prerequisite for long-term sustainability, describes the common vector that unites the diversity of locally and regionally adapted human communities and societies behind the common goal of sustaining the continued evolution of life and consciousness through turning the vision of a sustainable human civilization into reality.
While the now increasingly outdated goals that motivated conventional science during the past three hundred years were chasing after the impossible utopia of total prediction and control of nature, the new sciences and the emerging natural design movement are motivated by improving and informing humanity’s appropriate and sustainable participation in natural process. This is an attainable utopia, a vision that we can turn into reality!
The central shift is one from prediction through abstract and linear models based on quantities and dualistic reasoning, to a more comprehensive envisioning of a future of appropriate participation in natural process based on multiple perspectives and epistemologies. By acknowledging the validity of contributions made by various perspectives, the latter approach transcends and includes the former! Jonathan Ball, in his PhD thesis entitled Bioregions and Future State Visioning, provides a very succinct explanation of the difference between prediction and visioning:
There are several ways of looking at the future but two methods predominate. The first is by prediction and the second is ‘visioning’. Prediction is, perforce, based on extrapolation of past trends. Through this process the future can only be viewed as though along a corridor of constraining possibilities. The corridor might widen along its length but the process of prediction is essentially a restrictive one. Visioning, on the other hand, is a process that begins with the desired future state and then looks backwards to the present (building a new corridor between the states). Visioning is a tool that, under various guises, has been developed by the business community to help corporate planning. The present state can be a difficult barrier to what could be — the future state (Stewart, 1993). Therefore, visioning is radically different from conventional futurology which is predictive, prophetic and tends to offer pictures of exaggerated optimism or pessimism. — McRae, 1994, in Ball, 1999, pp.62–63
Victor Margolin believes: “As an art of conception and planning, design occupies a strategic position between the sphere of dispositional ethics and the sphere of social change. This is its power.” He argues: “Design is the activity that generates plans, projects, and products. It produces tangible results that can serve as demonstrations of, or arguments for, how we might live” (Margolin, 2002, p.88). Design is the process of envisioning and creating our collective future.
It is important to understand that in the process of creating a vision of a sustainable community, society, and civilization we should not be restricted by what may be perceived as insurmountable obstacles to achieving that vision. The initial formulation of a vision has to be idealistic, creative, poetic, aesthetic, ethical, intuitive and imaginative. Rational reasoning from a particular perspective should not restrict the integrative and participatory process of creating the initial vision.
First, the best-case scenario, the ‘have our cake and eat it’ option, the win-win-win optimal future state has to be clearly described and en-visioned. This creates a collective goal desirable to everyone and therefore provides the basis for engaging the participation of diverse stakeholders in the long-term process of turning such a vision into reality through appropriate design.
Baxter and Fraser see the value of creating a vision in the way it connects the future and the present. First, a vision helps us to put our current behaviour into context and perspective, and second, it “catalyses new actions and partnerships in order to move the community or organization towards the future it wants” (1994, p.4). They identify six main characteristics of visioning which make it a uniquely useful process. These are summarized in the table below(see Table 6.1).
Only by honouring the entire breadth of diverse intellectual and cultural perspectives and by acknowledging the important, valid and meaningful contributions of complementary — but possibly contradictory — epistemologies can we hope to create a meaningful and inspiring vision that has the power to motivate all of humanity to engage in the transformation towards a sustainable human civilization.
The scientific, materialistic perspective that, through the emerging holistic sciences, is increasingly acknowledging fundamental interconnectedness, interdependence and unpredictability, provides important insights about the dynamics of complex systems like societies, ecosystems and the biosphere. Ecology and complexity theory can help us to participate appropriately in natural process.
However subtler modes of consciousness, that are aware of our participatory and co- creative involvement in both the material and immaterial dimensions of reality, are also important informants of such a vision. Any globally and locally inspiring and meaningful vision, by definition, will have to include contributions from diverse spiritual, ethical, psychological, cultural and aesthetic, as well as scientific points of view.
The globally transformative vision of a sustainable human civilization has to be flexible and adaptable enough to accommodate healthy expressions of an enormous diversity of material and immaterial (internal and external) perspectives. At the same time it has to establish a realistic, socially and ecologically literate consensus about how to proceed in order to implement this collective global vision through the action of empowered and locally adapted communities everywhere.
The vision of a sustainable human civilization must be meaningful enough to be desired by everyone. So much so, that it motivates all global citizens to engage in local, regional, and global cooperation in driving the long-term process of turning this vision into reality.
Jonathan Ball’s doctoral research reviewed a variety of different approaches to creating community based visions and developed a conceptual framework for applying environmental visioning to land-use planning and bioregional design. Ball (1999) identified a number of common characteristics and steps of visioning as a tool for designing meaningful and desired futures intentionally. The Table below (see Table 6.2) shows a summary of three related but differently focussed approaches to the visioning process, as provided by Jonathan Ball.
This multiple and complementary perspective on the appropriate steps that should be applied within a successful visioning exercise provides a more integral understanding of visioning as a potentially powerful tool for sustainable design. The Box below summarizes five common characteristics for the design and realization of successful visions as proposed by Jonathan Ball (see Box 6.2).
The global vision of a sustainable human civilization will motivate and be composed of a wide diversity of regional and local, community-based, visions. Empowered local communities will be the active agents of change that will implement sustainability through appropriate participation in natural process. Such communities will act collectively at the appropriate scale of local adaptation to ecosystems and regional self-reliance and sustainability, and simultaneously cooperate internally and externally in the process of facilitating the realization of this vision locally and globally.
Alan Sandler emphasizes the inherent potential for the visioning process to act as a driver for transformation towards sustainable practices. A community-based, inclusive and participatory approach “in which members share their personal vision and shape them into a shared vision providing energy, coherence and direction for the communities’ diverse programs and services.” Sandler defines vision as “an idea or image of a desirable future which captures the commitment, energy and imagination of key people in working towards its realization” (Sandler, 2000, p.218). The Box below summarizes a set of “tips for vision building” compiled by Alan Sandler (see Box 6.3).
Throughout this thesis, I have repeatedly emphasized the important role of an actively engaged and socially and ecologically literate citizenship in the community based process of creating locally adapted, sustainable communities. Working towards the realization of an inspiring and desirable vision motivates such active engagement.
The process of visioning is, on the one hand, an effective way to engage the whole community and its diverse stakeholders in the process of defining what a desirable and sustainable future would look like. On the other hand, attempting to realize a vision provides the basis for the continuous learning process that informs the community about the appropriateness of the strategies it chooses to implement the collective vision.
An effective vision has to be clear, inclusive, and desirable enough to inspire widespread participation in its implementation and at the same time flexible and adaptable enough to be able to respond appropriately to new insights and environmental or technological change. Adam Kahane emphasizes:
A problem that is generatively complex cannot be solved with a prepackaged solution from the past. A solution has to be worked out as the situation unfolds, through a creative, emergent, generative process. — Kahane, 2004, p.101
There have been a variety of distinct but complementary approaches to working with the visionary aspects of the design and planning process within more or less inclusive communities. Scenario planning, as described by Peter Schwartz in The Art of the Long View (Schwartz, 1991), future workshops (see Jungk & Müllert, 1987), and future search (Weisbord & Janoff, 1995) are worth exploring in this context. Baxter and Fraser (1994) discuss the differences between visioning and forecasting or scenario planning in more detail. The scope of this thesis does not allow me to enter deeper into these issues, which will provide points of departure for future research.
The actual methodologies that can facilitate successful visioning as well as the flexible and adaptive implementation of established visions through widespread and appropriate participation are clearly of central importance in the transformation towards sustainability. Chapter one already emphasized this through the discussion of the role of trans-disciplinary design dialogue and tools like non-violent communication, mediation and consensus decision making. The Spiral Dynamics approach offers one methodology for helping people to cooperate despite differences in their dominant worldview or value system (see chapter one).
In Solving tough problems, Adam Kahane, a founding partner of ‘Generon Consulting’ and the ‘Global Leadership Initiative’ offers a variety of tangible examples of how such trans- disciplinary, inclusive and participatory design processes are already being employed to find appropriate solution (see Kahane, 2004). He emphasizes the importance of personal openness to change, learning and new and transformative insights.
There is a story about a man who wanted to change the world. He tried as hard as he could, but really did not accomplish anything. So he thought that instead he should just try to change his country, but he had no success with that either. Then he tried to change his city and then his neighbourhood, still unsuccessfully. Then he thought he could at least change his family, but failed again. So he decided to change himself. Then a surprising thing happened. As he changed himself, his family changed too. And as his family changed, his neighbourhood changed. As his neighbourhood changed, his city changed. As his city changed, his country changed, and as his country changed, the world changed. — Kahane, 2004, p.131
The anatomy of change is holarchical, with changes on each level affecting changes on all other levels. In order to affect change effectively we have to begin with ourselves. Like Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, who developed Spiral Dynamics (see Beck & Cowan, 1996), Adam Kahane contributed to the peaceful transition from South Africa’s apartheid regime to a democratically elected government through facilitating conciliatory workshops that helped to shape a collective vision for the future.
Kahane asks the important questions: “How can we solve our tough problems without resorting to force? How can we overcome the apartheid syndrome in our homes, workplaces, communities and countries, and globally? How can we heal our world’s gaping wounds?” (Kahane, 2004, p.129). How can we participate in salutogenesis?
The answer lies in collectively engaging in trans-disciplinary and trans-epistemological dialogue that allows us to see issues from various points of view and therefore allows us to integrate different kinds of knowledge into a more collective, inclusive and integral wisdom that can guide appropriate participation and inform the process of turning the vision of a sustainable human civilization into reality.
Kahane proposes: “We have to shift from down-loading and debating to reflective and generative dialogue. We have to chose an open way over a closed way.” He believes that when we make “this simple, practical shift in how we perform these most basic social actions — talking and listening — we unlock our most complex, stuck problem situations. We create miracles” (Kahane, 2004, p.129).
Such miracles, based on trans-disciplinary and trans-epistemological dialogue, are necessary in order to create the attainable utopia of a sustainable human civilization. The Box below summarizes a number of suggestions made by Kahane about how we can facilitate the dialogue about tough problems (see Box 6.4). In chapter one, I proposed that the creation of a sustainable future for humanity is the ‘wicked problem of design’ in the 21st century. The list below offers advice on how each one of us can participate in the process of offering appropriate solutions to this wickedly complex problem.
The ability to participate in such a way in collective decision making processes and collaborative problem solving should be nurtured and practiced in all formal and informal education. It is a crucially important skill for responsible citizens in the 21st century.
Kahane (2004) describes and contrasts a ‘closed way’ of trying to solve problems from within a limited perspective and resisting any other approach, and an ‘open way’ of creating solutions to tough problems by acknowledging their full complexity and by integrating multiple perspectives. The latter creates and informs the vision of a sustainable human civilization.
Every one of us gets to choose, in every encounter every day, which world we will contribute to bringing into reality. When we chose the closed way, we participate in creating a world filled with force and fear. When we choose on open way, we participate in creating another, better world. — Kahane, 2004, p.32
Many different formulations of what a sustainable human civilization may look like will have to be proposed in order to provide a broad basis for the dialogue by which we can establish a basic consensus about how to proceed at the local, regional, national and global scale.
A scale-linking conceptual framework that allows us to integrate diverse issues and address issues in different ways on different scales will hopefully facilitate and structure trans- disciplinary dialogue. Just as the map of value-systems and worldviews provided by Spiral Dynamics allows us to give validity to a variety of different perspectives, salutogenesis and health describe the most fundamental intentionality and goal of sustainability.
I believe we can accomplish great and profitable things within a new conceptual framework: one that values our legacy, honours diversity, and feeds ecosystems and societies … It is time for designs that are creative, abundant, prosperous, and intelligent from the start.
— William McDonough (in Hargroves & Smith, 2005)
I will use the remainder of this exploration of the role of vision in design to introduce a variety of different formulations of hopeful visions of sustainability and the strategies of appropriate participation they propose. By setting these different visions side by side, just like I have set the different approaches to sustainable and ecological design side by side, I hope to open a space in which underlying patterns become clear and a multi-facetted vision of a sustainable human civilization and the appropriate pathways towards that vision can emerge.
The Australian sociologist Ted Trainer has suggested that we need to shift from a society of consumers to a society of conservers. In his opinion, a sustainable society would distinguish itself through much greater self-sufficiency at the community and regional scale; people would live more simply, but have a higher quality of life; they would cooperate to create more equitable and participatory communities, and they would need to create a new economic system. He also recognizes that for this shift to occur, a fundamental reorientation and change of value system is needed (Trainer, 1995, pp.9–15). To illustrate his vision, Trainer compiled an instructive list of design characteristics that would guide the creation and re-design of settlements in such a conserver society (see Box 6.5).
In the recent 30 year up-date of the seminally influential book Limits to Growth, its authors explain: “Visioning means imagining, at first generally and then with increasing specificity, what you really want … not want someone has taught you to want, and not what you have learned to be willing to settle for.” They propose: “Vision, when widely shared and firmly kept in sight, does bring into being new systems” (Meadows et al., 2005, p.272).
Within the limits of space, time, materials, and energy, visionary human intentions can bring forth not only new information, new feedback loops, new behaviour, new knowledge, and new technology, but also new institutions, new physical structures, and new powers within human beings (Meadows et al., 2005, p.273).
Meadows et al. conclude that “a sustainable world can never be fully realised until it is widely envisioned.” They emphasise: “The vision must be built up by many people before it is complete and compelling” (Meadows et al., 2005, p.273). The Box below summarizes how Meadows et al. suggest we may begin the process of envisioning a sustainable society (see Box 6.6).
Their proposed vision revisits many of the issues discussed in this thesis. My intention has been to provide the reader with a trans-disciplinary synthesis of a wider vision that is already emerging along with the emergence of the natural design movement. Planners, designers, politicians, economists, scientists, philosophers, social activists, educators, and business people everywhere have already begun the long process of defining the vision of a sustainable and therefore equitable future for everyone — a future of human and planetary health.
In putting the different but already existing formulations of such a vision side by side, I have demonstrated that there is a significant amount of overlap between the goals and solutions proposed within the different disciplines. From within each discipline, different pieces of the bigger puzzle are added. Each one of them strengthens the overall vision and the various contributions mutually reinforce each other in the creation of a synergetic and powerful ‘leitmotiv’ for turning the vision of a sustainable human society into reality.
Whether we take responsibility or not, we can’t but participate in the creation of the world around us through our attitudes, actions and designs. Our dreams and aspirations, every interaction we participate in, everything we think, say and do exerts a creative power on the world around us and as the world changes in accordance, so do we.
We are continuously in danger of imprisoning ourselves in the walls of our own mental constructs, our guiding stories and ‘scientific theories.’ We collectively create the living and transforming myth of who we are in relation to each other, the community of life, the planet and the universe and this myth becomes our reality. Such is the power of meta-design!
Design is the expression of intentionality through interaction and relationships. Intentionality forms through our processes of meaning making, our value systems and the worldviews we employ. The basis of sustainability is to become conscious of this and choose appropriate participation in this creative process instead of reinforcing unsustainable patterns through our daily actions, while referring responsibility to somebody else.
True, long-term sustainability is possible only if more and more people become fully conscious of our individual and collective creative powers and assume responsibility for their own participation in the process of sustainability, through cooperation with the community of life. Awareness of our fundamental interconnectedness and interdependence with all of life spawns the realization that we cannot maintain human, community, or societal health without maintaining the health of ecosystems and the planet as a whole.
Thomas Greco Jr. beautifully expressed the enormous potential this insight has for individual and community empowerment. His vision of human potential is reproduced in the Box below (see Box 6.7).
What Greco describes is a realization that more and more people are having everyday. It is in this realization that true sustainability can take root. But the process of transformation can only be sustained if we begin to act in accordance with our insights.
At the international level there have been a number of previous attempts to formulate visions of a sustainable future. In 1948, the General Assembly of the United Nations proclaimed the adoption of the ‘Universal Declaration of Human Rights’ (see Bloom 2004, pp.253–260 for a reproduction). In 1986, the World Health Organization published the ‘Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion’ (see Brown et al., 2005, pp.101–105). In June 1992, after a conference in Rio de Janeiro, the United Nations published a ‘Declaration on Environment and Development’ (see Brown et al., 2005, pp.112–117 for a reproduction). This was followed by the publication and international adoption of ‘Agenda 21’ as a blueprint for a social, economic,and environmental sustainability [since this thesis was published in 2006 the SDGs and Agenda 2030 were launched in 2015 as a continuation of the UN sustainable development commitment].
The most widely inclusive and comprehensive document of this kind that has been published to date was developed over almost a decade of worldwide consultation and dialogue through the support of the ‘Green Cross’, founded by Michael Gorbachov and the ‘United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’ (UNESCO). The Earth Charter, was published in 2000, and is structured around the following basic principles: respect and care for the community of life; ecological integrity; social and economic justice; and democracy, non-violence, and peace (see www.earthcharter.org ).
Since its publication the vision of global sustainability, equity, justice and peace formulated in the Earth Charter has been adopted by an increasing number of national and international organizations. It will hopefully provide a basis for fruitful discussion about the necessary local, regional, national, and international dialogues about how to effectively implement such a vision of a sustainable human civilization.
Let ours be a time remembered for the awakening of a new reverence for life, the firm resolve to achieve sustainability, the quickening of the struggle for justice and peace, and the joyful celebration of life. — The Earth Charter, in Jack-Todd, 2005, p.131
The multi-facetted challenges that humanity is facing at the beginning of the third millennium are sending a clear signal: business as usual is no longer an option. The world will change even more drastically during the 21st century than it has done during the 20th century. If we allow this change to be driven by narrowly conceived economic and national interests and disregard global interconnectedness and interdependences as well as our reliance on the planet’s ecological life- support systems, we will do so at an unprecedented cost in the lives of humans and other species with whom we are co-inhabiting this fragile planet.
In 1991, Ralph Metzner, a psychologist at the California Institute of Integral Studies, published an article entitled ‘The Emerging Ecological Worldview’ in Resurgence. Metzner tried to formulate the major changes in worldview and humanity’s way of participating in natural process that will be associated with the transition towards an ‘ecological age’ and a sustainable human civilization. The Table below summarizes his vision (see Table 6.3).
The ecological worldview formulated by Metzner should not be understood as a dualistic opposite to the dominant worldview of the industrial age, rather as an expression of a necessary and healthy evolution of humanity towards a more holistic or integral consciousness that is able to embrace multiple perspectives. Beyond such an ecological worldview lies the integration of old and new modes of consciousness in what might be called an integral or holistic worldview able to transcend and include what came before (see also chapter one).
In 2000, John Todd was invited by the Schumacher Society UK to give the annual Schumacher lecture in Bristol. The title of his presentation was ‘Ecological Design in the 21st Century.’ He ended his speech with a formulation of a vision that will hopefully inspire all global citizens to engage in the design of our collective future:
I have learned that it is possible to design with Nature. I have also learned that, through ecological design, it is theoretically possible to have a high civilization using only one tenth of the world’s resources that industrial societies use today. We can reduce the negative human footprint by ninety percent and thrive as a culture. We do not have to destroy the Earth. Ecological design allows us to link human life support systems in a symbiotic way to the rest of the biosphere. Nature, or Gaia, can regain her wilderness and the air, water, and lands can be free of our poisons. That is the vision. That is the possibility.
In the jungles of Costa Rica, where humidity routinely tops 90 percent, simply moving around outside when it’s over 105 degrees Fahrenheit would be lethal. And the effect would be fast: Within a few hours, a human body would be cooked to death from both inside and out.
July 9, 20179:00 pm
Peering beyond scientific reticence.
It is, I promise, worse than you think. If your anxiety about global warming is dominated by fears of sea-level rise, you are barely scratching the surface of what terrors are possible, even within the lifetime of a teenager today. And yet the swelling seas — and the cities they will drown — have so dominated the picture of global warming, and so overwhelmed our capacity for climate panic, that they have occluded our perception of other threats, many much closer at hand. Rising oceans are bad, in fact very bad; but fleeing the coastline will not be enough.
Indeed, absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become close to uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century.
Even when we train our eyes on climate change, we are unable to comprehend its scope. This past winter, a string of days 60 and 70 degrees warmer than normal baked the North Pole, melting the permafrost that encased Norway’s Svalbard seed vault — a global food bank nicknamed “Doomsday,” designed to ensure that our agriculture survives any catastrophe, and which appeared to have been flooded by climate change less than ten years after being built.
The Doomsday vault is fine, for now: The structure has been secured and the seeds are safe. But treating the episode as a parable of impending flooding missed the more important news. Until recently, permafrost was not a major concern of climate scientists, because, as the name suggests, it was soil that stayed permanently frozen. But Arctic permafrost contains 1.8 trillion tons of carbon, more than twice as much as is currently suspended in the Earth’s atmosphere. When it thaws and is released, that carbon may evaporate as methane, which is 34 times as powerful a greenhouse-gas warming blanket as carbon dioxide when judged on the timescale of a century; when judged on the timescale of two decades, it is 86 times as powerful. In other words, we have, trapped in Arctic permafrost, twice as much carbon as is currently wrecking the atmosphere of the planet, all of it scheduled to be released at a date that keeps getting moved up, partially in the form of a gas that multiplies its warming power 86 times over.
Maybe you know that already — there are alarming stories in the news every day, like those, last month, that seemed to suggest satellite data showed the globe warming since 1998 more than twice as fast as scientists had thought (in fact, the underlying story was considerably less alarming than the headlines). Or the news from Antarctica this past May, when a crack in an ice shelf grew 11 miles in six days, then kept going; the break now has just three miles to go — by the time you read this, it may already have met the open water, where it will drop into the sea one of the biggest icebergs ever, a process known poetically as “calving.”
But no matter how well-informed you are, you are surely not alarmed enough. Over the past decades, our culture has gone apocalyptic with zombie movies and Mad Max dystopias, perhaps the collective result of displaced climate anxiety, and yet when it comes to contemplating real-world warming dangers, we suffer from an incredible failure of imagination. The reasons for that are many: the timid language of scientific probabilities, which the climatologist James Hansen once called “scientific reticence” in a paper chastising scientists for editing their own observations so conscientiously that they failed to communicate how dire the threat really was; the fact that the country is dominated by a group of technocrats who believe any problem can be solved and an opposing culture that doesn’t even see warming as a problem worth addressing; the way that climate denialism has made scientists even more cautious in offering speculative warnings; the simple speed of change and, also, its slowness, such that we are only seeing effects now of warming from decades past; our uncertainty about uncertainty, which the climate writer Naomi Oreskes in particular has suggested stops us from preparing as though anything worse than a median outcome were even possible; the way we assume climate change will hit hardest elsewhere, not everywhere; the smallness (two degrees) and largeness (1.8 trillion tons) and abstractness (400 parts per million) of the numbers; the discomfort of considering a problem that is very difficult, if not impossible, to solve; the altogether incomprehensible scale of that problem, which amounts to the prospect of our own annihilation; simple fear. But aversion arising from fear is a form of denial, too.
In between scientific reticence and science fiction is science itself. This article is the result of dozens of interviews and exchanges with climatologists and researchers in related fields and reflects hundreds of scientific papers on the subject of climate change. What follows is not a series of predictions of what will happen — that will be determined in large part by the much-less-certain science of human response. Instead, it is a portrait of our best understanding of where the planet is heading absent aggressive action. It is unlikely that all of these warming scenarios will be fully realized, largely because the devastation along the way will shake our complacency. But those scenarios, and not the present climate, are the baseline. In fact, they are our schedule.
The present tense of climate change — the destruction we’ve already baked into our future — is horrifying enough. Most people talk as if Miami and Bangladesh still have a chance of surviving; most of the scientists I spoke with assume we’ll lose them within the century, even if we stop burning fossil fuel in the next decade. Two degrees of warming used to be considered the threshold of catastrophe: tens of millions of climate refugees unleashed upon an unprepared world. Now two degrees is our goal, per the Paris climate accords, and experts give us only slim odds of hitting it. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issues serial reports, often called the “gold standard” of climate research; the most recent one projects us to hit four degrees of warming by the beginning of the next century, should we stay the present course. But that’s just a median projection. The upper end of the probability curve runs as high as eight degrees — and the authors still haven’t figured out how to deal with that permafrost melt. The IPCC reports also don’t fully account for the albedo effect (less ice means less reflected and more absorbed sunlight, hence more warming); more cloud cover (which traps heat); or the dieback of forests and other flora (which extract carbon from the atmosphere). Each of these promises to accelerate warming, and the history of the planet shows that temperature can shift as much as five degrees Celsius within thirteen years. The last time the planet was even four degrees warmer, Peter Brannen points out in The Ends of the World, his new history of the planet’s major extinction events, the oceans were hundreds of feet higher.*
The Earth has experienced five mass extinctions before the one we are living through now, each so complete a slate-wiping of the evolutionary record it functioned as a resetting of the planetary clock, and many climate scientists will tell you they are the best analog for the ecological future we are diving headlong into. Unless you are a teenager, you probably read in your high-school textbooks that these extinctions were the result of asteroids. In fact, all but the one that killed the dinosaurs were caused by climate change produced by greenhouse gas. The most notorious was 252 million years ago; it began when carbon warmed the planet by five degrees, accelerated when that warming triggered the release of methane in the Arctic, and ended with 97 percent of all life on Earth dead. We are currently adding carbon to the atmosphere at a considerably faster rate; by most estimates, at least ten times faster. The rate is accelerating. This is what Stephen Hawking had in mind when he said, this spring, that the species needs to colonize other planets in the next century to survive, and what drove Elon Musk, last month, to unveil his plans to build a Mars habitat in 40 to 100 years. These are nonspecialists, of course, and probably as inclined to irrational panic as you or I. But the many sober-minded scientists I interviewed over the past several months — the most credentialed and tenured in the field, few of them inclined to alarmism and many advisers to the IPCC who nevertheless criticize its conservatism — have quietly reached an apocalyptic conclusion, too: No plausible program of emissions reductions alone can prevent climate disaster.
Over the past few decades, the term “Anthropocene” has climbed out of academic discourse and into the popular imagination — a name given to the geologic era we live in now, and a way to signal that it is a new era, defined on the wall chart of deep history by human intervention. One problem with the term is that it implies a conquest of nature (and even echoes the biblical “dominion”). And however sanguine you might be about the proposition that we have already ravaged the natural world, which we surely have, it is another thing entirely to consider the possibility that we have only provoked it, engineering first in ignorance and then in denial a climate system that will now go to war with us for many centuries, perhaps until it destroys us. That is what Wallace Smith Broecker, the avuncular oceanographer who coined the term “global warming,” means when he calls the planet an “angry beast.” You could also go with “war machine.” Each day we arm it more.
II. Heat Death
The bahraining of New York.
Humans, like all mammals, are heat engines; surviving means having to continually cool off, like panting dogs. For that, the temperature needs to be low enough for the air to act as a kind of refrigerant, drawing heat off the skin so the engine can keep pumping. At seven degrees of warming, that would become impossible for large portions of the planet’s equatorial band, and especially the tropics, where humidity adds to the problem; in the jungles of Costa Rica, for instance, where humidity routinely tops 90 percent, simply moving around outside when it’s over 105 degrees Fahrenheit would be lethal. And the effect would be fast: Within a few hours, a human body would be cooked to death from both inside and out.
Climate-change skeptics point out that the planet has warmed and cooled many times before, but the climate window that has allowed for human life is very narrow, even by the standards of planetary history. At 11 or 12 degrees of warming, more than half the world’s population, as distributed today, would die of direct heat. Things almost certainly won’t get that hot this century, though models of unabated emissions do bring us that far eventually. This century, and especially in the tropics, the pain points will pinch much more quickly even than an increase of seven degrees. The key factor is something called wet-bulb temperature, which is a term of measurement as home-laboratory-kit as it sounds: the heat registered on a thermometer wrapped in a damp sock as it’s swung around in the air (since the moisture evaporates from a sock more quickly in dry air, this single number reflects both heat and humidity). At present, most regions reach a wet-bulb maximum of 26 or 27 degrees Celsius; the true red line for habitability is 35 degrees. What is called heat stress comes much sooner.
Actually, we’re about there already. Since 1980, the planet has experienced a 50-fold increase in the number of places experiencing dangerous or extreme heat; a bigger increase is to come. The five warmest summers in Europe since 1500 have all occurred since 2002, and soon, the IPCC warns, simply being outdoors that time of year will be unhealthy for much of the globe. Even if we meet the Paris goals of two degrees warming, cities like Karachi and Kolkata will become close to uninhabitable, annually encountering deadly heat waves like those that crippled them in 2015. At four degrees, the deadly European heat wave of 2003, which killed as many as 2,000 people a day, will be a normal summer. At six, according to an assessment focused only on effects within the U.S. from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, summer labor of any kind would become impossible in the lower Mississippi Valley, and everybody in the country east of the Rockies would be under more heat stress than anyone, anywhere, in the world today. As Joseph Romm has put it in his authoritative primer Climate Change: What Everyone Needs to Know, heat stress in New York City would exceed that of present-day Bahrain, one of the planet’s hottest spots, and the temperature in Bahrain “would induce hyperthermia in even sleeping humans.” The high-end IPCC estimate, remember, is two degrees warmer still. By the end of the century, the World Bank has estimated, the coolest months in tropical South America, Africa, and the Pacific are likely to be warmer than the warmest months at the end of the 20th century. Air-conditioning can help but will ultimately only add to the carbon problem; plus, the climate-controlled malls of the Arab emirates aside, it is not remotely plausible to wholesale air-condition all the hottest parts of the world, many of them also the poorest. And indeed, the crisis will be most dramatic across the Middle East and Persian Gulf, where in 2015 the heat index registered temperatures as high as 163 degrees Fahrenheit. As soon as several decades from now, the hajj will become physically impossible for the 2 million Muslims who make the pilgrimage each year.
It is not just the hajj, and it is not just Mecca; heat is already killing us. In the sugarcane region of El Salvador, as much as one-fifth of the population has chronic kidney disease, including over a quarter of the men, the presumed result of dehydration from working the fields they were able to comfortably harvest as recently as two decades ago. With dialysis, which is expensive, those with kidney failure can expect to live five years; without it, life expectancy is in the weeks. Of course, heat stress promises to pummel us in places other than our kidneys, too. As I type that sentence, in the California desert in mid-June, it is 121 degrees outside my door. It is not a record high.
III. The End of Food
Praying for cornfields in the tundra.
Climates differ and plants vary, but the basic rule for staple cereal crops grown at optimal temperature is that for every degree of warming, yields decline by 10 percent. Some estimates run as high as 15 or even 17 percent. Which means that if the planet is five degrees warmer at the end of the century, we may have as many as 50 percent more people to feed and 50 percent less grain to give them. And proteins are worse: It takes 16 calories of grain to produce just a single calorie of hamburger meat, butchered from a cow that spent its life polluting the climate with methane farts.
Pollyannaish plant physiologists will point out that the cereal-crop math applies only to those regions already at peak growing temperature, and they are right — theoretically, a warmer climate will make it easier to grow corn in Greenland. But as the pathbreaking work by Rosamond Naylor and David Battisti has shown, the tropics are already too hot to efficiently grow grain, and those places where grain is produced today are already at optimal growing temperature — which means even a small warming will push them down the slope of declining productivity. And you can’t easily move croplands north a few hundred miles, because yields in places like remote Canada and Russia are limited by the quality of soil there; it takes many centuries for the planet to produce optimally fertile dirt.
Drought might be an even bigger problem than heat, with some of the world’s most arable land turning quickly to desert. Precipitation is notoriously hard to model, yet predictions for later this century are basically unanimous: unprecedented droughts nearly everywhere food is today produced. By 2080, without dramatic reductions in emissions, southern Europe will be in permanent extreme drought, much worse than the American dust bowl ever was. The same will be true in Iraq and Syria and much of the rest of the Middle East; some of the most densely populated parts of Australia, Africa, and South America; and the breadbasket regions of China. None of these places, which today supply much of the world’s food, will be reliable sources of any. As for the original dust bowl: The droughts in the American plains and Southwest would not just be worse than in the 1930s, a 2015 NASA study predicted, but worse than any droughts in a thousand years — and that includes those that struck between 1100 and 1300, which “dried up all the rivers East of the Sierra Nevada mountains” and may have been responsible for the death of the Anasazi civilization.
Remember, we do not live in a world without hunger as it is. Far from it: Most estimates put the number of undernourished at 800 million globally. In case you haven’t heard, this spring has already brought an unprecedented quadruple famine to Africa and the Middle East; the U.N. has warned that separate starvation events in Somalia, South Sudan, Nigeria, and Yemen could kill 20 million this year alone.
IV. Climate Plagues
What happens when the bubonic ice melts?
Rock, in the right spot, is a record of planetary history, eras as long as millions of years flattened by the forces of geological time into strata with amplitudes of just inches, or just an inch, or even less. Ice works that way, too, as a climate ledger, but it is also frozen history, some of which can be reanimated when unfrozen. There are now, trapped in Arctic ice, diseases that have not circulated in the air for millions of years — in some cases, since before humans were around to encounter them. Which means our immune systems would have no idea how to fight back when those prehistoric plagues emerge from the ice.
The Arctic also stores terrifying bugs from more recent times. In Alaska, already, researchers have discovered remnants of the 1918 flu that infected as many as 500 million and killed as many as 100 million — about 5 percent of the world’s population and almost six times as many as had died in the world war for which the pandemic served as a kind of gruesome capstone. As the BBC reported in May, scientists suspect smallpox and the bubonic plague are trapped in Siberian ice, too — an abridged history of devastating human sickness, left out like egg salad in the Arctic sun.
Experts caution that many of these organisms won’t actually survive the thaw and point to the fastidious lab conditions under which they have already reanimated several of them — the 32,000-year-old “extremophile” bacteria revived in 2005, an 8 million-year-old bug brought back to life in 2007, the 3.5 million–year–old one a Russian scientist self-injected just out of curiosity — to suggest that those are necessary conditions for the return of such ancient plagues. But already last year, a boy was killed and 20 others infected by anthrax released when retreating permafrost exposed the frozen carcass of a reindeer killed by the bacteria at least 75 years earlier; 2,000 present-day reindeer were infected, too, carrying and spreading the disease beyond the tundra.
What concerns epidemiologists more than ancient diseases are existing scourges relocated, rewired, or even re-evolved by warming. The first effect is geographical. Before the early-modern period, when adventuring sailboats accelerated the mixing of peoples and their bugs, human provinciality was a guard against pandemic. Today, even with globalization and the enormous intermingling of human populations, our ecosystems are mostly stable, and this functions as another limit, but global warming will scramble those ecosystems and help disease trespass those limits as surely as Cortés did. You don’t worry much about dengue or malaria if you are living in Maine or France. But as the tropics creep northward and mosquitoes migrate with them, you will. You didn’t much worry about Zika a couple of years ago, either.
As it happens, Zika may also be a good model of the second worrying effect — disease mutation. One reason you hadn’t heard about Zika until recently is that it had been trapped in Uganda; another is that it did not, until recently, appear to cause birth defects. Scientists still don’t entirely understand what happened, or what they missed. But there are things we do know for sure about how climate affects some diseases: Malaria, for instance, thrives in hotter regions not just because the mosquitoes that carry it do, too, but because for every degree increase in temperature, the parasite reproduces ten times faster. Which is one reason that the World Bank estimates that by 2050, 5.2 billion people will be reckoning with it.
V. Unbreathable Air
A rolling death smog that suffocates millions.
Our lungs need oxygen, but that is only a fraction of what we breathe. The fraction of carbon dioxide is growing: It just crossed 400 parts per million, and high-end estimates extrapolating from current trends suggest it will hit 1,000 ppm by 2100. At that concentration, compared to the air we breathe now, human cognitive ability declines by 21 percent.
Other stuff in the hotter air is even scarier, with small increases in pollution capable of shortening life spans by ten years. The warmer the planet gets, the more ozone forms, and by mid-century, Americans will likely suffer a 70 percent increase in unhealthy ozone smog, the National Center for Atmospheric Research has projected. By 2090, as many as 2 billion people globally will be breathing air above the WHO “safe” level; one paper last month showed that, among other effects, a pregnant mother’s exposure to ozone raises the child’s risk of autism (as much as tenfold, combined with other environmental factors). Which does make you think again about the autism epidemic in West Hollywood.
Already, more than 10,000 people die each day from the small particles emitted from fossil-fuel burning; each year, 339,000 people die from wildfire smoke, in part because climate change has extended forest-fire season (in the U.S., it’s increased by 78 days since 1970). By 2050, according to the U.S. Forest Service, wildfires will be twice as destructive as they are today; in some places, the area burned could grow fivefold. What worries people even more is the effect that would have on emissions, especially when the fires ravage forests arising out of peat. Peatland fires in Indonesia in 1997, for instance, added to the global CO2 release by up to 40 percent, and more burning only means more warming only means more burning. There is also the terrifying possibility that rain forests like the Amazon, which in 2010 suffered its second “hundred-year drought” in the space of five years, could dry out enough to become vulnerable to these kinds of devastating, rolling forest fires — which would not only expel enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere but also shrink the size of the forest. That is especially bad because the Amazon alone provides 20 percent of our oxygen.
Then there are the more familiar forms of pollution. In 2013, melting Arctic ice remodeled Asian weather patterns, depriving industrial China of the natural ventilation systems it had come to depend on, which blanketed much of the country’s north in an unbreathable smog. Literally unbreathable. A metric called the Air Quality Index categorizes the risks and tops out at the 301-to-500 range, warning of “serious aggravation of heart or lung disease and premature mortality in persons with cardiopulmonary disease and the elderly” and, for all others, “serious risk of respiratory effects”; at that level, “everyone should avoid all outdoor exertion.” The Chinese “airpocalypse” of 2013 peaked at what would have been an Air Quality Index of over 800. That year, smog was responsible for a third of all deaths in the country.
VI. Perpetual War
The violence baked into heat.
Climatologists are very careful when talking about Syria. They want you to know that while climate change did produce a drought that contributed to civil war, it is not exactly fair to saythat the conflict is the result of warming; next door, for instance, Lebanon suffered the same crop failures. But researchers like Marshall Burke and Solomon Hsiang have managed to quantify some of the non-obvious relationships between temperature and violence: For every half-degree of warming, they say, societies will see between a 10 and 20 percent increase in the likelihood of armed conflict. In climate science, nothing is simple, but the arithmetic is harrowing: A planet five degrees warmer would have at least half again as many wars as we do today. Overall, social conflict could more than double this century.
This is one reason that, as nearly every climate scientist I spoke to pointed out, the U.S. military is obsessed with climate change: The drowning of all American Navy bases by sea-level rise is trouble enough, but being the world’s policeman is quite a bit harder when the crime rate doubles. Of course, it’s not just Syria where climate has contributed to conflict. Some speculate that the elevated level of strife across the Middle East over the past generation reflects the pressures of global warming — a hypothesis all the more cruel considering that warming began accelerating when the industrialized world extracted and then burned the region’s oil.
What accounts for the relationship between climate and conflict? Some of it comes down to agriculture and economics; a lot has to do with forced migration, already at a record high, with at least 65 million displaced people wandering the planet right now. But there is also the simple fact of individual irritability. Heat increases municipal crime rates, and swearing on social media, and the likelihood that a major-league pitcher, coming to the mound after his teammate has been hit by a pitch, will hit an opposing batter in retaliation. And the arrival of air-conditioning in the developed world, in the middle of the past century, did little to solve the problem of the summer crime wave.
VII. Permanent Economic Collapse
Dismal capitalism in a half-poorer world.
The murmuring mantra of global neoliberalism, which prevailed between the end of the Cold War and the onset of the Great Recession, is that economic growth would save us from anything and everything.
But in the aftermath of the 2008 crash, a growing number of historians studying what they call “fossil capitalism” have begun to suggest that the entire history of swift economic growth, which began somewhat suddenly in the 18th century, is not the result of innovation or trade or the dynamics of global capitalism but simply our discovery of fossil fuels and all their raw power — a onetime injection of new “value” into a system that had previously been characterized by global subsistence living. Before fossil fuels, nobody lived better than their parents or grandparents or ancestors from 500 years before, except in the immediate aftermath of a great plague like the Black Death, which allowed the lucky survivors to gobble up the resources liberated by mass graves. After we’ve burned all the fossil fuels, these scholars suggest, perhaps we will return to a “steady state” global economy. Of course, that onetime injection has a devastating long-term cost: climate change.
The most exciting research on the economics of warming has also come from Hsiang and his colleagues, who are not historians of fossil capitalism but who offer some very bleak analysis of their own: Every degree Celsius of warming costs, on average, 1.2 percent of GDP (an enormous number, considering we count growth in the low single digits as “strong”). This is the sterling work in the field, and their median projection is for a 23 percent loss in per capita earning globally by the end of this century (resulting from changes in agriculture, crime, storms, energy, mortality, and labor).
Tracing the shape of the probability curve is even scarier: There is a 12 percent chance that climate change will reduce global output by more than 50 percent by 2100, they say, and a 51 percent chance that it lowers per capita GDP by 20 percent or more by then, unless emissions decline. By comparison, the Great Recession lowered global GDP by about 6 percent, in a onetime shock; Hsiang and his colleagues estimate a one-in-eight chance of an ongoing and irreversible effect by the end of the century that is eight times worse.
The scale of that economic devastation is hard to comprehend, but you can start by imagining what the world would look like today with an economy half as big, which would produce only half as much value, generating only half as much to offer the workers of the world. It makes the grounding of flights out of heat-stricken Phoenix last month seem like pathetically small economic potatoes. And, among other things, it makes the idea of postponing government action on reducing emissions and relying solely on growth and technology to solve the problem an absurd business calculation.
Every round-trip ticket on flights from New York to London, keep in mind, costs the Arctic three more square meters of ice.
VIII. Poisoned Oceans
Sulfide burps off the skeleton coast.
That the sea will become a killer is a given. Barring a radical reduction of emissions, we will see at least four feet of sea-level rise and possibly ten by the end of the century. A third of the world’s major cities are on the coast, not to mention its power plants, ports, navy bases, farmlands, fisheries, river deltas, marshlands, and rice-paddy empires, and even those above ten feet will flood much more easily, and much more regularly, if the water gets that high. At least 600 million people live within ten meters of sea level today.
But the drowning of those homelands is just the start. At present, more than a third of the world’s carbon is sucked up by the oceans — thank God, or else we’d have that much more warming already. But the result is what’s called “ocean acidification,” which, on its own, may add a half a degree to warming this century. It is also already burning through the planet’s water basins — you may remember these as the place where life arose in the first place. You have probably heard of “coral bleaching” — that is, coral dying — which is very bad news, because reefs support as much as a quarter of all marine life and supply food for half a billion people. Ocean acidification will fry fish populations directly, too, though scientists aren’t yet sure how to predict the effects on the stuff we haul out of the ocean to eat; they do know that in acid waters, oysters and mussels will struggle to grow their shells, and that when the pH of human blood drops as much as the oceans’ pH has over the past generation, it induces seizures, comas, and sudden death.
That isn’t all that ocean acidification can do. Carbon absorption can initiate a feedback loop in which underoxygenated waters breed different kinds of microbes that turn the water still more “anoxic,” first in deep ocean “dead zones,” then gradually up toward the surface. There, the small fish die out, unable to breathe, which means oxygen-eating bacteria thrive, and the feedback loop doubles back. This process, in which dead zones grow like cancers, choking off marine life and wiping out fisheries, is already quite advanced in parts of the Gulf of Mexico and just off Namibia, where hydrogen sulfide is bubbling out of the sea along a thousand-mile stretch of land known as the “Skeleton Coast.” The name originally referred to the detritus of the whaling industry, but today it’s more apt than ever. Hydrogen sulfide is so toxic that evolution has trained us to recognize the tiniest, safest traces of it, which is why our noses are so exquisitely skilled at registering flatulence. Hydrogen sulfide is also the thing that finally did us in that time 97 percent of all life on Earth died, once all the feedback loops had been triggered and the circulating jet streams of a warmed ocean ground to a halt — it’s the planet’s preferred gas for a natural holocaust. Gradually, the ocean’s dead zones spread, killing off marine species that had dominated the oceans for hundreds of millions of years, and the gas the inert waters gave off into the atmosphere poisoned everything on land. Plants, too. It was millions of years before the oceans recovered.
IX. The Great Filter
Our present eeriness cannot last.
So why can’t we see it? In his recent book-length essay The Great Derangement, the Indian novelist Amitav Ghosh wonders why global warming and natural disaster haven’t become major subjects of contemporary fiction — why we don’t seem able to imagine climate catastrophe, and why we haven’t yet had a spate of novels in the genre he basically imagines into half-existence and names “the environmental uncanny.” “Consider, for example, the stories that congeal around questions like, ‘Where were you when the Berlin Wall fell?’ or ‘Where were you on 9/11?’ ” he writes. “Will it ever be possible to ask, in the same vein, ‘Where were you at 400 ppm?’ or ‘Where were you when the Larsen B ice shelf broke up?’ ” His answer: Probably not, because the dilemmas and dramas of climate change are simply incompatible with the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, especially in novels, which tend to emphasize the journey of an individual conscience rather than the poisonous miasma of social fate.
Surely this blindness will not last — the world we are about to inhabit will not permit it. In a six-degree-warmer world, the Earth’s ecosystem will boil with so many natural disasters that we will just start calling them “weather”: a constant swarm of out-of-control typhoons and tornadoes and floods and droughts, the planet assaulted regularly with climate events that not so long ago destroyed whole civilizations. The strongest hurricanes will come more often, and we’ll have to invent new categories with which to describe them; tornadoes will grow longer and wider and strike much more frequently, and hail rocks will quadruple in size. Humans used to watch the weather to prophesy the future; going forward, we will see in its wrath the vengeance of the past. Early naturalists talked often about “deep time” — the perception they had, contemplating the grandeur of this valley or that rock basin, of the profound slowness of nature. What lies in store for us is more like what the Victorian anthropologists identified as “dreamtime,” or “everywhen”: the semi-mythical experience, described by Aboriginal Australians, of encountering, in the present moment, an out-of-time past, when ancestors, heroes, and demigods crowded an epic stage. You can find it already watching footage of an iceberg collapsing into the sea — a feeling of history happening all at once.
It is. Many people perceive climate change as a sort of moral and economic debt, accumulated since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and now come due after several centuries — a helpful perspective, in a way, since it is the carbon-burning processes that began in 18th-century England that lit the fuse of everything that followed. But more than half of the carbon humanity has exhaled into the atmosphere in its entire history has been emitted in just the past three decades; since the end of World War II, the figure is 85 percent. Which means that, in the length of a single generation, global warming has brought us to the brink of planetary catastrophe, and that the story of the industrial world’s kamikaze mission is also the story of a single lifetime. My father’s, for instance: born in 1938, among his first memories the news of Pearl Harbor and the mythic Air Force of the propaganda films that followed, films that doubled as advertisements for imperial-American industrial might; and among his last memories the coverage of the desperate signing of the Paris climate accords on cable news, ten weeks before he died of lung cancer last July. Or my mother’s: born in 1945, to German Jews fleeing the smokestacks through which their relatives were incinerated, now enjoying her 72nd year in an American commodity paradise, a paradise supported by the supply chains of an industrialized developing world. She has been smoking for 57 of those years, unfiltered.
Or the scientists’. Some of the men who first identified a changing climate (and given the generation, those who became famous were men) are still alive; a few are even still working. Wally Broecker is 84 years old and drives to work at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory across the Hudson every day from the Upper West Side. Like most of those who first raised the alarm, he believes that no amount of emissions reduction alone can meaningfully help avoid disaster. Instead, he puts his faith in carbon capture — untested technology to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which Broecker estimates will cost at least several trillion dollars — and various forms of “geoengineering,” the catchall name for a variety of moon-shot technologies far-fetched enough that many climate scientists prefer to regard them as dreams, or nightmares, from science fiction. He is especially focused on what’s called the aerosol approach — dispersing so much sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere that when it converts to sulfuric acid, it will cloud a fifth of the horizon and reflect back 2 percent of the sun’s rays, buying the planet at least a little wiggle room, heat-wise. “Of course, that would make our sunsets very red, would bleach the sky, would make more acid rain,” he says. “But you have to look at the magnitude of the problem. You got to watch that you don’t say the giant problem shouldn’t be solved because the solution causes some smaller problems.” He won’t be around to see that, he told me. “But in your lifetime …”
Jim Hansen is another member of this godfather generation. Born in 1941, he became a climatologist at the University of Iowa, developed the groundbreaking “Zero Model” for projecting climate change, and later became the head of climate research at NASA, only to leave under pressure when, while still a federal employee, he filed a lawsuit against the federal government charging inaction on warming (along the way he got arrested a few times for protesting, too). The lawsuit, which is brought by a collective called Our Children’s Trust and is often described as “kids versus climate change,” is built on an appeal to the equal-protection clause, namely, that in failing to take action on warming, the government is violating it by imposing massive costs on future generations; it is scheduled to be heard this winter in Oregon district court. Hansen has recently given up on solving the climate problem with a carbon tax alone, which had been his preferred approach, and has set about calculating the total cost of the additional measure of extracting carbon from the atmosphere.
Hansen began his career studying Venus, which was once a very Earth-like planet with plenty of life-supporting water before runaway climate change rapidly transformed it into an arid and uninhabitable sphere enveloped in an unbreathable gas; he switched to studying our planet by 30, wondering why he should be squinting across the solar system to explore rapid environmental change when he could see it all around him on the planet he was standing on. “When we wrote our first paper on this, in 1981,” he told me, “I remember saying to one of my co-authors, ‘This is going to be very interesting. Sometime during our careers, we’re going to see these things beginning to happen.’ ”
Several of the scientists I spoke with proposed global warming as the solution to Fermi’s famous paradox, which asks, If the universe is so big, then why haven’t we encountered any other intelligent life in it? The answer, they suggested, is that the natural life span of a civilization may be only several thousand years, and the life span of an industrial civilization perhaps only several hundred. In a universe that is many billions of years old, with star systems separated as much by time as by space, civilizations might emerge and develop and burn themselves up simply too fast to ever find one another. Peter Ward, a charismatic paleontologist among those responsible for discovering that the planet’s mass extinctions were caused by greenhouse gas, calls this the “Great Filter”: “Civilizations rise, but there’s an environmental filter that causes them to die off again and disappear fairly quickly,” he told me. “If you look at planet Earth, the filtering we’ve had in the past has been in these mass extinctions.” The mass extinction we are now living through has only just begun; so much more dying is coming.
And yet, improbably, Ward is an optimist. So are Broecker and Hansen and many of the other scientists I spoke to. We have not developed much of a religion of meaning around climate change that might comfort us, or give us purpose, in the face of possible annihilation. But climate scientists have a strange kind of faith: We will find a way to forestall radical warming, they say, because we must.
It is not easy to know how much to be reassured by that bleak certainty, and how much to wonder whether it is another form of delusion; for global warming to work as parable, of course, someone needs to survive to tell the story. The scientists know that to even meet the Paris goals, by 2050, carbon emissions from energy and industry, which are still rising, will have to fall by half each decade; emissions from land use (deforestation, cow farts, etc.) will have to zero out; and we will need to have invented technologies to extract, annually, twice as much carbon from the atmosphere as the entire planet’s plants now do. Nevertheless, by and large, the scientists have an enormous confidence in the ingenuity of humans — a confidence perhaps bolstered by their appreciation for climate change, which is, after all, a human invention, too. They point to the Apollo project, the hole in the ozone we patched in the 1980s, the passing of the fear of mutually assured destruction. Now we’ve found a way to engineer our own doomsday, and surely we will find a way to engineer our way out of it, one way or another. The planet is not used to being provoked like this, and climate systems designed to give feedback over centuries or millennia prevent us — even those who may be watching closely — from fully imagining the damage done already to the planet. But when we do truly see the world we’ve made, they say, we will also find a way to make it livable. For them, the alternative is simply unimaginable.
*This article appears in the July 10, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.
*This article has been updated to provide context for the recent news reports about revisions to a satellite data set,to more accurately reflect the rate of warming during the Paleocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum, to clarify a reference to Peter Brannen’s The Ends of the World, and to make clear that James Hansen still supports a carbon-tax based approach to emissions.