Sixteen Worldviews: A Summation of Recent Reviews

3. Techno-optimists
The alternative to sustainable, low-carbon societies that aim to reduce poverty and inequal­ity is essentially “business as usual” powered by the panoply of new technologies, with “trickle-down” benefits to all implicitly assumed. This is expressed subtly, or not so subtly.

Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worldsfrom America’s National Intelligence Council (NIC, Dec 2012, 137p;; BOM 2/13) acknowledges that the world of 2030 “will be radically transformed” and presents a framework of four megatrends, six “game-changers,” potential “black swans” or wild cards, and four “alternative worlds” scenarios that bear little resemblance to any of the sustainable development visions presented above. The tip-off to the NIC’s bias is their selection of “Individual Empowerment” as the most important megatrend, which will “accelerate substantially during the next 15-20 years owing to poverty reduction and a huge growth of the global middle class, greater educa­tional attainment, and better health care.” The potential for greater individual initiative due to widespread use of new communications and manufacturing technologies is thus seen as “key to solving the mounting global challenges over the next 15-20 years.” Perhaps so, but this upbeat assumption should be categorized as a scenario and not a megatrend. Conversely, the NIC’s “Gini Out-of-the-Bottle” scenario of greater inequality as measured by the Gini Coefficient should be seen as a megatrend, not a possible scenario. For further critiques of the NIC report, see the 13 essays in The NIC’s Global Trends 2030 Report: A Collective Critique,World Future ReviewSpecial Issue, 5:4, Winter 2013 (published by World Future Society/Sage Publications).

The bias of The Economist, a widely-respected weekly magazine with outstanding global coverage, is not as subtle. Megachange: The World in 2050(London: The Economist and Profile Books, 2012, 304p; BOM 6/13), edited by Executive Editor Daniel Franklin, provides 20 chapters on the “great trends that are transforming the world”: population growth to “over 9 billion” by 2050, “stunning” advances in health care, more opportunities for women in most countries, collective intelligence as commonplace by 2050, continued dominance of the English language as many other languages die off, atheism and agnosticism expected to decline (!), global emissions unlikely to fall for decades (the best we can hope for is a plateauing in the 2030s, followed perhaps by a modest decline), problems of failing states and jihadist terrorism will remain, the problematic spread of the rule of law, the rising social burden of an aging society, the prospering of today’s “upstart economies,” scenarios of globali­zation, a “far narrower” gap between rich and poor countries, disruptive innovation, the accelerating growth of information (information overload is a very real problem, but “tools to help us handle it are improving”) and mobile technology bringing the excluded closer to the mainstream and making markets more efficient. Editor Franklin concludes that “there is every chance that the world in 2050 will be richer, healthier, more connected, more sustainable, more productive, more innovative, better educated, (and) with less inequality…and with more opportunity for billions of people.” A concluding essay by Matt Ridley, author of The Rational Optimist(2010), states that “planetary pessimism is usually wrong; the field of futurology is littered with cataclysmic prognostications that failed.” He does not compare with the many optimistic prognostications that failed in the mythical “field of futur­ology,” a simplistic construct used as a straw man by one-eyed optimists.

“Sustainability” is not mentioned by The Economist, other than the passing reference, cited above. The overview of scores of trends is quite good, and many problems are discussed, albeit too briefly in most instances (e.g., infoglut). The general expectation is that R&D and rising levels of education “will offset barriers to growth such as unemployment, corruption, environmental degradation, and social tensions arising from income inequalities.”

In contrast to this sophisticated defense of free-market capitalism and globalization driven by high technology, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think (Free Press, Feb 2012, 386p;; BOM 8/12), by Peter H. Diamandis and Steven Kotler, presents the uninhibited techno-enthusiasm of Silicon Valley’s Singularity University, founded by Diamandis and prodigious inventor and putative “futurist” Ray Kurzweil. Eight exponentially growing fields are at the core of SU’s curriculum: biotechnology and bioinformatics, computational systems, networks and sensors, artificial intelligence, robotics, digital manufacturing, medicine, and nanomaterials and nanotechnology. “Each of these has the potential to affect billions of people, solve grand challenges, and reinvent industries.” The back-cover blurb by Kurzweil announces that “This brilliant must-read book provides the key to the coming era of abundance replacing eons of scarcity; (it) is a powerful antidote to today’s malaise and pessimism.” The authors go on to forecast that “within a generation, we will be able to provide goods and services, once reserved for the wealthy few, to any and all who need them. Or desire them. Abundance for all is actually within our grasp.”

4. Green Pessimists
Whereas techno-optimists ignore or downplay environmental issues, or brag that new technologies will “solve” them, green pessimists characteristically ignore or downplay the panoply of new and emerging technologies while focusing on population/resource/ environment issues, especially climate change. And, if one looks, there is much to be pessimistic about.

Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries (Earthscan/Routledge, Nov 2012, 206p; BOM 1/13), a Report to the Club of Rome by Anders Wijkman (Co-President, Club of Rome) and Johan Rockstrom (Stockholm Resilience Center), expands the concern about climate change to the broader concept of “planetary boundaries” involving nine biophys­ical processes as regards climate, ozone levels, ocean acidification, biogeochemical loading (nitrogen and phosphorus cycles), biodiversity loss, degradation of land, overexploitation of freshwater, toxic chemical pollution, and atmospheric aerosol loading. They argue that since WWII, the evidence is clear that “pressures on key ecosystems have increased exponentially” and that “we are very close to a saturation point, where the biosphere cannot handle addi­tional stress.” Major indicators are higher levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, large dead zones in coastal areas, melting sea ice and permafrost, rising sea levels, land use changes, etc. The authors discuss the necessary energy transition to renewable sources and greatly-reduced consumption, the possibility that the Arctic region may have entered a “death spiral,” the need to stop using GDP growth as a measure of well-being and to place a value on natural capital and ecosystem services, financial sector reform to promote sustainability, and the need to curb population growth and reform agriculture. A brief version of the “planetary boundaries” concept also appears in the Worldwatch Institute’s State of the World 2013 report, written by Carl Folke of the Stockholm Resilience Centre. This well-documented concept of planetary pessimism, first published in 2009 in Nature and in Ecology and Society, has yet to be widely noticed.

Another recent Report to the Club of Rome, 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years (Chelsea Green, June 2012, 392p; BOM 7/12) was written by Jorgen Randers, one of the four original authors of the first report to the CoR in 1972, The Limits to Growth. Commemorating the 40th anniversary of this much-discussed and debated report, Randers looks 40 years ahead at “the most likely global roadmap,” based on the premise that “human­ity remains in solid overshoot…and we can discern the early signs of the coming gradual destruction of the ecosystem.” The negative impacts of climate change will be significant but not disastrous by 2052, with more droughts, floods, sea-level rise, and self-reinforcing climate change largely due to methane emissions from melting tundra as “worry number one.” Slow and insufficient response to our challenges will dominate, but lack of space and cheap resources will force solutions with a lower ecological footprint, and a decline of world GDP just after 2052. Emerging problems will mean increased investment, forced or voluntary, lowering the share of GDP available for consumption, which will begin to fall around 2050. In sum, “the story of the 2052 forecast is one of overshoot caused by delayed societal response to greenhouse gas emissions being allowed to increase beyond sustainable levels for generations.” This forecast is not entirely bleak: whereas Randers and colleagues warned of “exponential” population growth in the original LtoG report, 2052 envisions global population reaching a maximum of 8.1 billion in the early 2040s (the U.N. low projection), thereafter declining to 7 billion by 2075.

A far more pessimistic view coupled with an idealized global vision is provided by Ross Jackson’s Occupy World Street: A Global Roadmap for Radical Economic and Political Reform (Chelsea Green, March 2012, 315p;; BOM 9/12), which views our civilization in the midst of a painful global collapse by overloading the ecosystem. Chapters describe the assault on nature, the coming peak in global oil production, overpopulation, “grossly overstated” hopes for biotechnology, how the Genuine Progress Indicator that adjusts GDP for negative factors shows deterioration of well-being in the past 30 years, inadequate economic beliefs that make a collapse inevitable, the corporatocracy, and recurrent financial crises (“the financial mafia is simply too powerful”). Calling for a new worldview to promote sustainability, Jackson advocates Gaia theory as foundation, steady-state economics, and effective global governance in a Gaian world to ensure survival (with detailed discussion of eight institutions to be founded by a Gaian League of small nations).

5. The Long Road Ahead to Shared Vision
The Oxford Martin Commission for Future Generations advocates more global conversations, more international cooperation, creative coalitions, an agreed global ethic, and a “common global vision” and “platform of understanding” to create global belonging among citizens, especially the justifiably angry and alienated young. But this is more easily said than done, and considerable learning about alternative views is needed.

The good news is that something of this sort is emerging, centered around WAAS discussions of a “new paradigm,” promoting a “universal agenda” for sustainable development along with a “new paradigm” (2013 UN High-Level Panel), paying more attention to the long term and future generations (Oxford Martin Commission), rethinking obsolete economic concepts (Al Gore and Worldwatch Institute), addressing 15 Global Challenges (Millennium Project), human security and global security cooperation (Stiglitz and Kaldor), ideas to fix the world (Dutkiewicz and Sakwa), halting population growth and promoting a “green economy” that works for everyone (State of the World 2012), and considering the many co-benefits of a strong and coordinated climate policy (The Climate Bonus).

The bad news is the “herding cats” problem of identifying the hundreds of individuals and organizations that are continuously generating promising ideas and actions—far more than the sixteen worldviews described here – and arriving at some common language and a common global vision. Efforts should certainly be made at more conversations and more coalitions, but there will invariably be conflicts between big and small organizations, and between idealists and pragmatists, or “fundis” and “realos” as long identified among German greens. Practical disputes are inevitable as to which issues should be addressed and prioritized, and who gets credited. The ongoing problem of forging a global climate policy may seem simple in comparison.

Even if some sort of common global vision does begin to emerge, a still greater task will be to promote it in the nations of the world, especially in the still-powerful but information-glutted United States, where “sustainability” is not on the national political agenda; there are few “green” champions in national policy discourse and fewer still in public office, and any universal global agenda would be viewed with suspicion at a time when “big government” is under assault and fiscally challenged. On the other hand, as noted in several chapters in The Quest for Security, large cities and some businesses in the US and elsewhere are taking the lead in pursuing important elements of sustainable development.

Both tasks — forging a common vision and making it widely visible and accepted – are not impossible and should be undertaken. But a long and difficult road ahead seems more likely than not. Conversations can be undertaken among most cosmopolitans and greens, and possibly with muted techno-optimists such as the National Intelligence Council, which professes openness to dialogue. Productive conversations seem less likely with The Economist and other institutions wedded to free-market capitalism and conventional economic thinking, and seem virtually impossible with those who hear the siren call of technology innovation and easy “solutions” to our numerous global problems, especially because some new technol­ogies may prove to be helpful.

Meanwhile, estimates of world population growth in 2050 continue to creep upwards every year, according to the annual World Population Data Sheet of the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau. In 2003, the projected population in 2050 was 9.198 billion. In the 2008 Data Sheet, world population rose to 9.352 billion. In the 2013 Data Sheet, the projection was expected to be 9.727 billion. This “estimate creep” is probably due to better health care and declining mortality rates. One might reasonably expect a projection of 10 billion people by 2050 to be made in the next three or four years—quite contrary to the 9 billion now assumed by The Economist (and many others) and the 8 billion or so assumed by Jorgen Randers. This “most likely” informed forecast for 2050 is not yet in anyone’s worldview, but it ought to be cause for further concern. Some 10% more population by 2050 than commonly assumed increases the urgency of forging and pursuing a shared vision for sustainability.

Pages: 1 2