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THE MEANING OF THE 21ST CENTURY
THE MAKE-OR-BREAK CENTURY
by JAMES MARTIN
THE TRANSITION GENERATION
At the start of the 21st century, humankind finds itself on a non-sustainable course – a course that, unless it is changed, will lead to catastrophes of awesome consequences. At the same time, we are unlocking formidable new capabilities that could lead to much more exciting lives and glorious civilizations.
This could be humanity’s last century, or it could be the century in which civilization sets sail towards a far more spectacular future. Decisions that will lead to these wildly different conclusions have to be made soon. They depend upon our being able to understand the options of the 21st century, think logically about our future, and collectively take rational action.
We live on a small, beautiful and totally isolated planet, but its population is becoming too large, and growing rapidly in its desire to consume products that need resources beyond what the earth can provide. Technology is becoming powerful enough to wreck the planet. We are traveling at breakneck speed into an age of extremes – extremes in wealth and poverty, extremes in technology and the experiments that scientists want to perform, extreme forces of globalism, weapons of mass destruction and terrorists acting in the name of religion. If we are to survive decently, we have to learn how to manage this situation.
The message of this book is vitally important. We have reached a situation where grand-scale decisions have to be made. Collectively, humankind needs to be taught about the future so that they can understand these decisions. Rules of the road need to be put into place. As we will explain, the 21st century is a very critical century. It is a make-or-break century.
Problems confront us that could become awesome, but this is a book about solutions – many solutions. With these solutions we will bring about a change in course – a great 21st-century transition. If we get it right, we have an extraordinary future. If we get it wrong, we face a disruption that will set humanity back centuries. A drastic change is needed in the first half of the 21st century to set the stage for extraordinary events in the rest of the century.
The problems that lie in the future of all today’s children are not difficult to understand. Nor are the solutions available to us.
A major reason why we have the problems that this book describes is that most of our institutions don’t have a long-range view of the future. If we look ahead, it is a short-distance view, not a long-distance view. Finding answers to the problems that could wreck our future often needs a long-term view. Given the nature of the 21st century, our young people need to be shown the long-term views.
THE EARTH’S RESOURCES
Humankind has been able to thrive for thousands of years because nature provided it with resources like topsoil, underground water, fish in the oceans, minerals, oil and wetlands — but these resources are finite, like cookies in a jar. We are using up the cookies, and some don’t have substitutes. Nature also provided us with an ozone layer and a delicately regulated atmosphere, with forests that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and yet every year we destroy 44 million acres of forest. Carbon dioxide is being pumped into the atmosphere at a rate greater than the Earth’s forests can absorb it. Every year, we lose 100 million acres of farmland and 24 billion tons of topsoil, and we create 15 million acres of new desert around the world. An inch of good topsoil can take a thousand years to form, but when people destroy windbreaks by cutting down trees, it can be washed or blown away in months.
Water is vital for our survival and for producing food. It takes about a thousand tons of water to produce one ton of grain that, fed to cows, produces only 18 pounds of meat. Today mankind is using about 160 billion tons more water each year than is being replenished by rain. If this water were carried in water trucks, it would require a 300,000-mile-long convoy of trucks every day – a convoy length 37 times the diameter of the Earth. This is how much water we are using and not replenishing.
During the lifetime of today’s teenagers, fresh water will run out in many parts of the world, making food production difficult. Many fish species will be too depleted to replenish themselves. Global warming will bring hurricanes far more severe than Katrina, and will cause natural climate control mechanisms to go wrong. Rising temperatures will lower crop yields in many of the world’s poorest countries, such as those in central Africa. The immense tensions brought about by such situations will occur in a time of extremism, religious belligerence and suicidal terrorism, and this will coincide with terrible weapons becoming much less expensive and more widely available.
This interconnected set of problems has an interconnected set of solutions. If humans implement these solutions, we can gradually achieve a sustainable and highly affluent set of civilizations. Working towards sustainability requires many different types of actions in different subject areas. However, sustainability alone is not enough; we need to be concerned with survivability. We need to be able to control the diverse forces of extreme technology that are part of our future.
Today’s young people will be the generation that brings about this great transition. They are ultimately responsible for the changes we describe – a transition unlike any before in history. They are the Transition Generation. It is vital that they – all of them – understand the 21st century roadmap and the critical role they will play. For many, understanding the meaning of the 21st century will give meaning to their own lives.
This massive change in course is inevitable in this century. It needs to happen sooner rather than later. The longer we delay, the more traumatic it will become. The transition is the sum of many changes, each of which is easy to understand. These changes need to be taught to young people – the generation that will bare the brunt of making them happen. They will need good research, excellent scholarship, and leadership on a large scale – all things we are good at today in our best enterprises.
However, today there are major roadblocks preventing the actions that are needed. There are huge vested interests with massive financial reasons for not changing course. There is bureaucracy that constitutes a form of paralysis. Collectively, governments seem barely able to move in the directions needed. There is large-scale corruption and massive financial subsidies for doing the wrong thing. Above all, there is widespread ignorance of the problems we describe. The most powerful people today have little understanding of the solutions and little incentive to apply them. Politicians in democratic countries are fixated on finding votes. The next election dominates their thinking. Powerful business executives are eager to achieve short-term profits. It is their job to please shareholders who will judge them by this quarter’s results. For the powerful people who control events, the desire for short-term benefits overwhelms the desire solve long-term problems. If these roadblocks are not removed we will steadily head down paths that lead to catastrophe – famines, violence, wars over water, pollution, global pandemics, runaway climate change and, particularly dangerous, terrorism with new types of mass-destruction weapons.
The Transition Generation will not sit around and watch their world being unnecessarily damaged. Their frustrated desires to remake the world and address problems that they have inherited from the 20th century need not result in social unrest. That is the protest model of the 20th century. Today’s youth are more informed and educated. They understand the complexity of 21st century problems, and they do not seek simplistic answers. Indeed, the challenge of these problems excites and animates them. They are forming international youth networks to address global warming and AIDS. They are entering the world of business, taking their new perspectives and challenging the short-term thinking with images of long-term sustainable development.
Think of the 21st century as a deep river canyon with a narrow bottleneck at its center. Think of humanity as river rafters heading downstream. As we head into the canyon, we’ll have to cope with a rate of change that becomes much more intense – a white-water raft trip with the currents becoming much faster and rougher – a time when technology will accelerate at a phenomenal rate.
As the world’s population grows, global tensions and pollution will climb, and the danger of massive famines will increase. The population of the world will continue to rise, probably until it reaches about 8.9 billion (a figure from the latest computer models). The ability to feed such a population will steadily decrease as water-tables drop, farms in poor countries disappear and the huge new consumer classes in at least 20 countries change their eating habits so that they eat more meat (which needs much more grain and, thus, much more scarce water).
Demographers, who map out the course of world population growth, expect it to decline slowly after it reaches its peak in mid-century. It has been falling in most First World countries; the fertility rate in these countries has dropped below the replacement rate of about 2.1 children per woman. The planet’s population growth is occurring mainly in poor countries. At the narrow part of the canyon, the world’s population will be at its highest and the world’s resources under their greatest stress. Because the canyon is going to get rough, there are major uncertainties about what the peak number of humans will be.
The decades in which we are swept towards the canyon bottleneck will be a time when we unlock extraordinary new technology – nanotechnology, biotechnology, extreme-bandwidth networks, regenerative medicine, robotic factories and intense forms of computerized intelligence. Although much harm may be done to the climate by mid-century, the fuels that cause global warming will be partially replaced by various forms of clean energy. Eventually, there will be an endless supply of energy that does little environmental harm. Instead of smokestacks and carbon-based fuels, we’ll have clean industry and a hydrogen economy. The insidious chemicals that interfere with our health will mostly be banned. The oceans will become more protected, but not until immense damage has been done. The global environment will become well instrumented and better understood, so that we become capable of managing it well.
The job of the transition generation is to get humanity through the canyon with as little mayhem as possible into what we hope will be smoother waters beyond. Solutions exist to most of the serious problems. The bad news is that as we are heading toward the canyon, our leaders are not preparing to make the passage smoother for us.
We may see a post-canyon world with smoother sailing, but a different set of events will be taking us into a different type of turbulence. 21st-century technologies will give us the ability to change life, to transform humans and, indeed, to interfere with the inner sanctum that makes us human. Computer intelligence will race far beyond human intelligence. New science will take us into a world that changes very fast, raising questions about how we stay in control.
WHEN WOULD YOU WANT TO BE ALIVE?
It is common today to find people depressed about the future, sometimes abandoning hope that any actions can save us. But when one maps out the possible courses of this century, I think it is the most exciting time to be alive.
Young people have sometimes asked me a question: “If you were to pick any time in history to be alive, which time would you pick?” There have been moments in history when there was excitement in the air and people vying with one another for creating better ideas – London in the Shakespeare years, or Paris of La Belle Époque. Would I want to live in the Athens of Pericles or the Florence of Michelangelo?
When I reflect on such times, it seems to me that none can compare with the lifetime of today’s young people. We don’t have the high-culture civilization of Athens or Florence, but this is a far more extraordinary time. Debates about the meaning of the 21st century and the global evolution of human affairs, will be immensely rich in content. Technology will reach a self-evolving chain reaction for which history provides no guideposts.
Reflecting on the subject matter of this book, I reply to their question: “If I could choose any time to live, I would want to be a teenager now (in a country where great education is available).” There is excitement in the air – perhaps more excitement than at any other time. Many people react to this by saying “You’ve got to be crazy. We’re heading into the canyon” We’re trashing the planet and there’ll be extreme tensions caused by over-population, over-consumption, water and other resources running out. There’ll be corporations larger than nations, runaway nanotechnology and devastating famines. We have terrorism, weapons of mass destruction and the possibility of a biotechnology war. Worse, we may have the catastrophe of a roasted planet. Why not pick a benign safe time like the 1950s? — but we were then terrified by the hydrogen bomb. The Russians exploded a 50-megaton bomb and talked of a “doomsday machine.” Why not pick 100 years ago? — but then First-World teenagers were drifting towards the trenches of World War I.
The most important reason I would choose today is that, more than at any other time, young people will make a spectacular difference. Revolutionary change is essential and today’s young people will make it happen. There needs to be a crusading determination to bring about the changes we describe. Today’s young people will collectively determine the outcome of this make-or-break century. If they understand what is possible, the Transition Generation can open up a highway to by far the most creative era in history.
I don’t sit at my desk with a crystal ball. Crystal balls don’t work. So, why is it sensible to write a book about the future?
There are trends that are foreseeable because they have unstoppable momentum, like a freight train but on a grand scale. Many of these high-momentum trends will have profound consequences and seem either inevitable or very difficult to change. For example, the growth of the Earth’s population can be estimated, and from these estimates we can examine the supply and demand for food, water and other basics.
There are about a hundred freight-train trends that can help us understand aspects of the future. Some are obvious, like the decline of ocean fisheries. Some are clear to experts in the field. Some are long-term, like the spread of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Some are relatively short term changes to a new form of behavior, such as the Internet changing how corporations buy goods.
Some large-scale trends are inevitable because of technology. We know that telecommunications bandwidth is set to grow inexorably because of the inherent bandwidth of optical fibers. The most famous long-term prediction is “Moore’s Law.” In 1965, Gordon Moore, a founder of the great chip company, Intel, stated that the number of transistors on a silicon chip would double every year-and-a half, and it has done so for decades. Diverse forms of technology grow continuously, following their own form of Moore’s Law. As we’ll see, Moore’s-Law trends are fundamentally different from freight-train trends.
Together, these long-term trends form a skeleton of the future. Putting flesh on that skeleton can be done in different ways. We can’t predict the future in detail, but we can study the alternate directions it can take and how to influence it.
When we look at the long-term trends in aggregate, it is clear that we are in deep trouble. Every six weeks the planet’s population has a net increase equal to the population of New York. Extreme differences between rich and poor nations widen even more dramatically, with the wealthiest lifestyles being flaunted in the face of the poorest via television and the forces of globalism. The age of terrorism reflects new types of tensions. Much of the water, essential for growing food, comes from large underground aquifers and dates back to many ice ages ago. When this ancient resource is used up, we’ll have to live mainly on rainwater. There’ll be wars over water.
When environmental shortages become severe in poor countries, civil violence can erupt. In 1994, during a drought, Africa’s two most densely populated countries, Rwanda and Burundi, suffered an explosion of genocidal murder and atrocities that killed nearly a million people.
To map the world in terms of trends having unstoppable momentum suggests a substantial level of predictability. However, even among predictable trends, major surprises occur suddenly. If a surprise is going to make a dent in the freight-train-like momentum, it must be very big. Even though America was shockingly jolted by the attacks of 9/11, the momentum trends of its time continued, and only a few showed a blip on their curve. By contrast, in the early 20th century, the grandly civilized Belle Epoque era, with Paris as its flagship, was largely swept away by the unexpected nightmare of World War I. In 1990, a major economic/political surprise changed the map of history – the Soviet Union collapsed, and people’s lives were left in tatters in one of the world’s best-educated nations.
America has such an impressive economic momentum that it sails through turbulent weather like a grand ship. But there could be surprises big enough to upset the USA. The USA is increasingly dependent upon Third-World economies, which have taken over much of the manufacturing and services that were integral to the US economy. A rapidly growing proportion of what Americans buy is made in China. The USA used to be home to the world’s best programmers and system designers. Now much of that work is done in India. Economies have a pattern of booms and recessions, sometimes with economic collapses. The Asian crisis of 1997 brought much of the Third World to the brink of financial meltdown. Economies are becoming increasingly interconnected, so that an economic bubble in the vigorous part of the Third World, followed by what economists call a “hard landing”, could play havoc in the USA.
Some surprises may be very unpleasant. If a terrorist organization set off atomic bombs, like the Hiroshima bomb, in American cities, the aftermath would be devastating and would create extreme political paranoia.
One of the worst surprises might be something that at first appears far less dramatic – a flu epidemic. The flu of 1918 killed twice as many people as World War I. A new strain of flu, H5N1 avian flu, has a set of characteristics that would make it very dangerous if it spread to people. There is no vaccine for it yet, and we can’t make a vaccine until we know the particular strain of flu. If such a flu starts spreading, some governments are likely to quarantine people and shut down air travel. Because economies of wealthy countries depend increasingly on international business and supply chains, the disruption to multinational business could be devastating. A worse scenario could be a pandemic that surprises nature, because humans have created an artificially modified pathogen.
Peter Schwarz, a long-term professional in creating scenarios of the future, says that surprises large enough to change the momentum-trend skeleton of the future, appear inevitable once the underlying patterns of behavior are examined. A major terrorist attack on the American homeland by Muslim extremists was predicted well before 9/11 – so much so that the destruction of the World Trade Center might conceivably have been avoided. A Third World bubble economy or lethal flu epidemic has an aura of inevitability, and it is sensible to take precautions.
Often surprises occur because politicians don’t listen to scientists. Before hurricane Katrina caused devastation in New Orleans, the situation had been modeled in detail. The models indicated that a Category 3 hurricane could result in broken levees and extremely dangerous flooding of the city. Katrina was Category 5 for a time, but the city was not evacuated. President Bush said he didn’t “think anybody expected” the levees to break.
A message that turns up repeatedly in this book is that we’d better listen to the scientists.
AN EGG SHELL
The Earth is a small sphere sitting in endless black emptiness. It has a thin and complex surface layer in which things grow. If a model of the earth was a thousand feet across, this surface layer would be the thickness of an eggshell.
In the thin layer of Earth’s soil, great forests grow, along with all manner of plants that create oxygen and absorb the carbon dioxide that creatures breath out. The plants and sunlight create weather patterns, forming streams and oceans, and an ecology that is able to regulate itself. The mechanisms of regulation are very intricate. They provide a breathable atmosphere and a climate that humans have adapted to. The Earth’s ecology is a living thing – green and beautiful, with insects and pollination, and complex weather.
This surface shell is generally stable but if it is interfered with too much it can change to a different state. It has periodic ice ages. 20,000 years ago, Britain was buried under ice almost two miles deep. Amazingly, the average temperature towards the end of the ice age was only 5° Centigrade lower than it is today. While the average was 5° lower, some parts of the earth were 20° lower. If we interfere with the eggshell gently, it will adjust and return to stability. However, if anything interferes with it too much, it will change to a different state. This could be chaotic for humans, especially as their population is much larger than that which would have evolved naturally.
The behavior of the Earth is studied with the discipline of Earth System Science, which treats the Earth’s geosphere and biosphere as an integrated entity. James Lovelock, the father of Earth System Science, calls the Earth’s complex system “Gaia.” Like other complex systems, such as city traffic or world finances, Gaia has a behavior of its own. We can change the behavior of city traffic or world finances, but if we change the behavior of Gaia, we may trigger a very slow but ultimately massive change in the climate. The consequences of this would be devastating later in this century. A concern today is that we are inadvertently putting too much pressure on the delicately adjusted shell of the Earth. We are messing with forces of a grand scale.
At present this totally isolated blue planet is in a period of natural warming. It is bad luck that this is the time when human civilization started to also cause artificial warming. We are pumping greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, in large quantities, at a time when Gaia was already feeling the heat. To make this situation worse we are interfering with the elaborate control mechanisms that give the shell stability. We cutting down forests at a rapid rate, changing the surface of the Earth with industry, building large numbers of cities, and diverting water to them. Much of the surface of the planet is becoming scrub vegetation or desert. We are interfering with the control mechanisms that have kept the planet healthy for millions of years.
We now have computer centers around the world that study this in great detail. Scientists create highly detailed models of the planet’s ecosystem, which run on some of the world’s largest supercomputers. Some Earth system scientists see the Earth as being ill, with its temperature becoming too high. If we continue to pump greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere with “business as usual”, we’ll create feedback mechanisms that cause runaway change. Every living thing can enjoy good health or bad health. Lovelock says that the earth has a fever. Gaia has been there before, he says, and recovered, but it took many centuries.
Lovelock, a highly knowledgeable and respected scientist, paints a grim scenario. Much of the Earth will become too hot for farmers to grow food. We don’t know exactly to what extent the warming is irreversible. If Gaia is sick, we must clearly try to cure the sickness. That will need a massive effort to lower the content of carbon in the atmosphere, and to make sure the rain forests and other means of disposing of carbon are sufficient.
Sooner or later, we must realize that we have to live within the planet’s means. We can’t use more water than the Earth is capable of providing. A globally sustainable civilization doesn’t mean one that’s poor or without joy. On the contrary, we can have spectacularly affluent civilizations where we don’t use more resources than the environment can provide. I call this eco-affluence. There can be new lifestyles of the grandest quality that heal rather than harm our global ecosystem.
A quality of life that doesn’t damage the environment doesn’t mean “back-to-nature.” You don’t have to live like Thoreau (unless you want to). It could mean living in a superbly sophisticated city, near family, with the excitement of creative work, cultural diversity, elegant parks and superlative entertainment. Cities can be both beautiful and ecologically correct. A good lifestyle may mean developing a connection to religion, beauty and community. Future civilizations will be anything but simple, and they will have a wide variety of lifestyles.
There are many ways to be affluent without harming the environment. Some involve the love of nature, some involve high technology and some involve opera, baseball, theater, or jazz. The Earth will have large protected areas of ancient and immense biodiversity, and some people will be passionate about understanding this biodiversity. Some will be crazy about ocean racing, paragliding, birding, breeding orchids, hydroponics, cricket, camping or walking in beautiful places. Digital technology will bring global computer games with virtual reality of great richness. With hi-fi earphones and high-definition goggles, we can take state-of-the-art entertainment anywhere.
Around the world a vast new buying class is growing that wants to consume like Americans. One finds American-style shopping malls everywhere. Soon this new consumer class will grow to 4 billion people. As early as possible in that growth, there needs to be a transition that limits the amount of carbon dioxide pumped into the atmosphere. There should be clean energy sources, new types of cars, and efficient use of water. To avoid playing havoc with the planet, we need eco-affluence to become highly fashionable, worldwide.
The future will be characterized by a rapid growth in knowledge and new techniques for putting knowledge to work. Routine work will continue to be done by machines, leaving humans to focus increasingly on jobs that demand human feeling and creativity. The 21st century will bring extraordinary levels of eco-affluent creativity. There will be a near-infinite number of eco-affluent avocations and hobbies.
WEALTH AND CIVILIZATION
One important freight-train trend is the ongoing increase in human productivity caused by improving technology and better management. From 1995 to 2005, productivity in America rose by slightly more than 3% per year – because of increased automation and more ingenious business mechanisms. Some economists expect a long-term productivity growth of around 2.5%. If this continued for a 100 years, society would be 12 times wealthier in real terms. China (starting from a lower base) is likely to be 20 times wealthier in real terms. It is possible (probable, I think) that the era of nanotechnology and robotics will sweep us to higher growth rates than those predicted by today’s economists. However such growth in affluence will not be possible, unless it is eco-affluence. It is vital that this major new wealth be spent in ways that heal rather than harm the planet.
An important statement is that the world’s increase in wealth will be very much greater than its increase in population. This conjunction of freight-train trends offers hope that the world will be made a more decent place for most of humanity. However, the increase in wealth will be very unevenly distributed. The new wealth will be based largely on intellect, so the vast majority of it will go to countries that are already the richest, and have the best universities, while many of the poorest countries will skid into deeper poverty unless a well-planned effort is made to prevent this.
The forces of the near future are so large that they will inevitably change civilization. Part of the 21st century transition is a change in civilizations – different civilizations with different cultures. What’s the point of ever-more extraordinary technology if it doesn’t build better civilizations? Human survivability and creating new concepts of civilization are inextricably linked.
We need to ask fundamental questions about civilization. What sort of a world would you like your children to live in? What should be the principles of a civilization in which biotechnology can change human nature? In Thomas Jefferson’s world, constructive debates raged about future civilization. We need something similar. What principles are right for the 21st century, when so much will change?
Society needs visions of a better future. We need a broader vision of the future’s diverse possibilities because civilization is certain to become more multi-faceted and complex than it is now. As in the grand epic legends like Lord of the Rings, progression towards that vision may be blocked by catastrophes, battles and bureaucrats, and distractions so seductive that we can’t resist them.
The 21st century transition, if we get it right, will not only steer the planet away from a course leading to mayhem, but it will also set the stage for an extraordinary evolution of civilizations very different from what we know today.
The First World, and particularly the USA, has to break free from its economy’s addiction to petroleum. However there is a problem in dong so. The world’s reserves of oil (not counting the undiscovered ones) are of the order of a trillion barrels. At today’s prices that is worth very roughly 60 trillion US dollars. If humanity set out vigorously to stop future climate catastrophes by moving to non-petroleum forms of energy, much of this vast amount of money would be abandoned.
>Saudi Arabia doesn’t want to abandon its huge and only fortune. Nor does Russia or other oil-rich countries. Nor do the petroleum companies. Massive vested interests are linked to oil fortunes. Governments have been persuaded to give outrageous subsidies to oil-related industries. The car industry is linked to the oil industry, rather like the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower worried about.
The enormous forces that govern the earth’s climate are shifting. Our detailed computer models show that we are moving towards a state in which the mechanisms of climate change will become irreversible, but if we act quickly, we can stop climate change becoming a catastrophe of unprecedented scale. We need to act now, not in a decade’s time, because the window is steadily closing. The time for action with the least cost and biggest payoff is now. One giant oil company ran full-page ads in leading newspapers saying exactly the opposite – that there is a covert duty to burn oil faster than ever in order to exploit the oil company’s window of opportunity, which will open until global warming slams it shut.
Throughout this book I use the term leverage factor to refer to small and politically achievable actions that can have powerful results. Archimedes said “Give me a large enough lever and I can move the earth.” There are many examples of leverage factors, where a relatively small action or minor change in rules can cause massive changes in outcome. For example, a tiny catalyst can cause a major chemical reaction. Anti-trust laws have a major effect on the evolution of capitalism’s tendency toward creating monopolies. Injecting a tiny amount of a vaccine into our blood can trigger our immune system into producing enough antibodies to make us immune to a disease. Most of the harmful momentum trends have leverage factors that could help us avoid much of the harm.
One dramatic example: When women in poor countries learn to read, they tend to have fewer children, and it is relatively easy and inexpensive to teach them to read. The most effective way to lower the fertility rate is to provide birth control and teach women to read. This helps women to improve their lives, and it is a relatively inexpensive solution that brings dramatic results.
The Roman Empire didn’t use hay to feed animals. Hay wasn’t needed in a Mediterranean climate because grass grew well enough in winter that there was no need to cut the grass in autumn and store it. Hay came into use during the Dark Ages. The simple idea of using hay was a high-leverage event because it enabled populations in northern Europe to make widespread use of horses and oxen. Hay eventually permitted cities such as London to grow and become great centers of activity.
Smallpox has been humanity’s most dreadful disease. In the 20th century 300 million people died from it (a terrible way to die). In 1966 a totally uncompromising leader, Donald A. Henderson, set out to eradicate smallpox from the planet. When there was an outbreak of smallpox, everyone in a ring around the outbreak was vaccinated. Slowly, in one country after another, in a program called The Eradication, smallpox was wiped out. The last natural case of smallpox infected a cook in Somalia on October 27th, 1977. No human has had smallpox from natural causes since then.
There can be evil leverage factors as well as good ones. After 1977, the only smallpox virus existed in a Maximum Containment Laboratory at the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta and a similar repository at the Moscow Institute. Different strains of the disease were kept in little plastic vials in a liquid-nitrogen freezer. The CDC’s entire smallpox collection would fit in a lady’s handbag and weighed about one pound. The USSR concluded that The Eradication gave it a unique military opportunity. In total secrecy, it created a facility that could make up to 100 tons of weapons-grade smallpox per year. Intercontinental ballistic missiles were modified so that they could carry large quantities of smallpox virus to target destinations and release them.
To address the many difficult problems in this book, we need to identify effective leverage factors. Some leverage factors are unexpected, such as the introduction of World Wide Web software, which made the Internet user-friendly. It cost relatively little but it ushered in the mass acceptability of Internet use and electronic commerce. This simple software was an extraordinary lever.
We need to separate in our minds the momentum trends and leverage factors from the overwhelming noise of smaller issues. Identifying them is a powerful way to think about how to make the future better. There is an enormous amount that can be done to transform the journey ahead.
Major countries will jostle to have a leading competitive position in the new car and power-generation industries. The race for clean energy products will become as intense as competition in the computer industry was.
The biggest leverage factor I can think of is that the all-powerful central government of China decides that it can help stop the world wrecking the Earth’s climate. Today the world worries about China burning enormous quantities of coal. The Chinese government could set a directive for China to identify every type of product that could lessen global climate damage, do the necessary research and development, and manufacture such products at the world’s lowest cost. Such a mission would help stop China’s serious dependence on oil imports.
There is every indication that climate change is going to become a very expensive problem, but that the First World is going to drag its heels in creating large-scale solutions. The First World is trapped in vested interests, so as the alarm about climate damage grows, the size of this expert market for China could become enormous, and extremely profitable.
China could mass-produce and export ecologically benign cars in vast numbers. As we will describe, these will be radically different from the cars that we drive today. It could mass-market products for producing energy without greenhouse gasses, including large-field solar panels, multi-megawatt wind generators, fuel cells for cars and the home, fuel for fuel cells, products that are the basis of green buildings and China’s impressive pebble-bed technology (explained later). All of these will drop in cost substantially as they achieve large sales. It makes sense to embrace all of the non-carbon solutions – green buildings, energy efficiency, eco-affluence, and alternate sources of energy.
China could achieve low-cost manufacturing, excellent research, and capture the market quickly because it is not ensnarled in the First World’s expensive subsidies, bureaucracy, price distortions, old methodologies, and the massive financial interests of the old energy industry, car industry, nuclear industry, and building industry.
Eventually the global annual sales of such products and services (including cars) will become much larger than the global revenue from petroleum-based products -- trillions of dollars per year. Major countries will jostle to have a leading competitive position in the new car and power-generation industries. The race for clean energy products will become as intense as competition in the computer industry was.
The Chinese government has decreed that by 2010, 10% of that vast nation’s energy must come from renewable sources. China won’t have effete objections to the aesthetics of wind generators, or politics that block the development of fuel cells. It won’t have a crippling bureaucracy that delays the building nuclear power stations. This and its phenomenally low-cost manufacturing give it huge competitive advantage. It would be a win-win opportunity of enormous magnitude for much of China’s growth to come from saving the planet.
A tragedy of the present time is that in the First World, and especially in the USA, there is government commitment to and aggressive lobbying for the wrong solutions. There are massive subsidies for planet-wrecking technology. The American car industry is on welfare. Sir Crispin Tickell, a top British environmental advisor to governments, comments: “I find that those at the top of the Chinese government understand the implications of environmental issues better than those in almost any other government in the world.”
Sooner or later, there will be great public alarm about climate change. It may border on hysteria. At that time, China could be ready with the products that could help lessen the damage.
The world, inevitably, is going to have a great transformation. This is part of the meaning of the 21st-century. China, the giant of the future, could either make the world’s problem worse with massive carbon dioxide emissions, or it could decide that it is going to lead the 21st-century revolution.
The 21st century presents an extreme dichotomy. In the strongest countries it will be a time of great increase in wealth and a massive increase in what humans can achieve. In the weakest countries, there will be a cycle of steadily worsening poverty, disease, violence and social chaos. Many nations are destitute, or failed, nations, not developing nations. Developing countries are on a ladder to improvement, step by step they can improve their lot. Destitute nations are so poor that they cannot reach the bottom rung of that ladder. There is no way to educate one’s children, no way to create better farming, no way to enter the world of trade. Below a certain level, poverty is so crushing that there is no way out without well-planned external help; hunger and disease only get worse. It is entirely possible for the wealthy nations to stop this vicious cycle in the poorest nations. Almost a third of the world’s people live in places where they earn less than $2 per day. Half a billion live on less than $1 per day. Between now and mid-century, most of the 2 to 3 billion increase in population will be in the poorest countries. Such destitution leads to desperation. Extremist Islam seminaries, offering food, and advocating terrorism and jihad, is spreading in some of these countries.
We can look at the future in two ways. We can ask: What is the right thing to do? Or we can ask: What is the most likely thing to happen?
As we look at the poorest nations of the world or the destitute shantytowns within not-so-poor nations, it is difficult to understand the true horror of what is there unless you’ve been there. If we ask what the right thing to do is, there are clear, fundamental answers. End poverty. Eliminate disease and squalor. Educate children. Teach women to read. In short, clean up the mess. Take a set of actions that lift the destitute society to the bottom rung of the ladder of development, from which they have a chance to progress. To get to the bottom rung of the ladder they need help from the outside. Without that help, the destitution will get worse. This is not an impractical ideal. Jeffrey Sachs and his associates have worked out in detail how to do it. It does not need a large amount of financial aid; it needs basic know-how putting into place along with enough money to make sure that change happens. Without the know-how and the management, money does little good. The cost to the rich nations would barely be noticed.
However, if we ask what the most likely thing to happen is, we observe that the United Nations sets goals, but there is not much action. Politicians in rich nations make speeches and feel good about their words, but their television-watching constituency mostly doesn’t care about faraway poverty. Not enough money is spent by rich countries to help poor ones. Powerful governments (like the Chinese) bring about powerful changes in their own country, but destitute nations have no such government. They desperately need help, which they are not getting. So, for these nations, if we ask what is probably going to happen, the answer is an inexorable spiral into worsening conditions. To answer “More of the same” would not be correct, usually, because below a certain level of poverty, the situation slowly deteriorates.
Michael Porter, the Harvard superstar of business gurus, told me forcefully: “We have all these countries that are failing; all these people in these countries that have no opportunities, no sense of self-worth. This is creating very divisive forces. … We’re caught in a conundrum. We want to respect the citizens of countries to make choices. We believe deeply in democracy. We want people to guide their own destinies. Yet, what if that keeps not working, and we have these long-term, planet-wide consequences. What do we do about it? That is a discussion that the world, right now, is not prepared to have.”
The richest parts of humanity will spend huge amounts of money improving their lives, while the poorest parts of humanity live an almost sub-human existence. The richest kids will play video games full of virtual violence while the poorest kids live in shanty cities full of actual violence. People in rich societies will strive to live longer, vigorous lives, while the world’s poorest have shorter brutal lives, ruined by AIDS, sporadic warfare, political anarchy and the growing threat of starvation.
Deep inside most of us, if we think deeply, there is a sense of what is the right thing to do. We don’t need to invoke the concept of conscience to say this. Understanding the right thing to do is largely a matter of deep common sense.
In entirely different aspects of the story we have to tell, there is a stark difference between the right thing to do and the most likely thing to happen.
At the time that America’s Founding Fathers were debating what their future society should be like, a handful of similarly thoughtful men in England met at each other’s houses (when there was sufficient moonlight to ride by). They were practical men, neither aristocrats nor scholars, but manufacturers who came together because they were excited by new ideas. They built new types of machines, like the loom and the steam engine. Together they set in motion an avalanche of technology that became the Industrial Revolution. Like all avalanches, it moved slowly at first, but each wave of technology brought with it new ideas for improving things, and the waves picked up speed and followed each other increasingly quickly. Two and a half centuries later, the avalanche is thundering down the mountainside with awesome power. As a consequence of technology, the 20th century saw population and consumption multiply furiously, heading to levels that the earth could not sustain.
The avalanche will continue to accelerate. Theoretical research in science indicates that technology will probably increase in power for centuries. To stop it would take a catastrophe of extreme form. Almost all technology can be used for good or for evil. As technology becomes more powerful, both the potential good and potential evil become greater. The spectrum from good to evil expands and will become extremely wide as the avalanche continues. The larger this range, the greater the need to accelerate the best technologies and suppress the worst. We need the wisdom to recognize that some new technologies are a godsend and others could wreck civilization. New energy technologies that will lessen damage to the climate are vital; technologies that facilitate the spread of weapons of ever more mass destruction should be stopped if possible.
Lord Martin Rees is the President of the British Royal Society, so steeped in scientific history since 1660. He could hardly seem more civilized, living and working as he does amid the ancient magnificence of Trinity College in Cambridge, overlooking gardens sloping down to the river Cam. Despite the calm, Lord Rees has profound reasons for believing that civilization could experience “an irreversible setback.” A deeply thoughtful and broad-ranging scientist, he says that we have so many dangers ahead that he rates the odds of Homo sapiens surviving the 21st century as “no better than fifty-fifty.” He spelled out this reasoning in detail in his book Our Final Century. He is concerned that some big-budget scientific research will become too dangerous and that one low-budget maverick could trigger something uncontrollable. Current technologies already raise questions about whether we can control technology, and far wilder technologies are not on our radar screen yet.
If you think Lord Rees’s claim sounds far-fetched, imagine the accelerating avalanche of technology continuing for a thousand years. Ultimately, it will become far too dangerous to live with. At some point in the future, humankind will not survive unless well-thought-out action is taken to ensure human survivability. That time will probably occur in the 21st century. This is the first century in which Homo sapiens could be terminated.
Even if Homo sapiens survives, civilization may not.
HUMANITY’S GRANDEST CHALLENGE
A vital task for the 21st century is to learn how to cope with the avalanche we have started, and its consequences. As technology becomes more powerful we’ll be rather like a teenager learning to drive on a Lamborghini. You should think of the 21st century as taking us through a driving tests and then establishing a Highway Code so that we can be reasonably safe with the forces of technology and globalism that we are unleashing. This is the century when we learn to control what we are doing. If we can cope with the Lamborghini, we will probably cope with future centuries
Today’s young people will live at a time of extraordinary opportunities and immense problems. How do we help the poorest nations of the world transform themselves? How will the world cope with fully transparent globalism, mass-destruction weapons and terrorism? How do we take advantage of the accelerating avalanche of technology at the same time as preventing it wrecking our world? If we survive this formidable century, we will have acquired the wisdom to survive long term.
The main theme of this book should be taught and talked about everywhere – that the 21st century is unique in human history in that it will produce a great transition that enables humanity to survive. This transition is spelled out in detail in chapter 13.
>Some aspects of the transition will occur with revolutionary suddenness. They may be triggered by a catastrophe, or a government that realizes that desperate action is needed. What started with the Industrial Revolution now needs another corrective revolution – the 21st Century Revolution. This viewpoint was taken from the first printing of this book by the government of the European Union, stating its response to the global warming crisis. However the 21st Century Revolution needs to be about much more than global warming. It is about the whole set of problems that we face, and which ultimately need to be addressed in an integrated fashion. If we get it right it right, will make the planet sustainable and manageable. If we get it wrong we’ll be in deep trouble.
The Industrial Revolution and the 21st-Century Revolution, then, balance one another. The Industrial Revolution started the extraordinary events of the last 250 years, and the 21st-Century Revolution will gain control of those events so that they don’t destroy us. If we establish an appropriate Highway Code for the future, the 21st century and centuries beyond it can be magnificent beyond anything we can imagine because technology will enhance human creativity and culture in ways enormously beyond anything that is generally realized today.
The generation now at school is the one slated to bring about this momentous transition – both the parts of it that are revolution and the parts that are more gentle. Collectively the task of the Transition Generation is awesome. All young people need to be taught about the meaning of the 21st Century.
The problem most talked about at the moment is global warming and its effect on the Earth’s climate. It’s important to understand that there are other problems, some more serious than climate change, for example, the possibility that a World War with nuclear and biological weapons could wipe out civilization. Box 1 lists 16 large-scale problems that we face.
The following are the large-scale problems of the 21st century:
- GLOBAL WARMING Global warming will lead to severe climate change. Unless stopped, it will upset the basic control mechanisms of planet Earth.
- EXCESSIVE POPULATION GROWTH World population may grow to 8.9 billion people, with a growing demand for consumer goods and carbon-based energy, far exceeding what the planet can handle.
- WATER SHORTAGES Rivers and aquifers are drying up. Many farmers will not have the water essential for food growing. There will be wars over water.
- DESTRUCTION OF LIFE IN THE OCEANS Only 10% of edible fish remain in the oceans, and this percentage is rapidly declining.
- MASS FAMINE IN ILL-ORGANIZED COUNTRIES Farm productivity is declining. Grain will rise in cost. This will harm the poorest countries.
- THE SPREAD OF DESERTS Soil is being eroded. Deserts are spreading in areas that used to have good soil and grassland.
- PANDEMICS AIDS is continuing to spread. Infectious pandemics could spread at unstoppable rates, as they have in the past, but now with the capability to kill enormous numbers of people.
- EXTREME POVERTY 2 to 3 billion people live in conditions of extreme poverty, with lack of sanitation. The difference between rich and poor is becoming ever more extreme.
- GROWTH OF SHANTYCITIES Shantytowns (shantycities) with extreme violence and poverty are growing in many parts of the world. Youth there have no hope.
- UNSTOPPABLE GLOBAL MIGRATIONS Large numbers of people are leaving the poorest countries and shantycities, wanting to find a life in countries with opportunity.
- NON-STATE ACTORS WITH EXTREME WEAPONS Nuclear or biological weapons are becoming easier to build by terrorist organizations, political groups or individuals, who are not acting for a given state.
- VIOLENT RELIGIOUS EXTREMISM Religious extremism and jihads may become widespread, leading to large numbers of suicide terrorists, and religious war between Muslims and Christians.
- RUNAWAY COMPUTER INTELLIGENCE Computers will acquire the capability to increase their own intelligence until a chain reaction happens of machines becoming more intelligent at electronic speed.
- WAR THAT COULD END CIVILIZATION A global war like World War I or II, conducted with today’s vast number of nuclear weapons and new biological weapons, could end civilization.
- RISKS TO HOMO SAPIEN’S EXISTENCE We are heading in the direction of scientific experiments (described by Lord Martin Rees) that have a low probability of wiping out Homo sapiens. The combination of risks gives a relatively high probability of not surviving the century.
- A NEW DARK AGE A global cocktail of intolerable poverty and outrageous wealth, starvation, mass terrorism with nuclear/biological weapons, world war, deliberate pandemics and religious insanity, might plunge humanity into a worldwide pattern of unending hatred and violence – a new Dark Age.
All of these mega-problems are multinational. None could solved by one country alone. All countries participate, to different degrees, in causing most of the problems, so they should naturally participate in the solutions. Perhaps the worst problem is the least probable – #15: the possibility that some scientific activity could accidentally wipe out humanity.
The 16 mega-problems are interconnected, and because of this, the solutions are interconnected to a large extent. Most of the solutions are not technically very difficult; they’re not “rocket science.” There are two exceptions to that.
Most of the problems are the consequences of bad management and absence of foresight. There is no silver bullet. Many different factors have to be brought into play to deal with the problem, as is the case in the management of corporations.
Just as the problems are the result of bad management, so the solutions need to be the application of excellent management. This is an age the most brilliant management in corporations. Every year there is crop of superstar corporations, that are wonderfully well managed. But, the brilliant management is being applied where there are large profits to be made, but not to the giant problems listed in Box 1. This is one of the changes needed.
Part 1 of this book explores the trouble we are running into and indicates that there are solutions – many important solutions. But it emphasizes that if we continue to delay taking action, the consequences will be long-term catastrophes on a grand scale. Part 2 describes technologies that will give us extraordinary new capabilities, but (as increasingly in the future) can get us into new types of trouble. With this background, Part 3 opens with a chapter spelling out the meaning of this very critical century. Humankind with appropriate training is impressively resourceful, so once the canyon is visible it will find ways to deal with it. There will be some serious damage, so part of the resourcefulness will be to make the most of a damaged planet. Part 4 describes a new world we are heading towards. Can we create new lifestyles that will usher humanity towards higher levels of civilization? Can we cope with technologies that are enormously disruptive? Can we escape from the obsolete ideas of the 20th century?
Can the fresh thinking of a newly powerful country, like China, create 21st-century ideas. Can it take 21st century action faster than the older countries that are ensnarled in the complexities they have created.
Can we stop the evil side of our nature from burning the house down, or blocking the way to what could be unimaginable human advancement? Will the 21st-Century Revolution be relatively gentle, as the Industrial Revolution was, or will the inevitable changes occur with revolutionary earthquakes?
If we understand this century and learn how to play its very complex game, our future will be magnificent. If we get it wrong, we could be plunged into a new type of Dark Age.