“Politics is not just the battle for today, it is also the war for tomorrow.”
Welcome to Futurist Friday, where tomorrow intersects with politics, policy and prediction. The point of this exercise is to describe the likely future based on current analysis of trends, curves and activity occurring today. The hope is to encourage discussion and debate on what needs to be changed, what actions can be taken and; why should Alan Boyle have all the fun?
The format of this article usually covers five year increments to the year 2100. This week, 2060 will be covered. This column will focus on the upcoming gauntlet for humanity to survive. A word of caution, some of this will seem rather dystopic, however as history has shown, it is always within peoples’ nature to change. I must give credit to FutureTimeline.net as an invaluable source for the speculations presented.
Welcome to the Future 2060-Running the Gauntlet to the Crucible
And behold a pale horse, and he that sat upon him, his name was Death, and hell followed him. And power was given him over the four corners of the Earth, to kill with sword, with famine, and with death, and with the beasts of the Earth. - Revelations 6-8, Douay-Rheims Bible
As the final decades of the 21st century unfold, humanity faces a crisis unparalleled in it’s history. Where previously it had been resource scarcity, climate change has taken center stage as the most immediate threat to world peace. Natural and human systems both face the prospect of permanent collapse. Of the nine planetary boundaries, three - biodiversity, climate change and nitrogen levels - had already been passed by the year 2000. Population, having reached a peak in the 2050s, is now going into decline as millions perish due to war, starvation and environmental disasters. New and terrifying threats have also emerged, such as nanotechnology terrorism. The global economy, already undergoing rapid change, has entered a period of intense disruption, with traditional free market capitalism beset with problems it is structurally incapable of addressing. Corporations which have operated for many decades seem to disappear overnight, unable to adapt. So too will governments have to change, as increasingly angry and frightened citizens pile pressure on world leaders to either adjust or step down. Every organization and institution survives or falls according to its response to this crisis. By 2100, the world will be unrecognizable compared to its earlier status. Political, economic, social, technological and environmental change will have hit so swiftly that the next four decades will appear unlike any other period in history.
Much of the world in the 2060s has moved into a rapidly degrading geopolitical situation. Driving this crisis is the seemingly unending stream of climate refugees attempting to cross national borders. Throughout this period, increasing numbers of equatorial countries are reclassified as failed states, with collapsed governments and directionless populations. Civil war is becoming common in many regions as a result. For many of the countries adjacent to these equatorial regions, this is leading to severe political and social strife, as desperate measures are introduced to either keep refugees out or try to adjust. This is a particular problem between Europe and Africa. The Mediterranean has become highly militarized - with Italy, Spain and Greece especially hard hit, resulting in hardline nationalistic governments coming to power. Many European countries are in political deadlock over food and water sharing. At the other end of Africa, the previously stable country of South Africa is being overrun by refugees from Botswana, which has been almost entirely consumed by desertification.
Similar problems are proliferating in Asia as well. Bangladesh is slowly being emptied of its populace, with many fleeing to neighboring India. The latter, however, is unable to support this surge. As a result, vast shantytowns have formed along the Bangladesh-India border, home to many millions of people. Lawless, overcrowded, and with disease epidemics spreading rapidly, this region has become one of the most dangerous in the world. China is also facing a political crisis as divisions grow between coastal areas and the eastern plateaus. The country’s population has fallen into steady decline as many people move northward to more stable climates. Russia is now negotiating with Beijing to stem this tide of Chinese refugees, further dividing the region. Meanwhile, much of the Middle East has been reduced to a wasteland of anarchy, with only a few semi-stable countries remaining.
North America has seen a dramatic shift in power. The United States and Canada have established a system where American citizens are employed temporarily in Canada - similar to the Mexican-American bracero program utilized over a century ago. This is due to both the United State’s disastrous economic situation and Canada’s ongoing rise as a superpower. In any case, large numbers of Americans are moving to Canada permanently whether legal or not. This is creating a great deal of friction between the two countries. Canada’s rise has prompted some to call for more aggressive action by the United States, possibly even war. Though not widely supported, the situation is exacerbated by growing violence originating in American enclaves throughout Canada.
At the southern border, the situation is much more pressing. A massive flow of immigrants from Central American countries, but primarily Mexico, is entering the United States, radically shifting the demographics of southern states. This is encouraged to a certain extent, in response to the loss of American labor to Canada. However, the loss of jobs through mechanization and the limited regional food production is now forcing American authorities to close off the flow of immigration, leaving a large population of Mexican Americans displaced. The fact that the majority of these people are stuck in the southwest only makes the situation worse. This area is now one of the most destitute in the country, with food and water rationing required almost permanently. Combined with often violent methods used to seal off the border, deep regional and cultural divides are erupting in the United States, the likes of which have not been seen since the Civil War. American anti-immigration has grown in response, and by now has reached extreme levels. Previously confined to the more radical ends of the Republican Party, numerous off-shoots have sprung up, with new parties supporting extreme nationalistic and neo-fascist ideals. In light of the turmoil the United States is experiencing, some of these groups in recent elections have come closer to the Presidency than any third party has before.
South America is in even worse shape. Though Brazil and Argentina have managed to retain a degree of stability, the mountainous northwestern countries are facing collapse through extreme drought. Some - like Peru and Bolivia - have degraded into a set of armed camps, each protecting their own respective water supply. Because of geographic barriers, the vast majority of refugees move northward. However, endless droughts and civil wars found throughout Central America mean that only a small portion of these people make it to higher latitudes.
Many of the islands in the South Pacific and Indian Ocean have been completely abandoned. Most of the survivors have moved to Australia. Several new political organizations have formed out of the remaining island nations, attempting to get their voices heard on the world stage. On Papua New Guinea, shifting populations have led to hundreds to unique languages and cultures dying out.
Geopolitical power has seen a drastic restructuring on a global scale. With the United States focusing on its own internal problems, and China and India having stalled in the face of deteriorating environmental conditions, a new group of countries is emerging to take over. The most prominent of those nations who have actually benefited from climate change - such as Canada, Russia, Iceland and the Scandinavian countries. These nations are developing into relatively prosperous eco-technological societies, with some even able to accommodate significant numbers of incoming refugees. The United Kingdom, New Zealand and Japan have managed to stabilize by cutting themselves off from the mainland completely and becoming self-sufficient.
In the harder hit regions, countries that have been able to adapt have found themselves in new positions of power. Mexico, for example, has attained some degree of stability thanks to mass deployment of desalinization technology and the use of salt-tolerant bio-fuels. This is largely thanks to U.S. efforts in earlier decades to control and stabilize Latin America and, by extension, its southern border. Turkey is another example, having escaped the worst of peak oil relatively unscathed due to its large oil and natural gas reserves. It is now a major regional power, sealing off its borders and hiding behind a shield of nuclear weapons. In many cases, countries have been split into both stable and chaotic regions. Examples of collapsed regions include southern Mexico, southern Italy and northern India. As a result of all this change, and the collapse of many of their members, organizations such as the U.N. and NATO have either disappeared entirely, or lost all of their influence. New coalitions are forming based around the rapidly evolving power structure.
While geopolitics has evolved immensely, political practice is undergoing its own revolution. The children and grandchildren of the Baby Boomers are now entirely in control of the political and economic systems, and it is obvious that neither system is functional. Being born into a rapidly degrading world, most of these new world leaders are openly acknowledging the failure of older methods, and are actively seeking a new path forward. The traditional growth economy - still clung to in the 2050s - is finally abandoned during this period, though the transition is long and difficult. The emergence of new regional powers to the north - for now seemingly immune to the worst effects of climate change - is creating a more cooperative international community in this part of the world. For the remainder of this century, the world enters into a vast mobilization of green technology and geo-engineering in the face of disastrous climate change. In terms of scale and effort, it is greater than the industrial output seen during the World Wars, and involves an unprecedented degree of government intervention, in ways that would have been politically impossible in the past. As the World Wars had proved, resistance to such action quickly evaporates in a life or death situation. Humanity from the 2060s on is in survival mode.
The growth of AI and robotics - in parallel with bio/nanotechnology - is offering some hope, making the crisis more manageable than it would otherwise have been. Human-like AI, previously confined to more strategic and planning roles, is now shifting into more direct control of the world’s governments and corporations. With vastly greater capabilities for foresight and detail, while lacking human emotions or prejudices, these artificial beings prove to be an integral part of the adaptation effort. As well as coordination, they are also used to develop new technologies and to model future climate patterns (along with their social/demographic effects) to ultra-high levels of accuracy. The soaring influence of AI causes public concern early on, with many people viewing such entities with suspicion. However, the more immediate threat of climate change soon overshadows this fear. The fact that humans are upgrading and merging in various ways with AI has made the average person more receptive to their existence than before. Indeed, global warming is offering a path towards wider acceptance of AI in general, now that they are needed in order to sustain civilization. By the end of the century, their influence will have surpassed humanity’s.
Altogether, the new stock of politicians, the emergence of strong AI, the changing geo-political map, and the sheer difficulty of overcoming the climate crisis, are mobilizing whichever countries are able to do so to both address the immediate concerns of global warming and to fix the root underlying problems in the political and economic system. Generally, there are two responses over this period. The first is the old economy trying to apply traditional mechanisms and assumptions in order to adapt some new form of capitalism to the world. This stance, taken mainly by the entrenched corporate interests, and the more endangered governments, attempts to leverage existing political and market action to try and combat the looming threat of climate catastrophe. The second response is a more radical departure from traditional thinking, looking to reshape the basic fabric of society. This stance - taken by the younger generations, more dynamic corporations, relatively stable governments, and the vast majority of AI programs - focuses on long term action and shifting to an entirely new type of economic paradigm.
The first proves to be the dominant response in the early years of this transition, as most countries do not have sufficient energy of resources to address both the immediate effects and underlying causes. Many still incorrectly believe that older economic models could continue if only they were decoupled from CO2 emissions. For now though, a government-regulated, World War II-scale industrial mobilization proves the best at addressing such a rapidly growing problem in the short-term. Efforts to address global warming had of course been pursued since the beginning of the century. These measures proved to be woefully inadequate. Now however, action is stepped up by an order of magnitude. Since human CO2 output has dropped to insignificant levels, work is now directed towards geo-engineering to reverse the damage done by emissions in earlier decades and centuries.The survival response to global warming is originally confined to the more stable countries, but quickly follows in almost every other country that can.
Because of the huge time lag between deployment of clean energy and a slowdown in warming, the carbon itself must be addressed. A variety of methods are used. Carbon sequestration, which began to get underway in the late 2020s, is now deployed on scales large enough to remove billions of tons of CO2 each year. This is often done in conjunction with food production, offering a controlled supply of CO2 gas for plants. In addition to removing carbon, some geo-engineering techniques are undertaken that directly address the temperature rise, but not the CO2 level itself. The most common is painting roofs or large open spaces white, thereby reflecting more sunlight and lowering temperatures (darker colors absorb more heat).
Other more radical methods are employed. One involves seeding marine stratocumulus clouds with water droplets or nanotechnology particles, making them more reflective to incoming light. Another emulates the cooling effect of volcanic eruptions through the deliberate release of sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere. This is so potent that a single kilogram has the potential to offset several hundred thousand kilograms of CO2. These approaches caused much debate in earlier decades, due to unpredictability about effects on rainfall. The science has since improved, however, while simulations provided by quantum computers have removed any lingering uncertainty over the best methods and locations to use.
Other problems are tackled. Ocean acidification is now wreaking havoc on marine environments, with potentially deadly results. The gradual disappearance of algae, for example, threatens significant loss in oxygen production, while fishing has become almost non-existent. One answer to this is the introduction of ground-up olivine rock into certain areas of the ocean, which binds to carbonic acid to form bicarbonate. This actually fertilizes coral while reducing overall acidification. Lime is also used in a similar way, on a large enough scale that it actually reverts some parts of the ocean into carbon sinks. Along with natural means, artificial substances and synthetic organisms together with nanotechnology are utilized to greater effect. Despite this, the sheer scale and speed of the problem means that it will be decades before humanity gains full control over the situation.
As the equatorial regions are gradually depopulated, the more stable northerly nations are moving in to develop land for renewable energy and carbon sequestration projects, as well as resource recovery. Farmland is also taken advantage of, though with controversy over whether doing so actually benefits the remaining local population. Along with mining asteroids and the Moon, fresh metal and mineral supplies are now becoming available on Earth, thanks to advances in nanotechnology which enables machines to perfectly separate each individual substance out of a rock sample. Phosphorus reserves, for example, are secure now, since even the abundant low quality sources can be mined. Recycling has expanded yet further during this period, reaching 100% in some countries, once again thanks to nanotechnology. Entire cities, abandoned due to climate change, can in a sense be “recycled” via swarms of automated robots programmed to extract and process useful materials from decaying infrastructure. Landfill sites are particularly rich in this regard. An additional factor in the easing of resource scarcity is, of course, the collapse in economic demand as the old “growth” paradigm finally grinds to a halt.
As this effort continues, the second response to the disruption - which supports an entirely new and different kind of socio-economic system - begins to take hold. Though it had a slower start than the more traditional approach, by the final decades of the 21st century this second view inevitably comes to dominate. The older model proves again and again unable to yield a sufficient long term solution, despite the ruling elite doing everything in its power to maintain the status quo. Many countries have to endure violent revolutions and periods of semi-anarchy before genuine progress is made, but a new zeitgeist begins to solidify, aided by the spread of information technology. Though not yet advanced enough to wholly reverse climate change, humanity is able to establish an equilibrium, preventing a worst case scenario and avoiding a collapse of civilization. Meanwhile, the refugee problem eases in several decades, since most have either reached their destination or died trying. With those nations able to save themselves having already done so, and with few nations left to fail, the world enters into a kind of chaotic peace; humans confined to stable northern enclaves amid a ruined and devastated environment.
With this relative stability, the final transition unfolds. Efforts to assign blame for the catastrophe mark this period, with surviving corporate and political figures targeted by members of the younger generations. Most of the worst affected countries see the original industrial nations as the source of their misery. Those which have maintained a coherent government demand to be compensated. As debates rage over a permanent solution to future progress, many call for drastic reform of the global monetary system, or even the elimination of money itself. It is clear that the economy must be based on physical or human capital, rather than assumed value. G.D.P. is gradually dropped as a measure of a nation’s wealth, replaced by more genuine markers of human well-being and success. One such model adds life expectancy to overall life satisfaction and divides the result by the ecological footprint, giving an idea of the current generation’s quality of life and its effect on the quality of their children’s lives. Artificial intelligence now takes on even more advanced roles - fully controlling the guidance of farming, mining, manufacturing and energy production in order to maximize efficiency and minimize environmental risks.
The end result of the first response was a form of steady state economics in the developed world. In light of material constraints and increasing automation, people were buying less, working less and paying less. The effects of this transition are now causing a shift in focus - away from materialism, to more altruistic concepts of family, community and creativity. This undermined the older view that money and individual success are vital for happiness. People have more leisure time and consume far fewer resources. Technology is helping this trend in myriad ways. Virtual reality, for example, allows people to use goods and services that have little or no impact on the real world. Governments are beginning to establish limits on inequality, recognizing the drain it has on society, made clear by AI and quantum computers running simulations and forecasts in precise demographic detail. The basic necessities of life are becoming shared commons. Crime, poverty and other social problems are gradually being reduced as a result.
The world is far from a utopia, of course. Global warming and sea level rise remain a significant threat, and progress does not occur at the same speed everywhere, or in the same way, due to the differing cultures around the world. There are still many challenges to overcome, but civilization as a whole is proving more adaptable and innovative than it once was - thanks to the ongoing march of science, which is greatly expanding humanity’s intellectual and educational base. This transition will continue into the 22nd century, culminating in a true model of sustainability.
“Neither a wise man nor a brave man lies down on the tracks of history to wait for the train of the future to run over him.” - Dwight D. Eisenhower