In my past life I used to work as an exploration geologist, prospecting for gold and silver in rural Australia.
Geologists usually work on a FIFO (fly-in fly-out) roster, and so did I, working 10 days on-site followed by 4 days off.
Since I was working in a very rural area, my commute home took me all the way from some regional point on the map in the ‘middle of nowhere’ to the central metropolis area of Sydney, where I used to catch the metro to the airport and fly out home to Melbourne and beyond.
On my trip I would experience a full spectrum of human society, from one extreme, i.e. sparsely populated forested and open rural landscapes with isolated farms and small country towns to one of the high-tech, tightly packed skyscrapers and neon lights of a metropolis.
Coming from the days of isolation into the big city I loved being amongst the people and tall buildings, feeling that city rush and having access to all the amenities that urban life has to offer. Suddenly there were so many things capturing my attention and dragging me in after days of only being entertained by kangaroos and cockatoos…
But also, honestly, I couldn’t help myself being critical towards all of it, the way the whole system works, the city folks and how they go about their lives.
Coming from the mining industry and spending most of my time in rural Australia, I had a different perspective and I knew what it takes to produce the energy, the raw materials and the food to run it all. I saw a lot of how this was done first hand, and it was very exploitative of the natural world, to say the least.
But I wouldn’t think that this worrying fact was a reason for any real concern to an ordinary city dweller that I would randomly meet on the street.
The truth is, when you live in a big metropolis like Sydney, you don’t ever really need to go beyond the boundaries of the city. There is no reason for you to do so, you’ve got everything you need right there; the job, the community, the food, the entertainment… and consequently you don’t get to see what’s going on outside your bubble and the price tag it all comes with.
Except for an occasional heatwave or thunderstorm that lashes its fury onto the city’s concrete infrastructure, nature is an increasingly far-fetched concept that has no tangible meaning in your day-to-day life in the concrete jungle.
So it’s no wonder that the majority of city folks don’t have the capacity to care; simply put, what’s out of sight is out of mind.
The most environmentally aware amongst them probably follow the news about floods, bushfires, record temperatures, droughts or some other natural catastrophe and are genuinely concerned about what’s happening, but the rest, the vast majority, are just numb and willfully ignore it all.
That is, until it’s in your face… literally.
Like it has been lately in Sydney where the smoke blowing in from rural bushfires that have been raging for weeks, if not months already, has engulfed the city in a hazardous haze that stubbornly persists. Suddenly the very basic life necessity that people took for granted has turned to most toxic air you can breathe on Earth!
I think that now even the most ignorant of people will be forced to notice that something might be wrong. As their initial dismissal of reality that keeps persisting turns to disbelief and finally to the dread of living with the taste of ash in their throat daily, many will reconcile themselves with the fact that we humans do indeed have an effect on the planet.
However, even despite the seriousness of the situation, people will try to dispute, reason and downplay how big an effect we really do have, especially the ruling elite (big government + big business) who have a stake in not admitting that the way we currently operate is unsustainable.
Regardless of who wins the argument in public, if anything this is a timely wake-up call, and I’m sure one of many yet to come…
The question is how many reminders do we need to have until we collectively start to challenge the mantra that economic growth is the only measure that counts.
The economy might be growing, the people, or, better said, the consumers might be spending, the productivity and efficiency might be up but this currently comes at a great expense, the destruction of nature.
For now, and for many, this economic prosperity might just be worth the cost, but one of these days we’ll come to the realization that we need to change our ways if we want to keep the planet alive and healthy. Hopefully, this will happen before it’s too late…
The future world
It is during events like this that I like to take a step back and think about what the future world might look like. How might human society and the environment change given all the trends we are witnessing today.
Although it’s very easy to automatically default to imagining the nightmarish worst-case scenario, that’s very one-dimensional thinking. Most certainly there are trends that potentially point to a dystopian future, particularly when it comes to our environment but, on the other hand, there are definitely some that indicate improvement in our societal wellbeing.
The truth is, we cannot predict the future. BUT… we can definitely try to imagine different possible futures based on these current trends.
To do this we can use scenario planning, a method that a variety of businesses, think tanks, government agencies, and other organizations use to form an idea of what the future might look like and what they may need to prepare for.
The process of scenario planning, explained in very simplistic terms, rests upon taking two most important factors, two critical uncertainties that will decide the nature of the future environment, and, based on this and the known trends, create four different future outcomes.
So, for the sake of our scenario planning, let’s just take two factors I discussed above: 1. planetary health, and 2. societal condition, and try to imagine the not-so-distant world of 2050. By combining these and considering successes or failures in each we will get one of four distinct futures:
Future 1. The regenerative future – good planetary health and good societal conditions
Corresponding theme/future – Star Trek
This is the future that the most optimistic amongst us are hoping for. In this scenario humanity is living well, in balance with nature and is on the path to a regenerative world. There is a symbiosis between technology and nature, big cities and nature’s ecosystems.
As a society we consume resources at a rate at which they can be replenished, economic growth is sustainable and the economy is high-tech and green.
Our leaders have addressed the environmental problems decisively, and now biodiversity loss has ground to a halt and ecosystems are recovering. Nature is finally recognized and valued for the services it provides to humanity.
People are genuinely living well; the green economy provides jobs and the workers are paid a living wage. All in all, society is well-balanced, just and people are wealthy in terms of the technology that serves them and ensures clean water, clean air, and clean food.
Permaculture and regenerative agriculture are recognized as being on a par with high-tech GM food production and both are tasked with helping improve the biodiversity and soil quality.
The next step for humanity – ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before.’ Without being jerks about it and destroying and contaminating pristine environments of the solar system, of course.
Future 2. The green authoritarian dystopia – good planetary health and bad societal conditions
Corresponding theme/future – The Hunger Games
This is the future in which the genuine environmental concerns about planet health have been abused by the ruling elite to set up a dystopian system of control. However, due to the severe societal limitations, most of the Earth’s ecosystems are on a clearly chartered recovery plan.
Under the pressure of severe environmental degradation, climate extremes, the mass movement of climate refugees and civil unrest governments acted swiftly, and strictly, on climate action. Oil was to be phased out quickly, strict ecological regulations implemented immediately, and everyone is required to help the planet equally.
Everything is to be subjected to restoring the ecosystems… but unfortunately, this came with a great cost for ordinary people.
There were strict procreation policies put in place, people are now forced to pay carbon tax and have individual carbon allowances, they are limited in their travels and herded into the cities where they could be more easily controllable.
Society has become highly divided, unequal and suppressed. New jobs were created but most are dangerous and undesirable such as cleaning up environmental pollutants and processing materials for re-use.
The price for carbon-intensive normal foods is out of reach for an average citizen and people are forced to eat synthetic foods. Now only the rich can afford to eat as people once did in the 2020s. The mass-scale agriculture that used to feed the world is nonexistent…
Humanity now lives in what can be only called – the prison planet, permanently bound to planet Earth.
Future 3. The Collapse – bad planetary health and bad societal conditions
Corresponding theme/future – Mad Max
This is the nightmarish scenario many are afraid of; in this future business as usual has led to extensive degradation of planetary and human conditions.
Intensive deforestation, extraction of natural resources, inexorable consumption and climate change have finally resulted in the fundamental destabilization and collapse of natural systems. Resource, energy, water and food shortages are pervasive across the world, fueling conflict and mass migration.
Instead of a global coordinated effort to preserve and try to regenerate what’s left of world’s ecosystems, most nations have withdrawn within their boundaries and have adopted a nationalist agenda, driven by fear of climate migrants and inevitable conflicts for scarce resources.
Big transnational corporations now hold a monopoly on many of the Earth’s remaining resources. Natural resources that were previously taken for granted such as clean water and clean air are now genuine commodities sold by corporations. Those who can’t afford to pay the premium for these must rely on localized contaminated sources.
There is a stark division between the have-lots and the have-nots. The rich have created safe havens for themselves, and most live in well-off cities that had the means to erect large-scale eco-domes as protection against the environmental hazards; polluted air and freak weather.
For them goods are accessible and life continues as normal, while the rest of the population struggles, scrambling for any work as automatization has eliminated many jobs, unhealthy, as they can’t afford clean food and healthcare, and, in their misery, have resorted to using smart drugs to help them cope with daily life.
Almost all agricultural activity is now exclusively completed at an industrial level using GMO crops. Small farmers have been entirely pushed out by big corporations who now control food production from seed to harvest to distribution. The farms that are left are hostage to the system, which inevitably leads to continued and severe soil degradation, leaving humanity no other option than to eventually abandon planet Earth.
Future 4. The Techno Fix – bad planetary health and good societal conditions
Corresponding theme/future – The Expanse
This is a future in which we continue with business as usual and it didn’t end up bad… for humanity, at least. For most people, life is as good as it’s ever been. The planet, on the other hand, is not as healthy.
In this scenario, we choose to rely on our technology and human ingenuity to try to fix or mitigate environmental problems instead of changing our ways. Despite localized efforts, the exploitation of planetary resources continues almost unabated and the economic growth imperative remains unquestioned…
Most nations agree that we need to act on climate change and environmental destruction, but there is no concrete coordinated action, just non-binding agreements. In reality, nobody wants to put the brakes on their economic growth so most governments hesitate or delay the needed large-scale actions.
Instead, individual countries and cities settle for ambitious adaptation programs that boost the economic growth, future-proofing their own critical infrastructure and protecting their populations against the extreme weather, droughts, flooding, dust storms, fires…
Many cities around the world have developed urban agriculture in an attempt to secure their population’s food supplies and reduce reliance on the surrounding areas. Regional towns invest in large-scale infrastructure and tunneling systems to counteract water shortages.
In many ways, nature has been turned into an adversary that humans need to defend themselves from, but life is good for now. Living conditions for people around the world have improved and the majority now have access to education, jobs and resources and government welfare to fall back on if necessary.
As economies around the world continue to grow on the finite planet, the next step is colonizing the Solar System and using its resources for further growth and expansion…
So there you have it, the four different future scenarios: Regenerative future, Green authoritarian dystopia, Collapse, Techno-fix.
Each of these four worlds, although extreme, is plausible from today’s vantage point, but…
It’s very unlikely that there will be just one future state as much as there is not just one present state. Today when you look at the world as a whole, you can find countries and regions who are working towards a regenerative future, and ones who are clearly moving towards collapse.
So globally most likely these four scenarios will be happening simultaneously. For example, Australia might simply continue with business as usual and experience a Techno-fix scenario. On the other side China might possibly end up in Green authoritarian dystopia, while different parts of the US face a Collapse or Techno-fix respectively.
Although we can’t tell with any certainty what will happen, one thing is clear, it’s going to be a very exciting journey.
So what do you think, which scenario seems most likely in your part of the world? Leave your comment below!
P.S. I must give full credit for the idea of these four future scenarios to Arup, an engineering firm that recently released 2050 Scenarios: Four Plausible Futures, a PDF that goes into a lot of detail on what the world might look like in 30 years. Check it out here.