One of my favourite film directors of recent years, Alfonso Cuarón, directed a documentary film called “The Possibility of Hope” (2007), which was released on a special edition DVD of his brilliant “Children of Men” (2006) (based on P.D. James’ novel). (I feel sorry for film buffs who still think “Metropolis” (1927) is the better SciFi movie. I feel now is the golden age of cinema, not back then, that was merely the formative age, we just don’t appreciate this because spectacular cinema has become almost taken for granted, and maybe some of the story-telling is lacking because we are in the age of explosive over-the-top special effects.)
In The Possibility of Hope scientist James Lovelock (the inventor of the Gaia Hypothesis — the Earth as a system much like a living being) talks and warns about the coming of a new “dark age” where global warming will cause humans with strong survival instincts to flee to places like Iceland and set themselves up as the new ruling elite, while many of the worlds people will hopelessly stay put and just … die.
I do not know from what lunacy of intellect these dire warnings spring. I think, in the very real and pure motivation to urge people into positive action there is a tendency for some to grossly exaggerate future calamitous possibilities. Lovelock even goes as far as claiming that it is a very real threat that in the not so distant future (this century?) the world could become ruled by war lords who will control water and crops and hold the rest of humanity to ransom.
There are many good reasons to suppose such a threat is real. Our past shows that in countries torn by drought and famine, warlords will arise who will make themselves kings of deserts, and hoard resources around themselves to build a tiny oases where only their favoured can survive.
But those were in bordered regions, not globally. Global warlords have never existed, and are highly unlikely ever to flourish. Yet you can easily look at how wealthy Americans and Europeans are right now hoarding wealth and resources, claiming land in gated communities, driving around in expensive unnecessary SUV’s and fortressing themselves against the oppression of the poor and dispossessed. It’s madness. (Friggin’ SUV’s aye!!! Not the most ridiculous and unnecessary inventions of the Twentieth century though, not by a long way.) These sorts of people are the worst warlords the Earth will ever face. Worst because they are so pitiful, they will not even see themselves as wasters of the planet.
As Lovelock also says he doesn’t think humans will go extinct, we are, he notes, “one of the toughest of all animals”. What he fears more from global warming and runaway greenhouse effect, is the warlord scenario.
So ok, I think this is a fair warning, but it is not realistic. We already know who the warlords are, and they are people who are more scared than the rest of us. They do not believe in the possibility of hope for all, and they will fight hard to preserve their own families and will be just too scared to do anything more. They’ll migrate to more polar latitudes, and live in fear of invasion across their new borders. They will try to preserve their way of life at the cost of other human lives. Like I said, the worst kind of petty warlords.
What’s more likely to happen though? I ask you before giving you my thoughts (since I’m no prophet nor expert, just a free thinking average Joe.) Be honest, what is really the most likely scenario if catastrophic global warming hits us within 50 to 100 years?
One of the first things to note is that humans had better do something about migrating crops before migrating themselves. Crops in newly arid regions will fail and humans will be the only entities on the planet capable of moving crop species vast distances to replant. Vegetation is the slackest of living movers. And although global warming will be a slow thing, it’ll take decades to really warm up catastrophically, and generations of humans will live through it and witness the slow impacts of climate change. But that’s in human time frame. Plants and sedentary animals cannot so rapidly adapt. For a start they are not scientists, and so cannot make the predictions that humans can make. And plants cannot pick themselves up and move to cooler and rainier climates, even if they did have science.
So humans will save the worlds crops and farm animals. We will be finding room on the planet for them. And in a few places in deserts we will set up solar farms, where the Sun’s rays will power air-conditioners and seawater desalinators and purifiers. This technology already exists. And provided we do not darken the skies, there will be abundant solar power for life to continue to exist in the hottest regions.
It is not everyone’s favourite scenario to have half the Earth covered with human-made structures which produce artificial oases. It’s more romantic and beautiful to live more at one with nature. But in the coming century or two or three, if we do not limit our greenhouse emissions and turn to more renewable energy resources, then we will force our civilisation into becoming the Earth’s artificial protector. Enlightened self-interest of course, since we’d be doing it to save ourselves as much as the rest of life.
And yes, I suppose the greedy corporations and multinationals will hoard resources and technology. But take a look around yourself, especially on the internet. You can get designs and build a 3D printer/fabricator for yourself these days. You have vast resources at your fingertips every time you access the web. If only you knew! Or rather, I suspect you do know, but feel overwhelmed, and over-worked to do much with all the information at your fingertips. And fair enough. Just realise the potential is there, and when called upon to build a homebrew 3D fabricator, or $10 raw cost small scale seawater desalinator, or a $60 raw cost internet-ready laptop computer, or a humble backyard self-powered greenhouse garden, or scores of other actually useful appliances and high-tech, low cost tools, the information will be there, guaranteed.
All you need to do is stop spending all your time on YouTube or Facebook. (If you’re reading this, likely “you” aren’t who I’m referring to of course!)
Technology has forever been like this, at once a cause of misery and a cause of advancement. It’s all a matter of how you use it. If nothing else beneficial comes from global warming at least it will force our youth (and our child adults) to stop wasting time on Facebook and Twitter, and start using the social networks for good, for cooperation, for saving the planet.
Human civilisation already has massive life changing power. We just do not use it very efficiently right now.
This is not the place for me to launch into a statistical analysis, and I’m not a futurologist (a dubious science at best, and at worst just plain ridiculous). However, using a very rough bunch of estimates I will hesitantly suggest the chances of a global warlord society in a post-climate runaway world is less than 5%. I really would like to say less than 1%, but my numbers do not support such optimism!
I have to use Bayesian inference, and use the prior probability of warlord civilisation. This is a small number. In history there have been comparatively few warlord systems, and especially as a fraction of total historical time. Then there is the probability that such a state would exist globally, and that is very small too, because no dictatorship of any kind, has ever gone global. There are too many rebellious free-thinking people for such a state to remain stable for long periods. Benevolent dictatorships have persisted over large territories for many years, even decades, and if you count monarchies as a kind of benevolent dictatorship, then one can say over centuries of time. But these were never global, not even Queen Victoria’s empire, and were nothing in character like Lovelock’s dire warnings of economic warlords.
Other factors include the difference between nation and regional dictatorships and global dictatorship. Dictatorships arise when there is civil and political unrest, not environmental disaster. Environmental disaster can ignite civic rebellion, but in those conditions the rebellion is more likely one that is overthrowing a dictatorship or an unjust phony democracy.
The probabilities add up to greater hope than despair. The balance is actually largely in favour of hope. However, painful living conditions are not part of those estimates. Frankly, I do not have the ability to estimate anything about how harsh the world will become for life. It might not be as horrible as scientists like James Lovelock predict, and it might be worse. There is too much uncertainty in all of this for any reasonable analysis. It would be foolish and vain to make any predictions, even with large error bounds. I imagine someone will try though, and I’d be very interested to read their account.
But I would predict greater things. I imagine a global climate catastrophe will be slow enough that everyone will gradually feel the pinch of it, and we will adapt. People will stop waging war on one another because it will be seen as wasteful and pointless. What point is a war when the spoils are a desert of dust?
And I suspect that instead of a rise of global resource-hoarding warlords, our species will gather together and help each other, and we will be drawn together as a human family like no other time in history. Children will grow up thinking of themselves as citizens of the world. Space agencies and private companies might even get together and start the grand centuries long project of making dome colonies on Mars temporarily habitable for adventurous humans. And if we can see humans can live there, then who can doubt that we can repair the Earth too?
I’m not claiming this is inevitable, nor that it would be utopian. It would, in all probability, more likely, be a unifying of humanity under the harshest of circumstances. People will suffer I guess. And some will act unforgivably rapaciously. But the vast majority of humanity will refuse to capitulate to any incipient warlords and ruling multinational corporations.
The reason is simple. No one will be able to blame any single person or group or country or agency. We, or our parents and their parents, will be the only people to blame for the fate of the planet. And you cannot go to war against yourself. Well, not easily.
And when you look for someone to blame, and only find yourself and your parents and the generations before them who failed to act in time, then the only way to fight will be to do the opposite, and to wage peace, and to form partnerships and cooperatives and work damn hard to migrate those crops and animals and save the planet in every way humanly possible.
We will do it. None of us can know how hard and painful it will be. If you want to play a positive role in it all you’ll need to do is sacrifice some of your luxuries. No one will die from that. The parasites will feed, but there are more of us than them. The world wide web has nearly democratized information, and in our society information is power. Thus it is only a matter of decades, I suspect, not centuries, until information and numbers of good ordinary people overwhelm the transitory power held by money.
When you can virtually give someone, someone half-way across the world, credits for purchasing food and medicine, at the click of a mouse, then money ceases to be an obstacle to happiness and becomes something amazing and simple like water, fluid and life-giving. And it makes greed look like debasement, and it will make corruption and conspicuous consumption look like a child’s tantrums. It will make people who invest solely to make more money on paper look like a neanderthal species of self-serving masturbators.
Also, I doubt we will be moving into a temporary civilizational art and literature hiatus. People will still be creating wonderful art and cinema or whatever sensory-immersion media the next generation of story-telling has in store for us. Entertainment is not a human right, it is a privilege, but I imagine civilisation has moved beyond the point where art can be suppressed, even by global environmental hardships. Human beings are essentially a species of lovers. We love to love. We love to be entertained, and so we will always make it possible for artists to entertain us. We will make the sacrifices necessary to give artists their freedom to create.
No necessary utopia remember. I’m just phrasing the future scenario in optimistic but realistic terms. What will become real is up to us. No one person makes reality. No one ideology has rights on owning the future. Although many will try, and we (our entire species) will forgive them. Our civilisation is better than we dare to dream I think, even someone like me. It is more varied in thought than I can imagine, and diversified in interests, and more complex and dangerous and interesting and potentially more peaceful.