Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 13 Jan 13 12:09
In a followup to our State of the World discussion for 2013, we've invited Jamais Cascio to join us for a couple of weeks for more of a "future of the world" conversation. Selected by Foreign Policy magazine as one of their Top 100 Global Thinkers, Jamais writes about the intersection of emerging technologies, environmental dilemmas, and cultural transformation, specializing in the design and creation of plausible scenarios of the future. His work focuses on the importance of long-term, systemic thinking, emphasizing the power of openness, transparency and flexibility as catalysts for building a more resilient society. Among other things, Jamais is a master of scenario development. Jamais, I'll start with a simple question that probably invites a complex answer: are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
Jamais Cascio (jamaiscascio) Sun 13 Jan 13 16:47
Depends on the time frame. My typical response to this question is "I'm a short-term pessimist, long-term optimist" -- that is, I think that we have the tools and ideas needed to make a better world for all of us, and (moreover) that we will get there, but things will probably get worse for most people before we turn things around. Of course, I could just as reasonably say that I'm optimistic about the future of certain parts of the world, pessimistic about other parts. Or optimistic about certain aspects of the future, pessimistic about others. This ultimately comes down to a philosophy about foresight that emerged over the past couple of decades, that there isn't a single Future to predict or forecast, but multiple possible Futures that we must navigate. So maybe the most accurate answer is that I'm optimistic about some of our possible futures, pessimistic about others.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Sun 13 Jan 13 18:59
So it's complicated, and prediction is notoriously difficult - better to identify potential scenarios and understand how to realize the scenarios that seem most affirmative. Can you give us an example of a scenario, say five years out, that feels optimistic? And one that feels pessimistic?
Jamais Cascio (jamaiscascio) Mon 14 Jan 13 10:11
Let me start with a digression. Every foresight professional has something of a "sweet spot" that she or he likes in terms of how far out to go with forecasts. Some folks I know love working in the 2-5 year range -- stuff just around the corner, already visible if you know where to look; others like thinking about the big multi-generational picture, teasing out the familiar from the foreign world of 50 years from now. Many professionals like working in the 10 year horizon, because it's close enough to be comfortable -- we don't think back to 2003 as an Utterly Alien World -- but it's far enough out that there's space for weird things to happen. And, for US folks, it's two presidential terms out, so that there's no way that the current person in office is still in charge -- this makes the politics a bit easier (and if you want to ask about how political futures get dealt with at some point, it's a fun problem). For me, five years is what I'd consider a "short term" forecast. Changes are subtle, and we're mostly looking for vectors and not points (that is, direction/force of change, not specific events). Trying to predict a particular event for a particular time is a mug's game; anyone who can tell you that they can do that is probably trying to sell you something. Right now, the overriding challenge facing us is the global environment, especially the climate. We're seeing climate disruption-linked events happening faster and harder than was expected, even while the world's moving backwards in terms of carbon controls (e.g., Canada filed the paperwork to withdraw from Kyoto in order to be able to exploit the tar sands, Germany's carbon emissions are increasingly rapidly as they replace nuclear plants with coal, China is being China, etc.). The only place that's seeing any real improvement is (believe it or not) the United States, and that's because fracking is allowing us to swap natural gas in for coal. There's also the state of the global economy. A mild improvement in the US as well as fear fatigue has allowed us to think that the worst is over, that everything will be okay in Europe, etc. That's not necessarily so, and it wouldn't really take much to tip us back into the "it's all about to fall apart" anxiety of a year or so ago. Let's just start with those two as big drivers for the next five years. They're similar forces in some ways, in that neither one can be dealt with in a single fix. Both will require a mix of adaptation and direct response. And both operate at irregular paces -- the last few years of faster-than-expected climate disruption could easily be followed by a few years of quiescence. For the sake of this exercise, we could even combine them into a single possibility spectrum (what the good folks at GBN call an "axis of uncertainty"): at one end, climate & economic disruption happen more slowly than feared, while at the other end, climate & economic disruption happen even faster than feared. Let's make a countervailing spectrum about response: at one end, we see the state of the world and finally decide to act, decisively and wisely; at the other end, we continue to ignore the big picture and focus on short-term goals. We can align these two axes against each other, one horizontal/one vertical, giving us a classic consultant four-box diagram: 1. Things happen more slowly + We decide to act [this is the wildly optimistic scenario] 2. Things happen more slowly + We continue to ignore the big picture [this is probably a "status quo" scenario, so a bit pessimistic] 3. Things happen more quickly + We decide to act [I'd call this the plausibly optimistic scenario] 4. Things happen more quickly + We continue to ignore the big picture [and this is the especially pessimistic scenario] One of these two dynamics is out of our direct control -- we can't really influence whether or not things get worse faster than we'd like or slower than we'd fear -- so from a planning/strategy perspective, we'd need to focus on the other. That's easy, no?
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 14 Jan 13 10:48
What I think I'm hearing is that we actually can influence whether things get worse faster or slower, but only by deciding to act and and, having decided, taking effective action. Getting a broad focus on effective action is a hairy political problem; even harder to get agreement and forward movement. Is anyone thinking how to make that happen? I don't think politicians in the U.S. or anywhere else can see past the next election, if that far.
Jamais Cascio (jamaiscascio) Mon 14 Jan 13 13:54
There are lots of people thinking about how to make that happen, but (as far as I can see) nobody's hit upon the right combination of idea + power to make it happen. You're actually talking about two related but not isomorphic problems: the first, how to get people motivated to act in service of a better planet, and the second, what exactly to do to get a better planet. For the first, there are quite a few people out there with experience in convincing people to act in ways that they hadn't previously considered -- we call them advertisers. Electoral campaigns got smart about bringing them in awhile back, but the handful of tries by the better planet community have been limited in scope, scale, and time. Something like this can't be done like trying to get people to buy a new flavor of Doritos; it has to be done like getting people to elect someone as President. That kind of immersion, ubiquity, and no doubt cost. Nobody's been willing to put out that kind of money. Instead we get hectoring, and scary stories, and Appropriate Scientific Caution. The last is, unfortunately, probably the biggest barrier to success. Good scientists know that you always have multiple causes for any given event, that science is always about doubting your findings and looking for better explanations than what you have, and that to be an honest scientist is to make clear what you don't know as well as what you do. All of that makes for good science, but terrible marketing. As for the "what to actually do," David Roberts at Grist.org has done a pretty good job of laying out the scope of the problem, as well as exploring the various ways we can respond. The best answer for how to deal with climate disruption is "start acting in the early 1990s." Absent a handy chronological undo button, we have to settle for less-than-best. Unfortunately, the longer we wait, the harder it gets, and often in a non-linear way: it's a compound interest problem. And, to add a triple-spin level of difficulty to the challenge, it's what I've been calling a "long lag" problem. It's not a case where trigger and result are visibly, immediately linked. It's a case where the cause and effect are separated by years, even decades. Ocean thermal inertia, carbon commitment, and myriad other ecoscience buzzwords all lead up to a troubling observation: the climate disruption effects we're feeling now aren't the result of carbon we've put into the atmosphere in 2012, but carbon we put in back in the 1980s. We could stop emitting any anthropogenic carbon right this very second -- SNAP -- and we'll still see another couple of decades of warming. This has a lovely impact on the first problem, too. Because of this lag, any actions we take to drive down carbon aren't going to have a visible, palpable result for years. You're going to have a lot of people complaining that they've had to give up SUVs/steak/a comfortable 21st century US life style for nothing. Hard to generate enthusiasm with an argument of "you need to sacrifice because of what your parents/grandparents generation did, and only your children/grandchildren will benefit."
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Mon 14 Jan 13 16:21
I thought it was brilliant thinking for Bruce Sterling to take the climate change concern to designers and futurists - it felt like we were raising consciousness effectively in the early 2000s, but mitigation of climate change never has mainstreamed. I've wondered whether Al Gore's attempt to spread the word via "An Inconvenient Truth" backfired by politicizing the notion of climate change, associating it with the left and creating a conservative backlash. How do we get past that reaction? Climate change should resonate with a truly conservative mindset, no?
Roland Legrand (roland) Tue 15 Jan 13 04:19
a very truly right-wing mindset and environmental discourse in Germany: http://www.dw.de/neo-nazis-cloak-themselves-in-eco-rhetoric/a-15793310
Jamais Cascio (jamaiscascio) Tue 15 Jan 13 09:07
I'm pretty sure that environmentalism already had a "liberal" taint in the US well before Inconvenient Truth, including the climate issue. With the main publicly-perceived source of the problem being oil, the political lines were already drawn. From a futures perspective, though, Roland's link offers a useful signal: we (especially in the US) are so accustomed to thinking about eco policy as a left-wing issue, we shouldn't blind ourselves to the potential for green arguments to take on new political flavors. *Not* to become "neutral" issues -- very few things are -- but to take on new characteristics. "Green Fascism" is a long-time bugbear of people afraid of environmentalists going too far, but that term usually means current leftish eco-policy wrapped in a militarist/top-down costume. But we should be cognizant of the potential for the opposite to happen, for hardcore militarist groups to adopt green language.
Administrivia (jonl) Tue 15 Jan 13 09:27
Short URL for sharing this discussion: http://bit.ly/cascio-well If you have a comment or question, but you're not a member of the WELL (which is required to post directly), there's a form labeled "Non-members: Submit a comment or question" at the bottom of the last page of this conversation. It links to a submission form that will send the comment or question to a host to be posted here. Note to spammers: a human entity will screen the submitted comment or question.
Jon Lebkowsky (jonl) Tue 15 Jan 13 09:30
Is anybody aligning an analysis of the climate change future with an analysis of the political future, and offering preferred scenarios for best case outcomes (for the human race, that is, acknowledging that the planet would do well enough if humans vacated en masse)?
Jamais Cascio (jamaiscascio) Tue 15 Jan 13 09:54
Anybody? Almost surely. Anybody with significant visibility or pull? Not that I've seen, unless you count the scenarios worked on by (say) the CIA's Center for Climate Change and National Security. http://www.flickr.com/photos/jamais_cascio/6214330683/in/photostream From what I've seen, the places that are putting the most effort into figuring out mixed political/climate scenarios are places looking for explicit advantage in a difficult time.
R.U. Sirius (rusirius) Tue 15 Jan 13 10:54
Jamais, A broad question I've been meaning to email you about privately but here goes. Technically, could we move to clean energy now... and by now, I mean over say a 10 year period but not cultivating any new dirty resources now? And does nuclear need to be a part of that?
From Gabriel Harp via E-mail (captward) Tue 15 Jan 13 11:03
We see scenarios being embraced by organizations and people all the time. But the challenge is getting people to act, especially with something as abstract as climate change. How can scenarios and foresight more be more effectively integrated into the everyday decision making processes of people and organizations?
Jamais Cascio (jamaiscascio) Tue 15 Jan 13 11:25
RU: My answer is going to sound weaselly, but it's more a reflection of how bloody complex this situation is: It depends on what you mean by "we," "move," and "clean." We: the world, the US, developed nations in general, leading polluters...? Move: replacement of current+projected energy use, or lower energy production + efficiency and/or restrictions? Clean: 100% non-carbon, or with low-carbon alternatives as stepping-stones? Here's the scope of the challenge: we're currently using every year about 20-22 trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity, globally (so this doesn't count transportation fuels). Of this, about 8 trillion KWh comes from nuclear, hydro, and renewables. Ten years from now, we're looking at an annual electricity footprint of about 27 trillion KWh, with maybe 11-12 coming from nuclear, hydro, and renewables, at current rates of increase. To dump all carbon energy, we'd have to replace upwards of 15 trillion kilowatt-hours of generating power (or 15,000 terawatt-hours); for comparison, in 2010 the world added about 15 terawatt-hours of solar. But remember, if we're talking total energy replacement, we need to shift everyone to electric vehicles. Add another 15,000 terawatt-hours on top of that, at least. And the cost of building all of that stuff. And tearing up/replacing the infrastructure. (You can see more detail, and links to the numbers I'm using, at this post: http://www.openthefuture.com/2012/02/got_the_time.html) Nuclear will definitely have to be part of this, as getting rid of it means needing roughly another 5,000 TWh on top of what I just listed (based on current numbers). Nuclear doesn't have to mean our current model, however; I've been a big fan of Thorium nuclear for awhile now, and it looks like China is about to embark on a major Thorium nuclear build-out. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/opinion/china-moving-to-thorium-as-sa fe-nuclear-fuel/story-fnciihm9-1226550688296 (Short version: cheap, plentiful, lower radioactivity, much shorter half-life, cleaner waste, little weaponization potential.) A radical push on efficiency will help, but the sheer logistics of the transition argues that we're looking at a multi-decade project for clean energy. From a climate perspective, our first goal needs to be to get rid of coal. We could plausibly stop using coal, globally, within the decade, although that would definitely mean more use of natural gas (hence more fracking).
Jamais Cascio (jamaiscascio) Tue 15 Jan 13 11:30
Gabriel, that's an excellent question. I think the answer comes down to a combination of practice and result. That is, the more practice and experience people have with foresight and scenario thinking, the easier it will be to use it for complex topics; and the more we can point to visible benefits resulting from the use of scenario thinking, the easier it will be to convince people to use it. So, easy. I do think that it's ultimately a part of a 21st century education model. We need to be weaving complexity and long-term thinking into our pedagogy.
Roland Legrand (roland) Tue 15 Jan 13 12:29
The education model itself is changing. We're getting better at online learning, peer2peer learning, massive open online courses and other ways to connect to worldwide networks of knowledge. Add to this the information we're getting from the rapidly increasing use of sensors, big data and visualization techniques, and maybe we could hope for a scenario in which the world will learn about itself more rapidly and efficiently - increasing the awareness of climate issues, but also of social problems? Just as our electronic health tracker thingies can suggest remedies and alternative lifestyles, maybe this combination of worldwide education and information will make it more obvious how we should organize our cities and societies?
Jamais Cascio (jamaiscascio) Tue 15 Jan 13 13:26
That's certainly the hope of many of the folks working on smart cities/quantified life projects. It's argument I've used myself -- that "making the invisible visible" can change behavior. It seems to work best for fairly simple cause-effect relationships, though: seeing my minute-by-minute mileage lets me alter my immediate driving, e.g., but doesn't do anything to change my overall mobility habits. One of the important lessons for anyone engaged in foresight-based strategy, policy-making, and the like is that *people are busy*. I've too often seen strategies and ideas based on the need for people to do a top-to-bottom re-evaluation of their lives, to completely re-orient themselves based on emerging knowledge, and the like -- sorry, that's just not going to work. Most people don't have the extra time to do that kind of thing, and see whatever leisure time they have as precious. This isn't an insult or condescension, it's realism. If we want people to make better choices, we have to make the better choices the *obvious* choices.
From Andrew Shindyapin via E-mail (captward) Tue 15 Jan 13 14:09
Jamais, I've been thinking about climate change for a while now, and I've come up with the idea (not new to me at all) about sequestering carbon by growing food forests (I've written several blog posts about it <http://shindyapin.tumblr.com/post/11123583304/solving-global-warming-with-star tups> ). Is this a plausible idea, or are there inherent weaknesses to it?
Jamais Cascio (jamaiscascio) Tue 15 Jan 13 16:57
Hey Andrew The main weakness of sequestration-based plans, in general, is finding the spot that balances the speed of carbon uptake, the degree of afforestation required to make a real dent, and the amount of land required. From my reading, food crops don't make for great carbon sequestration tools. Biochar is (again, from what I've read) the best bet. Still a big question as to whether it can happen fast enough to make a difference.
for dixie southern iraq (stet) Tue 15 Jan 13 17:57
What about algae in the ocean amped by extra iron, in the news in 2012.
From Matthew J. Price via E-mail (captward) Wed 16 Jan 13 01:21
Jamais, Thank you for answering questions here about the state of the future! I'm primarily interested in two things. Energy, and Automation. Part 1: Peter Diamandis is fond of saying that if we solve our energy problem, we solve our water problem. He means that with enough energy, we can filter all the sea water we want, no more shortages. I think this is a gross understatement, and if we were to solve our energy problem, we would solve nearly Every problem. With enough energy the cost of nearly every aspect of life would plummet: transportation especially leads to cascading costs in production etc, but also in food and generally the cost of living. Part 2: Automation and AI are gaining widespread attention in the role they're playing in the slowed job growth and stagnated wages, in spite of recovered GDP and corporate profits. MIT's Andrew Mcafee and Erik Bynjolfson lay it out best in their recent work "Race Against the Machine" which projects AI and robotics to achieve human capability in every capacity for which we have a market. Thus: no jobs. Returns to capital skyrocket and returns to labor disappear. Question 1: Is there an energy solution you would take seriously in achieving a "squanderable abundance of energy"? Cold Fusion is receiving some dubious (if not outright indignant) attention; more credibly, Ray Kurzweil projects that Solar Power will continue its exponential growth to provide 100% of our needs by 2029. Is there an energy source that can save us? Question 2: I too am a long term optimist, short term pessimist, and technological unemployment is a huge part of that. With jobs disappearing, consumers will no longer have purchasing power; This leads to a spiral towards the bottom as companies that need to cut costs to survive lagging demand further automate, thus eliminating yet more consumers. I've yet to hear a satisfactory solution to this problem in the short term (10 years). What would you suggest? Is this something you're even concerned about?
From Paul Graham Raven via E-Mail (captward) Wed 16 Jan 13 06:21
Hi, Jamais - long time, no talk! :) Matthew Price raises a spectre in passing that's very much part of my new work-life, and that's the question of water. There's a lot of rhetoric around at the moment about potential wars resulting from water-shortage (and, intriguingly enough, a counter-narrative from a lot of climate-related disciplines that contend i) it won't come to that, and ii) that said rhetoric is a result of the militarisation of climate research topics, which can be a rich source of funding). Now, these shortages are very real, but what gets missed out of the debates is that there's actually loads of water about, it's just -- in true Gibsonian fashion -- unevenly distributed. The economic concept of 'virtual water' is starting to unpack how those uneven distributions occur, and revealing a sort of economic colonialism, wherein poor countries end up exporting scarce water in the form of its embodiments in consumer goods or foods (e.g. Pakistan, cotton), but also where that export is a central plank of the local economy... leaving us with yet another complex system of inequity to untangle, where solving the first-order problem will actually cause a whole bunch of repercussions which may be, in the medium term, even worse than leaving things as they are. I could wander in all kinds of directions with this, but to cut to a big-picture point that's a daily worry for me: so many of our contemporary global economic and climate issues boil down to the stubbornness of sovereignty and the grubby politics of territory and resources. However, it feels like we're swinging hard back toward nation-statism, and a situation where everyone finally convinced of climate change's actuality reaches the conclusion "well, screw 'em, we're doing OK and I don't see why we should be the first to make sacrifices". How do you see things playing out on the axis of internationalism over the next decade or so? And do you see any hope for progress without a concomitant move toward a genuine structure of global governance and cooperation?
Jamais Cascio (jamaiscascio) Wed 16 Jan 13 10:20
(cracking knuckles in preparation) Algae-bloom sequestration: oh oh, now you've done it. That's geoengineering, and I've written and spoken extensively on the subject. I could go on for days on this. The short answer is this: the ecological side-effects are still hazy, but there's evidence that they could be very bad (as in, "sterilizing part of the ocean" bad). The actual sequestration impact is still being debated; one small experiment seemed to show no impact, another seemed to show moderate impact. The likelihood of something bad happening increases as you try to scale this up to make a real difference in a short time. Aside: one of the things about environmental problems and the climate and such that most people don't get is that quite often the problem comes not from the *scale* of the change, but from the *speed* of the change. CO2 levels, temperatures, etc. have all gone up and down over geological history, and plants and animals adapt... except those historical changes happen over the course of millennia, not years. We're doing to the atmosphere in under a century what could naturally occur over the course of tens of thousands of years.. Same kind of thing here with the algae -- the bloom & uptake process isn't a problem when it happens slowly, but trying to get a megabloom to happen in a matter of days/weeks/months is asking for trouble.
Jamais Cascio (jamaiscascio) Wed 16 Jan 13 10:35
Matthew: solar is definitely in the category of an energy source that could, eventually, be "too cheap to meter" (ahem); I'd also put geothermal heat pumps in that category, at least potentially. Lots of energy there that can be tapped (simply through heat exchange). Ray K's assertion about solar is, like many Kurzweil observations, insightful when it comes to technology and eye-rolling when it comes to anything else. I have no reason to dispute the idea that by 2029 we'd have the ability to produce enough solar power generation to power the planet cheaply, but go back to my post a few days ago about the scale of the problem. The logistics alone of replacing all of that infrastructure, building the facilities, replacing vehicles, etc etc etc mean that this is very likely a multi-decade process. I suppose that a crash program starting today might get us there in 15 years, but I don't see that happening. Unless... unless we have some pretty significant breakthrough in molecular-scale/"atomically-precise" manufacturing. That might speed things up, although it could just as easily make a mess of things if it triggers conflict (which it could). Jobs: As it happens, I *have* written about this (http://www.openthefuture.com/2012/05/the_pink_collar_future.html), and it's a focus of a good bit of work with my colleagues at the Institute for the Future. The ten year period you mention is probably best thought of as the political transition period; the real fix for this problem isn't likely to get much support now, but seems ultimately inevitable: basic income guarantees. (See also: http://www.fastcompany.com/1334602/three-possible-economic-models-part-1 and http://www.fastcompany.com/1339945/three-possible-economic-models-part-ii)
Jamais Cascio (jamaiscascio) Wed 16 Jan 13 10:45
Paul, bunker mentalities often lead to bad endings. That "screw those other guys" attitude is unfortunately fairly commonplace, and especially so (in my experience) with the leaders in up-and-coming SEDN (super-empowered developing nations) like China and India. I had an argument about climate with a Chinese industrial chief a few years ago, where he insisted that the US had to solve everything and let the Chinese develop without hindrance, and simply did not want to hear that US acting alone wouldn't be enough to solve the climate problem. So what changes attitudes? "Carrots and sticks" is the usual cliché. Sticks -- threats or acts of violence, force, power -- not only have to be meaningful, they have to be worse than the alternative. When the alternative is the world going to hell, that's a tall order. Carrots -- inducements, rewards, benefits -- offer a better strategy. The best kind is the "demonstration carrot," where you don't even have to try to cajole the others to act, you simply have to show that what you're doing is *so* much better now that you've gone clean energy/hyper-efficiency/etc.. As for global governance, not until there's an external threat/challenge. Fuzzy one-worlders like me & thee should focus more on mechanisms of collaboration, cooperation and transparency than on trying to figure out how to create an actual world government. (That's the Waltzian-neorealist international politics grad student in me, btw.)
Members: Enter the conference to participate