There’s a difference here between making big decisions (to phase out fossil fuels or eliminate poverty, for example) and responding to defining moments and crunches (such as dealing with financial crises, conflicts, pandemics or disasters). What’s important here is the way that people and countries deal with game-changing, defining moments, critical junctures and tipping points, during which much is decided very quickly, whether by intent, by accident or by force of events. So the responding option could be more critical and definitive than the first, deciding, option.
Gentleman in Portugal
Four conceivable generalised scenarios can be postulated for the future: manageable, difficult, disastrous and transformative. In different parts of the world, each scenario could play itself out differently at the very same time. This is what we see today: some live in relatively blessed circumstances and others subsist in a living hell, all on the same planet, simultaneously. People in Malibu or Dubai live in a totally different world to people in Gaza or Kinshasa.
A manageable future is one in which, relatively speaking, our luck holds, evolving circumstances aren’t as bad as some people fear, the powers-that-be make sensible decisions and world society adapts well enough to intensely changing conditions. We navigate a challenging time by implementing blueprints such as the UN Sustainable Development Goals, instigating responsible business, government, social and ecological good practice, improving international relations, reducing consumption, improving resilience and sustainability, reducing inequality and making bold responses to unfolding events and trends.
This relatively comfortable option is what most people would prefer, though it nevertheless means managed, large-scale change, and much more change than we anticipate today. Some will be winners and some losers, and one key question is whether the gap between them grows or shrinks and whether losers are catered for or left to suffer or die, just as we have left Yemenis, Syrians and Congolese to their sorry fates today.
A difficult future involves serious crises and things getting much harder, not just for the poor and the marginalised but for everyone. It involves scarcities, painful conflicts of interest, tough events and complexities, perhaps war, pestilence, superstorms, geopolitical and other threats and critical crunch-moments, making life precipitous and insecure and demanding a firefighting approach to unfolding developments. There could be mass migrations of people seeking food and safety. In parts, lawlessness could break out.
Safe, secure countries would become a memory. Governments and economies struggle, helpful changes move too slowly, anxiety goes global and many people experience significant loss, but the world system more or less holds up. Humanity might get through it, scarred but alive, by late-century – conceivably by going into an emergency-mobilisation mode. The world would change radically, and not in a way we would like. There could also be compensating factors, amazing breakthroughs and remarkable moments, even under duress.
A disastrous future sees us encountering shocking, overwhelming catastrophes, currently inconceivable. We might survive these in a much reduced condition, but a large majority of people could die and much would be destroyed. It is survival-of-the-fittest, the lucky and the most-organised. Cities might become uninhabitable. The world’s climate goes severely out of balance. Humanity might not survive at all. It is devastation. The interdependencies and organisational systems needed for the civilisation we now know would be diminished or gone. It is then a matter of how survivors, if any, progress from there. This scenario most of us would prefer not to contemplate but we must consider it as a possibility. Our overall handling of events and developments today, internationally, fails to ensure that we will avoid this option.
A transformative future is one where, in answer to show-stopping situations and circumstances, the world’s societies and economies decide to make fundamental adaptive changes in their manner of operation – as much a product of mass initiatives as of good, Mandela-esque leadership. The nature of the game would change from bottom to top. This would be a spirited psycho-social, as well as a material and a systemic shift – and not without big challenges. We would start grappling with issues and problems very differently from now, reorienting the direction, rules, norms and priorities of society, international relations and our relationship with the natural environment and resources (for example, by instituting a ‘circular economy’).
At heart this would involve a profound shift in the way we see things. Sounds idealistic, perhaps, but it would more likely be made up of pragmatic strategies to deal with high-impact, real challenges. It wouldn’t be heaven – more the application of unusually good sense and realistic cooperation, together with a mobilisation of all available, particularly human, resources. Things would start looking and feeling very different.
A precedent is the WW2 war effort of 1939-44 in Britain, in which society and the economy were transformed in 2-3 years from a capitalist to a command economy, in response to threatening circumstances. It worked, more or less, though it demanded national unity, strong leadership, public consent and mobilisation, fairness, rationing of essentials, major acts of trust and many selfless sacrifices. Public will and consent were important, and they shall be so in coming decades.
We must consider two further matters. The first is this: it’s important to avoid skewing our picture of the future with predispositions inherited from the past. This concerns what we want and what we fear. We all have our various positions, beliefs and preferences and we each see the future through a certain optic. This report has its perceptual biases too – that’s unavoidable. The future will be sculpted amidst a ferment of viewpoints and a multiplicity of situations, a process of jostling. A variety of futures will arise for different people and in different regions. This will summate into a multifarious global totality. Hopes and fears don’t necessarily help, and can make things worse.
The second is: we will get what we get. The key question here is what will actually develop by mid-century – not necessarily what we want, visualise, campaign for or dread. What unfolds will be the reality people of the time will have to live with. Estimating what this might look like is an elasticising experience, posing a challenge to explore unthinkables and look beyond the reality-field of knowns, accepted opinions and comfort-zones of today. John Lennon once sang, life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans, and there’s truth in it.