A disaster scenario is unthinkable yet we must face this possibility. Humanity might have disappeared by the end of the century. Our lives may have become archaeological remains. It’s over, and planet Earth becomes devoid of humans.
Some have visualised and warned of this and, while its likelihood is lower than that of a manageable or a difficult scenario, it is nevertheless possible. Today, we have the ingredients of its making – nuclear arms, toxic chemicals, climate-harming habits, dangerous technologies and natural risks and threats. What would happen next would be a geological and ecological matter since human presence would be gone.
Or perhaps 100 million people survive, picking through the rubble, making do with whatever they can find, dealing with deep trauma and possibly with diseases or disabilities such as radiation or toxic poisoning, and occupying a depopulated world with empty regions that are no longer wise or possible to live in. They might build shelters from old tyres and scrap, living on mashed ants, nettles and rare sources of drinkable water, with an occasional bonanza when a stash of stale coffee, tinned beef or a collection of seeds are found. The stuff of dystopian novels, this option is on the table and people need to look at it full square as a potential future option.
If there are survivors, governance as we know it would no longer exist. A money economy would be a thing of the past. Much would rest on the moral position most survivors had come to and the damage they will have sustained. Environmentally, many areas could be severely impaired, though other areas could start re-growing quickly in the absence of large-scale human exploitation. The world’s climate could be significantly altered, with weather extremes and events common.
There would, however, be waste materials to pick over, and mining the remains of human life would probably be a rich source of resources and sustenance. Would it be possible to revive blast furnaces, mechanical diggers or at least some useful technologies or energy-sources? The capacity to repair or re-make simple technologies, such as forging tools, might exist. Rebuilding settlements, even towns, could be possible. Would there be sufficient available land for agriculture, or natural resources for hunting, gathering and fishing? Would humanity have a capacity for reorganising and restoring some semblance of organised life, perhaps over a few generations?
We cannot know. But we do have to consider a scenario in which a small number of survivors are faced with a very big world to reoccupy – and this has already been done in fiction and film. We can only hope that such a scenario does not become actual. But, if it does, there will be a quality of finality to it. The past will be a distant memory, leaving its signs in piles of waste, devastated landscapes, ruined cities and strange heaps of materials that new generations cannot fully fathom. It could take centuries for some semblance of revival to develop.
A Transformative Scenario
There is a fourth option: a transformative scenario. Since humanity does not have a habit of making the wisest of choices, such an unprecedented scenario would likely arise pragmatically to meet the manifest challenges of the time. It would represent an outbreak of commonsense and realism of a kind we see today only in individuals and small, localised groups.
This scenario requires a fundamental and universal makeover of our global mindset. The aims and rules of the game would change, with humanity, or at least sections of it, making fundamental choices obliged by the force of events, prompted by new ideas and initiatives and driven by a good shot of human spirit. In a cards-on-the-table scenario things that once seemed impossible can become feasible through the application of a hard-headed brilliance and a clarity of objectives that nowadays is unusual.
Something strange happens: when it all gets to be too much, we are stymied and former escape strategies fail to work. We reach a point of resignation, giving up. We cry our eyes out, feeling helpless. Then, something happens – a certain peace dawns. We’re still alive. We look around and notice that the world has not ended and there’s a silver lining to those dark clouds. This is where the transformation breaks through. It is possible, and there are small-scale precedents.
Actions taken in such circumstances can lead further than is understood at the time. The first steps toward the computer age were taken during WW2 without anyone really knowing it: developers believed they were cracking war-related cryptographic and logistical problems, while they were actually laying the foundations of the age of computers. WW2 catalysed a plethora of innovations, some problematic (such as nuclear arms) and some redemptive (such as plastic surgery or universal health and welfare systems).
Necessity is the mother of invention. Sometimes we find ourselves resolving more issues than we thought we were addressing. Suddenly we discover that a plate of potatoes is the best meal we ever had.
Some people today have a foot in this transformative world, changing their psychology and emotional disposition so that their consumption reduces radically, their relationships improve, they start on a path of self-healing and their understanding encompasses realities beyond those they previously had known.
Before such people make such a ‘turning in the deepest seat of consciousness’, they are inevitably confronted with a show-stopping crisis rendering former beliefs and behaviours obsolete or impractical. The chips are down and it can be a relief to start on a path of change, even when the benefits and outcomes are unknown and the means of getting there are yet to be learned. Transformation makes life simpler by cutting through to basics, removing unnecessary obstructions and uncovering straightforward, doable solutions.
Reality is made up of two things – what is actually happening, and how we choose to experience it. If the latter changes, our grasp of reality, objectives and possibilities change too. What was a problem becomes an opportunity and, at times miraculously, the objective facts of our reality start changing too. What was impossible proves to be possible, demonstrating that ‘impossible’ is a mindset reinforced by fear, guilt or shame, not an objective reality. At present we know no way to remove the radioactivity from nuclear waste, but this means only that it is currently impossible. But then, so were human flight, skyscrapers and electric power.
Landfill sites become resource mines, people with mental illnesses discover their genius, and polluted rivers become ecological redevelopments leading to far greater outcomes than just river-cleanup. As soon as a rectification starts, things work differently, and a problem becomes an avenue of progress – it’s all in the way we see things. If international trade collapsed, then smokers would stop smoking and obesity would decline rapidly, simply because of scarcity – so is scarcity a bad or a good thing? Many problems are self-resolving when the overall context changes, or when a majority of people choose to follow a new path. Miracles can happen – after all, a miracle is merely something that we decide is impossible, but it happens anyway. In other parlance, ‘black swans’.
But this can also take time and it can be grindingly hard. In WW2 the tide of the war turned in 1942 but it took until 1945 to end. Many of its worst aspects, in terms of hardship, devastation and death, emerged between 1943 and 1945, after the tide turned. It took until 1950ish for a postwar revival to begin, and until 1965ish for the past to start becoming history.
Looking back from the future, we might perceive that the period we live in today – perhaps the century between 1950 and 2050 – constituted the peak of the world disaster. We often think of disaster as something yet to come, but this arises from ‘normality bias’, a perception that our current situation is normal when in fact it is extreme and exceptional. Ours has been a time when we polluted and damaged the Earth to the maximum, expending vast resources on military hardware, waste, compensatory consumption and systemic inefficiency, while poisoning ourselves, letting people starve and kill each other off. What a ridiculous time to be alive in!
Today, many people perceive that the future could be disastrous and that a transformative option is improbable or simply the empty dream of idealists and lefties. But this is a transitory perception of our time. Disaster can be a catalyst that forces us to embark on a path of fundamental repair and, in recent decades, the process has already begun – but now it needs to be escalated to priority number one. Our time is a bizarrely redemptive time when many big issues are getting worked out. Worrying things we see today are collective experiences obliging humanity to make fundamental evaluations and decisions. Perhaps we are living in a disaster scenario already.
We are faced with a big question: what kind of trigger experience would make a substantial proportion of humanity commit to a transformative option? An enormous crisis is not necessarily that trigger. In crisis, people tend to hunker down, stunned by the enormity of what is happening. It is often small but potent prompts and events that trigger major change. The Arab revolutions of 2010-11 provide an example: the trigger-point was the suicide of one young man in Tunisia – he was neither a prominent public figure, nor was Tunisia a central country everyone was watching. Several young Tunisians had committed suicide for similar reasons, yet they did not trigger change.
The potent issues symbolised in the young man’s death prompted transformative mass movements to form spontaneously, without prior organisation or ideological preparation. People in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere were ready for change and finally found a means to express it. The Arab revolutions did not succeed, but in the longterm they laid tracks yet to be trodden, setting goals yet to be fulfilled, and these will not be forgotten. Failing all else, the children of those who came out on the streets will move things forward anew. And those at the top who blocked change will be gone, or changed themselves.
It is not possible to identify what will trigger change, and many visionaries and revolutionaries have tried. But it is never triggered unless a potential for change is there – even lying quietly under the surface. Triggers turn a key for large numbers of people simultaneously and, once the wildfire starts, people who previously might never have contemplated pushing for change find themselves doing so – not least because it seems to be their only option.
In China, with the 1976 death of Chairman Mao and the rise to power of Uncle Deng, a change was triggered that made China, in forty years, emerge as a superpower capable of changing the rules of the game worldwide. This was an unexpected: in the 1970s, Maoism looked like a permanent fixture and transformation looked impossible, both to insiders and outsiders. An end to the Cold War division of the world into socialist and capitalist spheres also looked impossible. Impossibility is a precondition for transformation, and paradoxically it can sometimes be conservatives, not necessarily progressives, who bring it about.
Today, a resilient, sustainable, peaceful world looks impossible. Yet the need and the potential are there, and their probability of occurring is very slowly rising. This is happening in the background because, frankly, humanity doesn’t know what to do – we just get on with our own little reality-bubbles and hope that the rest will work out okay. What prevents transformation is a belief that avoidance is still okay – we don’t need to worry and everything is normal, even though we know it isn’t. How a trigger moment might happen and who will bring it about is a mystery. But one guideline is useful: expect the unexpected.