The world to come

Given the present pace of change, what may happen in the future?  What risks might we face?  Of course, no one can know with certainty what events will come to pass in the years, decades and centuries ahead.  Our collective fate is not set in bedrock.  Nevertheless, foresight is a rare human ability not to be dismissed.  Through close observation and interpretation of data, trends and cycles, and allowing for unexpected tragectory-changing events, we may cautiously project future likelihoods.  Together, these possibilities may serve as a ray of hope, a rude wake-up call, or a dire warning to prompt preparation, adaptation and prevention.

Sometimes perceived as so much “doom and gloom”, it seems such potential risks are commonly ignored or even publicly denied.  Many predictions are hard to stomach, because they go far beyond our daily experiences or even the span of our mortal lives.  Yet with stakes so high, face them in earnest we must.

Ecological relationships

Certainly, the world of the future will likely be one in which urban centers play a pivotal role in most societies.  The UN projects that in 2050, two out of every three people worldwide will live in a city.  With dense concentrations of people residing in sprawling, heavily-populated regions, the impact on biological systems may often go directly unseen, and it likely will be much more difficult for citizens to maintain daily contact with the “external” forests, fields, rivers, mountains and other living spaces from which they sustain their lives.

Indeed, how will people in various societies of the future come to experience the natural world?  It is easy to imagine that with increased reliance on technology and online forms of interaction that our direct relationships with the “wild” will continue to waver.  The impacts will likely be felt throughout cultural, intellectual and spiritual domains.  Societies run the risk of having a complete social and emotional disconnection from their local biosytems – a loss of ecological identity in which “nature” exists only as an abstract concept.

Beyond one planet 

Globally, the human population is set to continue its expansion.  By 2050, it is estimated by the UN that over 9 billion people will compete (or, hopefully, collaborate) for the water, food, materials, and energy of Planet Earth.  The growth is projected to come predominantly from countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

It is not only the sheer volume of people that will unleash a massive footprint on the planet’s biological systems (and, in turn, all human societies).  While industrialized countries have historically impacted the Earth – and will continue to do so – the so-called emerging economies of the world will place additional and unpresidented strain on the world’s biocapacity.  Deservedly, the rapid economic growth of these nations – Brazil, Russia, India, Indonesia, China and South Africa – will no doubt bring social benefits to their peoples.  However, the world will face a severe challenge in how to bring great economic equality without putting crucial planetary systems at risk.

To feed the hunger and aspirations of 9 billion people, it is estimated that an equivalent of almost 3 planets will be required.  As many have noted, we have only one habitable home – a simple but cruel mathematical reality.  Our continued pattern of consumption and waste will further draw down the supply of valuable sources of sustenance and the Earth’s ability to regenerate its own living systems.

Loss of species

As the weight of human industrial and economic activity bears down on all living systems, the loss of each species – through loss of habitat, overhunting, or other compounded causes – will have unpredictable ripple effects throughout their habitats and food webs.  Far beyond the background extinction rate of species, some scientists suggest we are now approaching another great mass extinction, marked by the unintended effects of intense human activity.  Most of those species disappearing are those least documented, often vanishing without having been known to human observation.  The eminent Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson goes so far as to estimate that “our present course will lead to the extinction of half of all plant and animal species by 2100.”   This disturbing likelihood begs the question, to what degree will our cultures and societies be forced to change when once-iconic creatures (e.g. salmon in the Pacific Northwest) become rare in our collective experience?

Climate consequences 

As industrialized societies continue their burning of fossil fuels largely unabated, and emerging economies add to global emissions in a race to “catch up”, the global average temperature will continue to rise (and will go on rising even if global emissions suddenly dropped to zero).  Potentially, by 2040 large regions will individually exceed a 2° increase in average temperature relative to pre-industrial levels, while a global average 2° increase is predicted for 2060 under “business as usual” scenarios.

The potential reprocussions of a warming planet are too numerous to list in full (and the reality is that we do not fully know the full consequences of this complex and unparalleled planet-sized “experiment”).  The extent of climate change resulting from global warming on individual regions will vary with the ability of local systems to adapt to change.  Some of the more certain outcomes include:

  • Here in Canada, an economic cost of $21-43 billion per year, resulting from flooding damages to coastal dwellings, timber supply impacts, etc.
  • Regional increases of:  flooding, drought, wildfire, insects, and ocean acidification; tropical cyclone intensity; frequency of hot extremes, heat waves and heavy precipitation; thaw in permafrost regions
  • Regional decreases of: sea ice extent, snow cover areas, precipitation in subtropical regions, water resources in semi-arid areas.

While rich, industrialized nations may have the ability to adapt to, and even profit from, some elements of climate change, perhaps the most unjust of all potential effects of climate change is likely its reprocussions for the already-suffering populations of poor and (so-called) developing countries.  Climate change is expected to hit these regions the hardest.  According to the World Bank, an increase of global temperature could have “catastrophic implications” for the billions of people in developing countries, rolling back recent gains in the “fight against poverty, hunger and disease”.   The effects pose extreme risks for food and water supplies.  For example, by 2020 many hundreds of millions of people on the continent of Africa are projected to experience increased water stress and a severe decline of agricultural production by as much as 50%.  The availability of freshwater is projected to decrease across Asia, while the death rate from disease stemming from floods and droughts is expected to rise.  In part due to the strain on river basins and underground aquifers, three billion people worldwide may live in a state of water stress as early as 2025, leading to a severe water crisis and a growing source of political and military conflict between regions and nations.  Increasingly a coming reality, the entire island nation of Kiribati may need to be relocated over the threat of sea level rise.  In short, those most vulnerable to the effects of future climate change may be those who are least able to prepare for the coming changes.

Overall, due to the potential effects of climate change and other human-induced ecological effects, by 2020 the world may see up to 50 million “environmental refugees”, forced from their habitat by the lack of intact living systems to sustain them.  There’s little doubt this is only the beginning of the social and ecological chain of events from this very sudden transformation in historical patterns on the Earth.

Terminal prognosis?

How will cultures and societies change alongside or in response to these planetary impacts?  Will societies become “sustainable” in time to prevent the most serious projections?  Or, as some fatalists argue, will humanity submerge into committing “ecocide”?

Here we come to a fork in the road.  We may deny these threats, resign ourselves to this possible fate, or hope that future generations will “fix the problem”.  Alternatively, we may trust humanity will respond in a way that is commensurate with the present and likely-future reality, and will establish, protect or discover meaningful and sustainable ways of life.  Increasingly, we can find plenty of examples of response to crisis.  It is our responsibility to future generations – and to the planet’s living systems which have faithfully sustained our communities for millenia – that beckons us toward the latter path.

If we choose to respond, then in what kind of world do we envision living, and how do we get from here to there?