Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Climate change: Four futures

Climate change: Four futures | Grist

Very interesting article from Grist. Sara Robinson argues that no matter what happens, there are only four possible futures available. Dr. Jim Dator, founder of the futures program at the University of Hawaii, first described the "four generic futures" in the 1970s by . Read about them below:

Future 1: Continuation
More business as usual. The people favoring this approach aren't just the deniers; they're also the people who intellectually understand and accept the reality of global heating, but are so locked into the status quo and its systems that they're either unable to imagine or impotent to instigate the kind of responses required to meet it.

(A rather sobering example: a friend told me earlier this week about a meeting with a Congressional staffer who proffered the opinion that 350 ppm of atmospheric carbon -- the absolute target set by the IPCC as necessary to avoid catastrophic warming -- wasn't possible, but a target of 450 ppm could probably be sold on the Hill. The guy honestly thought you could negotiate with physics the same way you negotiate state school lunch funding -- that Mother Nature is a bureaucrat who can be counted on to pad her budget request forms, expecting Congress to dock them. That's classic Continuation thinking.)

Under this assumption, American life will go on in this century more or less as it did in the last, perhaps with some adaptations here and there.

Future 2: Collapse

The end of the world as we know it. This is the Jared Diamond/James Howard Kunstler/Limits to Growth scenario, where civilization's immensely complex and brittle systems break down, and life winds down to something more simple and local. This isn't necessarily a "worst case" scenario -- a lot of us wouldn't mind returning to a less complex existence -- but it's radically different from the modern world we know now.

Future 3: Discipline
We acknowledge and accept the magnitude of the problem, make a serious plan to deal with it, and commit to following through. There will be sacrifice. There will be change. But because the transition is thought through and undertaken in an orderly way, much of what we value can be salvaged; and new (perhaps more authentically human) values can be brought to the fore as well. This is the path advocated by most environmentalists and climate activists -- not to mention a growing number of businesses who are seeking coherent guidance as they invest their capital in new green initiatives.

Future 4: Technology and Innovation
We put our confidence in our own ability to create technological solutions like geoengineering and carbon-free energy sources that will solve the problem. This is the future where science fiction meets future fact. Perhaps it's time for humans to consider moving to other planets, or creating artificial environments here that will sustain us when the natural environment turns hostile. Whatever the vision, it's taken for granted that humans are very smart monkeys who can invent our way out of anything if we simply decide to think big enough.

I'm personally hoping that we choose a mix of the "Discipline" and "Technology and Innovation" futures. As I mentioned in my previous post, to reach a truly sustainable society, we're going to have to change our way of life. But that doesn't mean that life needs to get worse. We can choose to innovate and create a beautiful new world, or we can choose to continue business as usual and hope that we miraculously avoid the "Collapse" scenario. Whatever happens, it's entirely up to us.


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