The Shape of the Future

I recently read the book “The End of the Long Summer” by Dianne Dumanoski. It pulled together a lot of concepts I’ve been thinking about recently – climate history, human cultural evolution, globalization, the Myth of Progress, resilience, and the arc of civilization complexity.

For me, the starting point is the (mis)understanding that modern Western civilization has of Nature. The advent of Industrialization is based on the idea that Nature is an entity separate from Mankind, and is a passive, docile entity that is available for Man to control and dominate. From the book (emphases mine):

“Even though his [Francis Bacon’s] scientific utopia proposed an essentially mechanistic approach to solving problems by breaking them down into parts, Bacon’s writings are full of violent, vivid, sexually charged metaphors in which he often personified Nature as a recalcitrant woman. Promising that the new science would bring about “the masculine birth of time,” he declares, “I am… leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.” Guided by this overweening ambition, moderns have pursued an extreme, aggressive, grandiose notion of dominion–Dominion with a capital D.”

An interesting development is that the exploration of scientific and engineering knowledge, kicked off by Bacon’s mechanistic philosophies, is discovering that reality is decidedly non-linear – that it is impossible to predict, control, and dominate Nature in the way that Bacon and others envisioned. The very institutions that were supposed to enable humans to transcend mortality and dominate Nature are discovering that we are, in fact, very much a part of Nature. Furthermore, our idea that nature is a stable and docile entity of benevolent nature is turning out to be somewhat misguided.

Looking back on climate history, it turns out that the current period of climatic stability going back 11,700 years is unprecedented for the time that humans have been on the Earth. For the vast majority of human evolution, the environment has actually been prone to dramatic fluctuations:

In 2008, the ongoing investigation of Greenland ice cores yielded new, detailed, and, indeed, astonishing evidence about the past that might finally begin to explain how and why climate can change in leaps. The reason, researchers now propose, lies in findamental reorganization in the circulation of the atmosphere that can occur in one to three years–a switch so sudden, noted the leader of the North Greenland Ice Core Project, Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, that it is “as if someone has pushed a button.”

This new analysis indicated that the Ice Age ended abruptly 14,700 years ago “within a remarkable three years,”, initiating a rapid warming of 18 degress F that happened in two major spurts over fifty years. The return to the deep cold of the Younger Dryas 1,800 years later took place over two centuries. Then, after more than a millenium, the deep freeze ended about 11,700 years ago with another rapid shift, this time over the span of sixty years, and a temperature rebound of 18 degrees F.

In sharp contrast, the last eleven millennia have been very stable:

Despite devastating floods that have wiped out communities and catastrophic droughts that have brought down civilizations, the past 11,700 years since the end of the Younger Dryas nevertheless rank as a time of extremely low climate variability. Before this calm period, our ancestors faced a far more erratic and demanding climate marked by fluctuations from decade to decade that were ten times greater than current climate extremes. … Living with such extremes would be “immeasurably more demanding” and would require “an extraordinarily adaptable, flexible, and migratory lifestyle to adjust to changing environmental conditions.”

In other words, it is the relative climatic stability that we are currently living in that has enabled civilizations to flourish, that has enabled societies to abandon the extreme flexibility required to survive in a variable environment.

It seems unlikely that human societies could have evolved to their impressive level of today in interglacials of 6,000 years or less…” observes James White, who studies the Earth’s climate history at the University of Colorado. “We have needed this long period of stable and warm climate to develop modern, complex societies.

The interconnected, interdependant systems of resource extraction, manipulation and proliferation that enable our civilization are dependant on a stable environment.

“Our corporations have built the most efficient system of production the world has ever seen, perfectly calibrated to a world where nothing bad ever happens. But this is not the world we live in.” Says Barry Lynn.

Our civilization is now at the point where it has dumped so many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and are continuing to do so, that the chance that the climate is going to continue to remain stable – or even that its changes will be gradual, giving us time to respond and adapt leisurely – is doubtful. It’s no longer a question of whether we’ll hit tipping points, it’s when, and what precisely the severity of the consequences for doing so are going to be.

All this leads to some extremely interesting questions (I think):

    • What does a modern civilization look like in a world with a fluctuating climate?
    • What kind of infrastructures can withstand the system shocks that will come?
    • What will be the failure modes and effects of existing systems (the ones not adaptable to rapidly changing climate)?
    • What’s the critical path from where we are today to a future where humans are no longer driving climate systems, and have adapted to whatever climate we wind up with?
    • We talk about sustainability, which to my mind implies in some sense a steady state type of balance with nature. What is sustainability if nature itself isn’t in any sort of steady state? What if a fully sustainable community in California’s Central Valley in 2020 becomes unsustainable in 2030 due to changing local weather patterns?

In summary, what I think these facts about climate variability imply is that any discussion of green, sustainable solutions is irrelevant unless it considers the shape of our possible climate futures. They also imply that the future is going to look nothing like the present, and not in the way that the Golden Age of Science Fiction painted a picture of humans ascending to the stars in an upward arc of technological advancement.

What do you think it’ll look like?

Update: Just saw Alex Steffen’s post Future-Ready Cities: Why the capacity and willingness to change trump everything. Very related to this post.
But I’ve come to the conclusion that readiness to act matters more than any of these. Places that invest boldly in the next decades in ruggedizing their systems, growing civic resilience and building up the local capacity for innovation, adaptation and rapid cultural change… these are the places that will be most prepared for the storms on the horizon.
His book Worldchanging 2.0 is full of the type of solutions that a future resilient city might have; highly recommended reading.

9 Responses to The Shape of the Future

  1. Eric Solrain says:

    Nicely done. I’ve thought about this a lot too. Like, did you know humans once had geomagnetic sight? We still have the receptors in our eyes it turns out, but rather inactive. What about the supposedly huge portion of our brain we don’t use? For mass civilization to flourish, stable temps were needed for grain production. Mono-diet lead to stunting human growth and development – issues we’re only just beginning to understand that have epigenetic consequences for gene activation over generations. I think any vision of our future has to account for the physiological differences of humans in a mass-produced culture (defining anything that is beyond foraging as mass production) versus human potential in a true symbiosis with nature – ie, highly dependent on nature. Even cultivated vegetables have fewer nutrients than older varieties – though the plants produce more, larger fruit consistently. But as we understand these connections between physiology, epigenetics and nutrition better, perhaps there are natural solutions we can find that allow for some relatively high level of population density. Or do we just start terraforming terra?

    • flowxrg says:

      Wow – that geomagnetic sight stuff is really interesting. I want an upgrade!

      I read a paper a while ago that I’ve long since lost, written by… a scientist (apologies for forgetting the credentials). His main point was that humans have been on an unsustainable cultural dead end ever since we invented agriculture. He called for a sort of neo-hunter-gatherer foraging civilization as the only way we’d be able to persist – sort of cultivating forests for maximum/optimal output. Cyber-foragery, perhaps. IIRC, his outlook on high population density wasn’t very encouraging.

      I think that’s the most interesting question… is the future going to be a between simple, basic tech – blacksmiths and veggie gardens and bicycles – and neobiological systems, designed by humans to be more of a symbiotic interaction between natural systems and our own? i.e. Living Machines – organizing biological systems to interact with human material flows to be mutually beneficial for both organisms.

      • Humm…I wonder about the glorification of a neo-hunter-gatherer society or small civilizations in general. I get that big, complex, and interconnected civs like ours are susceptible to sudden environment shifts but so too are small civs right? A pre-agricultural society of <10,000 people is dangerous! Sudden shifts in environment or some other calamity threaten extension right? We were *lucky* to have developed agriculture to lessen the possibility of a die-off.

      • flowxrg says:

        Tim, yeah I think we need to be vigilant against glorifying any alternative to modern civilization. It’s an easy and oft-made error to think that the grass is greener, buy in to the myth of the noble savage, etc. I think there is value in understanding the ways in which previous forms of human society have been flexible and adaptable though.

        *A* pre-agricultural society of <10,000 people is dangerous, yes. But what about *hundreds of* societies scattered over the globe… are they, taken as a group, not less susceptible to cascading failures that can domino through a single globalized society?

        I'm not interested in calling for a return to pre-agrarianism. I *am* interested in criticisms of the rigidity of modern civilization and its current apparent lack of adaptability, and I think examining the principles that made pre-agrarian societies adaptable can be informative to that critical process.

        Last quick thought: doesn't agriculture only guard against pretty short-term environmental changes? In other words, it protects against things like sudden freezes, perhaps multiple-year droughts, etc. What happens to a primarily agricultural society, established in some verdant region, when a *250 year* drought hits it? Will the fact that that society is used to being in one spot work against them?

    • Eric, I like your thoughts. Want to set right a few misstatements though.

      “What about the supposedly huge portion of our brain we don’t use?”

      The belief that we only use a small portion of our brain is a very old myth [1] that really needs to die.

      “did you know humans once had geomagnetic sight?”

      I’m guessing you’re referencing this [2] article (there’s a bunch of carbon copies on other sites too)? This is a classic case of the media (especially blogs) taking the words of scientists (“could”, “possibly”, “perhaps”) and shifting them into something more sexy (if wrong). From the article:

      “His team engineered flies to be cryptochrome-deficient: They struggled to orient within a magnetically-charged maze. When the researchers spliced human cryptochrome into the flies, they again found their bearings.

      ‘We can’t show that it will do the same in humans, but it sure restored geomagnetic sight in the flies'”

      And so we move from “scientists have spliced a protein into a fly” to “humans once had geomagnetic sight”

      Sorry to be a bummer but the truth is probably better (if less exciting).



  2. Neil says:

    In a general way, the discussion terrifies me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not interested.

    Looking at the trend of human adaptation to our planet, I feel that every step taken has simply grown our capacity to understand time. And with a growing understanding of the fringes of our capacity, we created systems of controlling the portions that have been understood the longest. A metric to define the day, the month, year to help with crop rotations. Standardizing of time zones to help the rail systems. On and on, lead by our ever expanding thirst for understanding a wider array of time and what is to come.

    The breath we pass along to new generations is based on these underlying “understandings” of time, be them wrong or right. My fear is that in this light of new fringes of understanding, that which was predictable is eroding, yet the tools used to discover these revelations were built on the same eroding predictions. And where does it stop? Can I keep physics? how much of this still holds true?

    To borrow from Naomi Klein, who in turn borrowed from he who shall not be named, “Only a crisis—actual or perceived––produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. . . ”

    I think ideas for resilient systems need to be put forth that can be understood on a more human level. While our societies can now bring us magical gifts such as ipads and smartphones, what we need are more basic tools to understand where our water comes from, and what our local communities rely on. It feels utilitarian to bring the world back to a tribal-sized construct, but I think ideas and projects have to be. Sustainability of the whole gets really difficult with high levels of dependencies. Just realized, I am starting to sound like a libertarian. dear god.

    • flowxrg says:

      Neil, yes… terrified… right there.

      I’m beginning to think that what appropriate solutions look like are small, “component” building blocks. Solutions that can operate on the small scale (i.e. local community) but scale. Solution as platform: simple rules, simple understandable behavior, at scale they become a “large” entity that isn’t actually an entity. Feel that this is the way to get away from the extreme levels of interconnected interdependencies (is that redundant?) we have now.

      About sounding like a libertarian – have you read any of Murray Bookchin’s stuff?

      I read a few of his books in college “Towards an Ecological Society” and I think “The Ecology of Freedom”…. very interesting reading.

  3. Matthew says:

    Fantastic blog you have here but I was wondering if you knew of
    any user discussion forums that cover the same topics discussed in this article?
    I’d really like to be a part of group where I can get comments from other experienced individuals that share the same interest.
    If you have any recommendations, please let me know.

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