Looking Ahead to a Very Different Future

By David L. Brown

The beginning of a new year is always a time to look ahead. The usual approach followed by new year prognosticators is to try to predict the next 12 months, and the accuracy of most forecasts is generally poor. I am going to take an even more challenging path and write about the somewhat longer term prospects for the human race: What is coming over the horizon; what (if anything) we can do about it; and how the future might impact civilization as we know it.

Most predictions of the future rely on the old tried-and-true (and desperately false) technique of looking backward, then extending the trendlines of the past into the future. In some cases that has worked, but the technique has little chance of accurately predicting the future from our present position. The reason is that we are reaching the end of an era of rapid growth built on depletion of non-renewable resources. We, the members of the human race, are in the position of lemmings rushing toward a cliff — and the future for lemmings is quite different from their past. Drawing a straight line prediction for a rushing pack of lemmings would prove to be quite inaccurate.

All indications are that there is a serious rocky stretch ahead for the human race, and that the future will look quite different from what we see around us today. In many ways (assuming that human beings survive at all), the future will seem like an advanced version of the past, with a return to extended families and tribal organization, social cooperation, closer ties to the land, and the application of sustainable technologies.

There are many reasons why I advocate a vision of the future that is based on a disconnect with the familiar past. We have spent much time here at Star Phoenix Base discussing the very real threat of climate change, population expansion, and other environmental factors. Those are important subjects to explore, but I am going to take them as givens and step back to imagine life in a much-altered future world. And altered it will be. Not only will climate change transform our world, but perhaps even more important, the human race is rapidly depleting many of the natural resources that are essential to our current technologies and way of life.

Of course we are all aware of the looming decline in petroleum supplies. We may have already passed the Hubbert Peak and begun the downward slide into scarcity and soaring prices. Today, in fact, petroleum hit the $100 mark for the first time ever. That is a watermark event with serious ramifications for the future I envision.

But there are many other essential resources that are equally imperiled by human exploitation. Water is one. Tillable land is another. Without those two it will be impossible to support large numbers of people, and in many places the capacity of the Earth has already been surpassed.

I like to think of the Earth in terms of the ancient model of Earth-Air-Fire-Water as the four essential elements. The Greeks who devised that model believed it to be literally true, and of course the universe is not nearly that simple. However, in a general sense and seen allegorically, the model still works today. In allegorical form, the categories — Earth [soil and minerals]; Air [climate]; Fire [energy]; and Water — provide a fair description of the key resources that drive our planet’s environment.

We are presently facing looming shortages in all four of these categories, and the problem goes deeper than the basic ones I have mentioned. For example, it is not just petroleum that is running out, but also copper, lead, tin, and many other minerals. We are mowing down tropical rain forests like blades of grass. Climate problems are multitudinous and water shortages are growing severe and expected to get worse. We are, in short, plundering the resources of the Earth to keep our present technology struggling along. The piper will soon demand his pay.

In the future, all these problems are certain to become severe. There is no escaping it, for the Earth cannot produce more of these non-renewable resources. We will run out of easily produced petroleum, natural gas, and eventually even coal. Important minerals will become depleted as mines are worked out. Water is already becoming a crucial resource without which our civilization cannot continue to expand. The atmosphere will continue to absorb greenhouse gas and heat the planet. Artificial fertilizer made from natural gas, petroleum and mined potassium and phosphate will become scarce, expensive, and eventually unavailable.

What then? Our successors will have no choice but to adapt by using new resources, making those that remain go further, and creating an entirely new technological civilization.

In 1980 the futurist Alvin Toffler wrote a book called “The Third Wave,” in which he described the invention of agriculture (the first wave) and the industrial revolution (the second wave) as major turning points in human development. He predicted a coming third major event, or “wave,” in terms that we could largely recognize in our present world. He wrote of the need for sustainability, unlike in the previous era that was built on the wanton use of resources. He touched on computerization, to perform such functions as providing communications to replace the post office, “the death of the secretary” in business offices, and even the promise of home-based work. Much of what he predicted has already come to pass — and yet the resource gobbling character of the “second wave” is still in full force.

Toffler saw a new and better society as the fruits of his imagined “third wave.” I suggest that his vision was nearsighted, and that what he described was basically the transformations that we have already experienced, with social and technological changes that have made today’s world completely unrecognizable to people living just a century ago. And yet we are still hurtling toward the REAL changes, those that will be forced upon us when the non-renewable resources run out, one by one, as sure as winter follows fall.

Toffler’s third wave might better be seen as merely a brief interlude between the old ways of the industrial world and the physical, cultural, and psychological trauma that faces us today. What awaits us in the somewhat longer term might better be termed a “fourth wave.” In fact, a better term might be “tsunami,” a tidal wave of fundamental and violent change that will either transform or destroy human civilization.

Let’s take an imaginary time journey to see what life might be like in that “fourth wave” future, assuming that our descendants are able to change and adapt to the new conditions.

First, a basic ground rule is to realize that many of the resources we take for granted will no longer be available, either because they have been depleted or have become too scarce and expensive. What resources will our successors have to use?

Energy is a key, and thus my first prediction: Solar and wind power are the most likely and available alternatives to fossil fuels. Sun and wind exist almost everywhere, can be turned into energy locally, and with improving technology can be efficient and affordable. Most important, they are available in endless quantities. (I am assuming that fusion power can never become cheap and convenient; that we cannot learn to tap the immense Zero Point Energy of the quantum vacuum; and that science fails to discover some other clean, sustainable form of energy.)

There is another kind of energy that I believe will become prominent in the future, and that is the energy of muscle power. In today’s advanced nations a small minority of humans are engaged in farming, and virtually all of the work is done by tractors and other machinery. When petroleum, steel, and other resources are scarce, I predict a return to the “first wave” model where a majority of humans will be engaged in the daily task of producing food. In fact, mechanized farming is a short-lived aberration that has no parallel in the past, and even today in less developed regions most people are engaged in growing the food they need. Humanity has strayed temporarily from the land, and in a future world they must return to it and devote themselves to the almost Biblical task of producing their daily bread.

Without the many resources we are so wantonly using up today, how will our successors build their future infrastructures? How will they live and work? Here is an imaginary visit to a community of the post-resources future.

As we arrive at the community we notice that there are few prominent structures. To a very great degree this small town appears to be open land. Scattered here and there are wind generators and solar energy panels, but most of the space is open and devoted to woodlands, fields of grain or forage and grazing pastures. Our descendants have learned that land is too valuable to be covered with houses, roads, and parking lots.

This community of the future, we soon discover, is similar to an agricultural commune or ancient farming village, with each member providing labor and management to the essential job of producing food. Humankind has in fact reverted to a social form that Toffler would have classed as “first wave,” but with new technologies to aid efficiency.

Structures are minimalist, not only to conserve scarce materials but also to provide protection from the elements and to use the least possible energy. Houses are built underground, with the natural insulation of the Earth making them easy to keep cool in summer and warm in winter. Above, the precious soil is devoted to outdoor gardens and fields.

Greenhouse-like structures are scattered everywhere. Like the houses, they are partially sunken in the ground for energy efficiency. Topped by multiple layers of glass, the simple but effective systems allow temperature to be controlled simply by ventilating the air between the panels, which trap excess heat. In winter, warm air will be directed into houses and growing areas to provide heat. Little energy is required, mainly to operate ventilation fans.

In summer, excess warmth is used for immediate purposes such as to heat water or stored in below ground heat sinks for use during colder months. When necessary, houses and farm buildings are cooled by air drawn through underground plenums, simple networks of buried pipes where warm air gives up its heat to the surrounding soil. During cold periods, similar plenums will draw warmth from the underground heat sinks.

Both crops and animals are found in the agricultural buildings, including poultry for efficient meat and egg production; sheep for their lambs and wool; goats for milk and kids; and pigs for meat and leather. Intensive vegetable farming takes place in a continuous rotation the year around. Recycling is a prominent feature of these future farming enterprises, with all plant and animal waste being composted and used to renew the soil. No artificial fertilizer is available, although natural limestone is applied to sweeten the soil and maintain optimal pH.

Structural materials include those most available and sustainable: Wood from trees grown for the purpose; glass made from sand; natural stone; rammed earth. Cloth is woven from wool and plant fibers such as cotton, hemp and flax.

Water is strictly conserved and recycled. By enclosing the intensive farm production, evaporation is minimized. All water is recycled and none allowed to flow away.

Each town or village is generally self sufficient, although some trade takes place with nearby communities. It makes sense to specialize and trade certain crops or animals, manufactured goods, and so forth. What does not make sense is to transport these things long distances, so in the future local economies will be the rule for most goods.

This kind of community relies on cooperation between groups of extended families. The principle of sustainability will be enforced by natural laws of supply and demand, and thus the model has the potential to exist for many generations — with one important caveat concerning population.

As Thomas Malthus predicted more than two centuries ago, human population has demonstrated the ability to grow until our numbers exceed what the Earth can sustain. We are at or beyond the breaking point at which over-population will cause a catastrophic decline. (For details, see my essay “Overshoot-and-Collapse: A Model for Our Future?” posted on August 6, 2006.)

Unfortunately, if my predicted model of an agrarian society living in balance with the Earth is to become a reality, it will be required for human population to reach a much lower level than at present, or at the very least, to become stable. Only if population can achieve a fixed balance with available resources, and maintain that equilibrium indefinitely, can any sustainable future be achieved. That balance can be reached by one of two means: Reduction of population, or development of efficient and sustainable lifestyles that permit present numbers to live at peace with Nature.

One final comment is called for, and that relates to the “promise of space.” According to true believers in the proposition that humanity is destined to spread to the planets and the stars, I say humbug! We are a species that is adapted to a very complex and special environment, that of the Planet Earth. When I read of plans to accommodate human numbers by populating floating cities in space, by terraforming Mars or other planets, or by discovering new worlds circling distant stars, I am entertained by the ideas — but in no way do I accept them as realistic. These are no more than fantastic dreams, the imagined life of human beings in space or on worlds other than Earth can be no more real than fictional Narnia or Middle Earth.

To imagine otherwise is to be blind to the reality that the Planet Earth is the only home humanity will ever have. Space is a dangerous and uninviting place, and other planets of the Solar System are little more promising. It may be that humans can someday visit other stars, but even if so we should not expect those explorers to discover comfortable, Earth-like planets, nor should we believe that it would be practical to transport our excess population as pioneers to those faraway places even if they should exist.

As we lurch and fumble our way into the new year of 2008, let us hope that the future might somehow be less dire and our prospects more bright than present trends seem to indicate. For now, a dramatically different future for humanity appears to be inevitable. The key is how we will get from here to there. It is a dangerous time that lies ahead, and the way in which our successors respond to the challenge will determine whether the coming change is merely calamitous or completely disastrous.

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