Which Path to the Future?

The title of this section of discussions takes the form of a question, simply because there may be no obvious path into future, which is acceptable to all. Equally, while many of the discussions will allude to a process of evolution; the associated idea of natural selection does not necessarily guarantee 'better' only the adaptation to a changing environment. If so, the intellectual, and possibly ethical, pursuit of better or more equitable forms of global governance may not be guaranteed in any near-term future. As this perspective may be seen as being overly pessimistic from the outset, we shall start by describing a wider spread of ideas forwarded by the Global Scenario Group operating as part of the Tellus Institute, which possibly dates back to 1995. Therefore, reference is also made to a later article, published in 2010, entitled The Century Ahead: Searching for Sustainability by a group of authors still associated with the Tellus Institute, which provides more up-to-date analysis. However, this article might be seen as analogous to the ideas already reviewed under the heading The Limits to Growth in that its conclusions try to remain 'hopeful', but not necessarily optimistic, e.g.

The transition (to some future world) can only emerge as a collective cultural and political project of global citizens, a development that is far from guaranteed. We can only hope that our scan of the global future, suggesting the desirability, even necessity, of such a deep change, will help spur action to achieve sustainability.

So while some of the original ideas under the heading Global Scenarios may have been updated, the intention is only to use them as an initial framework for comparison against the 'progress' that has actually been achieved over the last 20 years. Within the structure of the diagram below, we see three potential paths leading into the future, originally anchored to the political state of the world in 1995, where each path into the future is then shown to split into different potential outcomes.

It is generally assumed that the 'current trends and policies' back in 1995 were a reflection of disparate politics, developments and interests of some +190 nation states, which collectively had little overall control over an expanding free-market economy, where the 2008 financial meltdown lies in the future. So, it is from this viewpoint that various paths and potential end-points are described:

  • Conventional:
    In a sense, this path essentially represents a continuation of the world following historic trends, where the global economy effectively operates to the benefit of the richest nation states in the absence of any overall political or ethical regulation. Even now, in 2015, we might realise that this situation has not really changed, although it might be seen as increasingly unstable.

  • Barbarization:
    If the conventional path does eventually become unstable, mounting environmental and social problems may result in growing political instability around the world as the survival needs of the global majority cannot be fully met. If so, the world may be driven towards more basic principles, e.g. survival of the fittest.

  • Transitional:
    This path might simply be described as leading towards any solution that might better provide sustainability, which we might assume includes both population and resource usage. However, it is far from clear how the population versus resource sustainability problems will resolved in practice.

Within each of the paths outlined above, the authors have identified two possible visions, which for general simplicity might be thought sufficient to create some level of sustainability, although possibly not enough to be described as a new world order. The following outline briefly describes each before examining some of these ideas from a more critical perspective:

  • Market Forces:
    This outcome might be described as a continuation of today's free-market capitalism, which is dependent on technology advances to counter any downturns resulting from resource depletion linked to population growth and environmental change. However, given 20 years of hindsight, we might have to question whether technology alone will be sufficient to improve the lives of a global majority, such that increasing social disorder is adverted.

  • Policy Reform:
    Assumes that national governments are able to agree real changes that lead to the implementation, and not just the discussion, of more forward looking environmental and social goals. Again, we might now recognise that there is considerable uncertainty as to how such an approach can be achieved given the scope of reforms necessary for long-term sustainability of the global economy, while also being subject to both population growth and environmental change.

  • Fortress World:
    Acknowledges the possibility that the global problems simply get worst, such that powerful nation states enforce order in the form of authoritarian governance, which would possibly only attempt to control the global economy for the benefit of a minority within a few powerful nation states. To some extent, it might be argued that the world already operates in this mode given that the most affluent 20% consume 80% of the world resources.

  • Breakdown:
    As a corollary to fortress world, authoritarian governance fails to prevent global chaos spreading, as environmental and social problems spiral out of control driven by population growth and dwindling global resources. Again, it might be argued that even the most powerful nation states are now struggling to keep world order, which is beginning to threaten the delivery of critical resources essential to their national economies.

  • Eco-Communalism:
    Assumes a possible return to more local forms of governance, possibly less reliant on technology, especially in the area of the global transport of goods and services. However, it might be questioned whether such an approach could only be maintained within the protective framework of a powerful nation state or after the wholesale breakdown of more centralised governance. If the latter, it is suspected that such a solution could only support a much smaller global population prepared to live a more hand-to-mouth existence.

  • New Paradigm:
    This seems to be a highly idealistic vision of some new world order predicated on the idea of global citizenship, where altruism rules through democratic institutions of global governance. How this new world order comes into existence is left to you to consider, but it is difficult to imagine that such radical change could come about without the current world order essentially collapsing. If so, it might then suggest a considerable period of near global chaos would follow, which would only make this idea even harder to achieve in any reasonable timeframe.

While the scenarios outlined above may provide an initial model for discussion, it may be possible to note from the commentary added to each description that some of these possibilities are now judged to be highly improbable. If first described in 1995, we might now reflect on the probability of each with 20 years of hindsight, which only seems to affirm the level of over-optimism associated with some of these potential outcomes, such that we are forced to evaluate more realistic outcomes, even if we hope they are equally overly pessimistic. It is also highlighted that the viability of any model proposed has to be seen in terms of the timeframes involved. For if populations and resource usage continue to follow an exponential growth path, then the timeframe in question may not extend beyond the current century.

The revised diagram above is anchored in the same 1995 starting point as before, i.e. a world dominated by national politics and a free-market economy. However, in 2015, the world still appears to be following the 'conventional' path based on market forces with only limited policy reform in terms of the global economy. Unlike before, the diagram above reflects a sequential timeline flowing from left to right with more probability weighting given to the red paths, where the numbered circles simply reflect a transition point, rather than an end state.

  • Transition-1:
    Probability suggests that a conventional path of national politics, which is unable to really control the global economy will eventually reach a transition point of some description or another due to population growth and resource depletion. Potential advances in technology and varying degrees of political compromise make it difficult to predict an exact timescale or the scope of the political breakdown, only that something must eventually change.

  • Transition-2:
    Despite the uncertainty, the direct [0-2] path to a sustainable economy is rejected, although this transition point might be reach through crisis change, i.e. [1-2], as the prospect of a global political breakdown becomes increasingly real. However, we might realise that any change towards a sustainable economy devised in crisis made not be well conceive and therefore could eventually fail.

  • Transition-3:
    If crisis change fails to achieve the level of political and economic reform necessary to maintain a sustainable economy, it is not unreasonable to suggest that any interim global system may collapse and fall back towards political breakdown that then triggers a period of more chaotic change in order to avoid what has been labelled as 'fortress world'.

  • Transition-4:
    While the imminent prospect of fortress world may trigger a period of renewed, but possibly evermore more chaotic change, probability suggests that such change may be equally insufficient to lead directly to any fundamentally new paradigm of world order that can be sustained.

  • Transition-5:
    Fortress world suggests the use force to maintain order and essential economic supplies to some smaller and segmented portions of the world population. It is possible that fortress world might consist of a number of nation states working in different coalitions that best suit the different political and economic needs of the member states being subject to varying degrees of environmental change based on geography. While such coalitions may prove to be inherently unstable, they may persist into the future in the absence of any real alternatives.

  • Transition-6:
    As pointed out at the begin of this discussion, evolutionary change does not necessarily mean 'better' simply that life adapts to the survival needs of a new environment. The new environment in question may be a world subjected to significant climate change, which only compounds the problem of resource shortages associated with population growth. As such, the sustainable world implied might not be fair or ethical or even a morally acceptable solution, simply one that the natural world imposes on humanity if it does not take any alternative action.

Despite all attempts to try to rationalise a path into our global future, it is impossible to talk with any certainty given all the unknown variables that may ultimately play a part. Of course, it may still be argued that some paths are more probable within the timeframes being associated with problems, such as population growth, global climate change and potential resource shortages. However, there is an 'elephant-in-the-room' that is not often discussed in the context of politics, although it will be the focus of the next discussion.