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The future: prospects, hazards and opportunities

British Association for the Advancement of Science

Lecture to the BAAS Annual Conference at the University of Leicester, 2002-09-09

Implicit in much human thinking is the idea of progress; but it is wiser to talk about continuity of change. In terms of both human society and evolution generally, there are processes of improvement and degradation, of greater and lesser complexity, of new departures and endings, none with certain directions. This thought was marvellously expressed by the late Stephen Jay Gould in 1989. He then wrote in a famous passage:

"Life is a copiously branching bush, continually pruned by the grim reaper of extinction, not a ladder of predictable progress… The divine tape player holds a million scenarios, each perfectly sensible. Little quirks at the outset, occurring for no particular reason, unleash cascades of consequences that make a particular future seem inevitable in retrospect. But the slightest early nudge contacts a different groove, and history runs into another plausible channel diverging continuously from its original pathway. The end results are so different, the initial perturbation so apparently trivial. If little penis worms ruled the sea, I have no confidence that Australopithicus would ever have walked erect on the savannas of Africa. And so, for ourselves, I think we can only exclaim, O brave - and improbable - new world, that has such people in it!"

We like to think that people are different from other species. But evolution through lateral communication of their cultures - so called memes - is not totally different from evolution through vertical communication of genes. Certainly there is a strong element of unpredictability. We do not know why civilisations, agricultural, urban and industrial, began as they did after the end of the last ice age some 11,000 years ago. But we have some ideas about why so many complex societies crashed during that period: from damage to the environmental base on which they rested to the mounting costs in human and economic terms of maintaining them. Indeed the multiplication and behaviour of our species can be seen as a case of malignant mal-adaptation in which a species, like infected tissue in an organism, multiplies out of control, affecting everything else.

No look at the future can make sense without understanding where we are, together with recognition of the multiplicity of scenarios, whether progress or not, that await us. A recent book on the twentieth century was well entitled Something New Under the Sun. This point was well brought out in the Declaration made by over a thousand scientists from the four great global research programmes at Amsterdam in July 2001. There it stated squarely that:

At least we can agree with Creutzen and Stoermer who have named the current epoch the Anthropocene.

Since the industrial revolution began a quarter millennium ago, living conditions for most people, measured in terms of material wealth and longevity, have greatly improved. But there is no likelihood that this bonanza can continue in its present form. All change has been at a price. While we have been increasing output of goods of all kinds, we have been running down, despoiling and often wasting the resources from which they are derived. If our animal species among millions of others is to survive and prosper, we need to use our unique capacity to think.

There are five main factors for us to recognize. First we have been multiplying our numbers at a giddy rate. At the time of Thomas Malthus the population was 1 billion. Now there are six billion, while according to UNEP, despite all our efforts, our population is only set to stabilize between 10.5 and 11 billion during the next century. Indeed since the Rio Conference of 1992, more than 500 million people have joined the population. The scale of the problem goes well beyond these staggering figures. Most of the 70 million or so extra people added each year are born in the world's poorest countries in Africa and Asia. Half of humanity now lives in cities, many of which are unsustainable by any standards.

Next is deterioration of land quality and accumulation of wastes. Food production and consumption may have been increasing world wide, but all the figures show that we are gravely damaging the soils which sustain all terrestrial creatures. Soil degradation is estimated to affect over 2 billion hectares worldwide. According to the United Nations Environment Programme, 65% of all arable land may have already lost some biological and physical functions. With population increase, this can only get worse. Most countries, including our own, still lack coherent policies on minimalization and disposal of wastes.

Next comes pollution of both salt and fresh water. Oceanic pollution is worst offshore. In the oceans as a whole, fish stocks are a useful test. Prior to the World Summit on Sustainable Development the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that at least 75% of world fisheries are fully exploited or over-fished. Little surprise that this was one of the priorities for agreement at the Summit. Most biological activity in the oceans is found in the coastal zone. In terms of productivity and species richness coral reefs are equivalent to marine rainforests. An estimated 27 percent are thought already to have been lost. A further 32 percent may be destroyed during the next 30 years.

Meanwhile demand for fresh water has doubled every 21 years. Over one billion people still lack access to safe water which has obvious health implications. Over the next two decades water use by humans seems likely to increase by 40% while 17% more water will be needed to grow food for growing populations particularly in poor countries. Water use equally increases with industrialization. Per capita water consumption in industrial countries is seven times that of Sub-Saharan Africa. Water shortages are not a new phenomenon and are predicted to get worse. Yet the amount of fresh water available remains the same as it was at the time of the Roman Empire when the human population was 450 million.

Next is our continuing destruction of other living species at rates comparable to those caused by extraterrestrial impacts in the long past. Current rates of extinction could be many times what they would be under natural conditions. The number of endangered or threatened species listed by International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has dramatically increased. One in four mammal species, which are key indicators of eco-system health, are facing a high risk of extinction in the near future.

On a global scale, damage to ecosystems is already extensive and the future course of evolution will be substantially changed by current human activity. Nowhere is this more true than in the micro-world of bacteria and viruses, which learn how to react to almost any drug we may throw at them. Humans take 20 years to reproduce. Bacteria do the job in 20 minutes. Nor can we yet assess the effects of introduction of genetically modified organisms.

Last we have been changing the chemistry of the atmosphere. Acid precipitation can be dealt with when there is sufficient political will. There is an array of international agreements to manage and eventually reverse depletion of the ozone layer. Climate change is more difficult. It relates directly to the ways in which we produce and use energy. Since the industrial revolution we have been using the sky as a waste unit. As a result carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has now reached its highest level in 400,000 years, and is at a third higher than in pre-industrial times. Methane, a less abundant but far more effective greenhouse gas has seen its concentration more than double since pre-industrial times. The science of the carbon cycle is imperfectly understood, but there is a clear relationship between atmospheric carbon and global surface temperature.

The only real controversy is about the degree of change we are bringing about. The Third Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published last year suggests rises in average global surface temperature of between 1.4 C and 5.8 C by the end of this century, an increase on its previous Assessment of 1996. The signs that the climate is changing are clear. Most glaciers thoughout the world are retreating. Precipitation in the Northern Hemisphere has increased, particularly as intense rainfall. El Nino events have become more common and more intense. At the same time in parts of Asia and Africa, droughts have increased in frequency and intensity. Sea level is predicted to rise between 9 and 88 cm between 1990 and 2100 with all the likely consequences for the increasing numbers of coastal dwellers. Yet according to the Energy Information Administration both fossil fuel consumption and CO2 emissions continue to grow.

As has been well brought out in GEO3, the latest report from the United Nations Environment Programme report, the problems of the environment are bad and getting worse.

What can we do about this unique combination of problems? The fundamental issue is one of values and priorities. There is a clash of cultures. On the one hand is a belief in free markets, with a minimum of regulation, and increasing consumption as a desirable objective. On the other is a belief that we are gravely damaging the life systems of the planet, and may have already exceeded the carrying capacity of the Earth. The first view is essentially short term, and the second long term; but when they come into conflict the short term usually wins.

The root of how we tackle these problems lies in how we think about natural processes, and how we can learn to work with them rather than against them. The current paradigm - perhaps I should call it illusion - is that we are somehow separate from them. We have to see the environment as a kind of endowment or natural capital. But putting these ideas into practice will be difficult, not least because it brings out incompatibilities between two current streams of thought.

On the one hand there is a belief in free markets, with a minimum of regulation, and increasing consumption as a desirable objective. Increased liberalization of trade is part of this process, often called globalization. This belief is based on the following assumptions:

On the other hand is the view that we are gravely damaging the life systems of the planet, that our species has already exceeded the carrying capacity of the Earth. Stock market indices may have risen, but the world's natural wealth, measured by the health of its ecosystems, fell by no less than 30% between 1970 and 1995. The WWF Index shows that the development on which so many countries are still bent is in many ways an impossibility. The priority is sustainability.

These powerful streams of thought can sometimes flow in different directions, sometimes in parallel, and sometimes in direct conflict with each other. They appeal to different audiences, they have their own means of expression, and can become mutually incomprehensible.

I suppose that the heart of the problem is the value that we place on the environment. I do not think that anyone will disagree with the statement by a well-known economist that "the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment". In short without a healthy environment, there can be no healthy economy. But there is a real difficulty on how to assess health. The ideologues of free trade like to suggest the price mechanism.

But as another distinguished American once remarked: "Markets are superb at setting prices, but incapable of recognizing costs". Prices are indicators. But we have to make sure that they tell the truth about costs. A pricing system should include not only the traditional costs, but also those involved in replacing the resource, and those of the damage that use of the resource may do. We should heed the words of Oystein Dahle, former Vice President of Esso for Norway and the North Sea who once said:

" Socialism collapsed because it did not allow prices to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow prices to tell the ecological truth."

Not surprisingly since the enormity of the environmental crisis has become clear, efforts have increased to bring greater compatibility between classical economics and sustainability.

Within the World Bank new methods of environmental accounting have been used to take account of the depreciation of natural capital. On this reckoning any losses must be offset by gains in other environmental and human resources such as the stock of services, knowledge and social capital. As this is similar to normal business accounting it fits well with current economic thinking. But our ability to substitute environmental capital with human capital must be limited in the long term. Not everything can be given monetary or economic values. How can we value the loss of a species, or of such ecological services as the air we breathe? These issues are among the most serious of our time.

In setting priorities, the first must be better understanding and care of the Earth and its living systems. Whether humans can or cannot be regarded as stewards of the Earth is a nice ethical point, but we certainly have an enormous capacity for harm, and in present circumstances are likely to do more harm if we do not change direction. Here the applications and misapplications of science and technology are crucial. But they must always be subsidiary to more fundamental changes of approach.

The present century is likely to be painful before such changes can take effect. To see the way ahead, it may be useful to jump a few hundred or even a thousand years, accepting that our ability to look even twenty years ahead is extremely limited. By 2500, on the generous assumption that humans still exist, the Earth will look very different to them. It is hard to believe that there will be anything like current or future human numbers in present urban concentrations or elsewhere.

There is already a widening gap, both within countries and between them, between the rich and sophisticated on the one hand and the poor and uneducated on the other. At present about 20% of world's population consumes between 70 and 80% of the world's resources.

The so-called divide between North and South, developed and developing, has become increasingly meaningless as new elites in such countries as India and China acquire similar purchasing power to the middle classes in industrial countries. The major rift is between the globalized rich and the localized poor. Yet even if some closing of the rift takes places, the subject of the Johannesburg Summit, and the human population shrinks in numbers, it is hard to believe that the benefits of industrial society will be wide spread.

There is also the possibility, however sinister, of differentiation of the human species. H.G. Wells invented Eloi and Morlocks, and at the time, more than a century ago, it seemed an amusing fantasy. No longer. Through genetic manipulation humans could split into distinct varieties and over time into subspecies. It is worth remembering how vulnerable even the Eloi were.

For the sake of argument let us assume that overuse of resources, our agricultural methods, our means of generating energy, and our disposal of wastes will also have become more sustainable. But more important may be the development of information technology. On the one hand humans may take enormous advantage from such technology and thereby be liberated from many current drudgeries. On the other they may become dangerously vulnerable to its breakdown, and thereby lose an essential measure of self-sufficiency.

Already dependence on computers to run our complex systems, and reliance on electronic information transfer, are having alarming effects. More than ever individuals feel out of control of even the most elementary aspects of their lives. There may even well be some globalization of human knowledge on the analogy of a world brain. H G Wells once forecast "a widespread world intelligence conscious of itself".

The implications for governance reach equally wide. Already there is a movement of power away from the nation state: upwards to global institutions and corporations to deal with global issues; downwards to communities of human dimension, and sideways between citizens everywhere. There is a wide range of possibilities including forms of dictatorship and disaggregation of society. Brave New World and 1984 look nearer to reality than they were when they were written. The problems of politics will be as difficult as they are today: how to ensure greater citizen participation without creating chaos; how to establish forms of accountability to ensure that governance is by broad consent; and how to establish checks and balances to protect the public interest, and ensure enforcement without abuse.

Let us hope that by then humans will have worked out and will practice an ethical system in which the natural world has value not only for human welfare but also for and in itself. They may also be involved in spreading life beyond the Earth and colonizing Mars or other planets. They could well look back on us as a messy, short-sighted, wasteful, crude and aggressive lot.

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