When environmentalists think about what our future might look like, the predictions are often grim and hopeless; even under the best circumstances, they seem to say, we're still screwed. But what if, by some miracle of human ingenuity, the dire predictions don't pan out and we learn how to efficiently manage our resources? Futurist (and former Fast Company contributor) Jamais Cascio laid out his vision for three of those positive scenarios at last week's SOCAP conference in San Francisco:
Walking the Tightrope
This is the "we can have our cake and eat it too" scenario. The world is heavily roboticized (in order to make it more efficient); the U.S., China, and Europe all work together; and geoengineering--the practice of engineering the climate to stave off climate change with technologies like orbiting space shields forests of synthetic trees--will be common. Geoengineering doesn't make our climate any better, but it stops us from getting worse.
This is also a transparent world, information-wise. "Imagine if Facebook had a government contract," Cascio explained in his talk. But this scenario is also, according to Cascio, the least probable. In this future, we try to preserve our current lifestyle--and that could easily slip away from sustainability and move into a downward spiral.
This is a world of resilience, where humanity goes through a major crisis or three and comes out stronger on the other side. There is sophisticated technology, but it is carefully chosen. For example: 3-D printers, which currently cost thousands of dollars but could become cheaper as the technology advanes. "It's desktop publishing of objects," said Cascio. "It could undermine traditional manufacturing, industry, and trade. You don't have to go to Walmart to buy a crappy dinnerware set, you can go to Kinkos and print it out."
This kind of distributed manufacturing eliminates supply chain inefficiencies. When you can print out your dinnerware set, that means it wasn't made in Vietnam and shipped across the world. The carbon footprint of the set comes only from electricity and raw materials. And when items do need to be shipped, they are transported using ultra-efficient technologies, like the kite-powered shipping vessels seen today.
The Flux Capacity world isn't one filled with large countries. Instead, it has pockets of local economies, but it's still heavily connected, much like our current world. Cascio believes that this is more plausible than the first scenario: "This will be difficult to see until it is upon us. It will feel like things are falling apart, and then we see the pieces fall into place."
This is perhaps the most sci-fi of the scenarios. In this world, the concept of sustainability isn't enough, because it implies that we are maintaining at a stable point. Instead, the Catalyic Conversions world goes above and beyond--3-D printing, for example, is done at the molecular scale. And by 2060, humanity can make objects using 3-D printers with carbon that has been pulled out of the atmosphere.
In this scenario, humanity has paid close attention to neuroscience, and society is changed by modifying the way people think. "There is a recognition that words matter, phrasing matters," explained Cascio.
In some ways, this world is utopian. The technology is so advanced that wealth--and access to that technology--is easy to come by. "This world says be an innovator, but you don't have to worry about getting sick or living in a crime-ridden neighborhood. Maslow's Hierarchy is taken care of," said Cascio. But while the world is somewhat utopian, it is also risky, because any one person has the technological power that would have been given to a nation state years before.
Surprisingly, Cascio believes that this is the most plausible scenario, because "there are pretty big technological changes on the horizon that are disruptive at the genetic level."
[Image: Flickr user UGArdener]