The planet was already heading towards a crisis. But political forces have recently been unleashed which will surely accelerate that process – and fast! So what will the world be like in 2040? It is a deeply troubling question…
These times are so bizarre and grotesque that, like children at their first horror film, we have taken to watching the world through our fingers. It’s all about disruption, we’re told. We’ve been through a decade of economic turmoil, global warfare and near-epidemics, and now we have to contend with Brexit and the America carnage wrought by the Trump administration.
Disruption me arse.
Not unnaturally, we are so preoccupied with what’s going on around us, with keeping the show on the road and the kids fed, that there’s little time to contemplate what lies over the next hill. But there’s no doubt whatsoever that there’s trouble brewing. Big trouble.
We already know that global climate change is close to a tipping point, beyond which it will be impossible to limit the increase in average temperature since pre-industrial times to 2˚C. Upwards of that threshold lies carnage. And I mean proper carnage. We’ll likely break that barrier by 2050, and perhaps earlier. The effect? More hunger and poverty; there may be war – or wars; and technological developments, especially robotisation, will cause havoc for many.
These processes are all in train anyway. But additional pressures arise from the apparent intention of key figures in the new US administration to overturn every apple cart they can, even though they have no clear vision of what might follow. Some of them even seem to foresee an apocalypse as a precursor to a new age. But of what? Of unreason, perhaps.
UTOPIA TO DYSTOPIA
Meanwhile, we have to address a succession of crises, all with their roots in the paralysis that attended the economic crisis. We in Ireland are poor at delivering on big planning at the best of times but the Great Recession surgically removed that option for a decade.
So, we’re currently in a lather about housing. Not just because of homelessness, though that is an immediate, pressing concern, but also because we need reliable stock if we’re to attract firms here after Brexit. But construction ground to a halt for seven or eight years, so we’re way behind. Likewise, but even more so, in transport.
Everywhere and everything will be very different in a generation’s time – and probably in ways that we can’t yet conceive. Imagine the year 2040. That’s when those born in 1970 should be settled pensioners and those born in 1990 will be in their middle years.
In a crazy world, all projections and predictions represent a kind of fantasy but ya have to do it. That, we assume, is the basis for National Panning Framework Ireland 2040, which looks at likely population growth and distribution. It has just been launched and is open for contributions by the public until 12 noon on Thursday 16th March 2017.
There’s a lot in it – but it’s not some abstract notion of a future, it’s your future. So let ‘em know what’s what. Should most development be in Dublin? Should there be new cities designated for growth? And so on. Personally, I’d beat them, and not just Shane Ross, over the head with the lack of a comprehensive Metro at every opportunity, but that’s probably just me…
The website is Ireland2040.ie and the email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. When all the contributions are considered, a final plan will be presented to the Dáil in the Autumn.
But here’s the rub: the future is hard to predict. In his new book Four Futures: Life After Capitalism (Verso), Peter Frase asks what might a post-work future look like, in particular as increasing automation and robotisation change everything – from professional services and transport to home care for the elderly. He offers four possibilities along a spectrum from utopia to dystopia.
NO MAGIC BULLETS
Frase argues that the world as we know it will be the basis for whatever follows on and won’t disappear just because the robots have come to town. In particular, this is a very unequal world within rich societies and poor alike – and also between different countries. And, of course, the world is warming at a rate that is likely to cause global disaster as crops fail and seawaters rise.
Frase calls the first of his possible futures communism. When he uses this term he envisages a utopia, a society that is peaceful, productive and egalitarian, a place based on Marx’s vision “from each according to his ability to each according to his need.” This is imaginable if you have clean and unlimited energy, which may not be as farfetched as it seems.
But would economic or social elites allow it? Wouldn’t they want to retain their privilege, their power? This is the basis for the second future he describes which he calls “rentism”. This is where there is indeed abundance – but it’s monopolised by a small elite who own the robots and the data and their software and codes. If this comes to pass you’ll have a large number of poor and underemployed people.
Both of those futures assume plenty of cheap and clean energy. But suppose that doesn’t emerge? Suppose we can’t stop the climate change – with all the ensuing turmoil?
As he says, some of the world’s population will suffer more than others. The question then is: who will survive the change and what needs to be done to make it as egalitarian as possible. He calls it “socialism”. There are no easy solutions in this, no magic bullets from nuclear fusion or solar power. It can be done but it’s a hard slog.
Finally, his fourth future is “exterminism”. Think of a post-modern Game of Thrones. The rich retreat with their robots and supply chains to ultra-secure enclaves and everyone else burns in the hell that Earth becomes as global warming really kicks off.
Frase keeps emphasising that none of these are inevitable. The future is coming, but we can still shape it and direct it. It will be what we make it. But given the many forces in play, that will be a major challenge.
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