The Shape of the Future

[I wrote a blog over at from 2011 till about 2014. I’m shutting that site down, and moving some of the content over here.]

I recently read the book “The End of the Long Summer” by Dianne Dumanoski. It pulled together a lot of concepts I’ve been thinking about recently – climate history, human cultural evolution, globalization, the Myth of Progress, resilience, and the arc of civilization complexity.

For me, the starting point is the (mis)understanding that modern Western civilization has of Nature. The advent of Industrialization is based on the idea that Nature is an entity separate from Mankind, and is a passive, docile entity that is available for Man to control and dominate. From the book (emphases mine):

“Even though his [Francis Bacon’s] scientific utopia proposed an essentially mechanistic approach to solving problems by breaking them down into parts, Bacon’s writings are full of violent, vivid, sexually charged metaphors in which he often personified Nature as a recalcitrant woman. Promising that the new science would bring about “the masculine birth of time,” he declares, “I am… leading to you Nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.” Guided by this overweening ambition, moderns have pursued an extreme, aggressive, grandiose notion of dominion–Dominion with a capital D.”

An interesting development is that the exploration of scientific and engineering knowledge, kicked off by Bacon’s mechanistic philosophies, is discovering that reality is decidedly non-linear – that it is impossible to predict, control, and dominate Nature in the way that Bacon and others envisioned. The very institutions that were supposed to enable humans to transcend mortality and dominate Nature are discovering that we are, in fact, very much a part of Nature. Furthermore, our idea that nature is a stable and docile entity of benevolent nature is turning out to be somewhat misguided.

Looking back on climate history, it turns out that the current period of climatic stability going back 11,700 years is unprecedented for the time that humans have been on the Earth. For the vast majority of human evolution, the environment has actually been prone to dramatic fluctuations:

In 2008, the ongoing investigation of Greenland ice cores yielded new, detailed, and, indeed, astonishing evidence about the past that might finally begin to explain how and why climate can change in leaps. The reason, researchers now propose, lies in findamental reorganization in the circulation of the atmosphere that can occur in one to three years–a switch so sudden, noted the leader of the North Greenland Ice Core Project, Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, that it is “as if someone has pushed a button.”

This new analysis indicated that the Ice Age ended abruptly 14,700 years ago “within a remarkable three years,”, initiating a rapid warming of 18 degress F that happened in two major spurts over fifty years. The return to the deep cold of the Younger Dryas 1,800 years later took place over two centuries. Then, after more than a millenium, the deep freeze ended about 11,700 years ago with another rapid shift, this time over the span of sixty years, and a temperature rebound of 18 degrees F.

In sharp contrast, the last eleven millennia have been very stable:

Despite devastating floods that have wiped out communities and catastrophic droughts that have brought down civilizations, the past 11,700 years since the end of the Younger Dryas nevertheless rank as a time of extremely low climate variability. Before this calm period, our ancestors faced a far more erratic and demanding climate marked by fluctuations from decade to decade that were ten times greater than current climate extremes. … Living with such extremes would be “immeasurably more demanding” and would require “an extraordinarily adaptable, flexible, and migratory lifestyle to adjust to changing environmental conditions.”

In other words, it is the relative climatic stability that we are currently living in that has enabled civilizations to flourish, that has enabled societies to abandon the extreme flexibility required to survive in a variable environment.

It seems unlikely that human societies could have evolved to their impressive level of today in interglacials of 6,000 years or less…” observes James White, who studies the Earth’s climate history at the University of Colorado. “We have needed this long period of stable and warm climate to develop modern, complex societies.

The interconnected, interdependant systems of resource extraction, manipulation and proliferation that enable our civilization are dependant on a stable environment.

“Our corporations have built the most efficient system of production the world has ever seen, perfectly calibrated to a world where nothing bad ever happens. But this is not the world we live in.” Says Barry Lynn.

Our civilization is now at the point where it has dumped so many greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and are continuing to do so, that the chance that the climate is going to continue to remain stable – or even that its changes will be gradual, giving us time to respond and adapt leisurely – is doubtful. It’s no longer a question of whether we’ll hit tipping points, it’s when, and what precisely the severity of the consequences for doing so are going to be.

All this leads to some extremely interesting questions (I think):

What does a modern civilization look like in a world with a fluctuating climate?

What kind of infrastructures can withstand the system shocks that will come?

What will be the failure modes and effects of existing systems (the ones not adaptable to rapidly changing climate)?

What’s the critical path from where we are today to a future where humans are no longer driving climate systems, and have adapted to whatever climate we wind up with?

We talk about sustainability, which to my mind implies in some sense a steady state type of balance with nature. What is sustainability if nature itself isn’t in any sort of steady state? What if a fully sustainable community in California’s Central Valley in 2020 becomes unsustainable in 2030 due to changing local weather patterns?

In summary, what I think these facts about climate variability imply is that any discussion of green, sustainable solutions is irrelevant unless it considers the shape of our possible climate futures. They also imply that the future is going to look nothing like the present, and not in the way that the Golden Age of Science Fiction painted a picture of humans ascending to the stars in an upward arc of technological advancement.

What do you think it’ll look like?


Update: Just saw Alex Steffen’s post Future-Ready Cities: Why the capacity and willingness to change trump everything. Very related to this post.

But I’ve come to the conclusion that readiness to act matters more than any of these. Places that invest boldly in the next decades in ruggedizing their systems, growing civic resilience and building up the local capacity for innovation, adaptation and rapid cultural change… these are the places that will be most prepared for the storms on the horizon.

His book Worldchanging 2.0 is full of the type of solutions that a future resilient city might have; highly recommended reading.