Society & culture

Sleepwalking into the future

What will happen when (not if) fossil fuels start to run out? The question is not entirely academic. Many experts say the tipping point has already been reached and we are now entering a period of continual emergency and hardship where almost all of the comforts and 'necessities' of modern life (cheap travel, central heating, air conditioning, cheap clothing, imported foods and so on) will slowly ebb away. There are some people who realise that this particular storm - a permanent energy crisis - is approaching, but they are few and far between. This coming period will also be a time of almost unprecedented political instability with countries like the US battling nations such as China for control of the resources that remain. As of last year (2004) China is the second largest consumer of energy in the world and there will be a great temptation for China to extend its influence and power to neighbouring regions if this means control of natural resources. Will the US respond to such a situation? Some would say it already has. Others would say that what we've already witnessed is just the warm-up act. So what are some of the other consequences of a prolonged or permanent energy shortage? First, globalisation would effectively end. Life would become local once again and everything would be re-sized and re-located. Physical mobility would be a privilege of the rich (as it was a century ago), and everything from food production to work would be local too. We are already seeing a flight away from suburbia back to the inner cities and it's possible that agriculture will again take centre stage over manufacturing. Cars and aeroplanes will all but disappear and we will witness the reinvention of the railways because, unlike cars, buses and planes, trains can run on wood. Ships would enjoy a resurgence too. Add to this a lack of water and entire regions like the southwest of the US and most of Australia look increasingly unsustainable. Will we cope, or will we become a race of frightened, fearful individuals purely concerned with our own survival? Time, as they say, will tell.
Ref: The Long Emergency, by James Kunstler (with acknowledgements to Erin Pawle). See also Sydney Morning Herald (Aus), 25 October 2005, 'A lesson yet again that in times of panic, survival rules', P. Curson.

Is water the new oil?

It is estimated that in 20 years time half of the world's population (3 billion people) will be living in "water stressed" regions. Moreover, the amount of water demanded by agriculture and industry will have far overtaken the needs of individuals. Is this yet another doomsday scenario? Perhaps. We have already witnessed regional conflicts caused by water - and water resources are certainly becoming more precious - but the problem may simply evaporate. The global water industry is worth US $400 billion a year but in the US a mere 15% of drinking water is in private (for-profit) hands. What's more, most water is wasted. Most rainfall runs straight back to the oceans and as much as 70-80% of piped water is lost through leaky pipes and inefficient technology. Is privatisation the answer? Some big companies think so, which is why the likes of GE, Siemens and ITT are jumping in at the deep end, especially to respond to the demand from industrial users for super clean and 'speciality' waters. Don't forget that after 2050 the world's population is also expected to decline, so water wars, if they happen, may be short lived.
Ref: Harvard Business School: Working Knowledge (US), 17 October 2005, 'Turning the tap: is water the next oil?', G. Emmons.

Going, going, gone

To mark it's 35th birthday, Foreign Policy magazine recently asked 16 thinkers to predict what won't be around in another 35 years. The answers were; anonymity (Esther Dyson), sovereignty (Richard Hass) polio (Julie Gerberding), the war on drugs (Peter Schwartz), the King of England (Felipe Fernandez-Armesto), doctor's offices (Craig Mundie), the public domain (Lawrence Lessig), auto emissions (John Browne), the Chinese Communist Party (Minxin Pei), monogamy (Jacques Attali), laissez-faire procreation (Lee Kuan Yew), the Euro (Christopher Hitchens), Japanese passivity (Shintaro Ishihara), political parties (Fernando Henrique Cardoso), religious hierarchy (Harvey Cox) and the sanctity of life (Peter Singer). Food for thought.
Ref: Foreign Policy (US), September/October 2005, 'Here today, gone tomorrow'.

Is trend watching going out of fashion?

Are trends just another fad? Thanks to the speed and ease of communication (Internet, digital cameras, cheap travel) it seems that anyone with an Internet connection has anointed themselves as a 'cool-hunter' or 'trend spotter' these days.
This, of course, instantly confers status on the cool-hunter because they're seen to be 'in the know'. If you can name something you've seen more than three people doing, this in turn adds authenticity to the trend, especially if the trend has catchy label or rhyming moniker. Companies like Look-Look Inc, the Intelligence Group, Trendwatching and the Zandl Group all deliver their insights to trendaholics in companies like Nike and Coca-Cola, but why are there so many trends all of a sudden and why does anyone care? The trend for trend spotting probably started in the early 1990s and accelerated towards the end of the decade thanks to the millennium. Y2K led to a bout of analysis about minor fashions, most of which were about as deep as Paris Hilton. Some of the media, having nothing much else to write about, quickly jumped on the idea and then business started to take notice, especially as design literacy took off. Add quick transmission of ideas courtesy of the Internet and, hey presto, trends are in fashion. But there's a more serious explanation too. We are living in a time of almost unprecedented change and most of the institutions and anchor points that used to exist have either disappeared or lost their status. As a result, we are all searching for certainty, or at least the illusion of knowing what's next. There is also the argument that we have become a conservative, self-referential society and thus trends have become a safe bet compared to the risks associated with originality and innovation.
Ref: Los Angeles Times (US), 22 October 2005, 'Spotting trends: cool loses its cool', G. Piccalo, and The New Zealand Herald (NZ), 17 October 2005, 'Predicting our future style of life', C. Schaer.

... and what about futurology?

Is there a future in becoming a futurist? There seem to be a growing number of people describing themselves in the media as 'futurists' or - more accurately - 'futurologists'. The number of futurist organizations has also increased significantly of late. There's the World Future Society, the World Futures Studies Federation, the Association of Professional Futurists and the World Future Council. Why so? One reason is possibly because it beats working for a living, but a number of major organizations like British Telecom (BT), IBM, Hallmark and even the FBI have now got full-time futurists on their payrolls, so surely futurists must know something worth knowing? The answer (we predict) is that the rate of change, primarily technology but also 'events', is now so fast that it's leaving business breathless. This is, in turn, creating a demand for short-term analysis and longer-term planning because any small advantage (even if it's temporary) can be turned into big money. Or, as Ian Pearson, resident futurist at BT says, machines are already quite competent at making numerical forecasts (about the future), but it still needs humans to interpret what the data really means.
Ref: Wired (US), October 2005, 'The future needs futurists', J. Glasner.

The pursuit of happiness

Jean-Paul Sartre once said, "hell is other people". But if recent research is to believed, other people may actually be heaven. The happiness industry is growing fast and it's not all self-help gurus (oxymoron?) and DIY manuals either. Earlier this year the Royal Institution and the London School of Economics both ran events exploring happiness. There is now a Journal of happiness studies and a world database of happiness too. In the UK average incomes have increased by 300% in the past 50 years, but happiness levels have not increased at all (some studies disagree with this, particularly after 1975). This could be because we are spending too much time alone. According to a US study of "very happy people" you are most likely to be very happy if you have a large number of social contacts. What's interesting about this is not the finding itself (another study has suggested a genetic link) but the fact that a study has taken place at all. Most previous studies have focused on unhappiness, anxiety, stress and anger. Something we should all be happy about perhaps?
Ref: The Times (UK) 2 October 2005, 'So what do you have to do to find happiness?', D. Wade. See also Policy (Aus) Vol. 21 No. 3 2005, 'The scientists pursuit of happiness', J. Norberg; and Happiness: Lessons from a new science by Richard Layard.

Do it yourself medication

Life is a series of problems, all of which can be solved by the right medication. This is the view of an increasing number of young people, particularly in the US, who see self-medication as a convenient cure-all for everything from depression and fatigue to anxiety and obesity. In other words, an increasing number of people are bypassing the medical establishment and deciding for themselves which prescription drugs to take.
This is illegal, but most people don't see it that way.Faith in the objectivity and independence of doctors has all but evaporated and instant psychopharmacology expertise can be acquired (along with the drugs) via Internet chat rooms. This amateur pharmacist trend is hardly surprising. Direct-to-consumer pharmaceuticals advertising has been legal in the US since 1997, so an increasing number of people have been 'trained' to think that the best way to feel less depressed, less stressed, less anxious or more focused is simply to pop a pill.
Ref: New York Times (US), 17 November 2005, 'Young, assured and playing pharmacist to friends', A. Harmon.

Wild cards for the future - what and by when

The Long Bets Foundation was established in 2001 as a spin-off from the Long Now Foundation (who are the people building the Clock of the Long Now). The idea was to create a public forum for competitive and accountable predictions about the future. The only rules are that bets must be for a minimum of two years into the future and must have scientific or societal impact - so most bets are fairly serious. All bets must be backed up by a logical rationale and a minimum sum of US $200, payable to charity if and when a prediction becomes comes reality. Predictions range from a bio-terrorism event killing more than a million people to intelligent beings contacting earth. A useful 'wildcard' resource for scenario planners.
Ref: research. See