22 November, 2007
Remember the hippie movement of 1967? Those naive, young but well-meaning guys and boys who believed in “making love, not war” at a time when the US was fighting one of its dirtiest wars in Asia? Well, I guess a lot of these guys and boys now are running big businesses (or advising them) and still seem to have the same vision of humanity than in those times.
This, at least, is the impression I had yesterday evening when I attended a nice and colourful show-presentation organised by EU lobbying group Plastics Europe to present to the Brussels crowd a vision for the “World in 2030“.
It has to be said that I really appreciate the novel format and the courage with which the plastics industries tried to get their message across that the future is very rosy for their sector and that plastics is part of the solution to our major global challenges (I agree with that BTW).
Nevertheless, the impressive presentation of the study undertaken for Plastics Europe by “Europe’s leading futurologist” Ray Hammond was so full of internal contradictions that I wondered in the end whether Hammond was in reality quite a bit more pessimistic than what he could show in front of his industrial clients and their distinguished guests.
The book reads like an excellent Readers’ Digest (and I mean this in a positive way) of most of the global challenges we talk about here in our blog. Six “key drivers” will shape the world of 2030, says Hammond.
1. World population explosion and changing societal demographics
The prospect of 9 billion people on this one planet by 2050 (some think even 2030) is daunting in terms of food production and availability of clean drinking water. However, synthetic foods and the use of genetic modification of crops will solve the first issue and “plastic piping and containers” is Hammond’s “one sentence” answer to the water challenge. Although he mentions en passant the “ecological footprint” and Lovelock’s “Revenge of Gaia”, Hammond seems to be blind to the ecological limits of this planet.
2. Climate change and the environment
Hammond understands the urgency of the issue and even proposes to rename it “climate catastrophe” instead of “change”. The IPCC reports are under-estimations of the real dangers because they have to find the lowest common consensus to keep governments on board, according to the futurologist. The analysis Hammond makes of the climate crisis is convincing, but his solutions are scarce, politically controversial (carbon taxation) and even sometimes questionable (biofuels for aviation, climate off-sets). The chapter on “Plastics and the Environment” is interesting but a bit too much “à la tête du client” and too much focused on recycling and the possibility of a “zero-waste society” (which is in contradiction to the second law of thermodynamics).
3. The looming energy crisis
Hammond’s chapter on the future of energy is again quite good in its analysis of the problems: “the world is going to demand much more energy between now and 2030. And in that timeframe global oil reserves will start to run out”. His comments on particular sectors are absolutely to the point: using oil for transportation is becoming more and more uneconomic and the remaining oil should be reserved for high value-added sectors where oil is an absolute necessity (like the plastics production). Hammond is also very sceptical about nuclear power on economic grounds (“nobody really knows the cost of one unit of energy generated by a nuclear power plant”) and for environmental (nuclear waste) and security (terrorism targets) reasons. This being said, Hammond seems way too optimistic on renewables as the answer and also still believes in nuclear fusion (“by 2030 clean fusion power is likely to be a reality”).
4. Expanding globalisation
Hammond’s fourth driver, globalisation, is the least convincing and the most woolly and the absence of a specific chapter in the book on this issue (contrary to the other drivers) underlines this. The author acknowledges the dangers and problems of globalisation but has one simple answer: “if pursued ethically and sustainably globalisation (by which I mean free international trade and capital flows) offers the world the greatest opportunity for peace. Nothing disarms hatred, militancy and would-be terrorism so effectively as prosperity“. Yes, brothers and sister, let’s make love, not war! The inherent contradictions of declining natural resources and globalisation and the inescapable militarisation of the competition for these resources (see Iraq and China’s “soft war” to buy oil, gas, minerals and materials in all corners of the world) seem to escape our “flower-power” futurologist.
5. Accelerating exponential technology development
Like all futurologists, the exuberant optimism of Hammond can be explained by reading this chapter. Although at some points in the book, he seems to have doubts about quick technology fixes (e.g. the chapter on climate change), overall, the exponential and accelerating growth of that technology will solve all our problems before 2030. Robots, the “super-web” and “computer companions” implanted in our ears will be ubiquitous, but we will also live in “surveillance societies” and we ourselves will be part of “Big Brother’s surveillance team” (for older Eastern Germans this should sound familiar). That all these new technologies will need declining energy and natural capital to produce is again left out of Hammond’s dream scenario.
6. The new model of medicine
Medicine will be revolutionised as prevention and extending life spans will create the “prevent-extend” medicine. “It is even possible that a child born in the year 2030 may have the option of extending his or her healthy and youthful life almost indefinitely”. Want to project what this will do for the carrying-capacity of this vulnarable planet Earth?
We started with the beautiful year 1967, let’s also end with it. Remember Zager and Evans’ song “In the year 2525”:
In the year 9595
I’m kinda wondering if man’s gonna be alive
He’s taken everything this old earth can give
And he ain’t put back nothing…
Now it’s been 10,000 years
Man has cried a billion tears
For what he never knew
Now man’s reign is through
But through the eternal night
The twinkling of starlight
So very far away
Maybe it’s only yesterday…
In the year 2525
If man is still alive
If woman can survive
They may find…….”