Crystal ball gazing

Owl

With the increasingly volatile situation in the US, the escalating showdown between the US and China, and the increasingly alarming reports on pollution and the environment, let’s do some crystal ball gazing.

First, a small disclaimer. I’m not backed by a horde of scientists. I’m not a psychic. What I’m writing below is my views on what might happen in the near future, and as with all predictions, I might be dead wrong.

My only claims to knowing what I’m talking about are a thorough education, a lot of reading, and a lively imagination. That probably beats Nostradamus, but I don’t know by how much.

Six scenarios

A lot of things are in motion in the world, but we can see two major issues that will affect the coming decades:

  • Will we be able to prevent disastrous pollution?
  • Will a new global super power arise?

Pollution is the biggest threat to humanity since… ever. Climate change is a part of it, but plastic soup and other pollution is also potentially hazardous to humanity. A lot of people downplay the dangers and state of things, but that’s bullshit. Scientific reports – you know, based on real facts – are becoming increasingly alarming. If we don’t change the fundamental way we do things right now, then we are epicly f*cked. And not in the cool dark-cityscapes-encrusted-by-neon way of cyberpunk. No, the billions-of-people-starving-or-dying-from-disease way. Chances are, it’ll get nasty.

China is the largest country in the world by population count. It does not have the strongest military – yet. Currently, the US outclasses everybody in the world arms wise, but AI technology could upend the table on this one. In the near future China may become the new global leader, taking the role from the US. Or large super powers all crumble and we return to smaller nation states. In that case, the question becomes if mega corporations will arise, or if the fall of the global superpowers goes hand in hand with the fall of globalization and the large corporation.

Bottom line: either environmental collapse, or one of four other scenarios. And finally, there’s a sixth scenario: world war III.

1 Environmental collapse

If we continue on our current path, the shit will really start to hit the fan. First, extreme weather becomes more frequent, and temperatures rise. Food production stalls, and clean drinking water might become scarcer and scarcer.

Massive migrations could start up, causing wars and civil unrest. Or, migration doesn’t happen, and we’ll see more unrest in starving countries. The death toll will rise possibly into the billion-range, but that’s just the beginning. The oceans acidify, brushfires rage across the lands, and hurricanes and tsunamis plague the world. Entire food chains of animals vanish. They die out from climate change or choke in plastic soup.

Humanity spirals into a slow oblivion. The old countries might remain, yes, but global trade will stall, and modern technology with it. With the famines, extreme weather, and wars, advanced technology could become unavailable or nearly priceless. But that doesn’t halt the collapse.

Humanity won’t die, unless the planet turns into a second Venus which also suffers from a runaway greenhouse effect. That’s possible, but not a certainty. The alternative is a much smaller human society, possibly at a pre-industrial level of technology. And with most oil and gas reserves gone, and the world in shambles, there’s no way to bootstrap back to where we are now.

The above picture is filled with unknowns, but if you look at various reports, alternatives are not pretty either. So, let’s look at some more positive outcomes.

2 Pollution curtailed and the West stays

The status quo, as it were. The western world, with the US at the head, keeps going strong. We manage to stop global warming, clean the plastic soup, and get our global population under control.

It could happen. However, governments balk at actually implementing environmental change — the Dutch government has been stalling for decades and hopes to continue doing so, because the economy is apparently more important than survival. The US and Brazil will pull out of the Paris accords, and instead want to stick their heads in the sand and pretend environmental collapse won’t affect them. In short, I’m not optimistic. It appears about half of the world population just wants to pretend everything’s fine, until it becomes truly impossible to ignore the stacks of corpses.

The western world as a political entity is also on the verge of collapse. We like to laugh at Trump, but let’s face it: the US is led by a narcissist entitled imbecile and he has the support of around 40% of the population. The right-wing populism he stands for isn’t going away. Given that the current course of the US will lead to gross inequality, economic collapse, and possibly civil war, I’d say the leader of the western world is about to fall.

3 China leads the world into a pollution free future

China has been steadily grinding its way into power. It’s the upstart superpower, unhindered by entitled citizens and democratic squabbles like Europe and the US. It could be that the US collapses in the next decade, Europe slides further into stagnation, and China becomes the new world leader.

China is well aware of climate change and has started to pivot toward less pollution. Under its leadership, things might well change for the better.

The downside is that China is also well on it’s way to becoming an AI-controlled society, where the communist AI controls all part of Chinese lives, ensuring all remain loyal to the core communist principals and the AI. That doesn’t mean Skynet, but something like 1984 with a computer instead of Big Brother. And where the leader leads, others might follow. Dictators will love this tech, that’s for sure.

4 A pollution-free world of a thousand tiny nations

With the growth of social media, the time of the great nations like the US, Russia, and China is done. The Internet connects the rebels and they each break their nations into smaller pieces, until a patchwork of democracies, dictatorship, and failed states remains. Everybody has their borders shut, and globalization is largely gone.

I wouldn’t know how we save the environment in this scenario, but it could be that with the growing problems all the nations figure that they should clean up the planet. With less technology and less globalization, there might be less pollution as well. Also, the cynic in me concludes that less medicine will mean a smaller global population.

5 Megacorporations lead us to end pollution

Nations are broken apart by unrest and the rise of the individual, but large corporations are there to stay. It’s the future of Neuromancer and Snow Crash.

Companies like Apple and Amazon are not just as powerful as nations. They are actively trying to save the environment. There’s no business in environmental collapse. They succeed where governments failed: they save the planet.

It’s not such a bad place to live, if you don’t mind the inequality that this will surely lead to. The rich will be able to do anything and the rest of us will live under their boot. That doesn’t mean we’ll all be dirt-poor workers. Those iPhones you build in the factory have to go somewhere. Advanced robotics will reduce physical labor. Most of us will instead be in the service sector, a lot of us providing service to the really wealthy, and things like really advanced medicine (anti-aging?) will not be for us, but we could be far worse off.

6 World War III

In all the above scenarios, I’ve assumed that things go relatively peacefully. That’s not a given. Trump is itching to use Nuclear weapons, and Russia is lining them up on the sidelines as well. With increasing pollution, we run the increasing risk of global war.

If we do manage to mess our way into a global war, then we’re likely screwed. Aside from the death toll of the war itself, this will most likely accelerate pollution, meaning that we’re just destroying ourselves and the planet faster. The results will be slightly different, but the environment will go down the tubes all the faster.

However, the chance of it happening is hard to estimate. Wars really don’t help, these days. We mostly see civil wars these days, and the odd annexation. A full-blown global war is not in anybody’s interest. Global supply lines mean that in a China-US war, iPhones become unavailable, for example. That said, it could happen. China might invade Taiwan at some point, and then things could escalate quickly. Or the Middle East could blow up. Pick a place, and there’s the potential for war.

Conclusion

Do I paint a bleak picture? Maybe. I do think it’s a realistic one. Which one is most likely, I honestly don’t know.

I began this post with the statement that pollution is our biggest threat and I stick by that. All the other scenarios have their downsides, but our individual lives might not be so terrible.

For example, as a Dutch citizen, a shift from US to Chinese power might mean little to me, only that Chinese gets a more prominent place in our society, and maybe my grandchildren will speak Chinese instead of English as a second language. On the other hand, I’m not cheering at the idea of having my social media controlled by an AI.

I’ve described the extremes, but reality might be milder, or it could be worse. I guess we’ll see how things play out. However, if you take anything from this post, then please let it be that saving the environment is the most important thing at the moment.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands