With financial and ecological crises threatening the world, the two of us engaged in a spirited email discussion published in World Future Review, June-July 2009. We are both deeply concerned about the multiple, complex, interrelated threats making up what Halal calls the “global crisis of maturity” and we more generally call the “global megacrisis”. We are now opening up this discussion to learn what others think.
This survey summarizes our differing views, and then asks you to generally evaluate the severity of the global megacrisis and likelihood of four alternative scenarios. No one can be certain about much in this situation, but we ask you to use your best judgment. To illustrate, Marien assigns the probabilities of the four scenarios as 25, 55, 20, and <1% respectively, while Halal rates them 10, 25, 60, and 5%.
We plan to publish the results and offer an analysis of what they mean. This is not a random sample, of course, but we hope you find it a provocative and interesting learning experience. Please respond by clicking on "Take Survey" after the results below. Or you can e-mail answers and lengthier comments to [email protected] and [email protected]. It should take about 10 minutes. Thanks for participating.
William Halal, Prof Emeritus, GWU; President, TechCast LLC
Michael Marien, Former Editor, Future Survey, World Future Society
HALAL'S ARGUMENT: The World is Entering an Advanced Stage of Evolution
My recent book, Technology's Promise, concludes that high-tech globalization is causing a “global crisis of maturity” marked by unprecedented transition points in climate change, environment, energy, economic systems, terrorism, armed conflict, and other threats to civilization. A second major conclusion is that the relentless advance of information technology (IT) that drives globalization is also producing a resolution of this crisis. This is a transition to an advanced stage of civilization powered by advanced technologies, global systems, and mounting knowledge.
Forecasts from the TechCast Project (www.TechCast.org) suggest this is likely in about 10 years +/- 3 years. Worldwide e-commerce is likely to take off in about 5 years to form a rudimentary version of the "global brain" futurists have long anticipated. About 2020 or so, we are likely to see 2nd-generation computing (optical, nano, bio, and quantum) and artificial intelligence (AI) good enough to automate routine knowledge. Kurzweil's extrapolation of computer power offers strong evidence, as well as the TechCast data.
As AI automates routine thought (GPS navigation systems, speech recognition, robotics, the intelligent web, etc.), attention is moving beyond knowledge to focus on values, beliefs, ideology, vision, and other higher levels of thought out of sheer necessity. This constitutes the next logical phase in the progression of automation from agriculture, to manufacturing, to services, to knowledge, and now to consciousness.
The central role of IT/AI is a game changer because it shifts the relationship between humans and machines. Contrary to the assertion that AI will surpass people, AI liberates us from mental drudgery and releases the unique human capability for higher consciousness -- at the same time that the world is heading toward unprecedented challenges. This is hardy a coincidence but rather the playing out of historic forces in the natural life cycle of evolution. Sure, there will be lots of confusion and crazy behavior because the world is struggling to take responsibility for its future or suffer enormous consequences. But Pollster John Zogby’s data show a “fundamental reorientation of the American character: away from wanton consumption and toward a new global citizenry in an age of limited resources.”
Concerted action could resolve the megacrisis anytime, but events are likely to culminate about 2020 when we expect IT/AI to mature and the threats to reach intolerable levels as global GDP almost doubles. Yes, the situation looks bleak, but that’s always true before a major turning point. The rise of consciousness can be seen even now in the way the economic crisis has provoked a widespread awareness of the need to alter world systems in finance, energy, and climate control.
It's not possible to know much about this coming “Age of Consciousness/Awareness” any more than we would have guessed that the Information Age would have us staring into PCs half of the day. I suspect we will use what I call "technologies of consciousness" (neuro-tech brain enhancements, virtual reality and simulations, strategic planning, collaboration, conflict resolution, meditation and prayer, etc.) to see us through the crisis of maturity. (see Ch. 9 of Technology's Promise)
I certainly agree the obstacles are massive, but it is not “wishful thinking” to see that historic forces are likely to alter the present situation in ways that may surprise us, much like the collapse of Communism. Of course there is a serious chance we will suffer the “loss of civilization” or “a high-tech dark age.” But for those who are around at 2020, I’m pretty sure we will find that the crisis of maturity has been largely resolved and that life continues to go on fairly well.
MARIEN'S ARGUMENT: Ignorance, Infoglut, Indecision, and Inadequacy
We agree on a global megacrisis, as the world struggles through The Great Recession of 2008-20??, caused by failure to heed many Cassandras. We also agree than an IT/AI explosion is under way, as well as other technology revolutions ahead, as nicely summarized by Bill’s TechCast project. Will IT/AI make things better? It is indeed “a game changer,” but it will change many games—for good and ill. Will IT/AI bring convergence of thinking about important global issues and move attention to “higher levels of consciousness”? Or is it just as likely to cause further infoglut and fragmentation, degraded consciousness, indecision, and half-baked inadequate action? Based on the first decade or so of the Internet and vastly expanded information abundance of all sorts, I see no reason for unfettered optimism, such as Bill’s Chapter 9 on a likely “Age of Consciousness” c. 2020-2030, which is simply wishful thinking.
Updating my early background in macro-systems thinking, I recently published an essay sub-titled “Our Era of Mal-Adaptive, Non-Adaptive, and Semi-Adaptive Systems” (World Future Review, 1:2, April-May 2009, pp5-13), which provoked this exchange. Unlike the conventional wisdom of “complex adaptive systems” borrowed from the world of natural sciences, I argued that our increasingly complex social systems are adapting in the wrong direction, not adapting at all, or only partly adapting, which could well result in the paradox of “improvement and growing inadequacy.”
Certainly there is more consciousness about global issues and some actions are being taken to improve global governance. There is growing awareness of global warming and the need to accelerate the energy transition. The “greening” of individuals, communities, businesses, and governments is underway in many places, and there is a veritable gold rush to develop a wide variety of new energy technologies (e.g., Exxon Mobil’s recent investment of $600 million to produce liquid fuels from algae). And yet the most recent findings of climate experts are far more dire than the official 2007 IPCC report—thus, “improvement and growing inadequacy” seems likely.
The biggest blindspot in the IT/AI vision has to do with governance. In the “Rise to Maturity” scenario, governments and corporations do the right thing--and are supported by the public. Even in the more likely “Muddling Up” scenario, “increasing knowledge [leads to] wider understanding” and “public attitudes shift enough to favor the needed changes.” Desirable, but not likely, as huge fiscal deficits, necessarily run up by many governments, fuel reactionary fears that we are headed toward fiscal ruin, evil socialism and unwelcome global government.
Despite the super-abundance of information, there is no evidence that the American public is better informed about current affairs than in the past, in what James Bovard calls our “Attention Deficit Democracy.” Newspapers and magazines are closing down or shrinking their coverage of national and global issues. Financially-stressed schools and colleges are still deficient in civic education, let alone serious futures education. We may still see some shift to enlightened views, but, more likely than not, much too little too late. And it may well be offset by reality-challenged backlash stoked by fear.
This is not “doom and gloom,” but mainstream social science thinking, synthesizing hundreds of recent books on environmental issues, governance, IT impacts, and education. I hope we can return to an undisputed path of evolutionary progress, but it will require a major re-structuring of industrial-era knowledge and education/learning. Technologies of consciousness, alone, won’t come close to what we need.
DECLINE TO DISASTER The world fails to react with disastrous consequences. Indecision reigns due to too many choices, too many entrenched interest groups, and too few resources to make needed changes. Huge government deficits persist, leading to diminished public services and an inability to make crucial transition investments. Governments are also unable to reform financial systems, curb global warming, or solve the energy problem, while corporations remain focused on profit. Technological advances are shelved or fail to help. Global warming becomes severe, with extreme weather events and sea level rise leading to massive migrations and crop losses. The world sinks into economic depression, crippling energy shortages, collapse of large ecological systems, much destruction of life, rampant war, crime, and corruption. Worldwide pandemics, nuclear attacks, bioterrorism, cyberattacks, and/or crashes of the Worldwide Web may add to the decline. Many parts of the world suffer the loss of functioning civilization
MUDDLING DOWN Half-way, inadequate actions cause civilization to enter a high-tech dark age. Political stalemates, lack of resources, and ignorance about the complexity of the problem result in only modest changes in financial systems, governance, energy, and education. The promise of new technologies is only partly met, while pollution and population pressures continue. Global warming and extreme weather increase. Recovery from the Great Recession is slow and uneven, and the number of failed states rises. Regional wars and terrorist attacks increase. Despite claims of progress by political and corporate leaders, the quality of life declines for most people. These strains on the capacity of the planet to support global industrialization lead to more people living in poverty and despair, and often reacting violently.
MUDDLING UP Governments and corporations act slowly, but increasing knowledge and mounting threats spur continued efforts. Far more sophisticated IT and AI provide more powerful technical capabilities, a wider understanding of the problems, and an appreciation of the fundamental need to promote sustainability. The sense of urgency builds as problems increase, so public attitudes shift enough to favor needed changes, and reasonably good leadership is able to provide guidance. There are minor disasters along the way but little that is catastrophic. A rudimentary but functioning global order emerges to manage this advanced society in time to avert widespread disaster, albeit with an increasing level of the normal problems in any large social system.
RISE TO MATURITY The transition to a new global order is made smoothly and quickly. There is a rapidly growing realization that the Earth is a precious living system requiring human care. Governments and corporations react wisely and with determination, and they are supported by the majority of people, so the world surpasses the UN Millennium Development Goals of halving poverty by 2015, and the Earth approaches sustainability. Energy shortages, climate change, and global conflict are largely avoided. The media, schools, and colleges offer useful knowledge and intelligent guidance, and widespread, in-depth debates illuminate and resolve crucial issues. The world enters global maturity rather easily and unscathed.
John Petersen, “A New End, A New Beginning,” in Innovation and Complexity in a Complex World, (Bethesda: World Future Society, 2009)
Jerome Glenn et al, “The Millennium Project,” in Innovation and Complexity Op Cit.
William E. Halal, Technology’s Promise (London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008)
William E. Halal, “The Life Cycle of Evolution,“ Futures Research Quarterly (2004) Vol 9, No. 1
John Zogby, The Way We'll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream (New York: Random House, 2008)
Jamais Cascio, “Get Smarter,” The Atlantic (July-August 2009)
Global Economic Prospects: Managing the Next Wave of Globalization (World Bank, 2009)
Nicholas Carr, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World from Edison to Google (W. W. Norton, 2008). Offers a well-informed critique of Internet optimists.
Michael Marien, Democracy in the 21st Century: Forward or Backward? (Future Survey Mini-Guide #3, Feb 2008). A broad survey of the problems of democracy and today’s ill-informed citizens.
Martin Rees, Our Final Century: The 50/50 Threat to Humanity’s Survival (Basic Books, 2003). The UK Royal Astronomer and Cambridge professor discusses a broad range of sci/tech risks.
Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Chose to Fail or Succeed (Penguin, 2005). A very readable bestseller for more than six months, by a UCLA geography professor, suggesting that “it could happen here.”
Michael C. MacCracken et al. (eds), Sudden and Disruptive Climate Change: Exploring the Real Risks (Earthscan, Feb 2008). Explains why climate change may well be more severe than projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on
Kurt M. Campbell (ed), Climatic Cataclysm: The Foreign Policy and National Security Implications (Brookings Institution Press, July 2008). Provides three very scary scenarios.
Joseph J. Romm, Hell and High Water (Morrow, March 2007). Three more very scary scenarios of hellish global warming and rising sea levels.