What’s Next for the Planet? The bad, the good and the likely for the earth and humanity
As its title suggests, this book explores three possible futures: the “bad,” or “business as usual” future where we pass critical and irreversible thresholds of climate pollution and species extinctions; the “good” future where we reverse our current destructive trends and begin to heal the earth and ourselves; and the “likely” future which could be some combination of the bad and good scenarios and the resolution, in coming decades, of the conflict between the forces destroying the planet and those fighting to preserve it.
What’s Next for the Planet? will inform critical private and public discussions about our priorities and the nature, timing and coordination of our current and future policies.
The book is divided into four main sections: Prologue, Dystopian Planet, Global Ecotopia, and A Likely Future.
Prologue: This introductory section analyses the strengths and shortcomings of the tools we can use, ranging from scientific modeling to “informed intuition,” to predict the future. It points out that while prognostications, especially about vast, complex systems such as the ecosphere (which includes human civilization) are always somewhat speculative, our survival and prosperity depend upon making our best educated guesses about coming developments.
To simplify the task of predicting the possible interactions between humans and their environment, the book considers just three scenarios — the bad, the good and the likely futures — and divides each into three time horizons — the present to 2050, 2050 to 2075 and 2075 to 2100.
Finally, the prologue discusses concepts and terms necessary for understanding the rest of the book, such as the “Anthropocene,” crossing thresholds, and, in plain English, some general principles governing the behavior of complex systems.
Dystopian Planet: This “bad future” section describes the likely results of our continuing on our current path of environmental destruction for the sake of economic growth.
The discussion begins by describing four initial conditions, two philosophical and two physical. The philosophical conditions, or trends, are the global predominance of other-worldly religions, which traditionally do not value the earth as a spiritual home, and our current belief in unlimited economic growth as the key to human prosperity. The two underlying physical conditions are (1) the global population/consumption explosion and, (2) pollution, including greenhouse gas pollution, toxic pollution (principally pesticides) and plastics pollution.
Unless they are abated, these initial conditions are highly likely to push us past certain irreversible thresholds during the first time horizon — between now and around 2050:
• greenhouse gas pollution will almost certainly lock us into a minimum 2.0ºC global temperature rise.
• Population growth and overconsumption will likely push us past the threshold wherein The Sixth Extinction is inevitable.
• The world’s great ice masses will begin to melt irretrievably while sea levels rise dangerously.
Impacts on humanity by 2050 will include the displacement of one billion people as “climate migrants,” a global depression driven by the cost of addressing the environmental crisis, mass famine and, likely, wars for critical resources such as fresh water.
The second time horizon, 2050-2075, will be conditioned by the first, As a result, worsening conditions may bring about desperate experiments in geoengineering, or cooling the planet by injecting solar-reflective particles into the atmosphere. While such an experiment could succeed in temporarily lowering temperature gain, it would also cause chaotic climate perturbations that would destroy whole regions by flood or drought, and the experiment would fail.
The final “bad” time horizon, arriving around 2100 and beyond, could see the dissolution of civilization as the surviving human population migrates into the remaining viable agricultural regions — which are separated by vast areas of desiccated and dying land — and overpopulating and degrading them.
Global Ecotopia: The initial physical conditions for this section remain the same as those of the Dystopian Planet section (population/consumption explosion and pollution), but the determinant philosophical conditions change.
There is an increase in earth consciousness and earth based spirituality, including a growing emphasis on earth stewardship among other-worldly religions; strong growth of our scientific understanding of ecology and the Earth System and of environmentalism; and the mainstreaming of new economic thinking that includes limits to growth and the possibility of a sustainable, steady-state, equitable economy.
Meanwhile, there will be an marked expansion of international cooperation on environmental initiatives. Scientific and technological developments include clean energy dominance and effective (mostly agricultural based) carbon sequestration technologies.
Finally, we could be witnessing the early phases of a “baby bust,” wherein there is a voluntary decline in global population.
As these trends coalesce, pushed relentlessly by the environmental crisis, they can act synergistically to set the table for positive future development.
Thresholds almost certainly to be passed by 2050 include:
• The completion of the global renewable energy transformation.
• The legal expansion and enforcement of meaningful international treaties regulating pollution (especially from greenhouse gas emissions) and biodiversity protection.
• The massive expansion of regenerative agriculture and arboculture as paths to decarbonization
• The ascendency of cyber technology as our primary tool for analyzing environmental and economic problems and recommending explicit, practicable solutions.
These developments could be solidified and codified in the 2050-2075 era, leading toward a permanent, sustainable relationship between humans and the environment by 2100.
A Likely Future: Because all of the initial conditions from both the Dystopian and Ecotopian scenarios are currently operative, some negative and some positive developments are essentially predetermined.
Highly likely negative developments between now and 2050 or beyond are:
• A minimum 2.0ºC global temperature rise
• Irreversible ice melt in Greenland, the Himalayas and much of Antarctica, with consequent sea level rise
• Global population approaching 10 billion.
• Climate Migration exceeding one billion people
Highly likely positive developments between now and 2050 or beyond are:
• Completion of the global renewable energy transition (2050)
• Consolidation of political power by today’s youth environmental movement
• Expanded, codified and binding international environmental cooperation and regulation
• Continued growth of science and cybernetic capacity to address environmental and social problems
Whether we will cross the thresholds of runaway global heating or total global ecosystem collapse remains to be seen. Also, preparing for unforeseen developments could be our greatest challenge.
The choices we make as a society between now and the critical decade of the 2050s will condition the ensuing future and determine the fate of the planet and civilization.