“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” — Yogi Berra
From the time humans first appeared on the earth, planning ahead was one of our essential survival skills. Bands of hunter-gatherers needed to use their knowledge of the environment to make educated guesses about when the herds of animals they depended upon for food would migrate to another locale, or when the fruit that they might need to walk miles to harvest would ripen.
Today, it’s no less essential for us to peer into the future, and try to predict what it could bring. Are we likely to encounter snowstorms on our early-summer camping trip to Canada? How much should I save to ensure a comfortable retirement?
The main difference between us and our predecessors, from the early Stone Age through the Renaissance, is that we have science to aid our attempts to predict developments. We don’t have to rely solely on intuition, or on divination based on disemboweling animals or reading tea leaves. We can draw on a vast factual database to weigh the probability of a certain events occurring and, if we choose to, guide our actions based on that probability.
But even with the powerful analytical and statistical tools of science at our disposal, future occurrences or trends must be “predicted” in terms of a range of probabilities. From simple, single occurrences such as the chances of a baseball pitcher throwing a strike on his next pitch, to complex phenomena such as the amount of sea-level rise we can expect, given current greenhouse gas emissions and the many variables affecting outcomes such the speed at which glaciers might melt, our prognostications are still expressible only as statistical probabilities — educated guesses.
When we consider the possible interactions between human culture, especially civilization, arguably the dominant (1) living sub-system of the all-inclusive planet system, or ecosphere, the picture becomes exponentially more involved, almost impossibly so, making reliable or even marginally useful predictions becomes ever more daunting. Part of that is due to the fact that even small, often-overlooked and presumably insignificant changes in the millions of variables in large, complex systems can produce outsized results. (The famous meme about the flapping wings of a butterfly in Brazil causing atmospheric perturbations that lead to a major North Atlantic storm is a case in point.)
Even attempting to comprehend the many possible outcomes of ecospheric/cultural interactions is challenging because there are so many variables. Sure, there will be sea-level rise. And drought. And floods. And pandemics. And mass migrations. And economic shocks. There’ll be too many things going on at once for us to even keep track of, let alone connect and analyze in terms of their possible interactions.
Yet, just like our ancestors before us, if we are to survive, we must try to predict the future — not just ostensibly disconnected aspects of the future, but THE future in its entirety.
How can we even approach such a formidable task?
One way is to consider more than one future, each unfolding in more than one time frame. Given reasonably foreseeable major developments, what might our world look like in 2040, 2060 or 2100 under a “business as usual” scenario, where nothing meaningful is done to control emissions, stop the sixth extinction, slow global population growth or curb consumption? How would that dystopian future change if we quickly reversed course, drastically cut emissions, conserved our resources, especially the planet’s biodiversity, and found sustainable ways to ensure universal prosperity? And finally, given our knowledge of current condition, trends and possibilities, what are the good, the bad and the likely contours of the future?
We’ll explore these possible futures in a series of upcoming articles.
(1) It could be argued that the “botanical system,” plants, or green plants, considered as a single living photosynthetic unit, has an even greater influence on the day-to-day conditioning of the planet than does human activity because of the massive amount of carbon dioxide plants consume and oxygen they release. Plants, collectively, are indeed the primary living system conditioning the atmosphere and gaseous content of the oceans. However, humans are dominating the rate of change of both the gas content of the atmosphere and the thermodynamics of the overall ecosphere, as well as being a major consumer of biomass, so we are generally thought of as the dominant influence on current planet system trends and trajectories — thus the term “Anthropocene” has come to describe the current geological era, at least in popular and many informed discussions of the situation.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article appeared previously in other publications as part of an ongoing series called “Your Ecological House,” written by Philip S. Wenz, the publisher of Firebird Journal.