It is sometimes useful when confronted with the flood of information we all receive these days to step back to ponder the major forces that currently are shaping our civilization. Although these forces are too varied and complex to give much of a picture of what life might be like 25 or 50 years from now, they raise many warning flags that we may or may not heed before it is too late.
At the moment, the most dangerous force that is changing our way of life has to be climate change which from all indications is starting to affect our economies, lifestyles, and most importantly our food supplies at an increasing rate. Every reputable expert is saying that this summer's unusual melt of the arctic icecap is only the first stage of what will soon be frequent and lengthy disruptions of global weather patterns as the warming arctic causes the polar jet stream to become more erratic. These disruptions will result in alternating floods, droughts, and severe storms that will continue indefinitely – perhaps for centuries or longer.
Now that of course leads to questions about the food supply for the 7 billion of us plus other animals currently living on the planet. While food, at least for humans, seems barely adequate at the minute, hard times are clearly in sight. Short of a massive global effort to redirect calories efficiently to where they are most needed to sustain human life, the prospects for adding additional billions to the world's population does not look that good.
This brings us to the global population which has been growing rapidly and moving in the direction of greener pastures for years. The advent of much improved information technology in the last 50 years means that most of the world now knows where life is better even if opportunities for individuals do not always exist. Mass migrations are taking place within countries where language, cultural, and political barriers to movement are minimal. Most of the migrants are ending up in large cities, where unfortunately they become dependent on relatively complex logistic systems for their survival.
Wherever it is possible, increasing numbers of people are trying to make their way, legally or not, into more economically advanced places in search of a better life. This has been spurred by the advances in communications – movies, television, phones -- and transportation in the last 50 years which not only has shown the less fortunate that they want to live someplace else, but has given many a way to get there. The U.S., with rather lax controls and borders, has seen large numbers of migrants crossing its borders for decades -- in some areas changing the character of the community. Europe, which has relaxed many restrictions on internal migration and employment opportunities, is starting to see the same phenomenon.
There is little new that can be said about resource depletion, except that it is clearly underway. Global crude oil production, which is currently on a plateau, still seems likely to start falling within the next few years and other minerals will not be many years behind. The global water shortage is trending towards mal-distribution. Higher global temperatures means more rain, but shrinking glaciers and snow packs which feed rivers, the source of water for much of the world's population, will soon be a serious problem. The implications of decreasing availability and higher priced oil products are grave for billions who have moved into cities in recent decades where they are dependent on oil-transported food to survive.
The change in communications brought about by silicon circuits and the Internet is changing the world in many subtle and unpredictable ways. With most of mankind now within range of wireless technology and 1.7 billion new cellular devices being produced each year, an unbelievable 85 percent of us are reported as having cell phone subscriptions. Mobile broadband subscriptions are now approaching 20 percent of the world's population. The political implications of all this information and two way communications are only starting to be felt, but we have already had Arab Spring in the Muslim world and we are starting to see glimmers of similar unrest in heretofore unthinkable places such as Russia and China. Just as television revolutionized elective politics in the US 50 years ago, the internet seems destined to do the same worldwide.
While technology has brought us much change, both for good and ill, in the last 300 years, it continues to move at an increasing pace as more countries become industrialized and begin to educate larger numbers of scientifically literate citizens. On the horizon are possible substitutes for fossil fuels which if implemented promptly will bring sweeping changes to economies, political relationships and possibly a practicable solution for global warming.
With so many powerful forces on the move – climate change, population growth, resource depletion, information technology and scientific advancement – it is nearly impossible to work out how the interaction of all these forces plays out. The most dangerous is clearly climate change which some believe has the potential of getting beyond human control and leaving the earth uninhabitable. The bright side is that if substitutes for fossil fuels come into widespread use in time to reverse climate change, overcome the various financial/debt crises and give the world enough energy to move on, posterity might be in for a very bright future.
Solving the energy crisis in the current century would of course open the question of the how many people the earth can and should carry. Abundant energy could eventually lead to increased food supplies – reducing the possibility of famines. The crux of the 21st century could turn out to be a race between a worsening climate which threatens the continued existence of much of mankind and the spread of abundant energy which could reverse the climate problem and increase food supplies.
Tom Whipple is a retired government analyst and has been following the peak oil issue for several years.