Views of the Future
The views of academics and commentators about the future are coloured by their beliefs about the degree to which human systems are the product of our innate “brilliance” that is independent from nature’s constraints, or alternatively, beholden to biophysical deterministic forces. Those with plans and actions to shape the future (especially current power elites) tend to focus on scenarios where they see options for effective influence. Over the last 60 years we have seen substantial achievements as well as many dreams and promises towards the Techno Explosion future that might free us from the constraints of energetic laws or at least those of a finite planet. This belief in perpetual growth has survived the scorn of mathematicians explaining how constant exponential growth even at low rates leads to explosion, literally.
This belief in perpetual growth has survived the scorn of mathematicians explaining how constant exponential growth even at low rates leads to explosion, literally.
The term “negative growth” used by economists to describe economic contraction shows that anything other than growth is unthinkable. The dream of infinite growth from free energy and colonising space have not been realised7From advice to governments that nuclear power would be too cheap to bother metering the use, to children’s magazines promising holidays to Mars, the hubris about the Techno-explosion in the boom era of the 1950s and 60’s was exceptional. despite the novel and substantial contributions of computers and information technology towards this goal.
The unstated assumptions of “business as usual”
At a more pragmatic and immediate scale, the reasons for the faith in future growth are rarely articulated but can be summarized by a few common assumptions that seem to lie behind most public documents and discussion of the future. These do not represent specific or even recognised views of particular academics, corporate leaders or politicians but more society wide assumptions that are generally left unstated.
- Global extraction rates of important non-renewable commodities will continue to rise.
- There will be no peaks and declines other than through high energy substitution such as the historical transitions from wood to coal and from coal to oil.
- Economic activity, globalisation and increases in technological complexity will continue to grow.
- The geopolitical order that established the USA as the dominant superpower may evolve and change but will not be subject to any precipitous collapse such as happened to the Soviet Union.
- Climate change will be marginal or slow in its impacts on human systems, such that adaption will not necessitate changes in the basic organisation of society.
- Household and community economies and social capacity8By social capacity, I mean the informal processes of mutual support and conflict resolution that allow communities to provide education, welfare, insurance and other functions, with or without support from the formal structures of government. The level of volunteerism is one widely recognised measure of social capacity, but even this measure only captures the more formal end of social capacity which mostly works as a by-product of very ordinary interactions between citizens. will continue to shrink in both their scope and importance to society.
Being more transparent about our assumptions becomes essential in times of turbulent change and historical transition.
All of these assumptions are based on projections of past trends extending back over a human lifetime and drawing more broadly on patterns that can be traced to the origins of industrial civilization and capitalism in Europe hundreds of years ago. Simply exposing these assumptions makes it clear how weak the foundations are for any planned response to the issue of energy transitions. Being more transparent about our assumptions becomes essential in times of turbulent change and historical transition if our aim is to empower personal and community action.
Mainstream approaches to sustainability assume that the Techno Stability long term future is inevitable
Since the environmental awareness and energy crises of the 1970s, we have had a parallel stream of thinking and modest achievements towards the Techno Stability future that, in theory, is compatible with the limits of a finite planet. The principles and strategies of mainstream approaches to sustainability assume that the Techno Stability long term future is inevitable in some form, even if we go through some crises along the way. The focus is on how to make that transition from growth based on fossil energies to a steady state based on largely novel renewable sources.
The tricky issue of dependence of the financial systems on continuous economic growth has been largely ignored or side-stepped by the assumption that the economy maybe able to keep growing without using more and more materials and energy. The explosion of economic activity based on financial services and information technology in the dominant economies during the early 90’s gave some credibility to this concept of the “weightless economy”, although it is now clear that globalisation simply shifted the consumption of resources to other countries to support this growth in the service economies.
The next section applies insights from systems thinking to reflect on the relationship between innovation, human capital and fossil fuels.