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The Long-Term Future

By John Scales Avery

19 April, 2014

Looking at the distant future simplifies some issues

It is notoriously difficult to make correct predictions about the distant future. In modern human society, the breakneck speed of scientific discovery and technological innovation makes long-term predictions especially difficult.

Nevertheless, I believe that the distant future of the balance or unbalance between humankind and nature has a great importance. Certainly, if we look far enough ahead, it will be beyond our own lifetimes. But I feel that we we should think not only of our own children, and of their children and grandchildren, but also about the fate of all future human generations; and not only about humans, but also about what will happen to all the animals and plants and microbes with which we share our existence.

Looking at the very distant future simplifies some issues. For example, one can argue about the size of reserves of coal, oil and metals, but it is certain that in the very long run, such non-renewable resources will become extremely rare and extremely expensive.

Viewed on a time scale of many thousands of years rather than tens or hundreds, global population growth and fossil fuel use appear in a very clear and dramatic perspective. Forty thousand years ago, at the time when human cultural development began to accelerate, there were at most only 4-5 million or so members of our species on the earth. They lived as hunter-gatherers, and were not conspicuously different from other animals. Then, suddenly, a series of cultural achievements allowed humans to increase enormously in numbers and to populate all parts of the earth.

The invention of agriculture was followed by the inventions of writing, paper, and printing. Knowledge, giving humans mastery over the natural world, began to accumulate with astonishing rapidity. New advances in technique allowed further growth in population.

Plotted on an evolutionary timescale, human population growth appears as an extraordinarily abrupt upward surge. On the same time scale, a graph of fossil fuel use is a tall, narrow spike, rising from zero to a high value, and then falling to nothing again, all in the space of a few centuries. When they are plotted together, the rise of fossil fuel use and the explosive growth of human population are seen to be simultaneous. We can infer that fossil fuel use has been one of the causes of the explosive upsurge of global population.

One can calculate from the size of coal, oil and natural gas reserves that the era of fossil fuel use will end within a few hundred years. In fact, because of the threat of dangerous climate change, the fossil fuel era must end much earlier than that. Must human population also fall abruptly?

Since the time of Adam Smith, industrial society has thundered forward under the banner of unrestricted economic growth that Smith was the first to raise. Today, however, as we approach limits to growth imposed by the exhaustion of non-renewable resources and by the finite carrying capacity of the global environment, we should perhaps listen also to the warning voice of Malthus. He pointed out that throughout almost all of human history, the growth of population has been held in check by strong forces. These are sometimes preventative checks, such as late marriage, moral restraint or contraception (which he called “vice”); but when the preventative checks fail, the grim Malthusian forces, famine, disease and war, come into play. Malthus considered the ultimate source of this suffering to be “the laws of nature and the passions of mankind”. The laws of nature limit the food supply, while the passions of mankind drive humans to reproduce above the population level that can be supported.

The successes of science and technology have allowed dramatic growth of both population and economic activity during the last few centuries, but the limits to both types of growth are rapidly approaching. It is therefore relevant to ask what level of global population and what level of economic activity can be comfortably sustained in the distant future.

A stable future world must necessarily be a war-free world, since weapons are likely to become even more destructive in the future than they are today. A world war fought with such weapons would destroy civilization. Thus our descendants will also be faced with the great task of abolishing the institution of war. They will not only need to stabilize and eventually reduce global population and economic activity; they will also need to develop political and ethical maturity to match their scientific progress.

Before cultural evolution began to revolutionize the lifestyle of our species, the “passions of mankind” were undoubtedly necessary for the survival of our remote ancestors. However, the rapid and constantly accelerating rate of cultural evolution has changed the conditions of human life beyond recognition during the last forty thousand years.

Genetically we are very similar to our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but their world has been replaced by a world of quantum theory, space travel, gene splicing and information technology. Thus human emotions, which have remained relatively unchanged, are often inappropriate for our present way of life. In the future, the problem of anachronistic emotions is certain to become even more acute.

If we carefully examine cultural evolution, we can see that it has two parts, one of which changes more quickly than the other. The extremely rapidly-moving part is science and technology. Our political and social institutions change more slowly, although their progress is still very rapid compared with genetic change. Because of the different rates of change of these two facets of cultural evolution, our political and social institutions often fail to harmonize with the innovations of science and technology. For example, in a world of thermonuclear weapons, the absolutely sovereign nation-state has become a dangerous anachronism, yet it persists because of institutional inertia. It takes quite a bit of time for laws, constitutions, schoolbooks, thought-patterns and political structures to adjust to new realities. In the meantime, technology roars ahead, with a rate of change so great that it threatens to shake society to pieces.

Thus modern human society experiences two types of tensions, both of which will probably become more acute in the future: Firstly, tensions produced by the fact that our emotions do not harmonize with our present way of life. Secondly, tensions produced by the disharmony between our technology and our social and political institutions.

Economic shortsightedness

The self-imposed shortsightedness of economists and politicians would be laughable if it were not so tragic. Although ordinary people can easily see that it is a logical impossibility, the doctrine of endlessly continued economic growth is a holy dogma in circles of power. Endlessly continued economic growth on a finite planet is a fiction that can only be made plausible by refusing to look more than a few decades into the future. Economists say: “We are practical people. The distant future does not concern us.” Meanwhile, one suspects that politicians do not look much beyond the next election.

However, the long-term future is extremely important because of our responsibility to future generations. What does it mean to continue a modest 3 percent rate of industrial growth for several centuries? It means that after 4 centuries the economy will have grown by a factor of 136,424. For this to happen, a hundred thousand times as much energy would have to be generated. The impossibility of endlessly-continued growth is still more clear if we think of what will happen after 8 centuries. If it grows by 3 percent each year, the economy will then have grown by a factor of 186 million. Are we to imagine 186 million times as much steel being produced?

Of course, human culture can continue to develop. Life can become better, even though the amount of material goods produced in the distant future will certainly be restricted by ecological constraints. This does not mean that life cannot become happier and better, but only that happiness must not depend on an endlessly increasing supply of material possessions.

Why is the financial and political establishment so wedded to the concept off endlessly continued growth that it is led to defy simple logic and to voluntarily restrict its vision of the future to a few decades? The answer has to do with our present system of fractional reserve banking. Under this system, only a small fraction of the money that banks receive as deposits is kept by them. The remainder is lent out at interest. Often the banks lend out even more money than has been deposited. The banks are, in effect, printing their own money. Control of the money supply is in their hands, rather than in the hands of the government, and any profit from increase of the total amount of money in circulation goes to the banks, rather than being used to supply social services.

As long as the economy is growing, this system is unjust, but not catastrophic. However, when growth falters, the system crashes in flames. Depositors then ask the banks for their money; but it is not there. It has been lent out. We saw this situation in 2008, when banks that were “too big to fail” were saved by governments at the taxpayer's expense.

I have been heaping insults onto the economists, but I must now mention a few exceptions, individuals who have had the courage to speak out against the insane cult of endlessly continued growth. Among them are Frederik Soddy, Nicholas Georgiescu-Roegen, Herman E. Daly, Aurelio Pecci and Thorkil Kristensen.

Frederik Soddy and Nicholas Georgiesco-Roegen introduced the concept of entropy into economics. They visualized the economy as the digestive system of society. It “eats” resources, and derives from them the strength to drive the machinery of society. Later, it excretes the resources in a degraded form. Obviously this is not a circular process, since the degraded resources cannot simply be “eaten” again. For example, fossil fuels, once burned, cannot be burned again. Since only cyclic processes are sustainable, only renewable energy is sustainable. Furthermore, cyclic processes can use only materials that are renewable, like natural fibers. Today these ideas are very ably advocated by Georgiescu-Roegen's student, Prof. Herman E. Daly.

In 1968 Aurelio Pecci, Thorkil Kristensen, and a few other farsighted economists, industrialists and scientists, founded the Club of Rome, an organization which describes itself as “a group of world citizens, sharing a common concern for the future of humanity”. One of the first acts of the Club of Rome was to commission a study of future resources availability that was published in 1972 under the title “Limits to Growth”. It predicts that many resources, such as metals and fossil fuels, will be exhausted by the middle of the 21st century, that pollution will increase markedly, and that industrial production and population will begin to decline. The book was greeted with anger and disbelief by the community of economists, and these emotions surface today whenever it is mentioned. Nevertheless it was translated into many languages, and 30 million copies were sold.

“Limits to Growth” has been criticized because of inexactness in predicting precisely when various resources will be essentially exhausted. But in the long-term perspective, it hardly matters exactly when these events will occur. It only matters that non-renewable resources will be exhausted at some point. Not only will industrial growth then become impossible: industry will contract. Our present growth-based economic system will fail, and we will be faced with the task of constructing a system which can function in the new circumstances, and which can deliver a happy and secure life to the people who are alive at that time.

Naturally, in a contracting economy, unemployment will become a problem. At the same time there will be a need to build the infrastructure of sustainability, for example the infrastructure of renewable energy, reforestation and soil conservation. Governments must give a a high priority to employing everyone who wishes to work. The tasks will be there. Workers can be shifted from producing luxuries to tasks needed to achieve sustainability. But free market forces cannot achieve this. It can only be achieved through the active intervention of truly democratic governments. Thus the rebuilding of our economic system will require the rebuilding of democratic governments. In many countries today, what we have are oligarchies.

Threats to the global environment

One of the most tragic aspects of our present growth-obsessed economic system is that it is rapidly destroying the earth's environment. Our governments give much higher priority to economic growth than to the prevention of dangerous climate change. But if urgent steps are not taken within the next decade or so to reduce emissions of CO2, there is a danger that the earth will reach a tipping point, beyond which human actions will have no effect because run-away global warming will be produced by feedback loops, i.e. self-driven processes, which are capable increasing exponentially.

Of these feedback loops, by far the most dangerous in the long-term perspective involves the methane hydrate crystals which exist in enormous quantities on the floors of oceans. When the temperature is low enough, and the pressure high enough, methane combines with water to form solid crystals called hydrates or clathrates. If ocean temperatures are raised, the crystals become unstable, and methane, which a powerful greenhouse gas, bubbles to the surface. This leads to higher temperatures, and more methane is released. Once started, the process can continue in a vicious circle.

The worrying thing is the amount of carbon in the methane hydrate crystals on the ocean floors: between 3,000 and 11,000 gigatons of carbon. To get an idea of how large an amount of carbon this is, we can compare it with the total CO2 emissions since 1751, only 337 gigatons. If a methane hydrate feedback loop starts in earnest, we will be faced with one of the big extinction events of geological history, perhaps comparable to the Permian-Triasic extinction event, in which methane is thought to have been involved. The prevention of such a catastrophe must be given the very highest priority by our governments. The fate of all life on earth is at stake.

Here are links to several videos that discuss dangerous feedback loops and climate change:





The danger of nuclear war in the long-term future

We said above that a number of issues become clearer in the long-term perspective. The danger of nuclear war is one of these issues. If we look at the distant future, it is very clear that if nuclear weapons are not completely eliminated, human civilization will not survive.

There are very many cases on record in which the world has come very close to a catastrophic nuclear war. One such case was the Cuban Missile Crisis. Robert McNamara, who was the US Secretary of Defense at the time of the crisis, had this to say about how close the world came to a catastrophic nuclear war: “I want to say, and this is very important: at the end we lucked out. It was luck that prevented nuclear war. We came that close to nuclear war at the end. Rational individuals: Kennedy was rational; Khrushchev was rational; Castro was rational. Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today.”

Incidents in which global disaster is avoided by a hair's breadth are constantly occurring. For example, on the night of 26 September, 1983, Lt. Col. Stanislav Petrov, a young software engineer, was on duty at a surveillance center near Moscow. Suddenly the screen in front of him turned bright red. An alarm went off. It's enormous piercing sound filled the room. A second alarm followed, and then a third, fourth and fifth, until the noise was deafening. The computer showed that the Americans had launched a strike against Russia.

Petrov's orders were to pass the information up the chain of command to Secretary General Yuri Andropov. Within minutes, a nuclear counterattack would be launched. However, because of certain inconsistent features of the alarm, Petrov disobeyed orders and reported it as a computer error, which indeed it was. Most of us probably owe our lives to his brave and coolheaded decision and his knowledge of software systems. The narrowness of this escape is compounded by the fact that Petrov was on duty only because of the illness of another officer with less knowledge of software, who would have accepted the alarm as real.

A number of prominent political and military figures (many of whom have ample knowledge of the system of deterrence, having been part of it) have expressed concern about the danger of accidental nuclear war. Colin S. Gray, Chairman, National Institute for Public Policy, expressed this concern as follows: “The problem, indeed the enduring problem, is that we are resting our future upon a nuclear deterrence system concerning which we cannot tolerate even a single malfunction”. General Curtis E. Bruce G. Blair (Brookings Institute) has remarked that “It is obvious that the rushed nature of the process, from warning to decision to action, risks causing a catastrophic mistake”... “This system is an accident waiting to happen.”

As the number of nuclear weapon states grows larger, there is an increasing chance that a revolution will occur in one of them, putting nuclear weapons into the hands of terrorist groups or organized criminals. Today, for example, Pakistan's less-than-stable government might be overthrown, and Pakistan's nuclear weapons might end in the hands of terrorists. The weapons might then be used to destroy one of the world's large coastal cities, having been brought into the port by one of numerous container ships that dock every day, a number far too large to monitored exhaustively. Such an event might trigger a large-scale nuclear conflagration.

Recent research has shown that a large-scale nuclear war would be an ecological catastrophe of enormous proportions, producing very large-scale famine through its impact on global agriculture, and making large areas of the world permanently uninhabitable through long-lived radioactive contamination.

How do these dangers look in the long-term perspective? Suppose that each year there is a certain finite chance of a nuclear catastrophe, let us say 1 percent. Then in a century the chance of a disaster will be 100 percent, and in two centuries, 200 percent, in three centuries, 300 percent, and so on. Over many centuries, the chance that a disaster will take place will become so large as to be a certainty. Thus by looking at the long-term future, we can see that if nuclear weapons are not entirely eliminated, civilization will not survive.

In his acceptance speech for the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize, Sir Joseph Rotblat pointed out that in order for the world to be entirely rid of the danger of nuclear weapons, the institution of war must itself be eliminated. The reason for this, he explained, is that the knowledge of how to make nuclear weapons can never be lost. Even if these weapons were entirely eliminated from the world, they could be reconstructed during a major war.

We can carry this argument a little farther, and say that the long-term survival of human civilization and the biosphere require effective governance at the global level, since this will be needed for the elimination of the institution of war. The sooner these steps are taken, the greater the chance of human survival, since elimination of the institution of war would free vast quantities of money which could be used for the solution of social, economic and environmental problems.

John Avery received a B.Sc. in theoretical physics from MIT and an M.Sc. from the University of Chicago. He later studied theoretical chemistry at the University of London, and was awarded a Ph.D. there in 1965. He is now Lektor Emeritus, Associate Professor, at the Department of Chemistry, University of Copenhagen. Fellowships, memberships in societies: Since 1990 he has been the Contact Person in Denmark for Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. In 1995, this group received the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts. He was the Member of the Danish Peace Commission of 1998. Technical Advisor, World Health Organization, Regional Office for Europe (1988- 1997). Chairman of the Danish Peace Academy, April 2004. http://www.fredsakademiet.dk/ordbog/aord/a220.htm. He can be reached at [email protected]




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