As southeast Brazil grapples with its worst drought in nearly a century, a problem worsened by polluted rivers, deforestation and population growth, the largest reservoir system serving São Paulo is near depletion. Many residents are already enduring sporadic water cutoffs, some going days without it. Officials say that drastic rationing may be needed, with water service provided only two days a week.
Reading this led me to wonder what the current worst case scenarios for climate change, ocean acidification and peak soil are, which led me to a long piece from The Nation that, if I understand it correctly, reports that we could see a 3.5 Celsius increase in global temperatures as early as 2035. An increase of 3.5C would kill off the earth’s remaining plankton, which are already dying quickly thanks to ocean acidification, which would kick off a series of events leading to the death of most of our food sources.
In other words, we could be facing human extinction in just 21 years.
Actually, I imagine it would take at least a few more years after 2035 for the human species to actually go extinct. Maybe we’ll discover that some people can live on smaller amounts of food, or but it doesn’t sound like things will be pretty for the survivors.
And if we don’t hit those numbers by 2035, there’s a ticking time bomb of methane stored in arctic permafrosted soil, and that’s going to be thawing out sooner or later. And when that happens, temperatures are likely to go out of control fast.
The police remain a visible presence in the borough’s Brownsville neighborhood, where the vast and violent expanse of public housing had made the neighborhood a proving ground for the department’s use of the tactics as a way to curb gun violence. As part of a new strategy called Omnipresence, the officers now stand on street corners like sentries, only rarely confronting young men and patting them down for weapons. But the residents of Brownsville, conditioned by the years of the stop-and-frisk tactics, still view these officers warily.
This week I watched Hardware, not realizing that human sterilization and population control were subplots. And finished watching the second season of Utopia (the British drama, not the U.S. reality show). I seem unable to escape the themes of human extinction and involuntary sterilization.
The accelerating rate of climate change poses a severe risk to national security and acts as a catalyst for global political conflict, a report published Tuesday by a leading government-funded military research organization concluded.
The CNA Corporation Military Advisory Board found that climate change-induced drought in the Middle East and Africa is leading to conflicts over food and water and escalating longstanding regional and ethnic tensions into violent clashes. The report also found that rising sea levels are putting people and food supplies in vulnerable coastal regions like eastern India, Bangladesh and the Mekong Delta in Vietnam at risk and could lead to a new wave of refugees.
In addition, the report predicted that an increase in catastrophic weather events around the world will create more demand for American troops, even as flooding and extreme weather events at home could damage naval ports and military bases.
If I wanted to be politically effective, rather than visionary, I’d disguise myself as a right-wing Green, probably some kind of hunting-shooting NASCAR “conservationist,” and I’d infiltrate the Republicans this year. […]
So we publicly recognize the climate crisis: just as if we suddenly discovered it ourselves. And we don’t downplay the climate crisis: we OVERPLAY the crisis.
“Then we blame the crisis on foreigners. We’re not liberal weak sisters ‘negotiating Kyoto agreements.’ We’re assembling a Coalition of the Willing tp threaten polluters.
“We’re certainly not bowing the knee to the damn Chinese — they own our Treasury, unfortunately, but we completely change the terms of that debate. When the Chinese open a coal mine and threaten the world’s children with asthma, we will take out that threat with a cruise missile!
That’s our new negotiating position on the climate crisis: we’re the military, macho hard line.
Why have Western security agencies developed such an unprecedented capacity to spy on their own domestic populations? Since the 2008 economic crash, security agencies have increasingly spied on political activists, especially environmental groups, on behalf of corporate interests. This activity is linked to the last decade of US defence planning, which has been increasingly concerned by the risk of civil unrest at home triggered by catastrophic events linked to climate change, energy shocks or economic crisis – or all three.
John Timmer at Ars Technica looks at what a survey of Australians about their beliefs regarding climate change can tell us about our perceptions of popular opinion:
The false consensus effect became obvious when the researchers looked at what these people thought that everyone else believed. Here, the false consensus effect was obvious: every single group believed that their opinion represented the plurality view of the population. This was most dramatic among those who don’t think that the climate is changing; even though they represent far less than 10 percent of the population, they believed that over 40 percent of Australians shared their views. Those who profess ignorance also believed they had lots of company, estimating that their view was shared by a quarter of the populace. […]
But there was also evidence of pluralistic ignorance. Every single group grossly overestimated the number of people who were unsure about climate change or convinced it wasn’t occurring. Even those who were convinced that humans were changing the climate put 20 percent of Australians into each of these two groups.
In the end, the false consensus effect is swamped by this pluralistic ignorance. Even though everybody tends to think their own position is the plurality, those who accept climate change is real still underestimate how many people share their views. Meanwhile, everyone overestimates the self-labelled “skeptic” population.
From a press release issued by the United States Geological Survey:
Human use of Earth’s natural resources is making the air, oceans, freshwaters, and soils more acidic, according to a U.S. Geological Survey – University of Virginia study available online in the journal, Applied Geochemistry.
This comprehensive review, the first on this topic to date, found the mining and burning of coal, the mining and smelting of metal ores, and the use of nitrogen fertilizer are the major causes of chemical oxidation processes that generate acid in the Earth-surface environment.
These widespread activities have increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, increasing the acidity of oceans; produced acid rain that has increased the acidity of freshwater bodies and soils; produced drainage from mines that has increased the acidity of freshwater streams and groundwater; and added nitrogen to crop lands that has increased the acidity of soils.
A few thoughts, assuming this study, and the description of i, is accurate:
1) I’ve argued for a while that even if global warming isn’t real, or if humans aren’t causing it, most of the tasks associated with trying to slow or stop it are still worth while (see: What If We Created a Better World for Nothing?). This study seems to confirm that.
2) I was skeptical about the value of organic farming, but this essay by Manuel Delanda convinced me that there is value there, if nothing else, in reducing dependence on external sources for fertilizers, therefore creating more resilience for organic farms (but I still think it’s an overhyped, poorly defined term mostly used by large corporations to bilk customers into paying more for food). This study presents another reason to reduce the use of nitrogen fertilizers.
It’s that time of year again. Some good stuff this year. Sterling starts off talking about what he sees as the key drivers of global change:
I’ve tended to emphasize climate change, urbanization and demographics. Those are big and significant changes in the world, but also pretty easy to measure and quantify. That’s like hunting for futurity under the street-lights where it’s nice and bright.
So I often tell people that the mid-century will be about “old people in big cities who are afraid of the sky.” I think that’s a pretty useful, common-sense, plausible assessment. You may not hear it said much, but it’s how things are turning out.
Sterling then runs through the futurism of various localities, including fringe groups, including:
Chemtrails. These guys are pitiable loons, but they’re interesting harbingers of a future when even scientific illiterates are deathly afraid of the sky. It’s interesting that we have cults of people who walk outside and read the sky like a teacup. I’ve got a soft spot for chemtrail people, they’re really just sort of cool, and much more interesting than UFO cultists, who are all basically Christians. Jesus is always the number one Saucer Brother in UFO contactee cults. It’s incredible how little imagination the saucer people have.
Sterling’s bit on the mud machine of Italy could apply almost equally in the U.S:
The “Mud Machine.” This is the Berlusconi media empire, which engages in the unique practice of suppressing dissent by suggesting that everybody in Italy equally useless and crooked, so why even bother. After all, everybody in Italy would have orgies involving underage illegal-alien Moslem prostitutes if they had the chance, so why get all worked up; mind your own business. The Mud Machine works because Italians enjoy being cynical about themselves. Nobody wants to be seen as the chump, so everybody ends up being victimized.
This column by Monbiot on the problems with public perception of science is excellent and worth reading in its entirety, but I found this particularly interesting as it confirms something I’ve suspected about ideology and belief:
In 2008 the Washington Post summarised recent psychological research on misinformation. This shows that in some cases debunking a false story can increase the number of people who believe it. In one study, 34% of conservatives who were told about the Bush government’s claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction were inclined to believe them. But among those who were shown that the government’s claims were later comprehensively refuted by the Duelfer report, 64% ended up believing that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
There’s a possible explanation in an article published by Nature in January. It shows that people tend to “take their cue about what they should feel, and hence believe, from the cheers and boos of the home crowd”. Those who see themselves as individualists and those who respect authority, for instance, “tend to dismiss evidence of environmental risks, because the widespread acceptance of such evidence would lead to restrictions on commerce and industry, activities they admire”. Those with more egalitarian values are “more inclined to believe that such activities pose unacceptable risks and should be restricted”.
These divisions, researchers have found, are better at explaining different responses to information than any other factor. Our ideological filters encourage us to interpret new evidence in ways that reinforce our beliefs. “As a result, groups with opposing values often become more polarised, not less, when exposed to scientifically sound information.” The conservatives in the Iraq experiment might have reacted against something they associated with the Duelfer report, rather than the information it contained.
Chris Arkenberg is a visiting researcher at the Institute for the Future, an organizer of the event AR DevCamp, a musician operating under the name n8ur, and a big picture thinker. I talked to him via instant message about forecasting, how to navigate the future, and more. You can find him on Twitter here and his web site is here.
Klint Finley: You’re a visiting researcher at the Institute for the Future, and you’re working on their Ten Year Forecast. Can you explain what the Ten Year Forecast is, and what your own day to day role in it is?
Chris Arkenberg: The Ten Year Forecast is an annual research arc that looks at global issues impacting the next decade. We develop major forecasts then break each of those out into different scenarios to give organizations models for anticipating the future and adjusting their strategy accordingly. My role is providing research and forecasts for the Global Power and Carbon Economy arcs.
In Carbon, I’ve been profiling global energy dispositions. Eg, “What natural resources does China have under its lands and what is the spread of it’s energy use?” In Global Power, I’ve been analyzing insurgency movements, notably the narcoinsurgency in Mexico, the MEND movement in Nigeria, and the nexus of terrorism, insurgency, and international drug trafficking in Northern Africa.
I noticed you mentioned The Pirate Bay as a global power the other day as well.
Well, Pirate Bay is interesting as an enclave of free information. And they kicked their game up with the recent release of their anonymizing service, effectively acting as an encrypted traffic node. As such, they certainly represent a challenge to traditional systems of control.
Let’s go back a moment. How exactly does forecasting work? What’s the process like?
To begin with, I’d like to just underline that forecasting and prediction are very different. As futurists, we’re not making predictions but, rather, making approximations based on existing trends. I like to think of it as collapsing probability space into the most likely futures.
So having said that, there are many forecasting methodologies but most of them begin with scanning. This is a process of tracking information flows to get signals around your domain. Signals are essentially any event within the domain that you’re researching. So you pay attention to as many data streams as possible to get a feel for the emerging trends, where the money is flowing, social politics, etc… And from this you can start to derive estimates of where things are heading.
Typically this activity is followed by many different methods of analysis. You might talk to experts in the field, you might use different types of axial analysis, eg ubiquitous vs. niche, social vs. individual. Then you consider how the trends you’re looking at would manifest through different aspects of the world. STEEP & DEGEST are common methodologies – these are just acronyms, eg STEEP: Social, technological, economic, environmental, political. Then typically we’ll all work together to share our forecasts and brainstorm around the core narratives. Now, again, forecasting is about exploring probability space and collapsing down what is possible into what is likely. So a Forecast may be “Climate change will impact water and food”. The scenarios for this forecast then look at different tracks. So a positive scenario would look at trends in technology for growing stronger food, recapturing water, and desalination, suggesting how we might overcome the problem with enough concerted effort. Conversely, a collapse scenario would consider the outcome of rapid and severe climate change, more fighting than cooperation, major migration, and the challenges of adaptation once mitigation is no longer possible. We might do 4 or 5 of these different scenarios to model different outcomes based on the prevailing trends.
In this manner, you provide both a narrative of what the future may hold, good & ill, as well as possible paths towards engineering the positive future and avoiding the negative.
So you spend your time reading as much news and analysis as you possibly can on carbon and emerging powers, interview experts, and so on – then work with a group to synthesize that data into forecasts?
Essentially. Though I will typically offer my own forecasts up front then work with the group to see what the most interesting narrative threads are and how they integrate with the overall theme. I take a lot of notes, draw a lot of diagrams, and try to compile what I think is the primary set of trends.
That’s part of the Technology Horizon’s arc which focuses more on, as you’d expect, technologies and how they may impact human systems in the near future. For me it was a great opportunity. I did my BA at UCSC in Neuroscience but hadn’t really done much with it since being in tech for so long. My focus in TH was on Neuroprogramming so it was a great chance to really dive back into that subject. It was also really valuable to have a focus. I’m a systems generalist by default so I tend to hop around a lot. But I really enjoy doing a deep dive in a a particular sector and TH gave me that opportunity. It was also my first pass at working with the IFTF methodologies so I really learned a lot about their process and how the teams work together.
What is the most promising neuroprogramming development you’ve encountered and what is the most frightening development? (I realize those could be the same thing…)
Hmm… I think brain machine interface and brain computer interface have tremendous growth ahead. When I started researching the topic I thought it would be pretty sci-fi but it’s actually moving very quickly and there is a ton of R&D happening. But in general, the trend towards integrating human physiology and machine capabilities is an extraordinary field of emerging possibilities, both scary and awesome.
Perhaps the most promising advances are in medicine. There’s a lot of progress in using implants, genetic engineering, and focused transcranial magnetism to help patients suffering depression, Parkinson’s, ALS, and Alzheimer’s, as well as some of the work being done inducing spiritual experiences, creativity, and focus. Similarly, the work integrating prosthetic devices is making tremendous strides, illustrated by the recent Nat Geo cover story on bionics. It won’t be long before prosthetic limbs and artificial sense organs are as good as the original, and often can be modified to have even more functionality. So there’s a lot of hope in patching people back together after trauma & injury. And there’s a really interesting future where these mods are more common and often tuned to enhanced performance.
As far as the most sinister development, that’s hard to say at this point. DARPA is up to their usual shenanigan’s funding a lot of work around creating more effective military patrol. I’m not convinced this is totally evil so much as the inevitable march of progress in a world where warfare is still commonplace. But they’re funding a lot of research to enable patrols to have integrated communication, identification, gesture controls, voice recognition, etc. A lot of this stuff isn’t strictly implant-based BCI but it represents this ongoing trend to integrate computation and digital comm closer & closer to the human in a highly natural & intuitive way. So if you’re a patrol leader you want your silent gestures to be “visible” through the meshnet when they’re not visible by line of sight. And you might want those gestures to kick off a set of executables that push formations out to all team members. Likewise, all members benefit from HUDAR showing targets, routes, wayfinding, etc. Evils aside, it’s interesting to see these developments in an environment that has tremendous selective pressures, eg a bullet to the head if your comm fails.
So again, maybe not exactly sinister but nevertheless very indicative of the way the tech is moving. Eventually this stuff will be civilian tech. There’s all sorts of paranoia that can be summoned up around some of these developments. Having wireless implants that let you interface with a connected computer invites also sorts of control fears, freaky hacking scenarios, and general privacy issues. It’s a rich collage that will likely play out to some degree in all these areas as we move forward.
So really: how far are we from psionic brain implants?
Ha! Psionic brain implants are a sort of sci-fi possibility when you follow this trend. At some point in the future there is a high likelihood that some members of the populace will have embedded wireless devices that will translate thought into action on a device, in the cloud, or even in another augmented head. Currently this is as simple as driving a cursor with your mind but it seems inevitable that this simple interface will include some form of back-channel chat and possibly additional sensory modalities like “seeing” video in your mind’s eye or hearing remote audio. The concept of having a full web-like interface behind your eyes is probably quite a ways off given the interface requirements for such fidelity, let alone the actual user experience of navigating the web with your mind.
What sort of skills and technologies do you think it’s most important for people today to learn to live in the future?
Accept that we live in a world of great change. You have to be agile and prepared to adapt. The fundamental global systems of civilization are shifting with the impact of instantaneous communication, globalization, and ubiquitous computing. Add to this the threats of climate change and a declining fossil fuel infrastructure and you have a tremendous amount of challenges ahead. I feel it’s critical to embrace the change and try to both anticipate and design the future. The future is not yet writ so you can always influence it, perhaps now more than ever.
Along these lines, I think it’s going to be more and more critical to build local and global networks of like-minds with the capacity to design, fabricate, manufacture, and evolve socioeconomic systems. I suspect that things will get more and more local as they get increasingly globalized. I personally feel the need to learn more CAD design so I can get in on local fab and desktop manufacturing.
I also think it’s important for people to find a balance between information value & overload. Scanning is critical but it has to be boiled down to a manageable scope in order to be actually useful. There’s a real challenge to avoid the paralysis of knowing too much.
Yeah, I deal with that every day. Some days I find I can’t blog anything because I’m too overwhelmed with material to blog.
Nature. Get outside, move around, always remember the body. Take some time to let it all sink in on a subconscious level. Then you can integrate.
One of your many interests is augmented reality, and you helped organize Augmented Reality Developers Camp [sic]. In the past few days I’ve linked to a couple articles on the “dark side of augmented reality” – things like using augmented reality to obscure unpleasant things from your vision, or using facial recognition software to pull up information from strangers you encounter on the streets. Is there a way that citizens of today who aren’t necessarily developers or technologists to get involved in how this technology that could effect all of us evolves?
Like all technologies, augmented reality is only as good or bad as the people who engineer it’s applications. To guide this, people can be more active in the emerging AR consortiums and communities. That’s basically what AR DevCamp is about: getting all the players together to coordinate and design with a lot of intention so that the future platform is open and interoperable. Blogging and speaking about these things is always helpful. Influence in the social web should not be under-rated. And interviewing the people who are designing the tools can offer you a chance to hold up a mirror to their perhaps unquestioned assumptions about how great and harmless AR will be.
Ultimately, the world is changing and AR will be a part of that. But like all tools, sociology, economics, and natural feedbacks will reinforce the stuff that works and weed out the stuff that fragments or puts us at risk.
Well, actually, that raises another question – could non-developers get anything out of AR DevCamp
Absolutely. Though I should say that since AR DevCamp is an open unconference each one will be different. I’m not a developer but I was keenly interested in the emerging technology, design considerations, possibilities for integrating social markups, strategies, trend analysis, etc… I found all of these things and more at our AR DevCamp. And anyone can go and propose a topic. Certainly ethical issues would be a great one and would be very well received, in my opinion.
Then why is “developer” in the title? That seems a little off-putting.
Not developer. Development. Dev is just an admittedly confusing shorthand.
My bad. But still, that implies, to me at least, that it’s an event for developers.
And that’s the general intent – to sort out the technical standardization. But again, it’s an open unconference so anything that gets proposed gets voted on as a possible topic. You’ll find that people don’t just want to talk about standards and core tech.
So maybe we’ve stumbled on to one strategy: let non-developers know they can go to AR DevCamp, and encourage other camps to change their name.
Absolutely. I encourage everyone with abiding interests or passions around AR to go to the DevCamps.
You’re also a spiritual person, and an creative person – do you ever find that your creative or spiritual side conflicts with your work as a researcher or analyst?
There’s definitely some time & schedule challenges between the creative work and research. Music production – my primary creative hobby – takes a lot of time. But for me, moving into research and forecasting is the necessary outcome both of my spiritual orientation to the world and my desire to move away from a strictly managerial/tech/engineering career.
Having said that, my general perspective of the world is changing as I start really digging into the more rational considerations of human affairs, eg energy, money, survival. It was easy to be idealistic when I was deep in the esoterica. Ultimately, the spiritual side gave me the strength to really look at the world in all it’s hideous glory. I think it’s that anchor that allows me to balance a fairly detached view of systems analysis with a deep abiding desire to see good and hope and truth prosper.
I’m also almost 39 so the dynamic of my perspectives is shifting with the attendant requirements and responsibilities that come with age. 🙂
You can’t just magic the world up into what you want. You can have to change yourself and align your will with actually producing the change you envision in the world.
What advice would you give to any would-be futurists/forecasters?
Learn about systems. You have to be able to look at all the different factors within the larger domain of research. This is, imo, one of the most fundamental and deep trends happening within the human operating system. Cradle-to-Cradle, Life Cycle Analysis, sustainably, global economics – all of these represent the need to think in terms of systems. You have to really think about all the factors, all the inputs & outputs of a given system but do so in a way the defends a manageable scope. That’s the real challenge of good research and forecasting: knowing where to set bounds on the domain so you don’t end up researching everything.
My suspicion is that forecasters will become more and more important as average business & policy folk simply won’t have the time to research the rapidly increasing amount of info available, let alone commit time to factoring out plausible futures. So it’s up to those who have a general systems orientation towards the world, people who understand holism and non-linearity and have a real passion about pattern recognition, to make sense of the world as we pass through this great transition. Forecasting and futurists should find kinship with the best science fiction writers and understand that both are really dealing with the creation of compelling narratives and that these narratives are templates for change. In this respect, futurists should be empowered with the notion that they are really helping to design the future.
*The messages, which span 13 years, show a few scientists in a bad light, being rude or dismissive. An investigation is underway, but there’s still plenty of evidence that the earth is getting warmer and that humans are largely responsible.
*Some critics say the e-mails negate the conclusions of a 2007 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but the IPCC report relied on data from a large number of sources, of which CRU was only one.
*E-mails being cited as “smoking guns” have been misrepresented. For instance, one e-mail that refers to “hiding the decline” isn’t talking about a decline in actual temperatures as measured at weather stations. These have continued to rise, and 2009 may turn out to be the fifth warmest year ever recorded. The “decline” actually refers to a problem with recent data from tree rings.