The Future is Not What It Used to Be

Astronomers and astrophysicists use the term “singularity” to describe a unique celestial event, like the “Big Bang” or a black hole (though we now know that black holes are quite common).  These days the term singularity is also being used to characterize the potential consequences of artificial intelligence and robotics.  The claim is that transformative economic and social changes might result from adopting these leading-edge technologies.  One expert estimate puts the ultimate number of job losses at 400-800 million (McKinsey Global Institute, 2017). Other estimates go even higher.  

I’m hardly alone in believing that we are in fact facing another, much greater singularity, one that will swamp the futuristic visions of the technophiles.  It may even be life-threatening for our entire species.  Our planet could literally become uninhabitable for humans.  

Over the past 12,000 years, during what geologists call the Holocene Epoch, the global climate has been unusually stable and benign, despite the many local weather traumas at various times – droughts, floods, deep-freezes, etc.  This magic window of relative climate stability is referred to as an “interglacial.”  Before the Holocene interglacial, our evolving ancestors had to cope with a climate and environment that was wildly variable.  The evidence shows that there have been some 27 ice ages over the past 3.5 million years alone, and that many of these climate shifts involved rapid, drastic changes in landforms and local environments across the world.  For instance, during the ice age that began about 33,000 years ago and peaked about 13,000 years later, sea levels declined more than 400 feet from their present levels as a mile-high mountain of ice became trapped in the northern glaciers.  Then the process went into reverse (see Corning, Synergistic Selection: How Cooperation Has Shaped Evolution and the Rise of Humankind, 2018; also, Cochran & Harpending, 2009). 

Our remote ancestors were able to cope with these radical changes because their groups were small; they were highly mobile and adaptable; they were opportunistic hunter-gatherer bands that relied on native plant foods and the huge herds of migrating meat-on-the-hoof (as well as plentiful sources of seafood); and they could pick up and move on if the local environment turned hostile.  There was ample room to adapt, and even to expand their numbers over time.  

It’s not coincidental that the rise of agriculture and complex urban societies, along with the explosive growth of the human population from perhaps a few million to almost 8 billion today and still increasing, coincided with the Holocene interglacial.   Our modern agricultural and animal husbandry systems absolutely depend on a stable, moderate environment with fertile topsoil and lots of fresh water.  And so do we. 

Now the human species is crowded into every inhabitable niche.  We are all tied to strictly bounded (though often contested) territories and to fixed food production systems.  We can no longer simply move on without becoming refugees or making war on our neighbors, much less find unexploited new sources of food and water.  We cannot turn back.  However, our resource base as a species, and our ability to provide the wherewithal for meeting our basic survival needs, has become seriously over-stretched and unstable.  There are many alarming signs of severe stress in our natural environment.  The ecologists refer to it as an “overshoot.”  One study concluded that our “ecological overshoot” (across more than 140 countries) has exceeded sustainable yields by more than 50%, overall, and is getting worse (Fanning et al., 2021).  We confront a convergence of self-made crises.  Call it a “perfect storm,” a “tipping point,” a “punctuated equilibrium,” an “inflection point,” or, more precisely, a potential catastrophe.  

We are losing control and are faced with a collective choice that will have long-term evolutionary consequences.  If we do not make a concerted, global, and (most important) cooperative change in our basic survival strategy as a species, we will almost certainly unleash unimaginable destructive forces.  The wry and perceptive observation that “the future is not what it used to be,” which dates back to the late 1930s in the shadow of World War Two, has now become an even darker and more ominous warning.    

The naysayers, deniers, and belittlers of this unabashedly alarmist scenario have been plentiful.   Optimists like Steven Pinker (2018), in his best-selling book, point to how much better off so many of us are than we were even 100 years ago.  He sees a bright future ahead.  And Yuval Noah Harari (2017), in his popular book Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, assures us that we have managed to “rein in” the Malthusian scourges of famines, plagues, and wars.  They are now “manageable challenges,” he blithely says. 

For these and other techno-futurists, progress is still an article of faith.  They scoff at what they see as defeatist views.  They point to the myriad of ways in which we are already responding to our challenges, from the 2015 Paris Climate Accord and the various follow-up meetings (like COP 15 and COP27 in 2022) to the rapidly growing percentage of renewable solar and wind power world-wide and the emerging market for electric cars and trucks.  Many others are trying to consume less and recycle more. Or plant more trees. But this is much too little, and it could very soon be too late. Consider just some of the deeply disturbing indicators:

The consequences of global warming:  CO2 levels in the atmosphere have now crossed 415 parts per million, more than double the levels measured in the 19th century and getting close to the limit of 450 parts per million set by climate scientists in 2015 as an absolute ceiling to prevent a calamity.  Seventeen of the past eighteen years have been the hottest on record, 2 degrees Fahrenheit higher on average than at the start of the nineteenth century.  If this trend continues, there will be major long-term climate shifts.   

The disappearance of mountain glaciers and winter snow-packs, a process already well underway, will drastically reduce vital river water runoff and with it the water resources that two-thirds of the human species depends on for survival.  Especially alarming is the loss of glaciers in the Himalayas and Tibet, which feed many of Asia’s major rivers.  

Heat waves will also decimate livestock and our fragile vegetable and grain crops.  For instance, the months-long heat wave in western Russia in 2010 destroyed 40% of that country’s grain crops and led to a temporary tripling of world grain prices.  Several European countries also suffered serious crop losses during the prolonged summer heat wave/drought in 2018.  This was also the year when Cape Town, South Africa nearly ran out of fresh water.  (See also Pierre-Louis, 2018.)

And that’s not all.  Our complex agricultural systems are also very vulnerable, with many moving parts.  One study by a team of researchers in 2017 found that for every degree Celsius above the nominal average growing temperature there would be a decline in the yields of wheat (6%), rice (3.2%), corn (7.2%) and soybeans (3.1%) (Chuang, & Bing, 2017). Another study, in India, found that a two-degree Celsius increase reduced wheat yields in different locations by 37-58% (Brown, 2009; Guram, 2022).  Especially troubling is the recent discovery that increasing atmospheric CO2 levels are reducing the nutritional value of rice, the main staple food for 2 billion people.  More frequent and destructive droughts, storms, heat waves, and wildfires – a trend already well advanced – will also disrupt food production in many ways and cause many trillions of dollars in damage over time. Ocean warming and acidification (not to mention the effects of pollution) will severely harm an ocean food chain that is already under severe stress; it could threaten close to 20% of the food supply for humankind.  (Recent data suggests that the oceans are warming 40% faster than in the 1980s.)  Most of the world’s fisheries have already maxed out and some are in steep decline. 

In sum, global warming is a major threat to our food production systems, and to the survival of our species.   A prediction by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2014 of a 2-6% decline in global crop yields every decade going forward seems now to be too conservative.  If the trend continues, it could very soon cause chaos in the world food economy, and in our politics.  

Of course, extreme heat can also kill people.  A recent World Bank report concluded that some 800 million people in South Asia, especially in the large cities, are dangerously at risk from summer heat waves.  If we continue on the same path in terms of global warming, the world will be 5-10 degrees Fahrenheit hotter on average by 2100 and the Arctic by an alarming 15 degrees.  There will soon be many tens of millions of desperate climate refugees. (See also Markham, 2018.)  

Shrinking freshwater resources:  Some 70% of our freshwater usage is for irrigating crops and another 10% is for domestic purposes, but we are running a serious global deficit in the rate of water consumption.  Most disturbing is the rapid draw-down of underground aquifers around the world.  Some of them can be recharged over time, but many others cannot.  According to a recent study (Dalin, et al., 2017), at least 15 major countries with half the world’s population – including the U.S., China, India, Pakistan, Iran, Mexico and several Middle Eastern countries – are running large water deficits.  Their water tables are rapidly declining.  

Another recent NASA study, using satellite data, indicated that 21 of the world’s 37 largest aquifers are seriously depleted (Science News, 2017).  For instance, the huge Ogallala aquifer that spans portions of eight states in the American southwest and provides irrigation water for some 27% of U.S farm products, is expected to be depleted within 50 years (Leahy, 2019; Griggs, et al., 2022).  Even more alarming is a new government report in India, which concluded that some 600 million of its people even now face extreme water scarcity, and that 200,000 people a year are dying from unsafe or insufficient water (Abi-Habib, & Kumar, 2018).

By 2030, the report warned, that country’s total demand could be twice the available supply. Many of the world’s vital rivers – the Yellow, Nile, Indus, Colorado, Tigris, Euphrates, Mekong, and Jordan, among others – are also depleted and the level of grain production along their fertile river deltas has been reduced.  

China, India, Egypt, Iran, Mexico and other countries that were once self-sufficient in grains are now large-scale importers.  Likewise, many of the world’s fresh-water lakes have been heavily overused and some have dried up completely – from Lake Chad in Africa to Owens Lake in California.  China, an extreme example, has lost more than half of its 4,000 lakes.  The continued overuse and draw-down (and pollution) of vital fresh-water resources in various countries guarantees a future of severe food and water shortages – and increased political conflict.  Among the powder kegs for future water wars are the major rivers that span national boundaries.

Topsoil depletion:  A 2022 U.N. report estimated that fully 90%, of the Earth’s topsoil is likely to be at risk by 2050 (United Nations, F.A.O., 2022).  There are many causes – deforestation, soil erosion, dust storms, salt build up in irrigated soils, overuse of agricultural pesticides and other chemicals, droughts, the over grazing of grasslands, and the conversion of farmland to housing and commercial uses. (Once upon a time, Silicon Valley was a picturesque region of farms and orchards and was known locally as “The Valley of the Heart’s Delight.”  Alas, that world is long gone.)  Even in areas where the topsoil is not severely depleted, the productivity of the soil is being undermined in many cases by modern agricultural practices that destroy the vital organisms in the soil – symbiotic bacteria, mycorrhizal fungi, and the all-important beneficial earth worms.  As President Franklin Roosevelt put it in a 1937 speech, “A nation that destroys its soils destroys itself.”

Rising sea levels:  The combination of ocean warming and melting ice caps, resulting in an (accelerating) eight-inch sea level rise over the past century, is already causing major problems. In the U.S., for example, Miami, Charleston, and Norfolk are already having to cope with significant flooding during “king tides.”  Higher sea levels have also exacerbated storm surges in some of the recent hurricanes, from Katrina to Sandy. New data indicate that the Antarctic ice sheet is now melting six times faster than in the 1980s, while the Greenland ice sheet may be close to a “tipping point” for a catastrophic decline (Boers & Rypdal, 2021). 

If this trend should continue, an 8-foot sea-level rise is the low estimate.  Longer term, the projections for sea level rise go as high as 23 feet. And this is not even the worst case. In the remote past, when there were no polar ice caps and all the Earth was tropical, sea levels were 80 feet higher. Two-thirds of the world’s cities and close to half of the global population are only a few feet above existing sea levels. We will have three choices going forward: suffer the consequences, mitigate the problem with sea walls and other retaining technologies, or else evacuate. Longer term, only the latter option will remain (evacuation), and the economic, social, and political impacts will be convulsive, even catastrophic. (See Mooney, 2019.)

“The Population Bomb”:  Biologist Paul Ehrlich (1968) was much praised but later much criticized for his best-selling (now legendary) book carrying this famous title. He concluded: “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death, despite any crash programs embarked upon now.”  In retrospect, Ehrlich was only a bit off in his timing. He couldn’t anticipate the temporary gains achieved by the so-called “Green Revolution.”  The battle to feed humanity continues, but we are still losing the war. As the global population continues to grow – with perhaps 2 to 3 billion more mouths to feed by 2050 – our capacity to meet the increase in demand is foundering. 

A recent U.N. study estimated that, in order to provide adequate nutrition for the world’s projected population in 2050, including the estimated 800 million to 1 billion who are currently undernourished or malnourished, a 56% increase in food production will be necessary (World Resources Institute, 2019). Despite the recent surge in agricultural innovation and entrepreneurial ventures, this probably won’t happen. What will happen instead is what Malthus (and Ehrlich) predicted (see also Ehrlich & Ehrlich, 2012; Ehrlich & Harte, 2015). 

The economic inequality “bomb”:  This is also a major threat to our future as a species. Although there is an issue of fairness and social justice involved, what threatens us most is the economic consequences of poverty for the great mass of “have-nots.”  The concentration of income and wealth among the top 10% globally (much of it in the top 1%) means that many of the estimated 15 to 30% of us who are living in poverty (depending on which measuring rod is used) do not have the “discretionary income” or the savings needed to cope with the coming scarcities and inevitable sharp increases in the cost of food, water, energy, housing and other necessities. It is the poor, predominately, who will be caught in the Malthusian trap. (A 2017 survey found that fewer than half of Americans have even $1,000 saved up for emergencies and 32% have nothing at all [Bankrate, Annual Emergency Savings Report, January 25, 2002]).

Economic inflation is how the middle class becomes poor, and how the poor starve to death. And history shows that the victims are unlikely to go quietly into this oblivion. (More on this in Section Three.)

“Us” versus “them” and the tribalism trap:  Human psychology and our deep history as a species poses another serious obstacle to dealing with our global survival challenge and creates a huge threat to our collective future.  Both ancient wisdom and modern science (not to mention the historical record and the news media) confirm that humankind has a built-in behavioral predisposition for forming close-knit cooperative groups while, at the same time, reacting with suspicion and hostility to strangers, outsiders, and members of other groups, especially when threatened. Our species evolved over several million years in small, interdependent hunter-gatherer bands that had to compete (for the most part) against other bands, as well as other species.  Sometimes our remote ancestors cooperated with their neighbors and developed trading relationships, but more often they were lethal adversaries. “Warfare” between hominin groups was common, and this heritage has shaped our social psychology. We are at once capable of sacrificing our lives for members of our own group while slaughtering our “enemies” without remorse. The technical terms for this bipolar behavior pattern are “ethnocentrism” and “xenophobia.”  It’s often referred to, in both the scientific and popular literature, as “we vs. they,” or “us vs. them.”  (Some of the underlying neurobiology and biochemistry is also now well understood.) 

We can see this polarizing dynamic at work in such intractable social problems as racism, religious discrimination, conflicts between economic groups, partisan politics, the recent alarming surge of nationalism, and, of course, in organized revolutions and warfare. It’s also a ubiquitous part of our daily lives; every social group and organization has its “insiders” and “outsiders.”  Most important, the “we vs. they” syndrome undergirds the division of our species into some 195 independent countries that generally act in their own self-interest and frequently compete with other countries – or even make war on them.  

At the end of the Cold War in the 1980s, it was hoped that a cooperative community of democratic nations might emerge from the ongoing process of economic and social globalization during the twentieth century. However, the recent resurgence of nationalist rivalries and harsh authoritarianism – not to mention civil wars in various countries and the war in the Ukraine – has dashed this dream. The proliferation of nuclear and biological weapons, plus international terrorism and cyberwarfare, makes the threat of a global conflagration very real. (I will also have more to say about this later on.) (See also Bremmer, 2018; Haberman, 2018.)

The future is not what it used to be!  Indeed, economic collapse, rising political violence, and a problematic future for our species are very real possibilities, as many others have recently warned. Some have even given up hope. We are living in a uniquely dangerous time for the human species, and almost everyone is vulnerable in different ways.  We are all susceptible to the devastating impact of climate change, from the grass huts of Pacific islanders to the “low bank” waterfront homes of wealthy Americans. Extreme weather events, it seems, can strike anywhere, anytime – as we have recently seen. And these traumatic events are becoming more violent, prolonged, and life-threatening. National borders no longer provide the security they once did in this new age of economic interdependence, international terrorism, cyberwarfare, wholesale migrations, lethal pandemics, and doomsday weapons that can be hurled over thousands of miles (a crucially important point).

The global food system is also increasingly interdependent, which means we are all affected by a disruption in food production in other countries.  A decline in crop yields in, say China, may require everyone in the developed countries to pay much higher prices for their food.  In addition to the menace of major droughts (the recent drought in India affected an estimated 320 million of its people), many countries have seen a trend in recent years toward declining crop yields, for a variety of reasons, even as the population has continued to increase.  For instance, the ambitious wheat production program that Saudi Arabia initiated in the 1970s, based on tapping a large underground aquifer, increased yields by some 3 million tons annually but then had to be drastically scaled back and terminated as the aquifer was depleted.   

Other countries, such as Egypt and China, suffered reduced crop yields when they dammed major rivers and diverted some of the water from agriculture to other purposes.  Fresh water pollution and contamination is also a major threat. The shortages caused by the war in Ukraine is just another example.

When economies are growing, social cooperation (and social harmony) depend on providing everyone with a fair share of the expanding economic pie. Unfortunately, this has not been happening in America and some other capitalist countries in recent decades, and it has led to an increase in internal social conflict.  This is bad enough, but when the pie is shrinking, there is always a fateful choice to be made – who wins and who loses?  Will the scarcities be rationed and shared for the “common good” (or, better said, the common bad), or will the self-interests of the rich and powerful – and the most powerful nations – ultimately prevail?  This, in a nutshell, is the defining choice that we now face as individuals, as nations, and as a global society.  

It has been said that we are living in an “end-time.”  It’s a theme with many variations. First there was “The End of History”  political scientist Francis Fukuyama’s (1992) optimistic prediction in the 1990s that the end of the Cold War would dissolve the ideological conflicts between nations and bring about a universal democratic, liberal world political order. This vision certainly didn’t end well.  Then there was economist Jeffrey Sachs’ (2006) hopeful recipe in his important book in which he envisioned The End of Poverty.  This idea is not doing so well either.

After the 2008-2009 financial meltdown and the Great Recession, we had a glut of books predicting the end of economic growth and the end of capitalism, coupled with various dark economic forecasts and scenarios (see for example Streeck, 2016, Stiglitz, 2019).  For the past decade, it seems that capitalism has been thriving once again, along with nearly full employment in some countries – at least until the pandemic struck in 2020, followed by the war in Ukraine and China’s increasing military threats.    

Our environmental crisis has become the latest “end-time” theme, but this one is very different.  It is undergirded by a massive, multidisciplinary research enterprise and a mountain of evidence that goes back more than 50 years. I taught courses on the subject at Stanford University in the 1970s and 1980s.  Many scientists have devoted their lives to it, and there are literally thousands of books and tens of thousands of scientific articles devoted to the problem.   There have also been numerous political initiatives over the years that were thwarted by organized and well-financed opposition, as chronicled in depth by the journalist Nathaniel Rich in his 2019 book, Losing Earth

As the human future becomes ever more precarious and the potential consequences seem ever more catastrophic, the end-time warnings have become more apocalyptic and shrill, ranging from climate scientist James Hansen’s authoritative Storms of My Grandchildren (2009), to Peter Frase’s Four Futures (2016), (including one scenario that foresees genocidal wars by the rich against the poor), John Michael Greer’s Dark Age America (2016), David Fleming’s Surviving the Future (2016)Jeff Nesbit’s This is the Way the World Ends (2018), David Wallace-Wells’ The Uninhabitable Earth (2019), and Bill McKibbon’s Falter (2019).  Even the leading environmentalist and climate-change expert, Lester Brown, has become alarmed.  In his 2011 book, World on the Edge: How to Prevent Environmental and Economic Collapse, Brown concludes: “Environmentally, the world is in overshoot mode…the environmental decline that will lead to economic decline and social collapse is well underway.” 

It’s very late, but it is not yet too late for a “Plan B” (to borrow a term from Lester Brown’s climate change recipe (see Brown, 2009, 2011).  We still have an opportunity to make a positive collective choice.  In fact, we cannot avoid making a choice, even if we should choose not to choose and instead bury our collective heads in the quicksand.  Call it denial, rejection, distraction, indifference, delusion, or perhaps even cynical self-interest.  No one can predict exactly how the future will play out, but the danger is very real.   And if we fail to make a positive collective choice, we will surrender our ability to exert control over the future and the destructive forces that will inevitably be unleashed.  Unless we have a clear strategy and a set of guiding values, our responses are likely to be reactive, ad hoc, partisan, controversial, and almost certainly too little, too late.  

In the simplest terms, we have two basic options going forward, each with far-reaching consequences, and neither one comes with a money-back guarantee.  One option could be called the “common good” strategy.  It would involve a collective commitment to work together and share the responsibility for making the necessary changes, along with a global effort to guarantee the basic needs of everyone in return for appropriate reciprocities.  I call it the Fair Society model (Corning, 2011a).  A fair society must be the ethical foundation for a sustainable global superorganism.  I believe it is our only hope for long-term global stability.  (I will have much more to say about this below.)

The other option could be called the “survival of the fittest” strategy.  It would preserve the existing global structure of wealth and power, and our (largely) unimpeded capitalist market system, along with the existing system of independent, often conflicting nation states. To repeat, this option is oriented to the survival of the richest, and most powerful – and the biggest and most powerful nations.  Of course, this is the path we are already following, and it is a path that could lead us into a veritable snake-pit of violent conflict.  So, if we should choose not to choose, this is what we are likely to get. 

Many of the “have-mores” (to borrow a line from a former American president) are likely to prefer this option.  That is probably a classic understatement.  But if they (and we) deliberately choose to stay on the current path, all of us should consider the likely consequences, especially the unintended and uncontrollable consequences.  We should at least make an informed collective decision.  This is what I will consider in more detail in the next section. 


Stay tuned for the next installment in October 2023Chapter 3. The Lessons of History: Past, Present, and Future 



Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


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The Lessons of History: Past, Present, and Future

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