A Preview of the Near Future

Imagine this scenario. The megadrought that has gripped the southwestern part of the United States is now in its 15th year. Relentless global warming and a major climate change – what the climatologists call a “regime shift” – has guaranteed that there will be no reprieve in the foreseeable future. This drought could last for 50 or 100 years, or more.  It has happened before. 

Six western states, including California, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, and parts of Texas, along with a large swath of northern Mexico, have been devastated by the drought. Vital rivers, especially the Colorado, the Sacramento, and the San Joaquin, have all but dried up, and many of the underground aquifers in the region have been severely depleted.  A crash effort to build water desalination plants along the coastlines of California and the Gulf of Mexico will take many years to complete.  Most of the 5,300 dams that once provided water and hydroelectric power for the region have also gone dormant.  Conversion to solar and wind power is an option only for those who can afford to pay for it themselves.  Governments everywhere are strapped for money.

Without water, electric power, or employment, entire cities in the region – from Phoenix to Las Vegas, El Paso, and the Los Angeles basin – have become near-ghost towns, while many other cities are on life-support.  Raging wildfires have destroyed many of the region’s forests.  California’s huge economy (once the sixth largest in the world) has also been decimated, and almost half the total regional population, about 25 million people, have been forced to evacuate.  The adjacent states and western Canada have been flooded with climate refugees.  Massive refugee camps, with tens of thousands of RVs, campers, trucks, tents, and people living in their cars have been set up by FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), with added support from the World Food Programme and a broad array of private agencies.  But with similar climate shifts occurring in several other parts of the world, from India to China, Russia, and North Africa, the relief agencies are all overwhelmed and running out of money.  Severe shortages of food, water, sanitation, health care and other resources inside the refugee camps have resulted in widespread hunger, degenerating health, disease epidemics, frequent murders and suicides, rampant drugs, and a general loss of hope.

Meanwhile, global food prices have more than quintupled, especially for vital grains and legumes but also for meat, seafood, and vegetables of all kinds.  Before the drought, California alone was producing about one-quarter of all the vegetables grown in the United States, as well as many fruits, grains, and livestock.  With the war in Ukraine and simultaneous droughts occurring in several countries, food shortages have become a global crisis.   As a result, world poverty, which was hovering at about 20-30% of the world population back in 2015 (World Bank, 2022), has risen to nearly 50%.  More than 100 million children go to sleep hungry each night.  A loaf of bread, when you can find it (and can afford it), might cost $25.  A gallon of bottled water could cost even more. 

The drought has also dealt a severe blow to the global economic system.  The long predicted “ultimate recession” has set in, and the downward slide has now surpassed the Great Depression in the 1930s.  Before the drought, automation, robots, remote work, and self-driving cars and trucks had already taken a toll on employment.  Now joblessness in the industrialized countries has climbed through 35%.  Indeed, the fundamental drivers of the entire capitalist system – innovation, expanding markets and trade, increasing sales, rising revenues, and growing wealth – have all collapsed, along with stock portfolios, real estate values, and personal savings.  Mortgage defaults have skyrocketed, and many banks have failed.  A deep and debilitating poverty has set in.  Several countries have already defaulted on their national debts.

Civil society has also degenerated in the places that have been hardest hit.  A particular flash point is the steady stream of water trucks and food trucks that are coming into the affected southwestern states in armed convoys to serve affluent families, businesses, and government officials.  Many of the wealthy residents have simply moved out of the region, along with numerous business firms.  The high-tech companies in Silicon Valley, for instance, have mostly relocated to Detroit and the Great Lakes region.  Schools, colleges, libraries, professional sports, and many other institutions in the region are on lock-down or have been closed.  Disneyland is history, a deserted, rusting relic.  Food riots and other forms of mass protests have long since given way to anarchic vandalism and violence, organized assaults by armed militia gangs, along with ruthless police-state repression, ever-expanding concentration camps, and a kind of every-man-for-himself social philosophy.

Similar climate-driven convulsions have been occurring in other countries as well.  China, for instance, has responded to desertification in the north and a series of floods along its two vital rivers and agricultural heartland with a wholesale military occupation of East Africa, greatly increasing the vast farming enclaves it already owned there.  The daily parade of container ships with grains and vegetables destined to feed China’s huge population (and its livestock) are being guarded from pirates by an ascendant Chinese navy.  Meanwhile Russia, suffering a prolonged drought in its prime agricultural provinces, has overrun and all-but enslaved the Ukraine, Eastern Europe and the Baltic countries.  A weakened, impoverished America, with a huge budget deficit, trillions of dollars of indebtedness toward an emboldened China, and intimidated by Russia’s formidable nuclear arsenal, has not resisted these moves. 

Now things are about to get even worse.   A new dark age has begun, and hundreds of millions will die, along with the rule of law and all the trappings of civilization.  The global life-support system that sustains us all is breaking down.  Charles Darwin (1968/1859) characterized it as “the struggle for existence” – the survival of the fittest.  Evolutionary biologists refer to it as an “extinction event.”

 This dark future scenario is, of course, only a projection, but the odds are that something along these lines (or even worse) will happen sooner, rather than later, if we remain on our present course as a divided and deeply competitive world of individual countries that are focused on their own narrow self-interests.   The recent surge in polarizing nationalism and the rising tide of conflicts between various countries is an ominous development.  The prolonged, destructive war in the Ukraine is especially disturbing.

 Despite recent efforts to mobilize global action, such as the recent U.N. biodiversity conference in Canada (COP15) and the COP27 climate conference in Egypt (where various voluntary commitments were made), our global civilization has failed, on the whole, to respond effectively to our ever-growing survival crisis.   We are all participants in an emerging global “superorganism” that is dependent on close cooperation.   This has long been the key to our spectacular evolutionary success as a species.  However, our ultimate fate is now in serious jeopardy.  A hangman’s noose is tightening around the collective neck of the human species.  It’s a doomsday rope with several deadly strands.

One of these strands, quite obviously, is global warming and accelerating climate change.  Climate warming is already causing lethal mischief to the environment and to our species in various ways.   Droughts, floods, tsunamis, and hurricanes, for instance, are age-old threats, but they have become bigger and more frequent.  Killer heat waves are having a devastating effect on our food production and rampant wildfires are consuming our vital forests.  A report from a United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warned that we have less than a decade to make drastic reductions in our greenhouse gas emissions, and the response to date has been nothing short of alarming (see Flavelle, 2019; Lu & Flavelle, 2019). An updated IPCC report, issued in 2023, warns that the world will most likely miss the critical climate-warming target of limiting the increase to less than 1.50 Celsius (2.70 Fahrenheit) within this decade. A failure to do so will have catastrophic consequences, the report concludes. 

Another major threat is a global food system that is already seriously eroding – with declining topsoil, severely depleted irrigation water supplies, and shrinking fisheries, among other things.  Even now, perhaps 30% of the world’s population are not properly fed (United Nations, F.A.O., 2021). (The estimates range up to as many as 1 billion people.) This too is going to get much worse, along with growing shortages of fresh water and an increasing potential for water wars between neighboring countries.  Our global fresh-water challenges are detailed in another recent U.N. report (United Nations, 2022)

A third major threat is our relentlessly increasing global population, now at 8 billion people and projected to grow to an estimated 11 billion by 2100, an increase of 38%.  If unchecked, this trend is destined to become a self-inflicted Malthusian disaster.  It was the Reverend Thomas Malthus (2008/1798) who first predicted the dire consequences of unrestrained population growth: “Hunger and poverty, vice and crime, pestilence and famine, revolution and war.” 

And this says nothing about rising sea levels, where the worst-case scenarios predict that many of world’s major cities may be under water – or become sea-walled fortresses – well before the end of this century.  Many of them like Venice in 2019 – are already having serious flooding problems (Goodell, 2018).

Then there is our capitalist economic system, with ever-increasing extremes of concentrated wealth at the very top and widespread poverty among the rest of the population.   With some notable exceptions (as we shall see), the world’s economies are falling short, or even failing, in their primary obligation to provide for the basic needs of their citizens.   Add to this the current gridlock of governmental dysfunction, endemic corruption, failed states, self-serving authoritarian leaders, renewed big power rivalries, and, not least, a polarized and increasingly angry global population that is awash in destructive weapons.  And this is only the short list.  The liberal, democratic world order that was created after World War Two seems to be unraveling, and the threat of virulent nationalism and lethal global conflict seems to be growing. (See Corning, Synergistic Selection: How Cooperation Has Shaped Evolution and the Rise of Humankind, 2018; also, Chayes, 2015).   

The image of a rope with many strands happens to be a classic example of synergy – a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.  It was first used by Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament.  However, our metaphorical twenty-first century rope is a horrendous example of negative synergy, a darkly menacing nexus that is much worse than any of its parts.  Call it Malthus on steroids. 

We still have a chance to make a bold positive choice going forward.  But we must seize the opportunity that still exists to create a sustainable global society based on cooperation and mutually beneficial interdependence – a global superorganism.  Positive synergy is the key, for it has always been the driver of our evolution as a species.  But this in turn will require the replacement of an individualistic, competitive (nationalistic) social ethic with new social and political values – and a sublimation of our global economic system to the ancient principle of the “common good.”  In other words, we must reverse the ominous current trend toward increased division and conflict in world politics and economics.

We now know that the rise of complex living organisms over the past 3.9 billion years has been driven by cooperation and synergies – not zero-sum competition.  (See especially Corning, 2018). From the very origins of life to the emergence of socially organized species such as honeybees, meerkats, mole rats, leaf-cutter ants, and (of course) humankind, close cooperation, innovation, and synergies of various kinds – mutual benefits that are not otherwise attainable – have played a key role.  I call it “nature’s magic” (see Corning, 1983, 2003, 2005; Hölldobler & Wilson, 2009; Wilson & Sober, 1989).

In humankind, our immensely complex division of labor or what should properly be called a “combination of labor” – has exerted a powerful influence in determining our extraordinary success as a species.  Because an organized society is much like a living organism, with many specialized parts that depend on each other and on the success of the “whole” – an analogy that goes back to the ancient Greek philosopher Plato in his classic study, the Republic (1946/380 B.C.) – modern-day biologists commonly use the term “superorganism” to characterize this special kind of organized social interdependence (Hölldobler & Wilson, 2009).  Now we must take this cooperative strategy to the next level and create a sustainable global superorganism – or else.  We must think outside the box because the future lies outside the box.

In this Element I will briefly review the growing evidence for our impending life-and-death crisis as a species.  To repeat, there is much more involved than global warming, although climate change is our single greatest threat.  I will draw attention to the tightening hangman’s noose (as many others have done in recent years) in the belief that the fate of our species is truly at stake.  We face a collective choice like none other in our long, multi-million-year history (and pre-history) as a ground-dwelling bipedal ape.  Will we act for the common good as a species or will we descend into a “war of each against all” (or each nation against all) as the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (2010/1651) famously warned us long ago?  Will the future be about serving the needs of all of “us” collectively, or will it be about a mutually destructive clash between “us” and “them”? This is our fundamental choice. (See my book, Synergistic Selection: How Cooperation Has Shaped Evolution and the Rise of Humankind 2018. Also see Bremmer, 2018).

Perverse as it may seem, the greatest threat we may face is each other -- and a regression into tribalism and violent conflict.   Indeed, collective violence has been one of the major themes in human history, going as far back in time as the evidence will allow us to go (Corning, 2018).  It has long been a part of our problem-solving “toolkit” as a species.  We now face the very real prospect of an era of global violence and “climate wars.” Or worse. Perhaps most ominous is the rise of authoritarianism and especially the growing signs of conflict between the democratic West and authoritarian regimes (most notably China and Russia), which could override our shared interests. (See especially Applebaum, 2020.)

Equally important, the challenges we face going forward will very often transcend national borders – from mega-droughts to lethal disease epidemics and the hordes of climate refugees.  One estimate, from the World Bank (Blog, 2022) predicts it could be 216 million. Another estimate, from the U.N Secretary General Antonio Guterres (2023, puts the eventual refugee total from low-lying coastal areas at close to 900 milliion. Even more disturbing is an environmental model developed by a global team of researchers (Science, 2019), which projects that, within the next 30 years, the number of people without sufficient food and water could number in the billions.  These unprecedented life-and-death challenges will overwhelm the ability of most countries to deal with them unaided.  They will pose unimaginable humanitarian, security, and military threats.

We have two paths available to us going forward.  We must either create a more effective global superorganism (with collective governance) or else our species will very likely be convulsed by mass starvation, waves of desperate migrants, lethal social conflict, and perhaps even devolve and go all but extinct.  There is no stand-pat, status quo option, I will argue. 

We will also explore here some of the potential consequences of these alternatives – for ourselves, for our children, and for our species.  As I will propose, only an organized process of major social, economic, and political change on a global scale offers us genuine reason for long-term hope.  It would be transformative for our species, and it would be unprecedented in the history of life on Earth.  Our species is already unique in many ways, but now we need to take the next step.   I believe this option is like a powerful magnetic field that will draw us in if we can find our compasses and get them properly aligned.  That is the goal of this book.  I will outline a master plan and roadmap for a new, more legitimate and sustainable economic and political world order – a global social contract and a global superorganism.

Walter Lippmann, one of the great political commentators of the twentieth century, warned us about our overarching governance problem in a 1969 interview shortly before he died (Brandon, 1969).  His words, more than ever, ring true.

This is not the first time that human affairs have been chaotic and seemed ungovernable.  But never before, I think, have the stakes been so high…What is really pressing upon us is that the need to be governed…threatens to exceed man’s capacity to govern…The supreme question before mankind – to which I shall not live to know the answer – is how men will be able to make themselves willing and able to save themselves.”

A half century later, we still do not know the answer to Lippmann’s “supreme question.”  However, I believe we do have a path forward.  It leads to a new social contract and an effective global superorganism that can act on behalf of the public trust.   Now we must find the collective will to choose this path, because the  future is already underway.


Coming Soon! Chapter Two: "The Future is Not What It Used To Be."

To purchase Superorganism in its entirety, go to Cambridge University Press or Amazon


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.  


Comments Join The Discussion