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The Future of the World: Positive or Negative?

Motivations and Approach

Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed discusses past societies that have either collapsed due to environmental destruction or survived by understanding and addressing their problems. The author remains positive that, despite many disturbing negative observations, we can live sustainably.

I would like to respond with my personal opinions on some factors that I think are particularly important and revealing. Time does not permit me to provide a comprehensive, academic, carefully researched and edited book, so my many assertions are left as an exercise to the reader to consider and prove or disprove. Hopefully this will stimulate some thought and discussion, though unfortunately this site does not have the commenting features of a blog.

Although all people, optimists and pessimists alike, tend to project their feelings about their life onto how they think about the future of the world, we should strive to use reason and evidence. If we can determine what factors really matter to us and how we interact with the world, we can have a greater influence on what happens to the world in the long term.

Scientific and Technological

Positive

  • The last two centuries have brought tremendous positive scientific and technological breakthroughs that have improved the wealth and length and quality of life for most people.
  • Plentiful, less-polluting sources of energy such as thorium, nuclear fusion, natural gas, solar and wind could help reduce environmental damage and reallocate parts of budgets currently devoted to energy.
  • Technology can help distribute, decentralize and democratize knowledge, empower the majority, and improve education, political and corporate transparency, and democracy.

Negative

  • People generally are overconfident and misguided that using technology will solve our problems.
  • Science and technology provide knowledge and tools to solve problems, but themselves do not solve problems, since they can be used for good or ill.
  • All powerful scientific and technological changes have powerful negative side effects.
  • Although technological changes seem to be accelerating, political and social changes remain slow and has trouble keeping up.
  • The global arsenal of weapons remains high and probably has never been greater or as advanced.
  • Diseases, technologies and wars have increasingly global and deadly potential.
  • Technology can help centralize power into the largest and most powerful central governments and corporations.
  • Centralization of technologies such as the Internet, power grids and data centers may increase the chances of single points of failure.

Biological and Environmental

Positive

  • Population eventually levels off in countries which improve economically.
  • Environmental awareness is on the rise, starting in the 1960s and 1970s with Silent Spring and the US Environmental Protection Agency.
  • More people are becoming environmentalists, pacifists, vegetarians and vegans.
  • Cars, homes, farming, businesses and industries are becoming more productive and efficient, and less polluting.
  • As education and communication continue to improve, so will environmental awareness.

Negative

  • Human population will continue to rise for many decades, especially in the developing world, leading to increased disease and conflicts over scarce resources.
  • The developing world generally uses older, highly-polluting technologies such as coal, and will increasingly do so until they reach a more advanced stage of development.
  • Tremendous, probably irreversible environmental damage has already been done to water, air and earth, and is leading to observable natural resource depletion, global warming, climate change, ice and permafrost melting, deforestation, habitat destruction, and species extinction.
  • We could reach the global limits of some critical resources and collapse like other civilizations that depleted their local resources.
  • Previous societies have survived by migrating away from environmentally damaged areas, but we probably can't quickly migrate to another planet.
  • Political, economic and social progress do not guarantee environmental survival, especially if the pace of environmental degradation is faster.

Economic and Political

Positive

  • There has not been a world war or a global depression in 68 years.
  • The overall global standard of living continues to rise.
  • Political unions like the United Nations, European Union, and African Union have helped to bring overall international peace and stability.
  • Nuclear test ban and non-proliferation treaties, such as the Megatons to Megawatts Program which dismantled nuclear weapons to generate electricity, help to decrease the chances of nuclear war.
  • There are fewer dictators and more democracies than any time in the past.
  • If we have the political will, we can live much more sustainably.

Negative

  • There is an increasing economic divide in most countries, with a shrinking middle class.
  • Global poverty is at an all-time high in absolute numbers.
  • Nuclear weapons, conventional weapons, and technologies that inhibit human rights are likely to proliferate from technologically advanced but non-democratic, corrupt countries to similar, less technologically advanced countries.
  • "Can do" or "would like" does not mean "will do". Democracies rarely have the political will to make radical changes.
  • Democracy generally works for solving short-term crises but prevents urgent action over a long term.
  • Voter turnout has been decreasing in most established democracies since the 1960s.
  • The United States is the richest country in the world, but the American government and most individual Americans continue to fail to take sufficient leadership or set positive examples in environmental action.
  • American-like capitalism and overconsumption is rising in developing countries, since it is only natural for people to want better standards of living. This will have a huge negative impact on the environment.
  • Few people are willing to simplify their lives, live with less, and resist powerful advertisement messages from media and peers.
  • As vital resources such as land, water, food and energy become more scarce, wars become more likely.
  • Corporations increasingly control government, science, education, information and the media.
  • Corporate ethics generally are not human ethics, since corporate survival depends more on profit and economic growth, whereas human survival depends more on cooperation and human needs.

Social, Psychological, Philosophical and Religious

Positive

  • Increased global access to information, communication and education is accelerating social change.
  • Overall, most people in every country and economic group are good, well-meaning, kind, generous and helpful to each other.
  • There are now more brilliant minds, ideas and inventions, which can have tremendous positive influence on society.
  • Although individuals are relatively ignorant, selfish, narrow-minded, short-sighted and fallible, collectively society is now more diverse, intelligent, and self-correcting.

Negative

  • Most people generally are more exposed to, and listen more to, politics, religion and irrational emotional appeals than to science, reason and evidence.
  • The vast majority of people have little understanding and trust of science.
  • Most people believe in gods, demons, spirits, the afterlife and supernatural.
  • Too often, business trumps science, extroverts trump introverts, personality trumps character, speech trumps thought, rhetoric trumps ethics, and appearance trumps truth.
  • Militaries tend to have a disproportionate number of evangelicals, fundamentalists and religious radicals who believe their side is right.
  • It is not pleasant to listen to pessimists, doomsayers, or negative prognoses.
  • Eco-fashion and wishful thinking is easier and more pleasant than dealing with harsh realities.
  • Politicians, corporations and individuals are often more motivated by public image than real impact, are often penny-wise and pound-foolish with their efforts of conservation and reduced carbon emissions, and are doing too little too late to stop the damage.
  • Like a frog in a slowly heating pan of water, we cannot easily get ourselves out of situations that worsen at an imperceptibly slow pace.
  • It is very difficult for most individuals to work toward solving problems that won't be solved in their own lifetimes, or to care about what will happen to the world in 100 or 200 years when nobody we know will still be alive.
  • Most people are focused primarily on the immediate needs of themselves and their immediate families and friends, primarily because their education, time and resources are limited. Only a small minority can afford to take a global, very long-term planning view.
  • Too much leisure time is wasted on entertainment and passive hobbies that enforce the status quo, such as television, videos, video games and spectator sports, whereas time spent on reading and writing is decreasing.
  • Individuals are slow to change and generally follow their parents' behavior.
  • It takes many years of study, thought and self-discipline to be fully aware of all the issues necessary to be able to consistently act in a globally responsible fashion.

Conclusions

Although many of my observations are negative, it is largely because I want to motivate people to think, and focus on shortcomings that need to be improved upon. If we are too comforting and tell ourselves everything will be fine, things will be much worse than if we all take as much positive action as we can. We shouldn't become discouraged and give up, and we should find positive examples that we can follow and build on, as Jared Diamond does.

I believe that the future of the world can go in a positive direction if enough people seriously and continually consider the question of how their lives and decisions, large and small, can shape that future. I would enjoy reading more about this topic and learning of more ways that I can take productive action.

Related Books I have read

Lists of Future Predictions

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