The Meaning of the 21st Century: A Vital Blueprint for Ensuring Our Future

    Adapted from The Meaning Of The 21st Century: A Vital Blueprint For Ensuring Our Future, by James Martin (Eden Project Books, 2007). Reprinted with permission from the author.


    The 21st century is an extraordinary time – a century of extremes. We can create much grander civilizations or we could trigger a new Dark Age. There are numerous ways we can steer future events so as to avoid the catastrophes that lurk in our path and to create opportunities for a better world. A revolutionary transition is ahead of us, and our children have a vital role to play in it; so, there is so much that we need to teach them about their future.

    Today, most of the public and their leaders have remarkably little knowledge about the future. When filming this book, I stood in Times Square, surrounded by the world’s most extraordinary blaze of electronic information, and reflected that absolutely all of that information was about the present day. A US Senator assured me that public voting is based on the present and has no interest in the future. We are driving at relentlessly increasing speed into an extraordinary future, but we are driving blindfolded.

    This book is concerned with the big issues that will make the difference – large-scale trends that have a momentum like a freight train and that will affect the lives of our children – and types of leverage that will enable us to make significant changes. It’s a book about the main ocean currents, not the waves on the surface. It is not about conventional politics, which are to a large extent unpredictable. There will always be passionate arguments about politics, taxation, and wealth redistribution, but that is not my subject here. We can identify critical high-momentum trends independently of politics, and there are urgent changes needed, regardless of which political parties are dominant at the time. Some solutions to problems will meet resistance for parochial political reasons, often because there are large vested interests. Putting the right incentives into place is critical to dealing with our biggest problems.

    Exploring the future calls for the use of logic, an understanding of history, technology and the behaviour of complex organizations, to weave together many long-terms trends. Much can be predicted about future technology because of the lengthy time lags between research and development and between the creation of products and their application. We already know what researchers are working on. For example, when I wrote The Wired Society in the mid-1970s, there was no personal computers, cell phones, and nothing called the Internet. Some 25 years later, the book was hailed as an astonishingly accurate forecast of a world using those technologies. Encouraged by this, I developed files about the world’s future problems and what experts had to say about them. It became clear to me that the world was drifting into very deep trouble.

    After college, I spent some time as a rocket scientist (no kidding). Then I joined IBM and was trained to design computer systems that helped provide solutions to complex problems. I migrated to IBM’s Systems Research Institute – a think tank and internal university with an eclectic hornet’s nest of a faculty, opposite the United Nations building in New York. In the age of Nixon, we went to cocktail parties in the UN and it was like going to a different planet. The UN delegates had no clue about what was happening in technology, and we computer gurus had no vision beyond our own world.

    In 1970, a secret set of meetings was arranged between 12 top American and 12 top Soviet computer scientists to find out whether and how they could cooperate in research. I was one of the American group. The US State Department trained us how to behave – for example, how to handle the vast amounts of vodka we were given during the endless toasts at Moscow banquets (empty your glasses into the flower vases), and what to do if you got back to your hotel room and found a beautiful naked woman in your bed (I was disappointed). To my surprise, I found the Russian scientists warm and friendly but with a total misconception of what America was like. Most of us concluded that there was a great potential for cooperation; however, the game evolved into the KGB watching the CIA watching the KGB, and nothing useful happened.

    After IBM I formed a business for dealing with complex problems and spent 25 years travelling around the world, teaching five-day “World Seminars,” which steadily grew to attract high-power audiences. This led to many opportunities to work with statesmen and business leaders. I tried to pick invitations where I might learn the most. For example, J.P. Morgan had an extraordinary advisory board, with George Schultz, Condoleeza Rice, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, the Saudi Arabian Minister of Finance, Britain’s Lord Howe, and the CEOs of many global corporations.

    Over decades while I roved the world, lecturing and consulting on practical techniques for building complex systems, I took a keen interest in the world’s larger problems. They were getting worse. But my training as a problem-solver led me to believe that there were solutions to all of the profound problems we describe. It was necessary to alert the public to the grand-scale challenges of the 21st century and teach their potential solutions.

    Recognizing how much research and education this subject needed, I set out to found the James Martin 21st-Century School at the University of Oxford, the mission of which is to identify and find solutions to the biggest challenges facing humanity in the 21st century and to find the biggest opportunities. The School now has many Institutes populated with brilliant researchers and teachers. It needs a very high level of integrated scholarship. Its goal is to train future leaders who can deal with the tough problems facing humanity. Its faculty does detailed research on solutions, including those described in this book, and synthesizes the knowledge in order to understand our options for the future.

    It is critical to teach the subject matter of this book to the rising generation who will have to cope with the situation. In a sense, there is no more important subject matter because civilization’s survival depends on it.

    From Chapter 24: Revolution

    The story of what is happening to humanity and its home planet can largely be put in place now – not the details but the broad trends. The tapestry of today’s big issues is visible. We are damaging our future in diverse ways, but there are solutions to these problems. The new opportunities are formidable – different opportunities in different disciplines. A massive transition is inevitable, and the agenda can be created for the generation that is going to bring about that transition. Broadly speaking, we know what needs to be done. It involves all nations. The issues are global. There is no place to hide.

    Much of what needs to be done, however, is not happening. The grand-scale transition of the 21st century could occur gently. There could be step-by-step replacement of carbon-based fuels, steady improvement in food-growing capability, measures to conserve water, a lock down of sources of fissile uranium, growth of anti-terrorist measures, a drive for eco-affluent lifestyles, and so on – it’s a long list. But today’s computer models make it clear that we are not changing our ways fast enough. For example, we are drifting towards irreversible climate change faster than we are taking any actions to stop that happening.

    Water is essential for food production, but we are taking water from aquifers at a rate that will cause many of them to run dry. In addition to water depletion and soil degradation, food production will also be seriously lowered in some countries by drought and heat waves caused by the rising quantity of greenhouse gases. As if that weren’t bad enough, we are diverting huge amounts of water from farms to cities, and that trend will grow because there are massive migrations of people from the countryside to cities. Particularly alarming, we may cause Gaia, the control system of the planet, to wobble into a new state.

    There are many solutions to our problems but it is common to find corporations resisting the solutions, and government that seems incapable of taking the actions needed. If we continue to have roadblocks to correct behaviour, negative events will overtake us. The planetary damage caused by the successful countries will breed anger among the unsuccessful. It will enhance the recruiting capability of al Qaeda and terrorist protest squads. This will occur at a time when the technology of nuclear/biological weapons is becoming more dangerous, out of control, and lower in cost.

    There is ultimately no way of avoiding the 21st-Century Transition. Humanity can’t go on for ever using more water than can be replenished or taking actions that will trigger a runaway change in Gaia. If gentle change towards sensible behaviour doesn’t happen, the world will head to situations where only revolutionary change will work. If governments continue to take almost no action, the transition, when it eventually happens, will be traumatic, expensive, and often violent. Large-scale catastrophes will trigger change.

    But the problem with the catastrophe-first syndrome is that the potential catastrophes are getting bigger. The worst famines and the worst pandemics in human history are yet to come. A war with the anger of World War II and modern technology could set back civilization for centuries. To make the 21st-Century Transition as painless as possible, its various changes should be made as early as possible, before the problems become too bad. However, in almost all areas this is not happening. Where steady transitions are possible, for example with the change to non-carbon fuels, almost nothing is being done. The US Environmental Protection Agency tries to repair environmental damage after it has happened, but it seems to have almost no ability to change the economic practices that cause the damage in the first place. World Summits on Sustainable Development have had agendas of immense importance but have taken almost no action on anything. Their follow-up can be described as studied avoidance of any changes that are controversial. The United Nations Committee on Trade and Development has the acronym UNCTAD, which is often said to stand for Under No Circumstances Take Any Decision.

    In many areas the situation is worse than doing nothing. There are enormous subsidies paying for the oceans to be over-fished. The subsidies that damage the environment are massive, and subsidies that could help the environment are small. As we commented, Norman Myers catalogued $2 trillion per year of “perverse” subsidies that do more harm than good. If taxpayers were given a listing of subsidies they pay, sequenced by the net harm from those subsidies, they would be in revolt. Not surprisingly, governments tend to hide this information. Myers estimates that worldwide the subsides for road transportation, which essentially covers oil and cars, is in the order of $400 billion per year, and the car industry itself is about $600 billion – about a trillion dollars for the oil and car industries together. The longer the transition is delayed, the more difficult it will be. The Transition Generation will be increasingly frustrated and angry about the roadblocks to transition. Their anger will lead to discontinuous change – revolution, not evolution. As often before in history, revolution will be the consequence of complacency. Craig Venter, the legendary genome mapper, commented in our interview with him, “I’m not afraid of computers. I’m not afraid of technology. I’m afraid of the collective ignorance of all of us.”

    Historians of the distant future will describe two extraordinary transitions: the Industrial Revolution, which set into motion the change that grew into the thundering avalanche we have today, and the 21st-Century Revolution, which prevented the avalanche from wrecking our world. The Industrial Revolution and the 21st-Century Revolution complement one another. The new revolution does not stop progress. On the contrary, it is the beginning of fundamentally new forms of progress, which greatly enhance affluence and culture while healing, rather than harming, the environment. Historians will regard the early 21st century as a barbarian world – seeing there was no need for all the environmental damage, the destruction of ocean life, or the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. The 21st-Century Revolution will bring a brave new world of transhumanism, nanotechnology, biotechnology, post-Singularity computing, genome-based science, and transponders linking our brains directly to networks.

    Diversion of Water

    The fast growth of the massive new consumer class in China and elsewhere is redrawing the world economic map. The First World has a population of 1 billion. China and India will have a joint population of 2.5 billion, possibly rising to 3 billion. Young people in the new consumer classes are building up a fever pitch of excitement about their new lifestyles.

    Cities need large amounts of water, both for hygienic living and for their new industry. A thousand tons of water can produce one ton of wheat, and this is worth $200 or less. There are many situations in cities around the world in which they will pay thousands of dollars per ton for water. Because of this, water is increasingly being diverted to cities, and this leaves water-short farmers with even less water. Cities are prepared to pay much more for water than farmers can afford to pay. In China, new cities are springing like mushrooms. The largest human migration in history is China’s current migration from country areas to new cities; so, the diversion of water to cities in China will become massive. A similar pattern is developing in India and other countries. The economic forces behind this are immense. Many city governments have signed contracts to buy water for the next 50 years or more. San Diego brought rights to 247 million tons of water per year for the next 75 years.

    As China’s aquifers decline and China increasingly diverts its river water to cities, it will be able to grow less grain. However, it needs more grain because the hordes of young people in its new consumer societies want to eat meat instead of rice, and they want high-quality meat from well-fed animals. Meat production is very expensive in terms of grain and, hence, in terms of water. The amount of water increases as the quality of meat goes up. When China and India run short of water so that they can’t grow enough grain, they will buy grain in the world markets. Buying a ton of grain is equivalent to buying a thousand tons of water, and buying 18 pounds of meat is equivalent to buying roughly a ton of grain. China will have to buy huge amounts of grain and this will cause the price of grain to go up. India is likely to follow a similar pattern, a decade or so later, as its population eventually becomes larger than China’s. The price of grain will go up levels that the poorest countries can’t afford. They will neither be able to grow the grain they need nor purchase it. Global warming will make this situation worse by lowering farm productivity in many water-stressed countries. Many farms will close down.

    Unless very strong action is taken by wealthy countries to move destitute countries to the first rungs of the ladder of economic development, death tolls will rise in such countries, scourged as they are by AIDS, malaria and diseases caused by unsanitary water. They are sitting ducks for bird flu. The newly rich classes who buy grain will probably have no concern for the three billion or so people who can’t pay the market price for grain.

    In Egypt it hardly ever rains; so, for 5,000 years Egypt has been entirely dependent on the Nile. Today’s 73 million Egyptians use almost all the water of the Nile. Thus, for part of the year, the great river is only a trickle by the time it reaches the sea. Now, however, Ethiopia and Sudan, countries upstream of Egypt on the Nile, are rapidly growing in population and are dependent on the Nile for growing food. These countries want to divert the Nile water to their cities, and Ethiopia is planning to build a dam on the Blue Nile, which will lessen the flow of water to Egypt. The population of these two upstream countries is projected to grow from 106 million today to 231 million by 2050. Two decades from now, the Nile will be dried up before it reaches Egypt. Egypt will have no water. This is an impossible situation, but there seem to be no plans in Egypt to deal with it. If Egypt’s population grows at its present rate, it will be massive by the time the water runs out. Whatever will happen to Egypt? Will the country that was the grandest in the world for 3,000 years become like Somalia?

    How Many People?

    Some authorities have attempted to calculate how many people the Earth can support in the second half of this century. The number declines as the ecological footprint grows due to increasing consumption patterns. It also declines as global warming shrinks the farm production of many marginal areas, and increases the spread of deserts. Farm production is also lowered as aquifers run dry and huge amounts of water are diverted to the rapidly growing cities. Modellers attempt to calculate the future increases in grain prices. Today we have a fairly good understanding of the Earth’s control mechanisms, and we have highly intricate models of climate change. The conclusion is that the Earth could not support today’s population if they lived decently. The drive for eliminating poverty must be combined with a drive for population decline.

    James Lovelock stated emphatically as we were filming him that today’s population is wholly unsustainable in the present state of Gaia: “We have to face the fact that when the Earth stabilizes in its new hot state, there will only be enough farmable land to support a population of not much more than 500 million at most.” When zoologists study an endangered species, they talk about the number of breeding pairs that are left. James Lovelock warns that, by the end of the century, there may be a relatively small number of human breeding pairs, most of them in the Arctic regions where the climate remains tolerable.[1]

    Today’s population is growing rapidly and is on course to reach 8.9 billion by 2050, or earlier. How does it get from 8.9 billion to Lovelock’s 0.5 billion? Lovelock says that Gaia will do the culling and eliminate those that break her rules – as she always has done. James Lovelock is a kindly, cerebral man living in a cottage isolated in the beautiful countryside of Devon. Even in winter, his American wife ensures that his home has lots of flowers. He avoids sensational language and talks with a smile, but what he says means that we will have, by far, the largest and most gruesome famines that humanity has ever known. In the shantycities, pandemics may cause a plunge in population. We have a choice, he says, between these unspeakable nightmares and somehow gaining control of our own destiny.

    Different authorities have different estimates of what population the Earth can support. The number depends upon how badly the climate is damaged and how well the First and Second Worlds eat. A sober estimate comes from Sir Crispin Tickell, who thinks 2.5 billion is a reasonable target.

    Lovelock may become regarded as the Malthus of our time. If we head towards the grim state he describes, we will get plenty of warning and probably do something about it. Humanity, once it wakes up to such demise, will take extreme action to rescue the situation. New cities will be built nearer the Arctic, and new farmlands opened up, with Russia’s vast sub-Arctic region becoming the largest breadbasket of the world.

    The fertility rate is well below the replacement rate in almost all advanced parts of the world, including China. A low fertility rate will lead to a declining population. As the Earth’s population becomes lower and its activities become eco-friendly, then our task will be to ensure that in the future we live within what Gaia can handle. We will be able to estimate that with precision as the Earth becomes well-instrumented, and Earth system science becomes an intensely computerized discipline.

    However, we don’t have much time. At the current rate of increase of carbon in the atmosphere, the Earth’s control mechanisms will reach runaway positive feedback long before our population reaches an acceptably low figure. Human population will almost certainly reach figures beyond those that Gaia can cope with. There will be too much carbon and methane in the atmosphere, not enough forest, too much farmland, too much desertification and the Arctic ice will melt too fast.

    Excerpted from The Meaning Of The 21st Century by James Martin. Copyright © James Martin, 2007. All rights reserved.

    [1] Lovelock, James, The Revenge of Gaia. Penguin, London, 2006.

    James Martin founded the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford, which has 30 institutes doing scholarly research into the problems, dangers and opportunities of the near future. He is the largest individual benefactor to the University of Oxford in it’s 900-year history. He has written more textbooks than any other living person – 104, many of which have been seminal in their field. He is renowned for his electrifying lectures about the future. He wrote The Meaning of the 21st Century, which was made into a major film, and is a Pulitzer nominee for his book The Wired Society. He was a pioneer in the automation of software development, and was ranked 4th in Computer World’s 25th Anniversary Edition’s most influential people in computer technology. He was a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the U.S. Department of Defense. He is an Honorary Life Fellow of the British Royal Institution, a Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science, an Honorary Fellow of Keble College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow of the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies at Monterey, California. He has honorary doctorates from all six continents.

    Dr. James Martin — A crunch is coming

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