Four Future Scenarios for the Global System

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  • Article: GLOBAL MEGACRISIS. A Survey of Four Scenarios on a Pessimism-Optimism Axis. By William Halal and Michael Marien.


Scenarios are an excellent way to bring together a lot of information, to suggest what is possible and desirable, and to stimulate [out-of-the-box] thinking. Many futurists favor a 2x2 matrix of four alternative scenarios that highlights developments along two axes. While these approaches have certain advantages, [there are many axes to consider]. We think it [is equally] useful to sketch four scenarios along a single axis running from “Pessimistic” to “Optimistic.” This allows us to focus on [the question of progress, or total net] outcomes for individual societies [and the world as a whole] in a period of crisis.


The world fails to react, with disastrous consequences.

Indecision reigns due to too many choices, too many entrenched interest groups, and too few resources to make needed changes. Huge government deficits persist, leading to failures of public services and an inability to make crucial transition investments in energy, education, and infrastructure. Governments are also unable to reform financial systems, curb global warming, reduce military spending, or conquer deficits, while most corporations remain focused on short-term profit. Technological advances are shelved, delayed, controversial, or fail to help. Global warming accelerates with huge releases of methane added to CO2, resulting in more extreme weather events, massive migrations and crop losses. The world sinks into economic depression, crippling energy shortages, collapse of large ecological systems, much destruction of life, local and regional wars, terrorism, crime, and far more corruption. Worldwide pandemics, nuclear attacks, bioterrorism, cyber-attacks, and/or crashes of the Internet may add to the decline. Many parts of the world suffer the loss of functioning civilization, producing disasters for most people in most societies.


Half-way, inadequate actions seem to create the paradox of a high-tech dark age. Political stalemates, lack of resources, and ignorance about the complexity of our problems result in only modest changes in financial systems, governance, energy, and education. The promise of new technologies is only partly met, while pollution and population pressures continue, as world population passes 7 billion in late 2011. Global warming and extreme weather increase. Recovery from the Great Recession is slow and uneven, and the number of failed states rises. Local wars and terrorist attacks increase. Despite claims of progress by political and corporate leaders, high unemployment persists and the quality of life declines for most people. These strains on the capacity of the planet to support global industrialization lead to more people living in poverty and despair, and often reacting violently. In the U.S., the Tea Party movement gains momentum, blocking action to promote sustainability in the name of lower taxes and government spending, freedom from regulation, and the wisdom of the 200-year-old pre-industrial era Constitution.


Governments and corporations act slowly, but increasing knowledge and mounting threats spur generally successful efforts. Far more sophisticated IT and AI provide more powerful technical capabilities, a wider understanding of the problems, and an appreciation of the fundamental need to promote sustainability. The sense of urgency builds as problems increase, so public attitudes shift enough to favor needed changes, and reasonably good leadership is able to provide guidance. There are relatively minor disasters along the way, but little that is catastrophic for an entire region or the planet. A rudimentary but functioning global order emerges to manage this advanced society in time to avert widespread disaster, albeit with an increasing level of the normal problems in any large and rapidly evolving social system.


The transition to a new global order is made smoothly and quickly. There is a rapidly growing realization that the Earth is a precious living system requiring human care. Governments and corporations react wisely and with determination, and they are supported by the majority of people. The world surpasses the UN Millennium Development Goals of halving poverty by 2015, and many nations approach current definitions of sustainability. Tea Party anger in the U.S. is channeled into addressing serious problems. Energy shortages, climate change, and global conflict are largely avoided, and the transition to low-cost and low-carbon society is nearly completed. The media, schools, and colleges offer intelligent guidance, and indepth debates illuminate crucial issues to find common ground, while dismissing many ill-informed assumptions. The world enters global maturity rather easily and unscathed, with a widespread emphasis on what works, what lowers costs that are fully considered, and what is truly in the public interest."