Sunday, August 12, 2018

Climate, politics and the narrow vision of futurists

Most people know the tale of the blind men and the elephant. Each describes a part of the elephant. The elephant is said to be like a pillar by the blind man touching the elephant's leg. The one touching the elephant's tail says the elephant is like a rope and so on.

Now, let's substitute so-called futurists for blind men in this tale and you get something even less reliable. Futurists are the soothsayers of our age. Of course, futurists have eyes to see at least. But they, like the blind men, almost never see the whole picture.

And, in this case they are giving us a description of something that is not even there for them to examine. The future doesn't exist. It's a mere concept. Unlike the blind men, futurists aren't really describing part of a whole.

Typically, they imagine the future as a more magical version of the past where all kinds of new powers are made available to the individual: the ability to transmit emotions and memories through a worldwide "brain-net," 3D-printed human organs based on our own DNA that replace damaged or diseased ones, re-creations of loved ones who have passed away with which we can interact as we did when they were alive.

Naturally, some futurists put the first humans on Mars in the 2030s. NASA apparently has a contest for 3D-printed designs of habitats suitable for humans on Mars. The idea that colonizing Mars will enhance the chances that humans will survive well into the future is already part of the culture. (Wait a minute! You mean really bad stuff could happen on Earth in our benign technology-laden future. But I digress.)

Unfortunately, there is the nagging problem that cosmic radiation is likely to turn anyone living on Mars into a cancer-riddled dementia patient. No problem! We'll just engineer a whole new race of humans designed to resist the cosmic radiation they will be subject to on Mars and during any space travel.

For all their imaginative and storytelling powers, futurists—the ones who imagine an unlimited, happy future with vast technological change but not those who see dystopia and destruction ahead and who are instead labeled "alarmists"—these happy futurists cannot imagine dramatic change in our social and political systems.

Capitalism as we know it remains intact, apparently even on Mars. Democratically elected governments are still around; but their choices are increasingly limited to what to do with all our future abundance and the savings that will come from licking most acute and chronic diseases for good.

And, there is another really, really big thing they don't seem to be able to imagine: a civilization crippled and possibly destroyed by climate change.  Well, of course, technology will solve the climate problem, they say. My retort continues to be, "If humans are so clever and our technology so powerful, why haven't we solved the problem of climate change, a problem we already knew 30 years ago was a civilization-threatening emergency?"

The answer, of course, is that climate change cannot be solved by merely applying technology. It is a multi-dimensional, complex problem that is above all political. Those who hold power do not want to pay either in the form of foregone revenue or higher taxes what would be required to solve the problem.

And, the consumer society that is now spreading throughout the world is so profitable and appealing to just about everyone, that there is simply not the necessary constituency to support those few in the power elite who are ready to make such expenditures and sacrifices.

So, as this existential problem literally burns our forests, scorches our crops (thereby threatening a global food crisis) and brings drought to those thirsting for water and floods to those who already have too much—even as we continue down this path of destruction, the artificial intelligence labs and 3D printing equipment makers are predicted by futurists to be racing forward to a future that doesn't include the possibly fatal ravages of climate change.

The stability of governments is at stake. The viability of whole nations hangs in the balance in the future that climate change has already imagined for us.

There's a reason that most so-called futurists either don't take this into account or dismiss it as a minor problem that will somehow be fixed. The reason is that they either work for or consult with the world's corporations. And, the corporate imagination of the world we live in and will live in is entirely dominated by visions of continuing corporate control of our lives (but in a benign way, of course). No revolutions, no social upheaval, no mass migrations, no food or water crises and above all, no redistribution of wealth or power. Nothing to get in the way of continued economic expansion and resource use directed by the world's corporations.

As I've written before, "The Future" is a sales pitch designed to keep us locked into existing institutions and power relationships. It has nothing to do with solving our real problems or liberating us from the increasing power of corporations and the governments they have captured. It is, in fact, an elitist vision of a future entirely run by wealthy technologists who find politics and environmental disruption inconvenient.

Trying to put things into perspective for me, my landlady suggested that in the future only a fool would rob a bank in person. Why not get a robot to do it for you and have a drone play the role of the lookout? The answer from the technologists, of course, is that we won't need actual physical banks or paper money in the future.

That may or may not be true. But I have a feeling that the criminals will figure out other purposes for their crime robots and drones (and artificial intelligence squads for that matter), purposes not currently discussed in the speeches and white papers of the world's corporate-funded futurists. These futurists, I predict, will be too busy forecasting the ways in which our attention and income will be monopolized by new technologies in the wondrous world to come.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


Unknown said...

Agree with much of what you have written here. BTW, our mutual friend Ann G. loaned me "The Swerve: How the World Became Modern" by Stephen Greenblatt. The futurists you describe are strikingly similar to the church in the middle ages which also promised a utopian future--all one had to do was die to attain it. Getting back to your blog, one of my first thoughts about climate change was that the nature of people and governments is to focus only on the present or very near future. While there are examples of successful long-term strategies that work, they are the exception IMO. As a result, my belief is that meaningful response to climate change will only happen after cataclysmic events (signs of which now seem to be appearing: wildfires that resemble volcanoes, drought/famine, sea rise that affects major cities, etc.) But we both know that real action is already too late and the situation will be even worse by the time that the cataclysms I expect are upon us. Still, I hope by working on improving the energy system to make some positive contribution despite the apparent futility. And I am always thrilled to have another day of life. :)

Anonymous said...

Climate change is exacerbated by technology - and always will be. Fossil fuels derivatives (technology / machinery / transportation / energy / even "renewables" and "green" energy) guarantee a worsening climate.

It will simply never be possible for technology to improve the climate because of Jevon's Paradox - any efficiencies or improvements gained will be consumed by growth and additional resource depletion, population, energy demands, etc.

The entire assumption that technology can solve the problem created by technology is ridiculous.

Let's just cut to the chase - technology created climate change. The climate that was changing NATURALLY (and very slowly) would have been survivable (most likely - using history as our guide) - but not what was caused by technology and happening now very quickly.

We already know where this is going - climate collapse leading to an uninhabitable planet.

And no - we're never going to go to Mars and live there either. ~Survival Acres~

Chris Kuykendall said...

Standing tough under stars and stripes
We can tell
This dream's in sight
You've got to admit it
At this point in time that it's clear
The future looks bright
On that train all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from New York to Paris
Well by '76 we'll be AOK

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free

Get your ticket to that wheel in space
While there's time
The fix is in
You'll be a witness to that game of chance in the sky
You know we've got to win
Here at home we'll play in the city
Powered by the sun
Perfect weather for a streamlined world
There'll be spandex jackets one for everyone

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free

On that train all graphite and glitter
Undersea by rail
Ninety minutes from New York to Paris
(More leisure for artists everywhere)
A just machine to make big decisions
Programmed by fellows with compassion and vision
We'll be clean when their work is done
We'll be eternally free yes and eternally young

What a beautiful world this will be
What a glorious time to be free

- Donald Fagen, I.G.Y. (1982) -
(I.G.Y. stands for the International Geophysical Year, 1957-1958.)

Don19 said...

A wonderful song from one of my favourite albums I still have it in its original pressing.

Donald was spot on - the fix will always be in

Unknown said...

You don't understand what a Futurist is/does. A real Futurist does not make predictions about The Future, since no one knows what the future will be. Someone who hold themselves out as a Futurist, but makes predictions about what The Future will be is not a real Futurist.

Having a M.S. in Studies of the Future from University of Houston, I think I know what I'm speaking about. A futurist will look at trends, examine literature, perform systems thinking, and postulate what could be, but real futurists are not technological optimistic or pesimistic - it depends on the individual. A futurist will cast possible scenarios (usually 4) about possible futures, but doesn't say which will come to pass. No one knows. It is up to the organization then to try to position itself to deal, in the best way it can, to be able to anticipate and react to the stories in those scenarios. Really, the process is just as important, if not more valuable, than the actual scenarios. The important thing is to get clients to think about the future as more than just a continuation of current trends. Futurists don't think in terms of the near-future so current trends may or may not apply. We think in terms of a longer-term future.

Yes future possibilities can range over a wide-variety of views and stories. But anyone who makes a prediction about the future is not a real Futurist. Please don't tar futurists with those who make predictions, as they are most likely self-styled futurists and have no background in this field. You can call this other group - Predictionist. No Futurist would profess to know what The Future will be.

Unknown said...

There is a whole genre of dystopian near and far future books and stories out there known as Cli-Fi or Climate Fiction that literally imagines "civilization crippled and possibly destroyed by climate change"....hundreds of books and maybe thousands of stories. I write in this genre.

Chris Kuykendall said... has an article reflecting the expectation of the CEO of electronics retailer Monoprice that "we're about ten years away from most households having at least one 3D printer that'll be capable of printing most [italicized] things. However, he told Futurism that he doesn't think we'll have 3D printers that can print anything [italicized] until 2038." If those aren't predictions that is parading, I don't know what the heck they are. They're also stupid predictions. ("I'd like to buy an unmined gold bar created by a 3D copier machine, Alex." Or "a brand new original-type knee, from a 3D copier machine, not the crummy thing you get if you have knee replacement surgery, Alex.") The natural resources for these "most" things and the "anything" are going to come from...where? And be mixed

Lastly, if the people behind are overconfident wannabe alchemists rather than genuine futurists, then somebody needs to tell them that, that they're self-styled futurist frauds, and have them change their website title. Because that's who the rest of us, without Future Studies degrees from the University of Houston or elsewhere, read and hear stuff from far more than we read and hear stuff from the proclaimed real futurists.