Techno-optimism or pessimism? The World Future Society’s take on the next 25 years

For a somewhat different view of the future from the one many of us would normally take, it’s worth having a look at the World Future Society’s forecasts for the next 25 years. They like to give the impression of being a significant group with a good track record of predictions: I don’t know how true this is, but they do present a useful perspective on how the technologically optimistic see the future.

Almost all their twenty predictions involve high-tech in some way, including robotics, moon bases and the prospect of a machine intelligence singularity. But at least they have at least some notion of our current problems. However, there’s some odd bedfellows.

I’ll leave it up to you whether you think the technological changes proposed are feasible in the 25 year timeframe, or desirable. At least there’s five which talk about sustainable energy or recycling, which is encouraging.

The four non-high-tech forecasts are all ones that environmentalists would put on their own equivalent lists. More cycling for the right reasons including “resource depletion”, for instance. More substantially, Number 1 relates to vast dust-bowls in Asia and Africa due to over-exploitation of land, and encourages the kind of action we’d support. “We can promote tree-planting efforts to conserve soil and sequester carbon, and we can move toward less resource-intensive diets.” Number 19 talks about climate-induced sea-level rise in Bangladesh. Right idea, slightly wrong details – they’re quoting IPCC figures for 2100, not 2035 – and you’d want to talk about the entire climate change issue worldwide, not just for one country, even if Bangladesh has a good claim to be the one likely to find itself worst off.

But I do wonder if the WFS has attempted to do any joined-up thinking, or just put requests around its various fellow and compiled the list that way. And that’s particularly a question I want to raise about number 11, the only reference to economics. Following the thinking of Robert Reich, they forecast “Present-day concentration of wealth in the hands of too few Americans, and the related problem of out-of-control consumer debt, will lead to economic stagnation and political upheaval with impacts felt across the world.”

This of course could have come straight out of the writings of any number of “growth is dead” thinkers, or economists like Ann Pettifor who would say that this is precisely what we are seeing already, in Europe, and in the Arab Spring and Occupy movements. The only difference is probably in the magnitude and whether you regard Peak Oil as an additional problem – I think the WFS don’t in contrast.

But even without Peak Oil, the outcomes of this forecast have a considerable detrimental effect on most of the rest. Less money in the world economy means less investment available for all the interesting technology, and most of what is suggested will require big up-front investment, even if it proves to be profitable in the longer term. I would be interested to know from the WFS how they think this will pan out.

One possible outcome of course is a dystopia of the form that’s found in some fiction. If the division between rich and poor widens, could we end up with two separate worlds? A rich minority could get all the technological goodies as the poor majority is left alone to face the challenges of climate change and the rest, possibly receding into chaos. That’s one forecast nobody wants to come true.

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