April 22, 2007

Earth Day Voices: Jamais Cascio

Four Futures for the Earth
by Jamais Cascio

Never trust a futurist who only offers one vision of tomorrow.

We don't know what the future will hold, but we can try to tease out what it might. Scenarios, which combine a variety of important and uncertain drivers into a mix of different -- but plausible -- futures, offer a useful methodology for coming up with a diverse set of plausible tomorrows. Scenarios are not predictions, but examples, giving us a wind-tunnel to test out different strategies for managing large, complex problems.

And there really isn't a bigger or more complicated problem right now than the incipient climate disaster. Today, there seems to be two schools of thought regarding the best way to deal with global warming: the "act now" approach, demanding (in essence) that we change our behavior and the ways that our societies are structured, and do it as quickly as possible, or else we're boned; and the "techno-fix" approach, which says (in essence) don't worry, the nano/info/bio revolution that's just around the corner will save us. Generally, the Worldchanging approach is to emphasize the first, with a sprinkle of the second for flavor (and as backup).

The thing is, these are not mutually-exclusive propositions, and success or failure in one doesn't determine the chance of success or failure in the other. It's entirely possible that we will change our behavior/society/world (ahem), and also come up with fantastic new technologies; it's also possible that we'll stumble on both paths, neither fixing things in time nor getting our hands on the tools we could use to repair the worst damage.

To a futurist, a pair of distinct, largely independent variables just begs to be turned into a scenario matrix. So let's give in, and take a brief look a the four scenarios the combinations of these two paths create:

Dodging a Bullet

2037: It's amazing how fast we went from "is this real?" to "what can we do?" to "let's do it now." There was no silver bullet, no green leap forward, just a billion quiet decisions to act. People made better, smarter choices, and the headlong rush to disaster slowed; encouraged by this, we started to focus our investments and social energy into solving this problem, and eventually (but much faster than we'd dared hope!) the growth of atmospheric carbon stopped. There's still too much CO2 in the air, and we know we're going to be dealing with a warming climate for awhile still, but the human species actually managed to choose to avoid killing itself off.

This is a world in which civil society begins to focus on averting climate disaster as its primary, immediate task, even at the cost of some economic growth and general technological acceleration. Most governments and institutions curtail research and development without direct climate benefits, leading to a world of 2037 that's nowhere near as advanced as futurists and technology enthusiasts had expected. A succession of environmental disasters linked (in the public mind, at the very least) to global warming -- killing hundreds of thousands, and leaving tens of millions as refugees -- gave added impetus to a world-wide effort; by 2017, a clear majority of the world's population was willing to do anything necessary to avoid the environmental collapse that many scientists saw as nearly inevitable. One popular slogan for the climate campaign was "we could be the best, or we could be the last."

Teaching the World to Sing

02037: I stumbled across a memory archive from twenty years ago, before the emergence of the Chorus, and was shocked to see the Earth as it was. Oceans near death, climate system lurching towards collapse, overall energy flux just horribly out-of-balance. I can't believe the Earth actually survived that. I had assumed that the Chorus was responsible for repairing the planet, but no -- We told me that, even by 02017, the Earth's human populace was making the kind of substantive changes to how it lived necessary to avoid real disaster, and that 02017 was actually one of the first years of improvement! What the Chorus made possible was the planetary repair, although We says that this project still has many years left, in part because We had to fix some of We's own mistakes from the first few repair attempts. The Chorus actually seemed embarrassed when We told me that!

This is a world in which immediate efforts to make the social and behavioral changes necessary to avoid climate disaster make possible longer-term projects to apply powerful, transformative technologies (such as molecular manufacturing and cognitive augmentation) to the problem of stabilizing and, eventually, repairing the broken environment. It's not quite a Singularity, but is perhaps something nearly as strange: a world that has come to see few differences between human systems and natural/geophysical systems. "We are Gaia, too," the aging (but quite healthy) James Lovelock reminded us in 2023. And Gaia is us: billions of molecular-scale eco-sensors and intelligent simulations give the Earth itself an important voice in the global Chorus.

Geoengineering 101: Pass/Fail

2037: The Hephaestus 2 mission reported last week that it had managed to stabilize the wobble on the Mirror, but JustinNN.tv blurbed me a minute ago that New Tyndall Center is still showing temperature instabilities. According to Tyndall, that clinches it: we have another rogue at work. NATO ended the last one with extreme prejudice (as dramatized in last Summer's blockbuster, "Shutdown" -- I loved that Bruce Willis came out of retirement to play Gates), but this one's more subtle. My eyecrawl has some bluster from the SecGen now, saying that "this will not stand," blah blah blah. I just wish that these boy geniuses (and they're all guys, you ever notice that?) would put half as much time and effort into figuring out the Atlantic Seawall problem as they do these crazy-ass plans to fix the sky.

This is a world in which attempts to make the broad social and behavioral changes necessary to avoid climate disaster are generally too late and too limited, and the global environment starts to show early signs of collapse. The 2010s to early 2020s are characterized by millions of dead from extreme weather events, hundreds of millions of refugees, and a thousand or more coastal cities lost all over the globe. The continued trend of general technological acceleration gets diverted by 2020 into haphazard, massive projects to avert disaster. Few of these succeed -- serious climate problems hit too fast for the more responsible advocates of geoengineering to get beyond the "what if..." stage -- and the many that fail often do so in a spectacular (and legally actionable) fashion. Those that do work serve mainly to keep the Earth poised on the brink: bioengineered plants that consume enough extra CO2 and methane to keep the atmosphere stable; a very slow project to reduce the acidity of the oceans; and the Mirror, a thousands of miles in diameter solar shield at the Lagrange point between the Earth and the Sun, reducing incoming sunlight by 2% -- enough to start a gradual cooling trend.

Say Goodnight

2030-something. Late in the decade, I think. Living day-to-day makes it hard to keep track of the years. The new seasons don't help -- Stormy, Still Stormy, Hellaciously Stormy, and Blast Furnace -- and neither does the constant travel, north to the Nunavut Protectorate, if it's still around. I hear things are even worse in Europe, if you can believe that. I don't hear much about Asia anymore, but I suppose nobody does now. The Greenland icepack went sometime in the last few years, and I hear a rumor that Antarctica is starting to go now. Who knows? I still see occasional aircraft high overhead, but they mostly look like military planes, so don't get your hopes up: they're probably from somebody who thinks it's still worth it to fight over the remaining oil.

This is a world in which we don't adopt the changes we need, and technology-based fixes end up being too hard to implement in sufficient quantity and scale to make a real difference. Competition for the last bit of advantage (in economics, in security, in resources) accelerates the general collapse. Things fall apart; the center does not hold; mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

Pick your future.

Jamais Cascio co-founded Worldchanging, and wrote over 1,900 articles for the site during his tenure. He now works as a foresight and futures specialist, serving as the Global Futures Strategist for the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology and a Research Affiliate for the Institute for the Future. His current online home is Open the Future.

December 30, 2006

What's Next: Jamais Cascio

As a species, Homo sapiens isn't particularly good at thinking about the future. It's not really what we evolved to do. Our cognitive tools developed in a world where rapid and just-accurate-enough pattern recognition and situation analysis meant the difference between finding enough tubers & termites to munch on for the evening and ending up as dinner for the friendly neighborhood predator. In a world of constant, imminent existential threats, the ability to recognize subtle, long-term processes and multi-generational changes wasn't a particularly important adaptive advantage.

But what we haven't evolved to do, we can learn to do. And now, more than at any previous point in human history, our survival depends on our capacity to think beyond the immediate future. The existential threats we face today are, in nearly every case, slow, subtle, and seemingly -- but deceptively -- remote. We no longer live in a world of obvious cause and easily-connected effect, and choices based on these sorts of expectations are apt to cause us vastly more harm than benefit.

Unfortunately, thinking in the language of the long term isn't a habit most of us have cultivated. So the development I'd like to see happen in 2007 is something that all of us can do: try to imagine tomorrow. Not in a gauzy, indeterminate "what if..." kind of way, and not in a cyber-chrome & nano-goo science fiction kind of way. I'd like us to start with something concrete and personal.

On January 1st, as we recover from the previous night's celebrations, rather than making out a list of resolutions we know we're unlikely to keep, I'd like us each to imagine, with as much plausibility and detail as we can muster, what our lives will be like in just one year, at the beginning of 2008. What has the last year been like? What has changed? What has surprised us? What are we (the "we" of a year hence) thinking about? Regretting? Looking forward to?

Then, after we've exercised our future-thinking muscles a bit, try this: do the same thing, only for ten years hence. What are our lives like in 2017? If possible, we should try to give this as much detail as we gave 2008. Not because this will make it more accurate -- it won't. But it can make it more real, more anchored in our lives of the present.

We should write down what we've come up with, and save it (or if we're feeling a bit adventurous, blog it).

That's it; just for a little while, let's think about our future.

We create our tomorrows with every choice we make, but too few of us take even a moment to consider the consequences of our decisions. Every now and again, we need to think beyond the present, and recognize that we are as connected to our future as we are to our past. It's a good habit to get into; as our choices become ever more complex, it's the kind of habit that can even be worldchanging.

Jamais Cascio is the co-founder of Worldchanging. He writes about the intersection of emerging technologies and cultural transformation, and specializes in the design and creation of plausible scenarios of the future. His current online presence lives at Open the Future.

March 31, 2006

All Good Things...

This is my last post as a WorldChanging staffer.

Few things in my life have made me happier, or prouder, than my work at WorldChanging. We have created something truly wonderful here -- and by "we," I mean all of us: Alex Steffen, my partner in creating the site; the team of contributors, many of whom have become lasting friends of mine; the network of weblogs and allies that stimulate and extend our discussions; and, most of all, you folks who take the time to read WorldChanging. It's not often that one gets to have a hand in the creation of a movement that could change the world. I suspect that helping build this site will remain my calling card for years to come.

I'm not disappearing from the site entirely, mind you. My email here will still work, I'll still have a spot on the side-bar, and I will occasionally post items of interest. But we've done here what we set out to do, and it's time to see what I can do next.

I can't say where you'll see me next, in part because some of the opportunities that have arisen are not yet ready for public discussion. I can say that I'll be doing more direct consulting on the kinds of issues I've covered here, and have a couple of book ideas I intend to pursue. I will carry with me the lessons I've learned helping to bring this site into existence: we must make choices that better ourselves, better our communities, and better the world, even though those choices are rarely easy. For me, few decisions have been harder than this one.

It's the right time to do make this decision, however. The book is done, so Alex and the rest of the team will once again have more time to bring their diverse voices to the WorldChanging page. Sarah Rich has stepped into the role of Managing Editor with great enthusiasm. I feel quite confident that WorldChanging is about to move into an even better stage in its life, with the kind of variety of ideas and expanse of perspectives it needs to help reshape how we think about the world, its future, and our own capacities for change.

Thank you all for making the last two-and-a-half years simply incredible. See you in The Future...

March 30, 2006

Design a Mars Flyer

marsuav.jpgAttention, European university students (or their friends and families): how would you like to design an unmanned aerial vehicle for use on Mars?

EUROAVIA (European Association of Aerospace Students) DeWo WG and the European Space Agency have kicked off a competition, open to students at European universities specializing in aeronautics and/or space technologies, asking them to come up with a design plan for a UAV best suited for exploring the planet Mars.

The authors of the 25 best papers will be invited to participate in the three-week design workshop at ESA's research and technology centre (ESTEC). During the workshop they will create a preliminary design of a UAV for Mars with the assistance of specialists from the industry and other institutions. Selected participants will be hosted at no cost.

More information can be found at the Design Workshop 2006 site.

Although many of us at WorldChanging are Areophiles, the most appealing aspect of this program is the inclusion of university students in a potentially revolutionary space effort. As with other student competitions, such as the Cradle to Cradle Home Competition, the Solar Decathlon, and the Car of 2030 competition, the point isn't to get the best possible design, but to get the most innovative design -- ideas from people who haven't yet learned to listen when told that something is impossible.

Continue reading "Design a Mars Flyer" »

Culture Jamming the Tahoe

Chevrolet has opened up a site asking visitors to create advertisements for its ginormous SUV, the Tahoe, using a collection of clips and soundtracks, as well as your own text.

Thing is, there's no reason you have to make ads in favor of ginormous SUVs...

The good folks at Network-Centric Advocacy are collecting links to (and, where possible, recordings of) "Chevy Apprentice" ads talking about global warming and similar subjects. Here's an example. If you come up with a good one, be sure to post the link there -- and here, of course!


March 29, 2006

Can You Copyright the World?

boundbylaw.jpgDocumentary filmmakers are in a particularly difficult position in terms of intellectual property, as most documentarians focus on lives of real people -- and modern life, especially in the US, Europe and Japan, is inundated with logos, music, background video and myriad other trademark and copyright concerns. Bound by Law?, a discussion of the intersection of fair use, public domain, copyright and documentary film -- done in a comic book format -- illustrates both the complexities that documentarians face and the broader struggle over how we can record modern life in all of its forms for posterity. Created by Keith Aoki, James Boyle and Jennifer Jenkins at the Duke University Center for the Study of the Public Domain, Bound by Law? is well-worth reading by anyone trying to understand how intellectual property rules affect our lives. Although it looks only at American regulations, many of the concepts it covers apply far more broadly.

The ongoing evolution of copyright laws in the industrialized world has served both to protect and to stymie creative artists. On the one hand, stronger and more explicit protection of copyright assures emerging artists that larger corporate entities can't simply take the artists' work; on the other hand, aggressive assertion of rights over material that is part of our common culture has a demonstrable negative impact on the creative abilities of artists. Although much of the debate online focuses on American laws, digital era copyright laws in Europe and Japan have evoked similar arguments, and the role of intellectual property laws in the relationship between industrialized and developing nations remains controversial. The solutions offered by groups like Creative Commons can go a long way to making the situation more reasonable, but they require positive action on the part of artists.

Continue reading "Can You Copyright the World?" »

Demographic Mashup

AnalyGIS and SRC, both of whom work on various tools for studying markets and communities, have teamed up to build a demographic study tool combining Google Maps (surprise) and 2000 US Census data. Click on a spot in the US, then select either basic census information (ethnic distribution, sex parity, and income averages) or housing information (owners vs. renters, housing value, age of units) within one, three and five miles of your target click. You can also enter an address directly.

They describe this as primarily a proof-of-concept exercise, so there's no telling when it will disappear. Still, for those of us who want a better way to access demographic information quickly and visually, this works pretty well. Since it's based on Google Map's public APIs and open access census data, it should also be relatively simple to rebuild should this one go away.

(Thanks, Joe Willemssen!)

Wired's Climate Disaster Interviews

Wired News has posted a series of interviews with the authors of three recent books on global warming and what we can do about it. The three interviews -- with Tim Flannery, author of The Weather Makers: How Man is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth, Lester R. Brown, author of Plan B 2.0 (described, with links, here), and Elizabeth Kolbert, author of Field Notes From a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change (based on her incredible series of articles at the New Yorker) -- are brief but quite compelling.

These interviews are part of a growing body of literature aimed at what we might call the "eyes now open" audience: people who weren't denialists about climate disaster, but thought it was something for future generations to worry about, was something that had to do with the ozone layer, or wasn't that big of a deal anyway. In the post-Katrina world, these folks, who potentially are a majority of the American public, are waking up to the reality that global warming-induced climate disruption is happening now, and that we have to act fast if we are to head off the worst possible outcomes.

March 28, 2006

Rice, Climate and "Effects Mitigation"

irri.jpgEven in the best case climate scenarios, the planet is going to face years of rising temperatures and some pretty unpleasant (and often tragic) results across much of the world. Given that many of the worst-hit locations will be in the poorer nations, it's important that we spend some time thinking about ways not just to mitigate the process of climate disruption -- that is, to reverse it -- but also to mitigate its effects. This isn't "adaptation," it's harm reduction; think of it as suppressing the worst symptoms while fighting to cure the disease.

Changes to temperature and rainfall patterns will affect many elements of how we live, but one of the most important will be agriculture. Staple foods that have been grown in various regions for hundreds or thousands of years will be harder and harder to cultivate; it's highly likely that global warming will lead to repeated crop failures and famine. Fortunately, some organizations have begun to consider this scenario, and to work on responses. This month, the International Rice Research Institute announced a new plan to do just that:

"Clearly, climate change is going to have a major impact on our ability to grow rice," Robert S. Zeigler, IRRI director general, said. "We can't afford to sit back and be complacent about this because rice production feeds almost half the world's population while providing vital employment to millions as well, with most of them being very poor and vulnerable."
For these reasons, Dr. Zeigler announced at the workshop that IRRI – in an unprecedented move – was ready to put up US$2 million of its own research funds as part of an effort to raise $20–25 million for a major five-year project to mitigate the effects of climate change on rice production. "We need to start developing rice varieties that can tolerate higher temperatures and other aspects of climate change right now," he said.

Continue reading "Rice, Climate and "Effects Mitigation"" »

March 27, 2006

The Open Future: Open Source Scenario Planning

Scenario methodology is a powerful tool for thinking through the implications of strategic choices. Rather than tying the organization to a set "official future," scenarios offer a range of possible outcomes used less as predictions and more as "wind tunnels" for plans. (How would our strategy work in this future? How about if things turn out this way?) We talk about scenarios with some frequency here, and several of us have worked (and continue to work) professionally in the discipline.

With its genealogy reaching back to Cold War think tanks and global oil multinationals, however, scenario planning tends to be primarily a tool for corporate and government planning; few non-profit groups or NGOs, let alone smaller communities, have the resources to assemble useful scenario projects or (more importantly) follow the results of the scenarios through the organization. Scenario planning pioneer Global Business Network has made a real effort to bring the scenario methodology to non-profits (disclosure: I worked at GBN and continue to do occasional projects for them), but we could take the process further: we can create open source scenarios. I don't just mean free or public scenarios; I mean opening up the whole process.

Let's see what this would entail.

Continue reading "The Open Future: Open Source Scenario Planning" »


Institute for the Future

Kim Allen
W. James Au/New World Notes
Rebecca Blood
Violet Blue
Nicole Boyer
David Brin
Stuart Candy
Rob Carlson
Dale Carrico
Rafe Colburn
Jason Cole
Regine Debatty
George Dvorsky
Warren Ellis
Gil Friend
Emily Gertz
Melissa Gira
David Isenberg
Richard Kadrey
Martin Kelly
Micki Krimmel
Jon Lebkowsky
Joel Makower
Jessica Margolin
George Mokray
Jerry Paffendorf/The Other Here
Taran Rampersad
Paul Raven/Armchair Anarchist
Cameron Sinclair
Siel/green LA girl
Bruce Sterling/Beyond the Beyond
Anthony Townsend/The Blue Economy
Eric Townsend
Mike Treder
John Wilson
Andrew Zolli
Ethan Zuckerman

Commentary & Culture
Purse Lip Square Jaw
Space and Culture
Dispatches from Blogistan
Glyn Moody/Open...
Annalee Newitz/Techsploitation
Gregg Zachary/Africa Works
Kaliya Hamlin/Identity Woman

Abstract Dynamics
core77.com's design blog
IDFuel - The Industrial Design Weblog
MoCo Loco
Social Design Notes
Viridian Design

Green Car Congress
Peak Energy
RealClimate >> Climate Science
Marketing Green
The Ergosphere
The Oil Drum
Triple Pundit

Accelerating Future
Existence is Wonderful
Future Feeder
Future Now (IFTF)
Future Salon
Future Wire
Global Business Network
Paul Hartzog
Lifeboat Foundation
Sentient Developments
Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence
UH Manoa Graduate Research Center for Future Studies

Metaverse & Serious Games
Academic Gamers
Greg Costikyan/Games * Design * Art * Culture
Henry Jenkins
Jane McGonigal/Avant Game
Terra Nova
Thinking Machinima
Water Cooler Games

Participatory Panopticon
Google Earth Blog
The Map Room
Mobile Technology Weblog
Ogle Earth
Open Access News
Smart Mobs

Political Futures
Defense Tech
Designing for a Civil Society
Global Guerillas
How the World Works
No Quarter
Stephenson Strategies

Adam Greenfield (Everyware)
Center for Responsible Nanotechnology
Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies
Julian Bleecker (Blogjects)
...more to come...

Pre-WorldChanging Writing

Interviews and Talks

Everybody Watching Everybody Else
NeoFiles Show #47, July 2006
Participatory Panopticon
interview for FutureGrinder, March 2006
Commonwealth Club
discussion on blogging, recorded February 2006
Personal Memory Assistants
recorded at Accelerating Change 2005, October 2005
Other Worlds, Real and Imagined
interview for NeoFiles, June 2005
Participatory Panopticon
recorded at MeshForum 2005, May 2005
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