Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Societies of the future?

According to a recent news article, Japan’s future is not as bleak as some might think. True, the majority of its major cities (Tokyo, Kawasaki, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, and Sapporo) have huge chunks of densely-populated land lying within a 10m rise of the coastline (which is expected to recede dramatically in the next 100 years). This is an issue of sea level rise. Japan also has impacts from hurricanes (aka typhoons) every year or so. With these expected to only grow in size and strength, I would say that the future looks rather bleak.

This brings me to wonder how many people sit down and think about the physical changes that will cause political and social changes in the world of our future. People, that is, other than fiction writers. Do political scientists and policy wonks sit around and wonder what the world will be like after even a one meter rise in sea level? How many people would that cause to become migrants? How many countries would become inhospitable due to aquifer inundations and overland flooding? For one, Bangladesh would certainly become greatly uninhabitable, forcing hundreds of millions of people into a state of social upheaval. This would also be a similar case for much of low-lying India, northern Egypt, as well as coastal China.

Would this lead to a precipitation of military expansionism? After all, much of the fertile lands of a region are located in the floodplains of a country, and many countries have floodplains near their shores. When these become inundated with sea water, it will undoubtedly have a social and economic impact. Who is to say that any country would be able to easily absorb these impacts? Why not invade neighboring countries to take their lands and crops before your own country becomes unable to feed her citizens? It is, after all, a question of being “nice” or survival of your nation.

This brings up the question of whether the use of nuclear weapons remains a viable threat. Since many nations built cities on their agricultural lands, use of nuclear weaponry will only shrink the amount of agriculturally viable lands available to the victor of such a war.

Possibly one thing that will happen will be the movement of cities from fertile areas to non-fertile areas. Since transportation systems have proven their capacity of shipping food from far-flung regions of the world to the cities of the planet, it would make sense that cities no longer need to be located near their food sources. By moving cities (and possibly including industries) to areas marginal agricultural lands, relatively large regions of the country could be returned to producing produce for a hungry and climatically impacted nation. Of course, countries would need to ensure that this radical reorganization of the entire basis of a nation did not rip the fabric of society apart. If the majority of US citizens now ended up living in cities in the mountains of the West or Appalachia, or the deserts of the Southwest, a lot of political power would be stripped from the currently population-dense East to the currently population-sparse arid West.

So going back to the original premise of this whole question: what is going to happen in the future? We as a society or government make plans going out into the future for ten, twenty, fifty, or a hundred years. However, we blindly accept that there will be a future USA (or any other country) to which our legacy will be given. Who could have imagined in 1900 the radical changes that would have happened to the world in the next 100 years (or even the following 50 years)? Why should the future of the world be any different in 2000? We feel more connected with the world, and have established trading relationships with several other nations to help ensure stability; the inter-marriage of royal families that kept the peace in centuries past. However, these marriages proved not to be foolproof as armies of cousin kings marched against each other. Similarly, the commercial marriages may well not prove so stable (that capital is fungible and mobile makes these ‘marriages’ even more shaky in my opinion).

Having played such simulations as the Civilization series of games, it always struck me that a viable option of feeding a nation (once my civilization had moved to the level of having vast roadways and railways) was to shift my major population centers to regions where natural resources were scarce. This alleviated localized pollution impacts (which would negatively affect agriculture), while allowing for population maintenance (usually my populations would reach ridiculously large numbers well before this became a viable option). In my scenario, mountain ranges housed the mega-cities of the future, and the formerly-populous grasslands once again opened up to agriculture and forestry.

Now there is obviously a large difference between Civilization the game, and civilization the reality. For one thing, all the versions I played didn’t have climate change as a disaster that could strike the world. (It did have alien invasions in one add-on version, as well as guerillas that would strike at you from the frost-bitten northlands of your country, which were rather odd things one had to deal with, although you did have the option of turning these random encounters off.) For another thing, the diplomacy and policy buttons were rather crude instruments (about as precise as using a pneumatic hammer to do dentistry) that could suddenly cause a war to start because a trade relation didn’t work out so well. Yet another was that battles and campaigns were affairs that took place somewhere in the background of the game with a random number generator. Still, it is my opinion that these kinks could be worked out, and as the game becomes more complex with the passage of time. Perhaps the next version will include global climate change as a factor in the game. (Ahh, how will the resource-hungry leaders of other nations reply to such a major impact to their countries?)

Although Civilization was an interesting tangent, I still haven’t really gotten to theorize about my original question, which was who sits down and plans out alternative futures? I’m sure people do it in the time frame of 5 years. After all, corporations and governments all come out with their Five Year Plans. However, I wonder how many people consider the Fifty Year Plan. Or the Hundred Year Plan. True, it is really difficult to enact public policy that you will be assured will be around for the next 100 years. However, if the nations of the world today wish to remain the nations of the world tomorrow, especially in the light of the impacts of climate change on the world’s societies, long-term planning needs to be done. The time frame of the “strategic planning” of today needs to stretch further.

1 comment:

sara said...

Funny that you mention this because I just heard that some folks at the Pentagon have been putting thought to your questions of climate change-induced refugees, natural resource conflicts, etc. Of course, I don't know how one would verify this type of information, but I am certainly interested in finding out more. I only wish we could confirm cases of US decision-makers doing more than "thinking" about it.