Collapse, Transcendence and Diversity

On his weblog Open the Future futurist Jamais Cascio writes about our chances for bridging the innovation gap in Collapse, Transcendence, or Muddling Through:

Techno-utopianism is heady and seductive. Looking at the proliferation of powerful catalytic technologies, and the potential for truly transformative innovations just beyond our present grasp, makes scenarios of transcendence wiping away the terrible legacies of 20th century industrialism seem easy. If we’re just patient, and don’t shy away from the scale of the potential change, all that we fear today could be as relevant as 19th century tales of crowded city streets overwhelmed by horse droppings.

But if you don’t trust the technological scenarios, it’s not hard to see just how thoroughly we’re doomed. There are myriad drivers: depleting resources, rapid environmental degradation, global warming, international political instability, just to name a few. Any of these forms of “collapse” would pose a considerable challenge; in combination, they’re simply terrifying. Most importantly, we seem to be unwilling to acknowledge the significance of the challenge. We’re evolutionarily set to look for nearby, near-term problems and ignore deeper, distributed threats.

But here’s the twist: the impacts of these broader drivers for collapse and of technosocial innovation aren’t and won’t be evenly distributed globally. Some places will be able to last longer in the face of resource and environmental collapse than will others — and (not coincidentally) such places may be at the forefront of technosocial development, as well. The combination of collapse and innovation will lead to profoundly divergent results around the world. …

So the dilemma here is how to construct a global policy that can take into account the sheer complexity of the onrushing collapse. If it was “just” resource depletion, it would be tricky but doable; but it’s resource collapse plus global warming plus pandemic disease plus post-hegemonic disorder plus the myriad other issues we’re grappling with. It’s going to be difficult to see our way through this. Not impossible, but difficult.

The aspects that are on our side:

  • We do have the technology to deal with a lot of this stuff, but not the political will. But we know that we can change politics and society, arguably better than we know we can build some new technologies. A major disaster or three will change the politics quickly.
  • To a certain extent, the crises can cross-mitigate — for example, skyrocketing petroleum prices has measurably reduced travel miles, and are pushing people to buy more fuel-efficient cars, thereby reducing overall carbon outputs. Economic slow-downs also reduce the pace of carbon output. These are not a solution, by any means, but a mitigating factor.
  • We have a lot of people thinking about this, working on fixes and solutions and ideas. Not top-down directed, but a massively-massively-multi-participant quest, across thousands of communities and hundreds of countries, bringing in literally millions of minds. The very description reeks of innovation potential.

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