21 February 2019
A Great Future
The building blocks.
By John Watson
Disaster is a staple of the science fiction writer. A world destroyed or at least so messed-up that you cannot go onto the surface; humanity reacting to man-made disaster with a return to savagery or worse. People enslaved by a wholly malignant imperialism. All grim stuff and we join with the fictional hero as he winces at the folly which has created his predicament. What terrible mistakes have been made!
Suppose though we read a different sort of book and, rather than the earth suffering disaster, things have really turned out rather well. The book will not sell of course, but still the author will have had to wonder how by the year 2100 we could have got out of the messes which we are now in. What explanations will he be able to use, bearing in mind that they have to be more or less plausible? Let’s put our 2100 hat on and see what we can think of.
Obviously the place to start is the environment. Current trends show an alarming increase in global warming and there seems to be a scientific consensus that it goes beyond normal fluctuations and that fundamental changes are taking place. If they are right and it is not reversed, parts of the world’s surface will become uninhabitable causing huge pressure for migration and inevitable wars as those fleeing starvation run up against the walls of those who are concerned that they will be overrun. Not a pleasant prospect but in our book it has not happened. How is the author to explain that?
One possibility is international cooperation on the lines of the Paris Agreement, nations working together and gradually ratcheting up their efforts and expenditure. That did look a possibility but with the US dropping out it looks less likely. If the US, the leader of the West, gets pushed off course by the winds of populism, how are we going to get the emerging economies, with their populations seeking standards we already enjoy in the West, to put environmental concerns before economic progress?
No, the story-line will have to be about an international authority to which the job of controlling emissions has been entrusted. And what would have driven this unprecedented surrender of sovereignty? It must be some unmistakeable warning from the scientists or from nature itself. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, but with the warning heeded.
Of course that wouldn’t be enough. It is all very well having international authorities but what would they do? How would the emissions be cut? Science does not leave much of a choice here. Either we would all have to use less energy or it would have to be created in more efficient ways. Most probably both. Our authority would have to be able to redirect energy sources and we would have to find ways of using less. That means all sorts of new energy-saving technology. We already have lots of it. For example, the replacement of books by kindles must save energy on a considerable scale. There are many other efficiencies too. Business communication by electronic mail rather than meetings must save millions of business miles. As transport systems become more robotic, far less energy need be wasted. Our author would need to be able to point at how technological progress had been channelled. By financial penalty or inducement? By regulation? The preference might depend on political inclination but which routes work best is a question of science.
Science too must be the key to the plastics issue. In Europe at least there is a genuine popular interest in the subject and governments have capitalised on this with new taxes. Our author will have to point at how such taxes became universal and no doubt a global international authority is what he will point to.
Then there is inequality, the fact that many do not feel that they have participated in prosperity creates a dangerous mismatch between those with a stake in society and those with the votes. There are two ways of tackling that. One is to remove the votes from those outside the system. No, no, surely it couldn’t be done, not in a democratic age? It could, though; votes can be denied by fixing elections just as surely as by changing the register. Ask the Zimbabweans. Ask the Venezuelans. Still, it is not that sort of a book. We are looking at a Panglossian future, not one where one set of problems has been replaced by another. The better answer is a movement of resources. How do you achieve that? By taxation in the short term but that should only be a temporary solution. “Education, Education, Education”, that is the key to a fairer society and none the less so because Tony Blair, who coined the slogan, is currently unpopular.
What about Brexit? How does our fictional hero of 2100 view that? The agonies of the process will be long forgotten by then, so what will he be left with? A breakup of a union of tribes which did not fit too well together? The emergence of something new in the UK which broke with the past? The start of the breakdown of fortress Europe and its replacement by the global institutions needed to fix the big problems? Let’s just hope so.