‘There are decades where nothing happens’, said Vladimir Illyich Lenin, ’and there are weeks where decades happen’.
Clearly, we’re in one of those moments where a lot happens quickly, where old systems are breaking down, empires are tottering, and new ways are emerging bawling from the womb.
This decade will be the most disruptive of any in human history, according to a book I read this week called Rethinking Humanity, from the think-tank RethinkX.
That’s probably not what you want to ready on a wet October day, after seven months of a pandemic, and a decade of economic and political crises.
Wouldn’t it be nice to read a futurist report that says ‘humanity will potter along calmly for a few decades. Go long on jam’.
But there is hope in some of the changes we’re seeing. Things need to change.
The book’s authors — Tony Seba and James Arbib — suggest this is the decade that humans shift from the industrial ‘age of extraction’ to the digital ‘age of creation’.
In energy, they predicted a rapid shift from oil and gas to solar and wind, and a move from centralized electrical utilities to diversified networks powered by cheap lithium batteries. That’s already happening — the International Energy Agency’s 2020 outlook this month predicted ‘solar will be the king of electricity this decade’.
In vehicles, RethinkX predicted a rapid shift from petrol-fuelled cars to fleets of electric autonomous vehicles. Electric cars are poised to be cheaper than petrol cars by 2022, and big corporations like Amazon are launching new fleets of electric delivery trucks.
In food — this was the prediction that most surprised me — RethinkX predicts a shift this decade from livestock farming to and alternative proteins, either through ‘precision fermentation’, or through the manipulation of animal cells to make meat.
All of these shifts are powered by the information revolution, by AI and quantum computing, which enable a new manipulation of energy, matter and information. As they put it:
The building blocks will be the bit (and later qbit), photon, electron, molecule, and DNA (or gene). These building blocks are available and plentiful everywhere and can be recombined in infinite ways to create new products and services at essentially zero cost.
That’s the hopeful point: essentially zero cost. These market shifts are happening much faster than most analysts predicted, because of technological advance and rapid 10X price drops, which are making eco-friendly options like solar energy, electric cars or impossible burgers not just affordable, but cheaper than the eco-toxic alternatives. When an electric car or farm-free steak costs ten times less than a petrol car or a slice of a cow, that appeals to people’s pockets as well as their conscience.
This — in the absence of significant government actions on lowering carbon emissions — is our best bet for managing climate change. 28% of global carbon emissions come from petrol cars, 26% come from fossil-fuel-generated electricity, 10% come from livestock. 40% of all habitable land on the planet is used by livestock farming, which is also the biggest destroyer of biodiversity.
The way to a better green future, in other words, is not to try and turn back to some romantic folk past, but to press forwards, embracing new technologies even if they challenge our idea of ‘natural’. George Monbiot, who tends to be on the folky-primitivist side of things, gets this. He wrote in a column earlier this year:
We are on the cusp of the biggest economic transformation, of any kind, for 200 years. While arguments rage about plant- versus meat-based diets, new technologies will soon make them irrelevant. Before long, most of our food will come neither from animals nor plants, but from unicellular life. After 12,000 years of feeding humankind, all farming except fruit and veg production is likely to be replaced by ferming: brewing microbes through precision fermentation…
Farmfree food will allow us to hand back vast areas of land and sea to nature, permitting rewilding and carbon drawdown on a massive scale. It means an end to the exploitation of animals, an end to most deforestation, a massive reduction in the use of pesticides and fertiliser, the end of trawlers and longliners. It’s our best hope of stopping what some have called the “sixth great extinction”, but I prefer to call the great extermination. And, if it’s done right, it means cheap and abundant food for everyone.
The authors of Rethinking Humanity likewise predict the age of creation could be an age of abundance, in which comfortable western lifestyles are affordable to everyone in the world for a few hundred dollars a month. We won’t have to work as much either. We’ll spend our days meditating on the cosmos or making TikTok videos while the 3D Printer cooks our favourite T-Rex-cell steak.
But the shift from one model of civilization to another won’t all be plain sailing.
If everything is so cheap, how do people make money? How do we employ everyone? The dawning of the age of creation would mean the end of many industries — the end of oil and gas, a sector which accounted for 30% of the S&P500 in 1980, but under 5% today. What does the sudden collapse of this sector mean for the economy as a whole, or for the Middle East and Russia? What happens if the car industry goes bust and millions of workers lose their jobs? What happens to farmers who lose a millennia-old way of life?
The authors’ response is ‘protect people, not businesses’. Perhaps you need some form of Universal Basic Income, as over half of jobs become automated.
Another risk is that the benefits of the age of creation are not shared widely, but instead captured by a handful of companies or countries, like Facebook and Google, the British East India Companies of the 21st century. They don’t pass on the cost savings of the new technologies to consumers, but get staggeringly rich themselves, like Jeff Bezos. And they use their control of information to manipulate, exploit and monitor the people.
The final risk is that humanity — or particular regions — don’t make the shift. We can’t handle the disruption to our existing operating system and we resist change, or try to hang on to the past, and our civilization collapses into a new dark ages. The authors warn that previous empires haven’t done very well at adapting to change, and that new technological surges have tended to be driven by outsiders — Manchester, say, or California.
Part of me worries about the West’s ability to adapt to change at the moment. I see a closing of the western mind, a descent into magical thinking, anti-science, vaccine suspicion, conspiracy theories, ideological rigidity and polarised culture wars. Or a capture of the West by oil and gas in the US and livestock farming in Europe.
Still, some part of humanity will advance into the future. Meanwhile I will potter along, making jam. Jam 2.0. Precision jam.