Will energy efficiency become a sexy word? Quite possibly. And so will the pursuit of satisfaction unrelated to material consumption.
By CHRISTINE LOH
Hong Kong, October 2010
Cattle graze at a Chinese wind farm. Air power could be the next cool thing but it requires lots of open space and, of course, a regular supply of wind.
WHAT kind of future might we have to adapt to, and how faraway is the future? Is it already perceptible? Is the future just a bit different from today or will it be dramatically different? Will change be linear or abrupt? What are the indicators of change and what do we have to prepare for?
Demography, energy, environment, climate change and electronic communications are driving geopolitical and technology change, which is also having an impact on access to information and social networks – which will in turn alter what we do and how we do it in the coming decades. The future is not set in stone. There are different “futures” and humans have choices. What will actually happen depends on how these choices are made and whose choices matter the most.
The future is not set in stone. There are different 'futures' and humans have choices. What will actually happen depends on how these choices are made and whose choices matter the most
There are some compelling indicators. Demographics for one. More people have been born in the past 50 years than the last 5,000. About 50 percent of the people alive today are under 25 years of age. While some countries are worried about ageing populations, there is a large young generation to consider globally.
Where are these young people? They mainly live in urban slums surviving on low incomes. What kind of “force” may they become and how may it impact on our lives across the world? Should we see them as just potential “consumers” of the good life or will they be a source of major social disruptions because they feel deprived of opportunities?
Then there's “Biodiversity loss”, a polite way of saying species extinction. Human actions often lead to irreversible losses in terms of diversity of life on Planet Earth and these losses have been more rapid in the past 50 years than ever before in human history. Biodiversity plays an important role in the way ecosystems function and in the many critical ecological services they provide, such as soil formation, plant pollination, pest control and even climate regulation.
Humans are causing impacts that we don’t fully understand in planetary terms. Will we continue to threaten other life-forms in the name of economic growth or will we choose to focus on ecological restoration to halt massive biodiversity loss?
There is the issue of Peak Oil and Peak Coal – Peak oil is the point in time when the maximum rate of global petroleum extraction is reached, after which the rate of production enters terminal decline. The idea of “peaking” is not new or the prediction that we have reached the peak for oil extraction. Experts accept we are in the midst of saying goodbye to oil, which will eventually change many industries that depend on it as the primary fuel, such as transportation.
“Peaking” can apply to other types of finite resources, including coal. The assumption that there are endless quantities of domestic coal for countries like China and India to power their development is not necessarily true. While China is estimated to have 114 years and India 200 years of coal at current rates of use, but at rates increasing five percent per annum, China’s coal would last only 39 years, and India’s 50 years. If not fossil fuels, then what will power our future?
Climate Change is on everyone's lips. The rise of average global temperature is changing the climate, and along with it, Planet Earth as we know it. The massive release of greenhouse gases has its roots in the discovery and use of fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution. Climate change is exacerbating environmental stresses, including biodiversity loss.
The confluence of climate change and depletion of fossil fuels is already leading to a heightened interest worldwide in other forms of power. What is unclear is which forms of power will win out to fuel our future.
ICT – The rise of “Internet communications technology” has already changed the world rapidly and dramatically. ICT is now ubiquitous. We are all still coping with the change, including how to deal with “social networking”. Indeed, ICT is putting a whole range of new pressures on individuals, organisations and governments.
People everywhere can access a lot more information today. This will lead to demands for people in power to be much more transparent about how they make decisions and who benefits the most from those decisions. The Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico provides many lessons. The world watched the oil gushing out as it happened. Alongside information released by the oil giant BP, and US government information, were commentaries from a whole variety of individuals with expertise who proved to be more right than the “official” sources. People around the world watched how senior BP executives presented themselves, how the US government reacted and made their own judgment on their honesty, credibility and ability to deal with the crisis. Public trust in officialdom and business is low.
In the next decade or so, the idea of a low material consumption and high satisfaction philosophy will begin to take root although it will take more time to turn the current industrial complex away from the current consumption model
Beyond these and other indicators of change, there will no doubt be unpredictable surprises – the “outliers” or “black swans”. Might they be major breakthroughs in technology, such as in artificial intelligence, biotechnology or nanotechnology? Breakthroughs are also breakdowns because it will change the status quo. What and who will rise and fall? Might the outliers be massive natural disasters that change mindsets and behaviours?
We already know we are more closely connected to each other than ever before, although we have probably not yet accepted that we are interdependent because we all like to think we are in control and independent. Some things are truly global – climate and ecological problems for sure, and also the flow of ideas and money. In these things, we are already interdependent and connected.
If we accept that regional and global problems require collaboration, what new alliances in geopolitics will there be? How might that impact on business and civil society? Up until now, politicians and companies have sold the vision of the good (material) life. This seems to be a false dream. There are limits to what our planet can provide. Over-taxing its resources and ecological capacities is creating widespread degradation and heating up the planet to a point that endangers human civilization. How do we live within planetary means? We are only beginning to grapple with redefining economic “growth” so that human aspirations can focus on human development in the widest sense of the term rather than on the accumulation of material things.
Let me make a prediction. In the next decade or so, the idea of a low material consumption and high satisfaction philosophy will begin to take root although it will take more time to turn the current industrial complex away from the current consumption model. Restoration of degradation is shown to be much easier than previously thought if the Earth's natural operation model is respected. Moreover, Planet Earth will be given legal rights, and we will begin to see a range of new crimes against the environment.
Energy efficiency will finally become sexy. There are already many technology fixes but incentives and management priorities have not yet caught up. If energy inefficiency (ie, pollution and climate change) is priced into the economic system, much bigger advances can be made. In addition, new forms of power will probably make faster advances than we can predict today. A massive natural event may push technology and policy transformation forward. In addition, ICT enables ordinary people, including the younger generation around the world, to push across various tipping points.
Columnist, activist, former Hong Kong legislator and founder of the Citizen's Party and the Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, Christine Loh runs the non-profit Hong Kong-based think tank Civic Exchange.
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