In 2021, global carbon dioxide emissions reached 36.3 billion tons, the highest volume ever recorded. This year, the number of international refugees will cross 30 million, also the highest figure ever. As sea levels and temperatures rise and geopolitical tensions flare, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that humanity is veering towards systemic breakdown. The superpowers will be no salvation: Locked in a “new Cold War,’ the U.S. careens between populism and incompetence, while China remains locked down at home and alienates many nations abroad.
We’re not very good at predicting the next five days, let alone five years. Our daily headlines underscore how we are overwhelmed by crises: COVID-19, natural disasters, ruptured supply chains, food shortages, international conflicts, spiking oil prices, failing states, refugee flows, and so forth. But these are not isolated incidents. They are manifestations of complexity—a global system in which the environment, economy, demographics, politics, and technology constantly collide in unpredictable ways. It was not a single event that caused the Roman and Mayan civilizations to collapse, but rather this complex collision of chain reactions.
Today it’s fashionable to speak of civilizational collapse. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) states that just a 1.5 degree Celsius rise will prove devastating to the world’s food systems by 2025. Meanwhile, the most recent IPCC report warns that we must reverse emissions by 2025 or face an irreversible accelerating breakdown in critical ecosystems, and that even if the Paris agreement goals are implemented, a 2.4 degree Celsius rise is all but inevitable. In other words, the “worst case” RCP 8.5 scenario used in many climate models is actually a baseline. The large but banal numbers you read—$2 trillion in annual economic damage, 10-15% lower global GDP, etc.—are themselves likely massively understated. The climate bill just passed by the Senate is barely a consolation prize in this drama: a welcome measure, but also too little to bring rains back to drought-stricken regions in America or worldwide.
What if there isn’t a calm that lies beyond the current storm? In 1994, war correspondent Robert Kaplan famously wrote of a “coming anarchy” based on his reportage from West Africa to the Balkans, pointing to a swath of societies that had long since become failed states. Supply chain disruptions and inflation have accelerated the spread of state failures like cancerous mutations across the globe. COVID, climate change, and conflict – all point in the direction of a far more global trajectory for Kaplan’s thesis than even he pessimistically warned at the time.
Let’s assume that we are indeed hurtling towards the worst-case scenario by 2050: Hundreds of millions of people perish in heatwaves and forest fires, earthquakes and tsunamis, droughts and floods, state failures and protracted wars. Henry Gee, editor of the magazine Nature, wrote in an essay in Scientific American in late 2021 that even absent the hazards of climate change and nuclear war, humankind was heading towards extinction due to declining genetic variety and sperm quality.
No wonder that philosophers such as Roy Scranton claim we need to “learn how to die.”
But even in the most plausibly dire scenarios, billions of people will survive. Today’s world population stands at eight billion people, quadruple the population of a century ago. Even with accelerating Boomer mortality, low fertility, and the possibility of another global pandemic, a devastating world war, and climate induced famine, the world population would likely still stand at 6 billion people by 2050. Furthermore, we are not just a collection of local civilizations but a connected global system. Some nations and regions will break down, but others will become vital hubs for our future civilization. Unlike centuries past, billions of humans are physically capable of relocating if the need arises. We can preemptively reorganize ourselves for collective survival—if we try.
So where will the young survivors of today’s storms gather over the next 20-30 years? Which technologies will be the platforms of our future societies and economies? What new model of civilization awaits us?
Climate models reveal that each degree of temperature rise shifts the “climate niche” of optimal human habitation northward from the present 20-30 degrees latitude. In the 19th century, tens of millions of Europeans fled famine and hardship, resettling in the Americas, and a similar number of Chinese and Indian laborers circulated around the plantations of Asia. In the 20th century, imperial collapse, World Wars, ethnic expulsions, state failures, and economic migrations drove hundreds of millions of Europeans, Latinos, and Asians to resettle in new homes. Now, in the 21st century, more than one billion will be displaced by climate change. The decimal place is shifting to the right.
Where might you live in 2050? Humankind is on the hunt for locations blessed with sufficient water, food, and energy resources. Canada and the Great Lakes region, central and northern Europe, southern Russia, and other regions are becoming relatively more livable (despite volatility in temperature extremes) in the decades ahead. From the British Isles to eastern Anatolia to Japan’s main island of Honshu, there are many depopulated yet verdant zones that can support larger numbers.
Currently the latitudes most suitable for human habitation are currently the ones with the most rapidly aging populations. While the overall population of northern states has plateaued, countries such as Canada, Germany and Kazakhstan have become major migration magnets, even melting pots, as they collect skilled workers and refugees. Canada’s economic policy is its immigration policy, the engine of its diversification beyond commodities into technology and other sectors. Russia, the world’s largest country by landmass, is among the fastest de-populating due to elderly mortality, low fertility, and other maladies such as alcoholism and cancer. Russia’s politics don’t indicate a liberal cultural metamorphosis into a Eurasian Canada, but its dwindling demographics have already prompted it to import Uzbeks, Indians, and other foreigners to serve in its construction and agriculture sectors. In 2021, Russia was the world’s largest wheat exporter; in the future, almost all of its farmers may be foreigners.
Labor shortages and refugee flows–from the Latino migrant caravan to Africans crossing the Mediterranean on rafts–may compel today’s borders to open much further than recent years of populist xenophobia would suggest. But it won’t be a universal phenomenon. A global grand bargain on migration, whether for political or climate refugees, isn’t in the cards. Each region will display different dynamics based on its geography, politics, and culture. North America may continue to peacefully absorb populations from Latin America to India, while Europe may continue to violently resist the influx of Africans and Arabs and instead favor higher skilled Asians and Russians.
The fate of the territory presently known as “Russia” is crucial. Moscow’s politics today suggest an isolationist nationalism, but geography paints a different picture—especially Russia’s proximity to the most populous, young, resource-hungry, and climate-stressed regions of the planet: Asia. Russia’s aggressive lashing out at the West will only increase its dependence on the East to import goods and export raw materials. Its mineral-rich terrain is also Eurasia’s central crossroads. Imagine if we were to terraform Russia’s vast and warming Siberian terrain, rich in rivers and farmland, into an archipelago of settlements that absorb and feed billions of people. Large-scale population resettlement is a plausible—and even essential—mechanism for preserving our numbers.
In a truly cataclysmic climate scenario, most won’t be so lucky. But many of the technologies and tools that will underpin tomorrow’s scattered settlements are present today. The most obvious and essential is hydrological engineering. As rivers dry up and drought grips the world, Europe’s Alpine societies will channel precious glacier melt into underground aquifers to irrigate their fertile lands. Where water tables are falling and rainfall dwindling, drought-resistant seeds will be deployed. Atmospheric water capture can fill tanks that drip into aquaponic vegetable gardens that require no soil at all. Solar energy and battery storage can power underground greenhouses and even water desalination plants. Small scale and even portable nuclear reactors can power cities and even transfer energy into grids before being transported to recharge other cities.
World Future Council chairman Herbert Girardet, a respected figure spanning the worlds of architecture and agriculture, has long encouraged a retreat from the far-flung just-in-time world of the “petropolis” towards the more localized “ecopolis”. In his recent book Regeneration, veteran climate activist Paul Hawken underscores the roadmap towards a genuine version of today’s urban policy meme of the “15-minute city”—not just walkable but autonomous: reforestation (and using forests as farms) and renewable energy for electrification.
Across the world, there are societies already well-positioned in terms of their agricultural self-sufficiency and low supply chain dependence. According to the Sustainable Development Index—a ranking of countries that meet their people’s needs with low per capita resource consumption—the best performers aren’t Norway or Australia but Costa Rica, Albania, Georgia, and other less populated countries around middle-income status. These places may well ride out climate volatility better than more advanced societies that depend heavily on imported food and industrial goods for larger populations. Michigan, Scotland, Northern Thailand, New Zealand, and many other pockets of reliable agricultural output and relative climate resilience may become havens for those seeking refuge from the uncertainty of supply chain dependencies.
In Four Lost Cities, Annalee Newitz suggests a coming “period of global urban abandonment.” Across America, so-called “prepper” communities are multiplying in states such as Oregon, armed with amateur HAM radios, ready-to-eat SPAM, and, of course, automatic weapons. The post-apocalypse could be a dispersed and neo-medieval world of to-each-his-own settlements no longer interested in some form of continental federalism. Perhaps they may recongregate in novel formations beyond today’s static political boundaries.
Millions of people may also become nomadic, moving like migratory birds between places where the climate allows. American youth offer an interesting window into the next generation’s sixth sense for survival. Unlike older generations, Millennials and Gen-Z may not know where they’ll live and work next month, let alone next year. That’s one reason why they’re emptying out of overpriced and disaster prone coastal cities to places such as Nashville, Charlotte, and Denver. And most of them aren’t buying homes. The memory of the mortgage crisis a decade ago that eviscerated their parents’ savings, together with the trend towards remote work, made mobile trailer homes a hot purchase during the pandemic lockdown. Mobile communes have sprung up featuring portable solar power and water desalination. Mobile and tiny home dwellers have crypto-currency wallets and use task-sharing apps to find work—and just drive there for a week, a season, or a year at a time. They’ll never die in a flood or heatwave.
Behold, then, a youth population—our demographic future—that is already scattering from coastal to inland, over-priced to affordable, dangerous to stable, and establishing new settlements that can relocate as circumstances dictate. Google X’s Astro Teller speaks of the need for “movable cites”—something that is already feasible with 3D printed housing and mobile homes, wastewater recycling and hydroponic agriculture, solar and wind power and switchable battery packs.
Across the Atlantic, Britons are also finding creative ways to adapt to climate change and economic stress. The U.K. is at the cutting-edge of the new movement towards 3D printed homes, even ones that can be moved on the backs of trucks (provided there are enough drivers). A little less mobile are BoKlok’s flats and terrace homes, prefabricated “flat-pack” homes developed by IKEA and Skanska, that are popping up as entire villages from Bristol to Sussex. Like other mature economies, Britain faces massive social pressure to deploy affordable housing. With post-Brexit property prices recovering and professionals relocating nationwide to take advantage of remote work, Britain has a chance to alleviate the aching shortage of affordable housing, and to do so in places where people actually want to live.
What these surviving societies and communities will have in common is that they are able to unwind the complexity that has felled our predecessors. They rely less on far-flung global supply chains by locally growing their own food, generating energy from renewable resources, and utilizing additive manufacturing. A combination of prepping and nomadism, high-tech and simple, are the ingredients for species-level survival.
These demographic, geographic, and technological shifts are evidence that we are already doing things differently now rather than waiting for an inevitable “collapse” or mass extinction event. They also suggest the embrace of a new model of civilization that is both more mobile and more sustainable than our present sedentary and industrial one. The collapse of civilizations is a feature of history, but Civilization with a big ‘C’ carries on, absorbing useful technologies and values from the past before it is buried. Today’s innovations will be tomorrow’s platforms. Indeed, the faster we embrace these artifacts of our next Civilization, the more likely we are to avoid the collapse of our present one. Humanity will come together again—whether or not it falls apart first.
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