Ci'Num scenario 1: Collapse
Position in the scenario tree
- Will we have the global organizational capacity to address the overshoot? - No
- What is the primary constraint of human activities? [irrelevant]
- What are the main mechanisms for organizing large scale systems? [irrelevant]
Despite having the necessary technologies at hand, we have collectively done little to reduce global warming and to plan for shortages in fossil energies, fresh water, arable land, etc. Crises occur in growing frequency and seriousness, severely damaging the world economy and producing human catastrophes, both natural and man-made, especially in developing countries. Hundreds of millions of refugees roam Asia and Africa, and migratory pressure on the North becomes insupportable. Borders close, local conflicts multiply and threaten to expand, mobility decreases, economies and societies retract and relocalize. Public spirit is low, spontaneously erupting in local conflicts. Alliances shift and solidarity can no longer be extended globally as each group fights for its own survival. Technology is used mostly to plan for and cope with current or coming difficulties, and to provide alternatives or escapes from an uninspiring daily life. Alternatives are found in frugal, hyperlocal community-building as well as in semi-autonomous, encrypted and somehow tolerated virtual networks.
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In retrospect, these seem like quiet, easy times, although of course they weren't. Everything seemed to work. As a symbol, the 2008 Beijing Olympics were an unprecedented success: Spectacular (205 records beaten!), grandiose, popular (4.5 billion viewers, all screentypes considered), safe and very profitable! China did justice to its new status as a world giant. Sure, doping was rampant, and athletes and spectators alike came back to their own polluted cities, feeling certain that no metropolis could be worse than Beijing. Al Gore was touring the world with yet another frightening movie, but what did it matter? We had fun; money, information and images flowed; innovation sprouted all over the place. The system worked.
Race to the top
That common feeling was expressed in the election of a right-wing conservative to the U.S. presidency in November, 2008. Americans and others felt they needed leadership for growth and safety; not abstract, forward-looking, planetary principles. "Clean" growth was fine, as long as it was fast growth. Fractured discussions to do something about climate--which ultimately should have led to a second Kyoto round by 2009--were soon abandoned when it became clear that neither Russia, nor the U.S. would sign, and China, in a bid to grow, announced it was officially moving away from its "one child" policy.
Certainly, we were aware of the pending crises, but only intellectually. TV news reported on unusual climate event-- meters of rain in Britain while Eastern and Southern Europe suffered drought and scorching heat. But these signal events happened sporadically, far away and were gone in a few weeks. It was hard to see a pattern forming, no matter how many blogs, prophets, reports and rockstars drove it in your face.
And it was just too great a time. You were into Web 2.0, 3.0, mobile or ubicomp, and busy with your own inventions and ideas. You could invent all you wanted and implement it, get it funded and millions of users in a matter of weeks. With people interacting, cooperating, building things together online, it seemed as if our original vision for the web and its promise were coming true-- and this time, with viable business models! Biotech, neuroscience and nanotech were making fast progress. They yielded new cures and diagnoses, better GMOs, spectacular new materials and, perhaps, some less publicized drugs and methods that mostly soldiers, movie stars and aspiring champions took. New products came on the market constantly; and consumers liked them, emerging countries contributed to growing the market and keeping prices down. And their populations got access to western affluence and people felt optimistic.
So we grew. India vowed that its Delhi Commonwealth Games would be even grander than Beijing's, and China responded by pumping more money into the Shanghai World Expo. The price of oil hit $150, then $200, and that hurt, although not so much: There was plenty of money, and besides, careful planners knew there were a few weeks each year when prices went sharply down despite upward trends.
In many ways, we felt that global warming and the shortage of exhaustible resources --oil,water, etc.,-- would simply disappear as problems. We would discover inexhaustible sources of energy. We would suddenly be able to control climate or recapture the CO2. We bought green cars; we recycled garbage; we gladly paid taxes for our carbon footprint--our fuel and air travel; we video-conferenced and worked from home most Fridays. We did enough, even to justify our opposition to the wind turbine that would have ruined the view from our country house.
These were fun times, really. Until it hit us.
In 2015, a naval skirmish, between China and the U.S. over two supertankers that both countries claimed for their own ports, pulled our attention to the drastically depleted state of oil inventories. The incident triggered a chain of events that sent oil prices soaring through the roof; grounded 40% of the fleet at UPS and Delta Airlines; forced major industrial plants to shut down pending a resumption of regular oil supplies; and led whole cities to ban air-conditioning despite the scorching summers.
Then, the unrelenting news stories. What began as a trickle started to gain momentum with a stream of reports about waves of African refugees heading for the beaches of Italy and Spain; of millions more -- some said it could go as high as 250 million--displaced by water shortages, erupting violence over water rights, and crop failures. We watched images of millions of internally displaced people looking for food, water and safety. And even as our attention was riveted by this human face of drought and a spreading desert in Africa, other reports of climate problems began to puncture our equanimity. There were massive floodings in Shanghai, Tokyo, New York. Experts warned about things getting worse when sea levels rise to 2 meters. In Asia, large swaths of the southeast were battered by an unusually destructive rainy season. Floods in the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta killed and displaced millions of Bengalis and effectively destroyed most of Bangladesh's infrastructure. Communities along China's dynamic Pearl River Delta faced mass evacuation from disastrous spring floods caused by melting glaciers in the north. The world attempted to mobilize to deal with these disasters. But most of the leaders and organizations- governments, aid agencies, the NGOs- were so caught up with problems in their own backyards that there was no real response, no display of grit and determination to assist and demonstrate our global solidarity.
Adding to all that: terrorist incidents that jolted the public to a new level of fear about domestic security and massive deployment of new security and surveillance technologies. Three of the most deadly and cunning terrorist attacks took place just before the final days of the London Olympics, unleashing havoc. First at Wembley stadium where safety systems were highjacked, all doors closed and electric fences turned on, creating mass panic. The second, an biological attack during a gymnastics competition. They happened simultaneously with a synchronized attack on the city's central ICT networks, disabling communications, surveillance nodes, detection sensors and GPS services. It effectively prevented any kind of timely response.
The events had devastating ripple effects. Stock markets tumbled. Air travel nearly grounded, hit hard by fears of more attacks, obstructive security measures -- making plane travel increasingly inefficient and burdensome -- fuel prices, and air traffic restrictions. Several major airlines filed for bankruptcy. Public confidence shattered: savings soared, and consumption, construction and investment plummeted. Security agencies finally took over regulatory control of the Internet, allowing a de facto tripartite regime --U.S., China, and Russia-- to control most of what circulated on the Net. In 2013, the world economy decreased by 2% and international trade by 22%.
While some found his "I told you so" attitude annoying, Al Gore, nevertheless, won the November 2012 presidential election in the U.S. He had more trouble in achieving anything of substance. Everybody was scrambling for his or her survival. Pension systems where crumbling down all over the western world, forcing radical changes in pension schemes: Full retirement age moved up to 70, sometimes 75; in some countries, the very idea of "full retirement" disappeared; family solidarity was strongly encouraged and sometimes made mandatory. Seizing the occasion, 40 "Least advanced countries" officially and simultaneously let it be understood that their foreign debt would not be honoured. Insurance companies revised their policies to exclude most climate-related risks. Border were closed tighter than ever in the West and Asia, effectively maintaining economic migrants and the growing number of refugees displaced by ecological catastrophes or local conflicts over natural resources in a permanent no-man's land.
Diplomatic relationships chilled notably among most countries. Multilateral diplomacy was entirely replaced by bilateral agreements dictated by the need for securing markets and energy supply channels.
Faced with tough and unforeseen budget problems, countries cut down on all non-essential spending, and even on some core activities such as education or R&D. Corporations did the same. Venture capital disappeared, except perhaps in the core of the Silicon Valley. R&D and innovation became almost clandestine activities, although they never ceased to take place.
A few hacktivists felt it their duty to protect the free flow of ideas that was such an important part of the pre-2012 era. On top of the physical and heavily controlled Internet, they set up an encrypted, dynamic virtual network which came to be called the Altronet. The Altronet successfully resisted a number of official and not-so-official attacks and then almost seemed to be left alone, perhaps because authorities and bad guys alike knew that it filled a gap and that they could use it for their own purposes as well. By 2020, most Internet users were de facto Altronet users.
Despite the Altronet, by 2020-2025, globalization was a thing of the past. Individuals, corporations, local communities, countries were all left to fend for themselves. International trade was half of what it was 10 years ago. Some financial markets chose to disconnect from real-time global trading networks. China, India and many developing countries reinstated "One-child" policies. After the UK, Spain and most Scandinavian countries had left it, the EU gave up all pretence of being anything else than an economic space – and even then, countries took to invoking safeguard clauses on all occasions and negotiated their own bilateral agreements. Local conflicts multiplied over access to water, trade routes, pipelines or even trade tariffs, although none have (yet) escalated to nuclear or biological warfare. On the other hand, terrorism was all but extinct, due to border closure and perhaps more importantly, to the departure of all western forces from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan. After striking a deal with the Palestinians, even Israel was left alone to manage its enormous economic problems.
The only thing on which developed countries could still agree was the protection of key infrastructures such as the Suez and Panama canals, network nodes and root servers, root identity providers, GPS satellites and, when they could, intercontinental pipelines.
Local communities slowly learned to cope with the new situation. Local currencies emerged, facilitated by electronic networks, contactless cards and simple, open software. After Nike, Sony and LVMH had shown what it cost to still operate as centralized multinationals, firms like Coca Cola, McDonald's, Siemens, Toyota and HSBC reinvented themselves as loose networks of local companies. Using knowledge accumulated by its engineers when they were subcontracting to western firms, plus its own brand of inventiveness, India launched and exported its own, GMO-based "2nd Green Revolution", despite well-grounded fear and protests over health and environmental risks. Many countries developed their own brands of "generic" IT equipments. India's generic or cheap "intelligent" drugs also came in handy when Eastern Europe was struck by a wave of tropical diseases, brought north by global warming and against which the local population had no natural defences.
Local values emerged or were rediscovered. Historical events, personalities, artefacts, works of art and places were revisited as the foundations of a new future. Designers, artists, fashion designers, learned to use these symbols in combination with recycled material to incarnate the values of their time. To compensate for the lack of funding and of international coordination, researchers and innovators built interdisciplinary local clusters, microfunding mechanisms and ultra-short innovation cycle mechanisms, yielding significant results in a number of areas: very low-powered IT, intelligent recycling, biomass and other renewable energy sources, revisitation of traditional medicine, resistant and frugal GMOs and genetically engineered livestock, advanced warning and crisis-management systems, polyresistance-enhancing drugs, etc. Of course, scientists and innovators used the Altronet heavily to interact with other people in the world, but their endeavours had difficulties reaching large enough markets, preventing some of their findings from making the difference they could have made.
People learned to do a lot of things together remotely; however, they could not remove a sense of emotional remoteness, and tended to give priority to their proximity links. The age of promethean science and technology was long gone. Science and technology had to be modest, problem-oriented, sensitive to the urgency of current problems and the fragility of local ecological, economic and political systems. Cloning, human enhancement and most nanotechnologies were mostly banned, although not everywhere. In fact, some mistrust could be felt about those technologists who, it was sometimes said, "led us to where we are".
By 2030, the world population was slightly under 8 billion, close to the bottom estimate of the UN's 2006 forecasts. Climate change had ruined the lives of hundred of millions and energy remained a major constraint, despite the halving of growth rates compared to the pre-2012 era. In fact, faced with constant emergencies, public entities and corporations had not taken many conscious steps to change their ways of producing and of doing business.
Individuals had gone a longer way, though, both out of economic constraints and because the millions of unemployed invented a number of local jobs: on-demand local taxis (often 2-wheeled), selective garbage collection, recycling management, repair-it-alls, etc. These individuals came to form an important part of the social fabric.
The many local equilibriums that originated from coping with the new, post-globalization situation, felt a strong need to define (and defend) the territories in which they operated. They wanted to assert and live by their newfound values, to define who was local and who was foreign, to protect their fragile activities from competition. After Catalonia, many European regions, as well as North American states or provinces, reached quasi-independent status. Cities like Barcelona also all but seceded. Internal passports were created within several countries and of course (as early as 2020), reinstated within the European Union.
Climate and conflict refugees also needed their territories. Through one of this period's rare major international initiative, they were directed towards three new "Refustans", bought from Russia, Australia and Tanzania and then viabilized. The story of these new countries remains to be written, but their initial years were clearly reminiscent of Australia's of the American West's histories.
"Territories" were not just geographic, though. Religious, ethnical, cultural and other kinds of communities also ended up forming their own borders, defining citizenship, forging rules and institutions and using the Altronet to effectively work as coherent territories. The quasi-independent State of California was the first to recognize their existence by revising its constitution to become a "State of Communities".
The Altronet played a large role in allowing new federated organizations to emerge. Local currencies and exchange systems use it for inter-system trade and compensation; several community disputes were settled on the Altroverse, the open-source federation of virtual universes that first emerged in the 2015s as the "Metaverse", and merged with the Altronet some years later. Some real popular trials were conducted in this 3D space, with judges, prosecutors and lawyers. In fact, the Altronet is generally credited for preventing many conflicts since it emerged, although of course, it has also helped spread forms of – less lethal – cyberwar. Some believe that the Altronet is the mechanism that will effectively bind these multiple and intertwined communities into a new, more open international community.
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