The end of a particularly interesting or horrid year, depending on whether or not you enjoy quoting Chinese proverbs, does provoke you to play fortune teller for once. The proximate reason for me to venture into this exercise was a video game. For the last several weeks, I had been cooped up in my den, trying to weave narratives with writer and scientist colleagues spread across time zones for a game which challenges the player to survive a century of climate change, disease, rising inequalities and growing nationalism.
This effort set me thinking about ruptures and estrangements, about how rationality, greed and growth dreams have worked in concert to make this world singularly unbearable for all beings. There are many different ways to look at the dimensions of this growing problem and make projections about how things will play out as this century progresses. These dimensions are well encapsulated by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which set out a clear laundry list of 17 items that need to be urgently addressed. These include poverty, hunger, climate change, conflict, gender inequality among others.
Besides these we have future scenarios like the shared socio-economic pathways (SSPs) framework which presents five alternative projections for the coming years, right up to 2100. These are possible worlds that are either highly iniquitous; plagued by regional rivalry with resurgent nationalism, they continue with fossil-fuelled growth, take a sustainable turn, or carry on following historical trends without major changes.
Each of these future worlds presents typical climate mitigation and adaptation challenges. They can tell us how global warming will play out in the decades ahead and what climate policies might need to be put in place. For example, the pathway with ‘resurgent nationalism’ has been shown to be bad for climate change and is expected to make the ‘well below two degrees centigrade’ Paris agreement target for global warming unachievable. Simplifying this to the level of stories, we can think of rising regional rivalry fuelling rising temperatures through complex processes, leading on to more ferocious storms, droughts and aggravation of the ill-effects of planetary heating.
In all of this, but especially in the more problematic pathways and in the narrative drift of certain timelines of our video game, which somewhat approximates these roads to the future, one can sense three growing and often overlapping estrangements. This dark triad of ruptures are between groups of people, between people and technology, and people and planet.
One of the grim markers of the rupture within the human sphere is to be found in the mass murder of close to six million Jews during the Holocaust. Unfortunately our scenarios and pathways cannot predict if growing religious, ethnic and racial discrimination the world over, coupled with rising nationalism; would lead to more mass exterminations in the coming decades, but robust democracies can definitely play a role in limiting such possibilities.
A figure that springs to mind when we consider estrangement between people and the planet is James Watt, the Scottish inventor of the Boulton and Watt steam engine which powered the Industrial Revolution and since when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have increased by 47 percent. Watt’s innovation followed by others, not only widened the rupture between people and planet but also the one between humans and the technology itself as all fossil fuel burning techniques would eventually come back to haunt our present in the form of the existential threat of climate change.
Similarly the widespread application of surveillance tech, a variety of black box algorithms, harmful pesticides, the tech and the manufactured dreams that drive the engines of consumerism among others are all representations of the growing chasms between humans, technology and very often the planet.
If this dark trinity of ruptures keep growing, we cannot avoid a perfect descent into dystopian hell. As the coronavirus pandemic, which is almost certainly indicative of our conflicts with earth’s natural biodiversity, rages we can reasonably worry that these estrangements are what will define the coming decades.
Writer and climate activist