Predicting the Future
EDITORIAL, 9 Aug 2021
The enormously prolific English writer, Herbert George Wells (1866-1946), who also wrote novels. short stories, history books, biology textbooks, utopias, and so on, has been called “The Shakespeare of Science Fiction”. During his writing career, he made a number of predictions about the future, many of which were astonishingly accurate. He foresaw the advent of aircraft, tanks, space travel, nuclear weapons, satellite television and something resembling the World Wide Web.
George Orwell and Aldous Huxley
George Orwell’s famous dystopian book, Nineteen Eighty-Four, warned the world of the dangers of totalitarianism. In Orwell’s book, people are terrorized into submission. Orwell had Stalinist Russia in mind when he wrote the book, but sadly, it seems to describe the situation in a large number of countries today.
Aldous Huxley has given us an equally famous and equally dystopian vision of the future, but in Huxley’s Brave New World, the enslaved peoples gladly accept their slavery in exchange for the mood-elevating narcotic, “soma”.
Social critic Neil Postman contrasted the worlds of Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World in the foreword of his 1985 book Amusing Ourselves to Death. He wrote:
“What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egotism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny `failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.’ In 1984, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that our fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.”
The Crisis of Civilization
Here are some of the serious linked problems which human civilization is facing today:
THREATS TO THE ENVIRONMENT
The global environment is being destroyed by excessive consumption in the industrialized countries, combined with rapid population growth in developing nations. Climate change threatens to melt glaciers and polar ice. Complete melting of Greenland’s inland ice would result in a 7 meter rise in sea level. Complete melting of the Antarctic ice cap would produce an additional 5 meters of rise. Ultimately, if not avoided, catastrophic climate change could make most of the earth’s surface uninhabitable, and the global population of humans would be correspondingly reduced.
GROWING POPULATION, VANISHING RESOURCES
The fossil fuel era is ending. By 2050, oil and natural gas will be prohibitively expensive. They will no longer be used as fuels, but will be reserved as feedstocks for chemical synthesis. Within a hundred years, the same will be true of coal. The reserve indices for many metals are between 10 and 100 years. Reserve indices are defined as the size of the known reserves of metals divided by the current annual rates of production.
THE GLOBAL FOOD CRISIS
It is predicted that by 2050, the world’s population of humans will reach 9 billion. This is just the moment when the oil and natural gas, on which modern energy-intensive agriculture depend, will become so expensive that they will no longer be used as fuels. Climate change may also contribute to a global food crisis. Melting of Himalayan glaciers threatens the summer water supplies of both India and China. Rising sea levels threaten to inundate low-lying agricultural land, and aridity will be produced by climate change. Overdrawn, water tables are falling. Topsoil is also being lost. These elements combine to produce a threat of widespread famine by the middle of the 21st century, involving billions of people rather than millions.
INTOLERABLE ECONOMIC INEQUALITY
Today 2.7 billion people live on less than $2 a day – 1.1 billion on less than $1 per day. 18 million of our fellow humans die each year from poverty-related causes. Meanwhile, obesity is becoming a serious health problem in the rich part of the world. In 2006, 1.1 billion people lacked safe drinking water, and waterborne diseases killed an estimated 1.8 million people. The developing countries are also the scene of a resurgence of other infectious diseases, such as malaria, drug-resistant tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS. Economic inequality, both within nations and between nations, also undermines democracy. Powerful oligarchies control many governments.
THREAT OF NUCLEAR WAR
Despite the end of the Cold War, the threat of a nuclear catastrophe remains severe. During the Cold War, the number and power of nuclear weapons reached insane heights – 50,000 nuclear weapons with a total explosive power equivalent to roughly a million Hiroshima bombs. Expressed differently, the total explosive power was equivalent to 20 billion tons of TNT, 4 tons for each person on earth. Today the total number of these weapons has been cut approximately in half, but there are still enough to destroy human civilization many times over. The danger of accidental nuclear war remains severe, since many nuclear missiles are on hair-trigger alert, ready to be fired within minutes of a warning being received. Continued over a long period of time, the threat of accident will grow to a near certainty. Meanwhile, the number of nations possessing nuclear weapons is growing, and there is a danger that if an unstable government is overthrown (for example, Pakistan’s), the country’s nuclear weapons will fall into the hands of sub-national groups. Against nuclear terrorism there is no effective defense.
THE MILITARY-INDUSTRIAL COMPLEX
In 2020, world military budgets reached a total of roughly two trillion dollars (i.e. two million million dollars). This amount of money is almost too large to be imagined. The fact that it is being spent means that many people are making a living from the institution of war. Wealthy and powerful lobbies from the military-industrial complex are able to influence mass media and governments. Thus the institution of war persists, although we know very well that it is a threat to civilization and that it is responsible for much of the suffering that humans experience.
LIMITS TO GROWTH
A “healthy” economic growth rate of 4% per year corresponds to an increase by a factor of 50 in a century, by a factor of 2,500 in two centuries and 125,000 in three centuries. No one can maintain that resource-using, waste-producing economic activities can continue to grow except by refusing to look more than a certain distance into the future. In other words, perpetual economic growth on a finite planet is impossible. Growth-worshiping economists avoid facing this impossibility by refusing to look more than one or two decades into the future.
It seems likely that the boundaries for economic growth will be reached by the middle of the 21st century. (Culture can of course continue to grow.) We face a difficult period of transition from an economy that depends on growth for its health to a new economic system: steady-state economics.
How well did H.G. Wells, George Orwell and Aldous Huxley predict these current dangers to human civilization and the biosphere? George Orwell and Aldous Huxley both foresaw that science and technology might not always be beneficial to society. In both Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, technology is used to enforce conformity.
Remarkably, H.G. Wells’ 1913 novel, The World Set Free, predicted the development of an enormously powerful bomb using uranium. He correctly concluded that such a bomb would make war prohibitively dangerous, and that only an effective world government could make the world safe again. But this is not the situation today. We do not have a world government with the powers needed to make the world safe; and we have the much more powerful thermonuclear bombs, possessed by many nations, and the constant threat that human civilization and much of the biosphere will be destroyed in a thermonuclear war, started by technical or human failure, or by the insanity of a person in power. To ensure the safety of the world, the United Nations must be reformed and greatly strengthened. I believe that it should be converted into a federation, with the power to make laws that are binding on individuals, and a greatly-increased budget.
One thing which all the authors seem to have missed completely is the relationship between industrial society and fossil fuels. The Industrial Revolution marked the start of massive human use of fossil fuels. The stored energy from several hundred million years of plant growth began to be used at roughly a million times the rate at which it had been formed. The effect on human society was like that of a narcotic. There was a euphoric (and totally unsustainable) surge of growth of both population and industrial production. Meanwhile, the carbon released into the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels began to duplicate the conditions which led to the 5 geologically-observed mass extinctions, during each of which more than half of all living species disappeared forever.
In Huxley’s Brave New World, the availability of fossil fuels and other resources is not considered at all. In fact the use of resources is encouraged by such slogans as “Ending is better than mending”. Energy-using helicopters are universally used for transportation. Games, such as Centrifugal Bumblepuppy, require much energy use. We should remember, however, that Huxley’s novel is a satire on Fordian society, and that Henry Ford and his contemporaries did not worry about the end of the fossil fuel era or about catastrophic climate change. As a criticism of folly, the novel is certainly valid.
John Scales Avery, Ph.D., who was part of a group that shared the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize for their work in organizing the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network and Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He is chairman of both the Danish National Pugwash Group and the Danish Peace Academy and received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent books are Information Theory and Evolution and Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century (pdf). Website: https://www.johnavery.info/
Tags: Aldous Huxley, Future Studies, George Orwell, H. G. Wells, Predictions
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 9 Aug 2021.
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