Dealing in futures

W.R. Mead

  • The 2024 Report: A Concise History of the Future 1974-2024 by Norman Macrae
    Sidgwick, 198 pp, £9.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 283 99113 5
  • The Resourceful Earth: A Response to ‘Global 2000’ edited by Julian Simon and Herman Kahn
    Blackwell, 585 pp, £14.95, September 1984, ISBN 0 631 13467 0

For some years, 2000 has been rivalling 1984 as a golden number in the calendar of futurologists. It has now taken over. And while Europeans have been casting economic horoscopes for their continent at the dawn of the next millennium, nothing is good enough for their American cousins but a forecast for the great globe itself – hence Global 2000: Report to the President, the establishment of the Global Tomorrow Commission, and Global Future: Time to Act, with its list of a hundred recommendations. Norman Macrae’s cheerful 2024 fantasy contrives to disregard Global 2000; The Resourceful Earth offers an alternative and positive point of view.

The 2024 Report is a concise history of the next forty years conceived by a scientist, an economist and a computerman. The Resourceful Earth, a compendium of 20 contributions, cannot fail to give new life and new directions to the controversy that surrounds the Report to the President. Members of a team of 23 scientists criticise the Report for presenting ‘unreasonable and shockingly gloomy projections’ and ‘rash predictions of imminent disaster’, for employing models which deceive, for reaching unsubstantiated conclusions, for employing emotionally-charged, even hysterical language, for exploiting power to frighten the public and for generally crying havoc. Even when, in the case of the world’s water resources, the authors of the Report find ‘that no reasonable or useful forecasts’ can be made, they are charged with disregarding their own analysis and offering unnecessarily alarmist conclusions. Ultimately, it is the bureaucratic compilers of the Report against whom these reproaches are made. To a man, Julian Simon’s independent team of scientists challenge them for the assurance with which they create their mirage of certain doom and offer their own reassuring, though by no means complacent assessments of the world environmental situation.

Besides using additional factual information, the authors of The Resourceful Earth base their claims upon different methodologies from those of the Report. Not least, they place more emphasis upon trend analysis. They begin by stressing the extremely hazardous character of population forecasting and refute the Report’s demographic projections. Among other telling illustrations employed is a graph which juxtaposes the principal forecasts for the development of the United States’s population made between 1931 and 1943. All seven are wide of the mark. Even assuming significant population increase, the men of the resourceful earth (as we may call them) see no reason why there should be a diminution in the primary per capita supplies of food. In order to produce the necessary increase in calories for a higher world living standard, there is clearly a need for greater concentration of productive effort – effort which should be shifted away from formulating equitable national policies to grappling with problem areas. In addition to the increasing productive capacity of temperate latitudes, there is an abundance of unused agricultural land between the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer. In such areas and many others, to employ the words of Norman Macrae, ‘Mother Nature has never really had the advice that she should have had from a sensible time-and-motion analyst.’ Given the will – and effectively employed energy – famine can be translated into glut.

The quality of life depends no less upon energy supplies than upon food, for energy brings both wealth and health. Conservation of energy, it is argued, is likely to reduce both, especially for the developing world. In a closely reasoned contribution, S.F. Singer forecasts that, largely as a result of fuel substitutes, the demand for oil by the OECD countries will have fallen by half in 2000 AD. The threat to the exhaustion of reserves will have been correspondingly reduced. Nor does he consider oil availability as the crucial factor for economic growth. In any case, as William Brown asserts in a complementary chapter, ‘very little in the history of energy allows confidence to be placed in statements about long-term future developments’ and as yet unrecognised unconventional sources of energy may well emerge. Meanwhile, the case for nuclear power is put strongly, with the emphasis upon an analysis of the risks involved. Employing the assessment of risk in terms of individual life expectancy devised by the anti-nuclear union of concerned scientists, the figure is put at a maximum of 1.5 days. Actuarially, it amounts to a risk which compares with 1600 days for a person who smokes a packet of cigarettes a day, with 1000 days for a man who works as a miner or with 900 days for a person who is overweight by 30 pounds. The statistics can be seen as both challenging and comforting, though the time-span over which they have been collected is short. The real problems to be resolved are the ‘social issues for which nuclear power is merely the symbol’. Further support for the pro-nuclear lobby comes from Bernard Cohen, who considers that increasing measures to prevent heat loss in the home are more dangerous to health than the provision of energy from nuclear power plants. Of course, forty years on in the Utopian world of The 2024 Report, nuclear energy will have come into its own and the nuclear nightmare will have been dreamed away.

The resourceful earth men are much more optimistic about other renewable resources than the authors of Global 2000. They maintain that the problems are regional and national rather than world-wide. John Wise considers that fish resources are at least keeping pace with world population increase and that, in spite of pollution, aquaculture and fish farming in general do not seem to be suffering in any major way. It is admitted that nationally and regionally deforestation is a severe problem, but in the world aggregate situation there is no primary cause for alarm. Julian Simon himself is less perturbed than the President’s advisers about what N. Myers calls ‘the sinking ark’, arguing that throughout time there have always been gains and losses in genetic diversity – some for the better, some for the worse. In any case, the rate of extinction of species, save for a very few, is largely guesswork and calls for much more fundamental research.

All of these environmental issues are sensitive to climatic circumstance over the presumed changing character of which hang many question-marks. H.E. Landsberg would wish bold type to be used for the Report’s statement that ‘it is not possible to produce generally agreed upon quantitative climatic projections.’ Publicity has been given to the more dramatic features of the Report. Among them is the presumed increase in concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, with the consequent ‘greenhouse effect’ on the earth’s climate, but the theory is presented without reference to the ‘cascade of uncertainty’ that surrounds it. The really important point is the need for fuller investigation of the ecological impact of climatic variability. Extreme and transitory variations within the generally understood climatic frame are difficult to anticipate.

On the score of health, Julian Simon’s team go further than the somewhat grudging admission by those of Global 2000 that a steady and widespread improvement may be anticipated by the 21st century. Nevertheless, because of significant exceptions to the general experience, predictions are beset with hazards. Nutrition and longevity provide illustrations. Iceland, which has one of the highest fat and sugar consumptions per capita of any country in the world, boasts the longest life expectancy of all. Sweden and the Netherlands, also with high fat and high sugar diets, enjoy an equally enviable health status. It would seem that a better understanding of the genetic factor in dietary tolerance is a critical feature for world nutritional forecasts.

At the same time as it challenges the processes of environmental forecasting employed in the Report to the President, The Resourceful Earth criticises the procedures of government. Its contributors are suspicious of proposals to increase spending programmes resulting from Global 2000, of the methods employed to mobilise public interest in favour of its recommendations, and of the funding of government agencies in which the management of environmental resources is centralised. They consider it more healthy and productive to disperse environmental research among a variety of institutions which are independent of central authority save for the provision of finance. Since they incline to the view that world simulation models are largely of the stuff that ‘quasi-learnedness’ is made, they are sceptical about computer modelling in high places. Furthermore, they dislike the process, as exemplified in the models of the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth, whereby models can become entrenched in government agencies and be subject to the manipulation of pressure groups. The resourceful earth men would doubtless support Norman Macrae’s antipathy to ‘neurotic over-government’, which he diagnoses as a primary cause of the world’s ills, including one of the mid-20th century’s ‘fastest growing human diseases ... something called a nervous breakdown’. Macrae’s scenario for today’s children, who will be the mature adults of 2024, is of a brave new world which has overcome most of the environmental problems that bedevil the authors of The Resourceful Earth and Global 2000. Following what he calls the ‘gunboat years’ of 1993-2005, during which the two super-powers work harmoniously together to put the rest of the world to rights, he foresees the 165 nation states slowly withering away. The process is brought about partly by the telecommunications-computer link-up, partly by an enlightened international institution called Centro-bank. Telecommuting is regarded as the third great revolution in transport following the railway and the automobile, because cost will no longer be related to distance. It gives to mankind a new freedom of personal movement and contact, at the same time revolutionising education. Centrobank, born of a telecommuter conference without top economists and on a downmarket television programme, provides the means for transforming the poorer parts of the world. It is an international agency with authority to print a new foreign exchange document which allows any applicant country below a certain income per head to permit its internal growth to proceed at the fastest possible non-inflationary rate. Naturally, any government declining to participate in the Centrobank scheme will be ‘booted out’ by its people. By comparison with Erewhon‘s musical banks, the noises emitted by Centrobank sound like the music of the spheres. The 2024 Report is full of equally ingenious ideas – all of them regarded by its authors as both technically and scientifically possible. Thus, genetic engineering provides new potentials in the realm of nature, and beyond a succession of destructive phases lies the constructive use of a new generation of drugs. New forms of brain-scanning help in the handling of the mad and the bad. Perhaps on the way to 2024 a new form of scientific exorcism may lay the ghost in Arthur Koestler’s machine.

The Resourceful Earth is written to enlighten: The 2024 Report to entertain. Yet both seek to identify paths to the wiser management of environmental resources – The 2024 Report going further and anticipating the equally problematical management of human dilemmas. Both look for brakes upon cost-disregarding governments with their built-in institutional restraints. On scientific and technological grounds, both are optimistic about the foreseeable future. It is actuarially possible that Norman Macrae will live through his flight of fancy and be able to out-fiction Science Fiction when the voices come through from outer space on 9 June 2024. But if one of Mother Shipton’s fatal years happens to intervene, he will not be the only one to be confounded by the fulfilment of her prophecy.