Friday, April 24, 2009

Ten Years Out

The year 2019 seems, in some regards, unfathomable - a distant time only written of in futuristic sci-fi novels. But 1999, the same length of time - over my other shoulder - doesn't seem that long ago at all.

What future were we envisioning for ourselves "ten years out" in 1999? The phrase 9/11 was not part of our lexicon, except as a 3 digit phone number for assistance. The dot com bubble was just that - an as yet unexploded bubble. We didn't view it as such at the time. No, we saw only expanding wealth, choosing to believe it was a payoff of the computer age. In 1999 the future was now - and wealth and prosperity was to become everyone's reality.

Did anyone think then that within ten years they would live through the infamous redefinition of 9/11 or witness wars in Palestine, Afghanistan and Iraq? Who amongst us thought that $100+ oil and food riots were ever possible? Climate Change? That was for others to worry about. Worldwide recession? Not a chance!

There were a select few, however, who were very concerned about all of these issues. Some foresaw part, if not all of what ultimately unfolded. I, however, certainly wasn't amongst that elite group in 1999. I blithely went about my existence, not engaged in long term speculation as to such possibilities on the world stage. I had recently purchased a new car and home. All was well with my corner of the planet. Like many, I was benefiting from the aforementioned stock market bubble of the day. What was there not to like?

Like most, I had never heard of the concept of "Peak Oil", let alone "Peak Everything". I did not understand the extent to which my lifestyle was entirely dependent on the provision of cheap carbon based energy. Who understood, other than agricultural scientists, that the "green revolution" of the past few decades that fended off world starvation had only been possible with vast increases in the use of oil based fertilizers? To the majority of us who spent an ever decreasing proportion of our income on food we simply interpreted it as a sign of the improving times. Life was good, our bellies were getting bigger, and we had to find other things to complain about - like the cost of cell phone rates, or hockey tickets.

So, here I am in the spring of 2009, contemplating how my existence will unfold "ten years out", by the spring of 2019. At times I even raise my gaze further to the spring of 2029. I ask myself - are we making the decisions now - on both a societal and personal level - to prepare for the reality of the world to come? Are we ready for the inexorable decline of energy resources? Do we understand that food has been cheap because energy has been cheap?

Like Matt Simmons, I certainly hope I am wrong, but I expect that the energy and economic shocks the world has experienced in the past two years is only the beginning of overwhelming change. I expect that the globalization of trade will be reversing. By 2019 we won't have sufficient flow of cheap energy resources to sustain that type of exchange. One of the perversities of the future will be that at an informational level the world will continue to flatten, allowing us to instantly see and have infinite interpretations of what is going on virtually anywhere on the planet. Simultaneously though, with the shrinking availability of energy per person, we will, out of physical necessity, be developing a more localized economy. Local food production - no, local production of everything- will be much more than cute. Increasing numbers of us will have accepted it as a necessity of survival.

By 2029 these changes will have gone far beyond the tipping point. Those expansive dreams of encouraging unrestrained material wealth envisioned back in 1999 will have long been recognized as unsustainable. My only hope is that it will have been replaced with more enduring, locally based, and sustainable ways of being. One of the biggest battles will be over how we divide up the ever shrinking benefits of economic wealth to an ever increasing population. The friction will intensify as those who feel they must continue to have the right to increase their wealth is confronted by the needs of the growing number of desperate people the world over (and in our local communities), who are fighting for their very survival. I am curious to see how things shall unfold, and, in many ways, quite fearful. Unless we can resolve issues of greed, these shall be very difficult times indeed.

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