The climate emergency requires climate solutions. And fast! There are lots of different proposals floating around – some of which don’t even exist yet, and probably never will. So, it’s easy to get confused about which direction is best. Now though, a new analysis suggests that 90% of the job could be achieved by just a handful of disruptive technologies that are very real indeed, and are already either disrupting their markets or are poised to do so. We just need to choose to embrace them!
One of the most fascinating and exhilirating writings comes from the team at Rethink X which states:
We are on the cusp of the fastest, deepest, most consequential transformation of human civilization in history, a transformation every bit as significant as the move from foraging to cities and agriculture 10,000 years ago.
During the 2020s, key technologies will converge to completely disrupt the five foundational sectors that underpin the global economy, and with them every major industry in the world today. The knock-on effects for society will be as profound as the extraordinary possibilities that emerge.
In information, energy, food, transportation, and materials, costs will fall by 10x or more, while production processes an order of magnitude (10x) more efficient will use 90% fewer natural resources with 10x-100x less waste. The prevailing production system will shift away from a model of centralized extraction and the breakdown of scarce resources that requires vast physical scale and reach, to a model of localized creation from limitless, ubiquitous building blocks – a world built not on coal, oil, steel, livestock, and concrete but on photons, electrons, DNA, molecules and (q)bits. Product design and development will be performed collaboratively over information networks while physical production and distribution will be fulfilled locally. As a result, geographic advantage will be eliminated as every city or region becomes self-sufficient. This new creation-based production system, which will be built on technologies we are already using today, will be far more equitable, robust, and resilient than any we have ever seen. We have the opportunity to move from a world of extraction to one of creation, a world of scarcity to one of plenitude, a world of inequity and predatory competition to one of shared prosperity and collaboration.
This is not, then, another Industrial Revolution, but a far more fundamental shift. This is the beginning of the third age of humankind – the Age of Freedom.
The possibilities that open up in this new age are truly extraordinary. Within 10-15 years, everyone on the planet could have access to the ‘American Dream’ for a few hundred dollars a month. For the first time in history, poverty could be overcome easily. Access to all our basic needs – food, energy, transportation, information, and shelter – could become a fundamental human right. Armed conflict, often driven by the need to access and control scarce resources, could become largely unnecessary. Climate change and environmental degradation, caused by production processes that take no account of the destruction they wreak on the natural world, could be overcome by a new production system delivering zero-carbon energy, transportation, and food with marginal waste. This could allow us to restore the integrity of the planet’s natural systems and help mitigate the impact of our unsustainable actions on human health. We may, ultimately, be able to escape toil and drudgery entirely and, for the first time in history, achieve real freedom – the freedom to spend our time creatively, unburdened by financial precariousness and the need to provide for ourselves and our families. Never before has humanity seen such an astonishing array of possibilities opened up in such a short period of time.
But this future is by no means predetermined. Indeed it cannot be achieved by technological progress alone. History indicates that leading civilizations have evolved ever-greater organizational capabilities in tandem with increased technological capabilities. While the technological capabilities dictate the potential of any civilization, the Organizing System determines how close to this potential a society can get. The Organizing System encompasses both the fundamental beliefs, institutions, and reward systems that enable optimal decisions to be taken across a society, and the structures that manage, control, govern, and influence its population. The best combination of technology and Organizing System that is available dictates the winners – for example a city of 10,000 people, such as Sumer, requires very different Organizing System from one of a million people, such as Rome.
Throughout history, 10x advancements in the five foundational sectors have driven the emergence of a new and vastly more capable civilization than any which has come before. But this has only been possible when combined with vastly improved organizational capabilities. This has always represented a formidable challenge for incumbents, and the lessons of history are sobering – every leading civilization, from Catalhoyuk and Sumer to Babylonia and Rome, has fallen as it reached the limits of its ability to organize society and solve the problems created by its production system. When these civilizations were threatened with collapse, they looked backwards and attempted to recapture the glory days by patching up their production system and doubling down on their Organizing System rather than adapting. The result was descent into a dark age.
Today, our incumbent leadership in government and industry are making the same mistake. The patterns of history are clear. The five foundational sectors, which gave rise to Western dominance starting with Europe in the 1500s and America in the 1900s, will all collapse during the 2020s. These sector disruptions are bookends to a civilization that birthed the Industrial Order, which both built the modern world and destroyed the rest. Furthermore, we are experiencing rising inequality, extremism, and populism, the deterioration of decision-making processes and the undermining of representative democracy, the accumulation of financial instability as we mortgage the future to pay for the present, ecological degradation, and climate change – all signs that our civilization has reached and breached its limits. The response from today’s incumbents to these challenges – more centralization, more extraction, more exploitation, more compromise of public health and environmental integrity in the name of competitive advantage and growth – is no less desperate than the response from those of prior civilizations who called for more walls, more priests, and more blood sacrifices as they faced collapse.
And this is just the beginning – as new technologies develop apace, their disruptive power will only grow stronger. Ironically, the same technologies that hold the promise of solving our most pressing problems are also accelerating collapse, challenging the ability of our outdated and increasingly incompatible Organizing System to function.
Indeed we are already seeing the impact of the new, creation-based production system butting up against our increasingly antiquated Organizing System. The information sector, for example, has already been disrupted. Centralized content production with high costs, high barriers to entry, and narrow distribution channels has given way to billions of producer-consumers generating content at near-zero cost with minimal barriers to entry across a globally-connected network. Alongside the extraordinary benefits it has brought, this emerging production system has also created novel problems which our Organizing System is incapable of understanding or managing. A few computer hackers in an apartment in one country can hijack another’s governance processes, spread false narratives, polarize public opinion, paralyze decision-making processes, and help enable regime change home and abroad. Individual nations are no longer able to manage the narrative or control the flow of information. The upcoming disruptions that will unfold simultaneously in the energy, food, transportation, and materials sectors during the 2020s will present further unprecedented new challenges at the same time as solving old problems.
The choice, therefore, is stark – collapse into a new dark age or move to a new Organizing System that allows us to flourish in a new Age of Freedom. Such a move will not be easy – we will need to rethink not just the structures and institutions that manage society, but the very concepts they are built on. Representative democracy, capitalism, and nation states may seem like fundamental truths but they are, in fact, merely human constructs that emerged and evolved in an industrial Organizing System. In the new age, they may well become redundant.
For the first time in history, we have not just the technological tools to make an incredible leap in societal capabilities, but the understanding and foresight to see what is coming. We have the choice, therefore, to avert disaster or not. We can choose to elevate humanity to new heights and use the upcoming convergence of technology disruptions to end poverty, inequality, resource conflict, and environmental destruction, all for a fraction of the cost we incur dealing with them today. Or we can choose to preserve the failing status quo and descend into another dark age like every leading civilization before us.
Dark ages do not occur for lack of sunshine, but for lack of leadership. The established centers of power, the U.S., Europe, or China, handicapped by incumbent mindsets, beliefs, interests, and institutions, are unlikely to lead. In a globally competitive world, smaller, hungrier, more adaptable communities, cities, or states such as Israel, Mumbai, Dubai, Singapore, Lagos, Shanghai, California, or Seattle are more likely to develop a winning Organizing System. They will appear, just like their predecessors, as if from nowhere, with capabilities far beyond those of incumbent leaders. Everyone else could get trampled before they have time to understand what is happening.
The intervening decade will be turbulent, destabilized both by technology disruptions that upend the foundations of the global economy and by system shocks from pandemics, geopolitical conflict, natural disasters, financial crises, and social unrest that could lead to dramatic tipping points for humanity including mass migrations and even war. In the face of each new crisis we will be tempted to look backward rather than forward, to mistake ideology and dogma for reason and wisdom, to turn on each other instead of trusting one another.
If we hold strong, we can emerge together to create the wealthiest, healthiest, most extraordinary civilization in history. If we do not, we will join the ranks of every other failed civilization for future historians to puzzle over. Our children will either thank us for bringing them an Age of Freedom, or curse us for condemning them to another dark age. The choice is ours.