thenextwave

Simulating the end of humankind

Posted in emerging issues, future, games, global, sustainability by thenextwavefutures on 24 September, 2008

One of the most alarming blog posts you were likely to read last week – even in a week when the world’s financial system teetered on the brink a couple of times – was at the Institute for the Future. Their in-house games designer, Jane McGonigal, has been hard at work building Superstruct, a simulation about the potential end of the species. The model identifies five critical factors, and a ‘most likely’ date which is – and this is alarming – less than 35 years away.

Of course, the usual caveats apply. A model is only an approximation to real life, not real life itself. A model’s ‘best case’ (or worst-case) out-turns are not predictions, it only represents an algorithmic assessment of how things seem likely to turn out given current assumptions, given the understanding which the designers have applied to important relationships between the drivers of change as identified.

But it has to be said that the factors identified by the IFTF in its SUPERSTRUCT project, and the story constructed from the model, seem scarily plausible.

SUPERSTRUCT’s five factors have been themed and given catchy names so they are less easy to forget. They sound a bit like the Five Horseman of the Apocalypse:

  • “Quarantine covers the global response to declining health and pandemic disease, including the current Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ReDS) crisis.
  • Ravenous focuses on the imminent collapse of the global food system, as well as debates over industrial vs. ecological agricultural models, and basic issues of access, energy, and carbon.
  • Power Struggle tracks the results of energy resource peaks and the shifts in international power as nations fight for energy supremacy and the world searches for alternative energy solutions.
  • Outlaw Planet embodies the volatile mix of new forms of surveillance, transparency, civil rights, and access to information as people work out new rules for human security.
  • Generation Exile follows the massive “diaspora of diasporas” underway globally, as the number of refugees and migrants skyrockets in the face of climate change, economic disruption, and war.”

Jane McGonigal explains the themes in this way:

Two of the threats–Quarantine and Ravenous–emerge from changes to the physical environment in which humanity lives. As with all of the super-threats, the key dilemmas embedded in these threats are sociopolitical, but both strongly reflect the old environmental adage that “nature bats last.” Two more of the threats–Outlaw Planet and Generation Exile–come directly from problems of social cohesion and civil society. These two super-threats undermine our capacity to respond quickly and effectively to global dilemmas. The last threat–Power Struggle–straddles the two categories, with both a strong environmental component and a basis in the fragility of existing institutions.

A couple of points from the blog are relevant. First, they were surprised that climate change didn’t appear as one of its main threats – but it is embedded in most of the others. Secondly, none of these threats are individually enough to cause human extinction. But in combination they may be deadly – not least because they reinforce each other, and their combination creates deep instability which makes tackling any one of them much harder.

There are some technicalities (about the model and so on) at the blog. The frightening part is that repeated runs of the model have consistently identified the point at which the threats over-run the planet as between 2040 and 2050, and typically around 2042 (when – pause for thought – my son would still be younger than I am today):

The super-threats are rarely directly responsible for the result; instead, the combination has so weakened human civilization that any one new global crisis looms catastrophic: a succession of global warming-driven superstorms, regional war, or new pandemic disease–any of which would become more likely as a result of the superthreats–would be enough to trigger the wholesale collapse of the human endeavor.

For those who think this implausible it’s worth noting that in Our Final Century Martin Rees reckons that the human species has only a 50% chance of reaching 2100.

SUPERSTRUCT is designed as a massive multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG), and they’re throwing the project open to wider participation on 6th October. (There’s a taster on Facebook and a preview here). There’s also an FAQ.

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