I’ve just had a review of The New North published in the APF’s quarterly newsletter, Compass. I’m sharing it here.
As the Arctic ice cover shrinks ever smaller, it seems a good time to review Laurence Smith‘s book The New North, which was well-received when it was published in hardback and has just been published in paperback. It tells four stories about the way in which climate change will re-shape the north of the planet (generously defined as the world north of 45*N) in the decades to 2050.
Smith, a geographer at UCLA, describes the book as “a 2050 thought experiment”, and any futurist would have been pleased to have written it. His building blocks are four long-term global trends – demographics, natural resource demand, globalisation, and climate change. Along the way a fifth intrudes, of “enduring legal frameworks”, that he sees as an outcome but I would regard as a further long-term trend driven by value shifts towards increasingly rights-based political frameworks.
A couple of years ago The Futures Company collaborated with the Institute of Development Studies on an ambitious futures project which was designed to understand the possible futures of a post-crash global economy, and then to identify impacts for development. One of the conditions of the tender was – unusually – that we subsequently write up the work for academic publication, and the paper we wrote for the journal Foresight has recently been commended as one of the best papers in the journal during 2011. In turn, this means that it’s available for open download until 10th October from the website of the publishers, Emerald.
The client for the project was a British government department, and the sponsor within the department was sure that he didn’t want the scenarios to be developed using the mainstream 2×2 double uncertainty method. I was fairly sure about this as well; for one thing, I didn’t believe – given that the scope of the scenarios was the entire global economy – that the 2×2 would produce sufficient nuance, and secondly, I knew from experience that while it is possible to translate 2×2 scenarios into soft models, just about, the translation can be messy.
For our part of the work (on which I worked with my colleague Joe Ballantyne), therefore, we used a ‘light’ version of morphological analysis – largely for reasons of time – substituting a form of pattern analysis for computer-based analysis. In turn this meant that Andy Sumner of the IDS, the paper’s third author, was able to draw out the main elements that linked the national economies to the global economy and categorise them.
I’m proud of the paper, which I think describes well the way that a fairly complex futures process, done quite quickly, was able to drive insight and improve our anticipation of the future. In the few days before the window closes: enjoy.
I wasn’t able to blog much in May and June because I was working fairly intensively on a couple of projects, one a client report for The Futures Company and one (unpaid) for the Association of Professional Futurists, where I’m a Board member. The APF project is published next week, and I’ll write about it then. The Futures Company report was on the future of golf, and came out just in time for The Open Championship at Lytham St Anne’s. I’ve already blogged about it at The Futures Company blog, and it can be downloaded from The Futures Company or from my ‘Selected Articles‘ page.
But it’s worth a few more notes here.
I don’t fly that often, and I certainly didn’t intend to fly on September 11th 2011. In fact I realised the significance of ‘flying home on Sunday’ only when I checked in for the outward flight on Thursday. As it happened, it was probably the safest day to fly in the past decade, but it still came with a certain frisson. My own view on ‘9/11’ is that it will – with hindsight – be seen as a way marker both of the end of the long boom of the second half of the 20th century, and in the re-balancing of the world from west to east. But it wasn’t a neutral event; instead, it was one of those which gave history a push, in particular by accelerating America’s financial, military, and diplomatic overstretch. The article I’ve read recently which best captures this is by the Indian author and essayist Pankaj Mishra. There are some extracts from this, and a couple of other pertinent pieces, beneath the fold.
Missing from Foresight’s report on the future of food: some good old-fashioned political economy.
In the first of these two posts, I reviewed the Foresight report on the future of food, and noted that it seemed to be blind to potentially disruptive change. It also seems to be blind to the political economy of global food. In this post, I’m going to look at this second issue in more detail.
The recent UK Government Foresight report on the future of the global food and farming system can’t be faulted for a lack of ambition. It takes on the whole of the global food system, and looks out to 2050. Much of what it says is valuable (and the supporting papers look to be a useful research resource), and this is to be expected, given the calibre of the advisers the project was able to draw on. But there are some telling gaps, and these largely come from a lack of decent futures work in the report. Some of these gaps have been pointed up by some of the other work that’s been published recently on food and its wider impacts. This will be a long post, so I’m going to split it into two parts, the first about the Foresight report, the second on its limits.
Suddenly, with the turn of the decade and the latest World Economic Forum opening, we’re awash with projections of how the world economy might look in 2050, produced by economists, and each as implausible as the other. Two, from HSBC and PwC (both open in PDF) offer similar (and improbable) views of a hugely expanded global economy to 2050. But they also seem to assume that the future will be a lot like the past.
The photographer Chris Jordan is the Breughel of waste, bringing us face to face with parts of our civilisation we’d prefer to look away from. I blogged about his work a couple of years ago – which he builds up, digitally, image by image, to try to represent visually the sheer weight of rubbish from our consumer culture. More than 400,000 mobile phones are ‘retired’ in the US every day. 2.4 million pieces of plastic enter the ocean every day. (‘Everything’s gonna be plastic‘ sang Woody Guthrie, 60 years ago). Each picture attempts to be a digital representation of a particular element of consumerism. Since I wrote the earlier post, the waste has got worse, and he’s published a book, Running The Numbers.
The start and the end of the documentary The End of The Line, which has now been released on DVD at least in the UK, (and which I blogged about when it was first shown in the cinema), is dominated by traditional ‘National Geographic’ type images. You know the sort of thing; sunlight streams through the water showing the richness and diversity of the sea, illuminating the many different and brightly coloured species below. It’s filmed in one of the few Marine Protected Areas, which together comprise about 1% of the ocean area, where fishing is not allowed. For the rest of it the story was dismal.
Eric Hobsbawm is Britain’s most distinguished living radical historian, and part of his life’s work has been a global history in four volumes, from 1789 to 1991. The last of these, The Age of Extremes, was published in 1994, in the aftermath of the end of the Cold War.
The latest edition of New Left Review, which marks the journal’s 50th anniversary, opens a long and reflective interview (subscription required) with Hobsbawm by asking what’s changed since 1991. Some of these points are obvious, some less so. Together, they add up to a picture of significant fragmentation, both at a global level and within states. (more…)