Future Scenarios


Bracing for climate-driven food system shock?

A fascinating and somewhat scary article from Jeff Masters at Weather Underground paints a very plausible picture of how climate change could trigger a confluence of weather-related impacts around the globe that, together, lead to an unprecedented shock to the global food system.  He fleshes out a report put together by Lloyd’s of London, which posited several events around the world, including an El Niño-driven drought from India through Southeast Asia to Australia (triggering a 6-20% reduction in key grain harvests), along with floods in the Mississippi basin creating a 7-27% hit on US grain, and torrential rains and landslides causing a 10% drop in Pakistan and the Himalayan lowlands.  The addition of a couple of plant-diseases in South America and western Asia add some more 10% reductions to regional harvests, with the cumulative result being a world-wide food crisis.

We’ve had hints of this in the past, as when US floods in 1993 (pictured above) caused US corn production to fall 33%, or the 60% spikes in global food priced during two Russian droughts (pictured below); the more recent one occurred in the same year as damaging floods in Canada and Pakistan, both of which also contributed.

fao-food-prices

What’s different in the Lloyd’s of London analysis is the idea that climate change could trigger several large impacts at once.  Instead of 60% increases in food prices seen in the “bad” years within recent memory, they suggest we could see global food prices leap to 4 or 5 times the norm, which are likely to trigger all manner of social upheaval and tragedy of the sort that tends to trigger us to plunge our heads into the nearest hole in the sand. . . .

It will probably say something about your own comfort with risk to hear that Lloyd’s sees this worst-case scenario as having about a 20% chance of happening during the next forty years.  Even if we dodge those odds, the chart above is a reminder that one or a few modest disruptions can have a huge impact on the global food system.  It seems prudent for resilient investors to have at least an awareness of these risks, and, if possible, a plan in place for how to respond if food prices spike.

 

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California blazes a trail to the future, once again

Once again, California is showing the way forward.  This time, it’s more consequential than Hollywood’s entertainment, Silicon Valley’s new tech, or the Sixties’ social evolutions.  California is road-testing large-scale public policies that face up to the profound threat of climate change, showing the rest of us that a shared social commitment IS possible.  As fleshed out The California Code, published in the new west-coast quarterly journal, Boom:

California’s response to the drought is … nationally and globally significant. What state and local leaders did to reduce the risks, and how state residents reacted, was a very public demonstration of government’s capacity to act with reason and intelligence to a short-term ecological emergency, with a long-term vision.

California sprang to action in its fourth year of deep drought because water management professionals and state leaders recognized that California’s water-scarce condition could be the new norm. They accepted the scientific consensus that it could get considerably worse. The way out of the trouble was to convince state residents of the need for collective action and to instill behavioral changes in homes and businesses that would diminish demand and provide a higher measure of safety.

Perhaps that should not be surprising given California’s historical ability to set the national and global agenda in culture, technology, environmental restoration, and the like. It’s arguable, though, that what California is up to now in responding to global ecological disarray may be the most important contribution to human well-being that it’s ever made.

A series of remarkably astute and aggressive measures approved by Democratic and Republican lawmakers in Sacramento has systematically formed a model for dealing with Earth’s new conditions, and it is proving to be effective. Among the most significant measures:

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Exponential manufacturing 2016

The emergence of distributed manufacturing, fueled by the spread of ever more capable 3D printers, is central to our future, but at the same time, its potentials are kind of hard to understand—where we’re headed won’t look much like what we’ve come to know as “manufacturing.”  Put this promising ambiguity alongside the continued maturation of robotics, especially when networked (and so able to share new training instantly), and we’re looking at a level of autonomy that also challenges many of our familiar ways of thinking about machines, from assembly lines to rush hour traffic.

The good folks at Singularity University are, as ever, out there at the forefront of these innovations, casting a bit of light into topics that most of us can barely grasp the implications of.  This week, they’re hosting the first Exponential Manufacturing conference; sessions are being broadcast live, and with any luck will be archived for future reference.  They’ve also put together an excellent collection of recent posts, billed as a “crash course in a few of the latest developments in manufacturing,” that’s well worth a perusal.  Here’s a taste of what you’ll learn about:

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Al Gore’s climate optimism

Earlier this year, a new talk by Al Gore was posted on the TED site: The case for optimism on climate change.  The 20-minute talk and subsequent short interview with TED-meister Chris Anderson is well worth a look.  Much of his optimism centers on the rapid shift in electricity production:

The best projections 14 years ago were that we would install one gigawatt of solar per year by 2010. When 2010 came around, we beat that mark by 17 times over. Last year, we beat it by 58 times over. This year, we’re on track to beat it 68 times over. We’re going to win this. We are going to prevail. When I came to this stage 10 years ago, this is where (the growth curve for solar) was (see arrow on image at top of post). We have seen a revolutionary breakthrough in the emergence of these exponential curves.

Gore quotes economist Rudi Dornbusch, who said, “Things take longer to happen then you think they will, and then they happen much faster than you thought they could.”  Importantly, the business community has been quick to jump onto the bandwagon, and in fact has been crucial to the rate at which its been gathering steam.  “This is the biggest new business opportunity in the history of the world, and two-thirds of it is in the private sector,” notes Gore. “We are seeing an explosion of new investment. Starting in 2010, investments globally in renewable electricity generation surpassed fossils. The gap has been growing ever since.”

Beyond these trends, Gore stresses the underlying nature of humanity, and of fundamental social changes:

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The latest in coming to grips with the Anthropecene

This is a one-two punch I couldn’t resist: one of my top-5 journalists recommending a powerful new essay by my favorite “recent discovery” in earth-connected literature.  Even better, Andrew Revkin and Robert Macfarlane are both riffing on one of the juicier umbrella topics for thinking about our rapidly-changing world: the Anthropocene, or the idea that the human mark on the planet is likely to take its place as the latest geological epoch.

Both Revkin and Macfarlane set out to point our attention to the best of the recent writing on this key topic. Revkin, in large part, welcomes Macfarlane’s recent piece as a chance to take a break from his regular dips into the recent literature, but he adds a few of his own recent faves at the end of his column.  By contrast, Macfarlane’s extended essay in The Guardian presents a rich and complex introduction to the topic.  You couldn’t find a better starting point (just as you couldn’t find a better deep-dive for learning about the field than those regular dips collected on Revkin’s site).  Here’s a first taste, then click through for more excerpts:

There are good reasons to be sceptical of the epitaphic impulse to declare “the end of nature”. There are also good reasons to be sceptical of the Anthropocene’s absolutism, the political presumptions it encodes, and the specific histories of power and violence that it masks. But the Anthropocene is a massively forceful concept, and as such it bears detailed thinking through. Though it has its origin in the Earth sciences and advanced computational technologies, its consequences have rippled across global culture during the last 15 years. Conservationists, environmentalists, policymakers, artists, activists, writers, historians, political and cultural theorists, as well as scientists and social scientists in many specialisms, are all responding to its implications.

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Planetary futurecraft: the time is now

We’ve long highlighted the dearth of novels and films about how humanity might marshall our ingenuity and societal focus to get from here to a better/wiser/saner future.  Most of the stories about the future seem to be set in post-breakdown dystopias or seriously degraded, “muddle-down” worlds.  And the few “breakthrough” tales, like Star Trek, offer no sense of how the transition occurred.

One of our favorite next-gen futurists, Alex Steffen, is aiming to do something about that.  He’s not shifting gears and becoming a novelist—that could be great!—but he is gearing up to weave together a story that points the way forward.  At a time when every year of delay ups the ante on our game of chance with the climate, and during a season in which the US political world is being shaken from all sides, he reminds us:

When we can imagine no future we want, something far more dangerous takes its place in our minds: the future we fear. Without visions of progress worth coming together to fight for, crisis tears people apart. That’s no accident, either. Divide and rule. Where there is no vision, people are easy prey. … You’d think that this would be when the Very Serious People who’ve been running our countries, corporations and culture would step up and counter that fear-mongering with leadership and vision. You’d be wrong.

They can’t lead us because every good future is now a heroic one, and they’re not heroes. They’re managers and accountants and gatekeepers, (telling) us that all we can do is take small steps, support slow transitions, gradual improvements, incremental policy gains.

If you know Steffen at all, you know he won’t settle for that!  Alex cut his teeth running Worldchanging, the crowd-sourced, solutions-oriented compendium that was a new-millenium grandchild of the venerable Whole Earth Catalog.  He then moved on to write Carbon Zero, a look at what it will take to decarbonize our cities, along with a series of powerful clarion calls for change, including a profoundly thoughtful 50-year vision, Putting the Future Back in the Room, and a recent “here’s how we did it” talk framed as recollections from 2115.

Now he’s putting that same energy, and all he learned along the way, into a project he’s calling

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Is your life ready for VUCA?

We live in a VUCA world: volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous.  Are you poised to adjust nimbly to changing circumstances as they arise?  Because while we may not know quite how or when changes will crop up, it’s clear they’re coming—who foresaw oil prices dropping so precipitously, or US political polarization devolving so rapidly and dangerously?

A recent piece by Eric McNulty in Strategy+Business, Leading in an Increasingly VUCA World, offers the best concise overview of VUCA and how to respond that we’ve seen (well, other than in our book!).  McNulty stresses:

VUCA isn’t something to be solved; it simply is. Attempts to simplify complexity, or to break volatility, uncertainty, and ambiguity down into smaller and smaller parts in hopes that each can be decoded and countered will not make them go away — there are too many elements beyond the control of traditional centers of power and authority. It is a network phenomenon and can’t be mastered through industrial age structures and practices.

We absolutely agree.  That’s why we formulated the integrated planning tools laid out in The Resilient Investor, centered on a “map” of our lives that provides a foundation for making clear and responsive choices within this VUCA landscape.  Personal and social resilience is enhanced when we cultivate all our assets (personal, tangible, financial), each of these engaging with our communities, the global financial system, and evolutionary initiatives that are making things better.

McNulty offers three tips for personal VUCA preparedness.  The first two will be familiar to our readers.

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Big business stepping up its climate game as the future beckons

With the world’s attention focused on the COP21 climate talks in Paris, there are encouraging signs that the business world is ready to get fully on board and become as much a part of the solution as the problem.  Conservation International’s CEO Peter Seligman is encouraged:

If we are going to meet the challenges of a changing climate, we must accelerate nature-based solutions with deep involvement by the business sector. I am optimistic, because I see many companies recognizing that climate change is an economic issue — it affects sourcing, logistics and global markets. Sustainability is no longer an afterthought. It is an integral part of corporate operations and supply chains.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Leggett at Winning the Carbon War reports from Paris that “fully a thousand mayors announced that their cities were pledging to 100% renewable power targets” and that institutional commitments to fossil fuel divestment jumped by over 25% in just the past ten weeks.  Even more encouraging is a move by the G20 countries to form a Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) charged helping financial markets get a better handle on rapidly increasing climate change risks.  It will be chaired by Michael Bloomberg, who laid down the gauntlet:

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Recollections from 2115

Alex Steffen recently gave a keynote talk at The Nature Conservancy’s annual trustees meeting that could serve as a statement of purpose for the Dreamers and Drivers among us who continue to believe that we can find our way through the eye of the historical needle.  It’s in the form of a talk to a conservation gathering a hundred years from now, looking back:

We’ve lost so much. We came far too close to losing nearly everything. If things went on as they were, we might have.

Instead, we live today on a healing planet. Yes, much has been lost, but much was saved or restored or reinvented, and what was saved and healed and made anew has become a powerful legacy.

Those gifts became the seedbeds from which sprouted our new world. That we have so much left from which to coax a long and bountiful tomorrow is no accident. Those seeds of hope were saved and planted and tended to by people who made the decision that they would live as if the future mattered. As if nature mattered. As if we mattered.

These were visionary people. Responsible people. Courageous people. All around the world, our best ancestors took up the challenge of leaving a different, bolder legacy, one not of error and loss, but of leadership, stewardship, innovation.

Take five minutes to soak in Steffen’s vision of how we became the ancestors who, “when they understood the planetary crisis they faced, their answer was not cynicism or surrender, but to seek out others and together meet that crisis with action.” It’ll perk you up for another day of doing what we can today to assure that our descendants have a future worth living in.  (That final link is another compelling essay, in which Steffen makes the moral case for not giving in to despair.)

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New Grist series: Industrial Evolution

We all recognize the plusses and minuses wrought by the industrial revolution.  But how many of us are tuned into the potentially even more transformative potentials of the current Industrial Evolution? The venerable eco-media site Grist is putting a new, more human spin on some of the same territory covered by the folks at Singularity (the techno-zeal of which can sometimes be more than a little discomfiting, even as it inspires).  Grist’s Industrial Evolution series starts with this statement of purpose:

What if we were on the brink of a sustainable tech revolution, and we didn’t even know it? Not the kind of revolution that would put solar panels and low-flow shower heads in every home in America, but one that would fundamentally change how our technologies interact with the natural world?

Thanks to recent advances in biotechnology, we can now engineer biological systems like machines. And thanks to advances in sensor technology, wireless networking, and materials engineering, we can build machines that act biological. Together, these trends could usher in a more sustainable future — one where our built world seamlessly integrates with the environment, rather than disrupts and destroys it.

But that will only happen if we develop these new technologies in a conscientious and responsible way. In this series, we speak with a group of individuals who are doing just that. They’re scientists, artists, and thinkers, and they see a high-tech, sustainable future on the horizon.

There are ten articles in the series so far, with more continuing to be rolled out.  Check it out!

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A solid look at the (crucial)(freaky) topic of geoengineering

Hovering around the edges of the ongoing global conversation about climate change is the (specter)(promise) of geoengineering.  Many of us are (cautiously hopeful)(deeply unsettled) by the whole idea.  How about you?

2016.01.28 Remaking the Planet

This is one of those topics that every (informed)(caring) human will want to stay in touch with over the coming decade or so.  It’s hard to imagine a 2025 scenario short of total breakdown in which the need to compensate for our decades of feet-dragging hasn’t pushed geoengineering into the center of public discourse.

In the spirit of staying informed, this recent interview with Oliver Morton of The Economist is one of the best quick overviews that I’ve seen in the past year or so.  For starters, he reminds us that climate is not the first global system that we’ve purposefully engineered:

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Investors tapping into water as new “asset class”

A key to social resilience in the coming decades will be providing fair and reliable access to water.  And now is the time for resilient investors to consider how they feel about private companies taking the lead in making it so.  A recent NYT article introduces some of the key players in one of the leading edges of this hot-button topic, parched California:

“Water has been taken for granted, but reliable access is no longer guaranteed,” said Disque D. Deane Jr., a Wall Street veteran who runs Water Asset Management. “It will be seen as an asset class that will be allocated in portfolios like health care stocks or energy or real estate.”

The article does not touch on the most contentious issue, privatization of municipal water systems.  Instead, its focus is on desalination plants and delivering underground reserves in the Mojave to coastal cities.  Social and environmental considerations are likely to be deployed by both advocates and critics of projects like these; it’s bound to be another issue that splits the establishment green community (as have GMOs, nukes, and larger ideas like ecomodernism); so if you want to make an informed choice that reflects your own best thinking and deepest feeling, we recommend that you aim to become at least somewhat informed about the debate here.

For starters,

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