The future is still unwritten

As 2013 arrives, I recently had a speculative discussion with some friends about what lies ahead. Will it be business as usual? What changes might we see? My thoughts are these are interesting times to be alive!

Productivity increases yet wages decline when adjusted for inflation.

For the past 30 years we’ve seen some underlying economic trends that I think will continue, namely decreasing real wages for goods-producing workers (i.e. the real economy that produces things like food not pseudo goods like improving search time for pornography), increasing inequality, and increasing cost of energy as well as other necessities. As greed increases and debt can no longer finance social benefits, the boomers are the last generation to be more materially well off from their parents. Pension? What’s that? I would expect increased political instability with a breakdown in the social contract and ruling consensus among elites.

Increasing cost of consumer goods and services.

There could be many diversions like the massive debt bubble of the 90s and 00s or the current boom in unconventional oil, which is the reason North Dakota has the lowest unemployment rate in the nation. The IEA, who said conventional oil production peaked in 2006, now says the US will return to the foremost hydrocarbon producer by 2020 due to previously unrecoverable gas and shale deposits. The caveat the likes of the WSJ forgot to report is the same IEA report predicts by 2036 we’ll be back to 2012 production levels.

Innovations can only delay the inevitable: that we will eventually have to transition from a fossil fuel based economy and culture. As a whole the boomers and Gen Xers seem to have made it clear they will not give up their God given right to transfer all the ancient underground carbon to the atmosphere as soon as technically possible. The fact no one has a good plan B after the stuff becomes scarce is incredible to me. I don’t see how the American Empire can survive this, as it was our oil wealth and geographic isolation from WWII that initially created American global hegemony. The writing is on the wall but who knows exactly when the empire will fall. As with Rome, I doubt it can be traced to a single date. But within my lifetime I see a fundamental shift in business as usual.

It looks like my generation will mainly be the ones forced to deal with 200 years of kicking various cans down the road. Increased ecological education seems to have paid off somewhat with my peers (I was taught about global warming and recycling in grade school). At least there seems to be more awareness and support on average for experimenting with “costly” alternative energies. But of course it’s all framed in the same manner of continuing extractive relationships and current levels of consumption.

The outlook for biodiversity is so grim I don’t even want to think about it. I am very disheartened as one who loves natural beauty and believes in the intrinsic value of all living organisms. When will the Holocene Extinction cease? Meager set-asides for conservation seems hardly a sufficient response.

Map of the known universe
Map of the universe

On the bright side there is an amazing amount of innovations, interesting art and experimentation in new culture going on right now. Every year we learn more about our planet, solar system, galaxy, and universe. Our current scientific models began to show their limits as we discover 84% of the matter in the observable universe is dark matter, of unexplainable composition. Perhaps it is the multiverse? Further shattering previous beliefs, NASA now estimates 500 million planets outside our solar system reside in a habitable zone where carbon-based life could theoretically evolve. Discovering life on one of these exoplanets appears to be highly probable, with some saying a mathematical certainty. And the constant shifting of our assumptions continues…

We are born into a world already made and carry the baggage of our ancestors. However, I ultimately believe the future is more like an ongoing yet unfinished play. We are given a role and thrown into a scene. How we play this is up to us.

What do you think?