What will the world look like in 30 years? ARUP explores four plausible futures

Arup table

It's a mix of speculative fiction and informed prediction. Which do you think is most plausible?

Arup is not just an engineering firm; they also have Foresight, an "internal think-tank and consultancy which focuses on the future of the built environment and society at large." They just released 2050 Scenarios: Four Plausible Futures, which tries to figure out what the world will be like in 30 years.

The four divergent futures – Humans Inc., Extinction Express, Greentocracy and Post Anthropocene – range from the collapse of our society and natural systems, to the two living in sustainable harmony.

Foresight and Arup started with an engineering approach, reviewing trends, mapping them on a four-square matrix with two axes, looking at twenty different factors. Then they developed for each scenario a timeline, a speculative fictional story of someone living in that world, and a list of key indicators.

Each scenario comes with a timeline, a speculative fictional story of someone living in that world, and a list of key indicators. Which scenario seems most likely? There will be a poll at the end.

1. Post Anthropocene

 Post Anthropocene© Post Anthropocene/ Arup
The first is the happiest.

POST ANTHROPOCENE shows how societal conditions and planetary health might exist in a harmonious relationship, fortifying each other for mutual progress and benefit.

After the crop failures and famines of the mid-twenties everybody got serious about carbon, health and diet, and pulled together to clean up the planet. Everybody is happy, diversity loss has been stopped, there is no such thing as waste in a fully circular and productive economy. "What was once known as rubbish or garbage is one of today’s most valuable resources and is mined both on land and sea. Everything is a resource." Virgin plastic is banned, and in 2047 a museum is opened to display plastic artefacts. "Collaborative decarbonisation efforts have been made globally across sectors. Global mean temperature rise has remained below the 1.5oC target and the sea level has risen less than expected."

2. Greentocracy

Greentocracy© Greentocracy/ Arup

G R E E N T O C R A C Y describes an improvement in planetary health which has been enabled by severe restrictions on human society: restrictive living conditions, conflict and authoritarian regimes prevail.

This sounds like the world predicted by the anti-Agenda 21 crowd. The Agenders claim that world governments are going to push everyone into dense high-rise cities, or as Sebastian Gorka claimed, “They want to take your pickup truck. They want to rebuild your home. They want to take away your hamburgers.” It's worse than that; now everyone is forced to eat Surrogate Pseudo-Proteins (SPPs), 3D printed fake meat. Nobody is happy.

With nearly 60% of the global population relying on synthetic food sources, the first signs of detrimental health impacts are starting to show. Fears are compounded following a disturbing article in the leading academic journal, Nature in 2040, citing severe micronutrient deficiencies across large parts of the population due to over-reliance on synthetic food sources. It also questioned the influence of hyper- densification, limited living space, and restricted access to nature.

But don't dare complain; there are '"'Eco-Re-education' facilities for citizens who repeatedly violate environmental codes of behaviour." The planet has been saved, but "civil liberties are low, press coverage is restricted, and expression must align with local laws."

It goes downhill from there.

3. Extinction Express

Extinction Express© Extinction Express/ Arup

E X T I N C T I O N E X P R E S S depicts both declining planetary health and societal conditions. It is questionable how much longer humanity can survive.

Climate change and the inexorable consumption of Earth’s resources has resulted in fundamental destabilisation of natural systems. Resource, energy, water and food shortages are pervasive across the world. Environmental consciousness is largely non-existent.

The Amazon rainforest is gone, sold to make cardboard for online deliveries. Natural resources are being extracted everywhere. "Geo-engineering and GMO crop development are the only way to feed the global population. Seeds are controlled by Holycrop, an American-based business, which monopolises the market." Domes are built over cities to enclose breathable air. Isolationism has been on the rise for years, and society is driven by a fear of the ‘foreign’ and ‘different’. This has been exacerbated by an unheralded number of climate refugees. Economic disparity has increased dramatically.

The speculative fiction here is particularly dystopian as Caitlyn, who left San Francisco because of political instability, drives around Sweden in her armored car, trading rare earth commodities.

4. Humans Inc.

Humans Inc.© Humans Inc./ Arup
According to the study,"HUMANS INC. represents our current trajectory; a world in which societal conditions advance at the cost of planetary health."

We should be so lucky. "A sense of urgency for climate action is palpable, but 'Why should we go first?' or 'Not in My Backyard' dominates the dialogue. Thus, most national governments hesitate or delay the needed large-scale actions." As weather events got worse through the 20s and 30s, adaptation became the rule; cities relocated their subways above ground. Some got lucky:

A somewhat converse and counter-intuitive development has taken place in some northern countries. Typically cold and arid, these areas have seen significant improvement in agricultural growing conditions as global temperatures continue to rise. In Canada and Russia, large swathes of ice-prone land have become arable. Some northern nations have even advocated increasing carbon emissions to accelerate the expansion of agricultural land and develop new areas for resource mining. These regions are becoming popular destinations for populations that have lost their habitable homeland to climate change.

In our speculative fiction, Iqaluit is the hot spot with midnight sun parties going on for days. People are lining up for water in Rio, and Miami is gone, but there are high-rises overlooking the beach on the Arctic Ocean.

So which is it?

This report comes at an interesting time, given the lens of the IPCC conclusion two years ago that we only have until 2030 to reduce our carbon emissions enough to keep global temperature rise to less than 1.5°C. I keep looking at the timelines in that framework, and don't see any of them, even the most optimistic, actually doing that, although ARUP says the first two actually do hit the target.

After writing about this stuff for over a decade, I find it hard to be optimistic. I am often accused of being negative about everything; just read the comments on two of my recent posts about "green" aluminum or "sustainable" aviation fuel. I look at Australia right now with the worst fires in living memory where the Prime Minister thinks climate change is a hoax, or the United States where GM just introduced its biggest Chevy Suburbans and Tahoes ever and the President thinks climate change is a hoax, or Canada where they say the key to solving the climate crisis is to export Liquid Natural Gas.

Perhaps I have been doing this job too long, but my vote is unfortunately with the Extinction Express. Where is yours?

If you cannot see the poll try this link. Download 2050 Scenarios: four plausible futures from Arup.

What will the world look like in 30 years? ARUP explores four plausible futures
It's a mix of speculative fiction and informed prediction. Which do you think is most plausible?

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