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Future Planet- The Future of Civilisation 3.0

David TowDavid Hunter Tow, Director of the Future Planet Research Centre argues that the triple major disaster in Japan, will trigger the rapid evolution of Civilization 3.0 in the fight for human survival.

The recent Japanese triple disaster- its monster earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown sends a timely message to the rest of the world- that the form of civilization and the social norms we have become accustomed to and lived by over the last few centuries, is over.

Civilisation 1.0 began over 15,000 years ago with the founding of the earliest settlements and villages around the world, as hunter gatherers settled down to take advantage of the rich sources of edible grasses and natural foods growing mainly around the fertile delta areas of the great rivers and coastal areas of the world. These early habitats evolved into the first towns, cities and eventually nation states. At the same time, the first writing and number systems evolved to keep track of the products and services that developed and were traded by modern humans. Also with the growth of towns and trade across the world and the use of wood for building and smelting, the clearing of the forests across Europe began.

Civilisation 2.0 then emerged, with more sophisticated means of production using wind and water; rapidly accelerating following the industrial revolution in the 18th century with the harnessing of steam and later electricity and combustion engine power. These innovations were dependent on the burning of fossil fuels- coal and oil on a massive scale, allowing the West to steal a march on the rest of the world; colonising its populations and exploiting its wealth.

The manufacture of goods and services then increased on a massive scale; everything from food, textiles, furniture, automobiles, skyscrapers, guns and railway tracks- anything requiring the use of steel, cement or timber for its production.

The major cities expanded on the same original settlement sites as Civilization 1.0 - coastal ports, river delta fertile flood plains, regardless of the risk from subsidence and earthquakes.

The energy revolution was rapidly followed by the communications and information revolution- grid power, telephone, wireless, radio, television and eventually computers. Later, nuclear power was added to the mix.

Then in the second half of the 20th century the realization finally dawned that the planet’s resources really were finite, following the many dire predictions for decades previously.

Now at the current rate of consumption by a global population of 7 billion, projected to grow to 9 billion by mid-century, combined with the Armageddon of global warming, the planet is rapidly running out of fresh water, food, and oil. At the same time the grim effects of the escalating levels of carbon in the oceans and atmosphere has triggered more frequent and severe weather events- major droughts, floods and storms, adding to the impact of earthquakes in highly populated urban areas.

These problems are now bigger than any one nation can handle and can only be effectively addressed on a global basis. This will inevitably need to be coupled to a higher level of social awareness and democratic governance, in which everyone, not just politicians, are involved in the key decision processes affecting the planet.

Welcome to Civilisation 3.0.

Civilization 3.0 is just beginning, but is already being tested. From now through the rest of this century comes the hard part. Tinkering around the edges won’t do it for the planet and its life- including humans, any longer.

The planet’s climate is already in the throes of runaway warming, regardless of what forces caused it, because of the built-in feedback processes from the melting of the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, to the release of huge methane reserves in the northern tundra and ocean floor.

But this is just the start of our problems.

Some areas may get a short term reprieve with local cooling, but overall the heating process appears to be unstoppable. The Faustian bargain that humans struck to establish Civilisation 1.0 and 2.0, when the planet was teeming with natural resources, is about to be redeemed. Humans are being called to account.

By 2020 the cost of solar, wind and biofuels is likely to be at a baseline level comparable to that of fossils fuels, due to major technological advances currently underway, such as artificial photosynthesis. But because of the flawed democratic process, major businesses and corrupt governments can still undermine the critical mindset needed for radical change, with calls for short term profits drowning out the desperate call by future generations for long term survival. It is therefore highly likely that we will still be emitting copious amount of carbon by 2020 and starting to exceed the safe limits of temperature rise.

In addition, supplies of fresh food and water, particularly in developing countries are already dwindling, with the potential to create further malnutrition and conflict.

So Civilisation 3.0 has to get serious.

One of the major recent initiatives at the heart of the fight-back revolution is the concept of a smarter planet. The Japanese experience has now reinforced that concept. Every built object and operational process will eventually need to be embedded with sensors and its performance and integrity continuously monitored and assessed in relation to natural disasters and sustainability.

Everything from roads, transport, bridges, railways, buildings, dams, power plants, grids and information systems, as well as human knowledge and skill capacities, will need to be urgently upgraded. Even towns and cities will have to be redesigned to avoid future worst case natural and manmade disasters and provide a more sustainable living space for future generations.

In addition, the loss of critical ecosystems and species will compound the infrastructure problems of the planet, requiring re-prioritization of the value of the natural environment and fair re-allocation of its resources on a global scale.

The current level of risk and waste in the built environment is now seen as both unacceptable and avoidable. By applying new technologies already available such as smarter materials, safer engineering methods, improved communications and sophisticated computer modeling, risk can be dramatically reduced.

The new sustainability standards will need to be set much higher; at a much smarter level than previously accepted, in order to reduce carbon emissions, optimize performance and enable more responsive adaptation within a fast deteriorating physical and social environment. This will be mandatory as the escalating scale of the risk becomes apparent.

At the heart of this revolution will be the powerful mathematical algorithms and intelligence capable of making optimum decisions at a far greater speed and with less human intervention. In turn this will require instant access to the Intelligent Web’s global resources of specialized knowledge, artificial intelligence and massive grid computing power.

By 2030 however, panic will be building across the globe. The safe levels of temperature rise of 2%, expected to hold until the end of the century, will likely be breached and physical and social problems will escalate.

Any realistic solution for human survival will require living and working together cooperatively and peacefully as one species on one planet, finally eliminating the enormous destruction and loss of life that wars and conflict inevitably bring.

Although cooperation on a global scale will be vital, individual nations will be tempted to free ride, as populations react with violence and anarchy to shortages of basic necessities through rising prices and inadequate infrastructure, particularly in hard-hit developing economies.

A massive mind shift will be required across the planet to achieve this level of cooperation; a more collaborative and creative process will need to evolve and quickly, harnessing all human knowledge and technological resources. To achieve this level of cooperation non-democratic states will need to democratize or be excluded from the resulting benefits and the old forms of democracy will have to be upgraded to a more inclusive and participatory level if human civilization is to avoid slow annihilation.

The stress of the human fight for survival will also present myriad ripple-on challenges relating to maintaining a cohesive social fabric. Democracy and justice are basic options, but also providing adequate levels of health, work and education will get a lot harder. This will require adaptation on a vast scale.

By 2040 the trendlines will be set and through the social media, the risks will need to be openly and clearly relayed to all populations. This will be similar to the collective discipline and mindset required many times in the past by nations threatened by the fear of war and decimation.

It will now need to be replicated on a global scale

Beyond increasing renewable energy and reducing waste, the fight for survival will require the implementation of other more radical innovations, including the eventual geo-engineering of the weather and climate. The science and technology needed to achieve such a complex outcome is unlikely to be achievable before 2050 and in the meantime our civilization may be in free fall. However it will probably be the only solution capable of reversing rather than just slowing the headlong rush to chaos.

Other radical solutions will involve the need to accelerate our level of knowledge generation. This is already taking place through advanced methods of automatic pattern analysis and algorithm discovery, applying artificial intelligence methods and the immense computational intelligence of the Web.

It will be a bootstrapping process. The faster the increase in knowledge acquisition, the more powerful the potential intelligence of the Web will become, which will then further accelerate the increase in life-saving expertise. This exponential process may be further accelerated by promoting higher levels of networked ‘swarm’ behavior, combining human intelligence on a grand scale across the planet. The benefits of collective intelligence acting like an advanced insect hive are already being realized, with research teams combining in larger and larger groups to solve more and more difficult problems. It has been demonstrated that an increase in synergy resulting from collective intelligence in complex self-organising systems allows ‘smarter’ problem solving as well as greater decision agility.

For example 50 European Universities have recently combined in the FuturICT project; an EU billion dollar flagship project to model, predict and solve future planetary and social problems. And this is only one collective project out of thousands, with increasing collaboration between US, European and Asian science and technology groups.

With all these initiatives, will Civilization 3.0 survive ?

It will likely be a very close call, dependent largely on whether our increase in beneficial knowledge can outstrip the planet’s rapid descent into environmental and social oblivion- a potential runaway pre-Venusian scenario with no end in sight.

It is similar to the Red Queen scenario in Lewis Carroll’s- Alice through the Looking Glass, in which the red chess queen has to run faster and faster just to maintain her position. Humans will also have to become smarter and smarter just to stay ahead of the approaching Armageddon.

The odds in fact will be very similar to the climate bottleneck that almost eliminated our early Homo sapien ancestors 20,000 years ago as they struggled to survive the last ice age. Only a small band of perhaps several hundred survived thousands of years of frozen hardship, finally regrouping and reaping the rewards that evolved following the great melt.

Modern humans can also can reap a future cornucopia if they have the courage and skill to survive the looming crisis in our evolution.

Many other civilisations across our universe may well have faced a similar bottleneck. Those that survived will have gone on to reap the untold riches of Civilisation 4.0 with its mastery over the physical laws governing our world and galaxy. Along the way Civilisation 5.0 will emerge, possessing not only the immense scientific capability needed to solve any physical problem, but enough wisdom to avoid future social catastrophes.

The stakes couldn’t be higher. The Japanese catastrophe and many others, including the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami in 2004 leaving 300,000 dead, should have given us all a clarion call.

This is not a bad dream, from which we’ll all awake tomorrow with business as usual. The future of Civilisation 3.0 and our unique intelligent life-form really is in the balance. Let us hope ours will be one of the few or perhaps the only advanced civilisation to have survived such a test, so that our children and our children’s children can live to experience the untold wonders of our planet and universe.

But the Red Queen will have to run very fast indeed.