Comments by Professor Tony McMichael
Director, National Centre for Epidemiology
& Population Health
Australian National University
at the launch of Doug Cocks’ book
I notice in the publicity blurb for today’s launch that we have all been invited to “lift our noses from the grindstone and our snouts from the trough” in order to enjoy some big-picture discussion about human futures. So, each of us is implicitly a nose person, or a snout person. Well, of course, we academics would love to have our nose in some trough, snuffling away amongst an abundance of research dollars. However, our olfactory organs are more accustomed to the grind of research grant applications than to savouring truffles in the trough.
Anyway, whether it is nose or snout that each of you have elevated for this morning’s occasion, I hope to be able to impart to you a generous whiff of the purpose and contents of this splendid new book: Deep Futures: Our Prospects for Survival.
The past is something we can know about empirically – or at least it is something we can explore, learn about and interpret. We all studied “history” at school.
The future we can only imagine. Given the now rapid rate of change in human affairs, culture and technology, it would be a brave or reckless person that presumed to predict with any certainty the human state-of-play more than several generations hence. And yet, as this fascinating book of Doug Cocks’ makes clear, the future should not be left to itself: not, that is, if we want to increase the probability of “quality survival” for future, even distant, generations of humans.
We humans, alive at this moment (this crucial several decades) are inextricably part of the unfolding narrative of the human lineage and the greater adventure of life on Earth. We are, in Doug’s formulation, intimately bound to both the past and the future of the human species. We are conscious; we are curious; we inherit the past; we can, hopefully, influence the future. On the frontispiece facing-page there is a quote from that old sage, Anonymous: “If you don’t know where you’re going, it doesn’t matter which bus you catch”.
Before I say something more about the content of the book, I should say a few words about the author – and why he wrote this book. Doug is a Fellow at CSIRO’s Division of Sustainable Ecosystems. He is a well-known Australian human ecologist, with a longstanding interest in the prospects for human futures. His previous books relating to this topic area are: Use With Care; People Policy and Future Makers, Future Takers.
And is his general line optimistic or pessimistic? Economists are typically optimistic about the future: discovery, innovation and substitution will solve all problems, facilitated by the magic of the market-place. Ecologists are typically pessimistic, aware of the limits to the biocapacity of the natural world, and knowing that losses and transitions can prove irreversible.
So where on this spectrum does Doug Cocks, as a systems thinker and multi-disciplinarian, sit? He offers us the hopeful vision of a self-declared meliorist, eschewing the extremes of pessimism or optimism. Meliorists believe that things can be made better, can be ameliorated. They propose an ongoing commitment to review, anticipation and, then, to adjustment, making adaptations along the way – muddling through if necessary. The big task, upfront, is to achieve that commitment – by combining scientific understanding, social learning and collective responsibility.
Now, we all have a time horizon that stretches out for at least the next 100 years or so. (I have spent much of the past decade working within the framework of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC. That body largely confines its scientific assessments of the course and consequences of global climate change to this current century. For climate change science, time appears to stop at 2100.) So why would you want to write about human futures right out there in “deep time”, millennia hence – way beyond the ripples of contemporary anxieties and agendas? Well, I will let Doug Cocks speak for himself on that. In his Preface, he writes:
I am very curious about how our species will fare over coming ages. Will the human lineage survive, reasonably happily, into the distant future? Indeed, will we survive another millennium in reasonably good shape? Will the next thousand years be particularly difficult or just ordinarily difficult? Supposing we survive the next thousand years, will we eventually go extinct as most species do or will we evolve into a new species with which one might empathise? And, supposing we continue to evolve, will that new species or its descendants survive the death of the Sun as an energy and light source in five billion or so years? Beyond that, there is the ultimate question as to if, when and how the universe will end and whether, in some sense, life might best that challenge. A question which is almost as big is whether we ourselves can take steps to significantly improve our chances of being part of a long-lasting lineage. It may just be that, given such a choice, we would perhaps not take it? I will ask that question too.
Doug also tells us that he has written this book primarily for his own peace of mind, to clarify his own thoughts. But, he says, “I would also like others to find my efforts helpful; I suspect that most people in modern societies lack a sense of their place in the larger scheme of things, and that this makes life a little more confused than it need be.”
This book helps redress the imbalance between our manifest fascination with the past and a considered preparation for the ineffable distant future. We cannot afford this imbalance now that the issue of Sustainability is pressing down upon humankind. We must think about the future, and the range of likely consequences of human actions today.
Our understanding of the Deep Past has been much enriched in recent years by the combination of paleo-sciences (climatology, botany, zoology, geology, and others), molecular population genetics, and a greater ecological understanding. We can thus see, within a broader context, the trails trodden by this fledgling species, Homo sapiens. This enables us to appreciate better the dependency of our species upon (if ecologists will excuse a utilitarian phrase) the functionality of the biosphere – and how, in just several centuries, we have moved from (basically) sustainable to non-sustainable stewardship of this planet.
But surely the real point of this greater understanding our past is to help us better handle the future? To that end this book offers a dual perspective, the marriage of History and Posterity. We humans already have various “creation myths” (indeed some that are taught by legislative fiat in schools in the southern USA). But, says the author, we must also have “destiny myths”. He therefore animates and clothes Posterity in various guises. She is thus viewable in terms of various metaphors. We see her as Dragon Slayer, encountering ever fiercer dragons as human societies become ever more complex, consuming and controlling. We see her as Earth-Gardener, tending crops, shaping durable infrastructure, and making planting choices for future inhabitants of the garden.
Posterity, representing the collective human future, may also assume other guises. There is the metaphor of the industrious, provident, Promethean ant that sets up stores against future shortages. There is Posterity the grasshopper – this is a Posterity prepared to take risks, make creative leaps, and to enjoy the moment. And sometimes Posterity will wish to make light of the whole human affair, to laugh at this cosmic joke, to emulate Douglas Adams view that Earth is an inconveniently placed second-rate planet, impeding the construction of an intergalactic super-highway.
"Deep Futures" invites us to take as long a view of the future as we now can of the past. (Remember: it was only in the nineteenth century that Charles Darwin and others began to suspect that Earth’s age was to be measured in millions, not thousands, of years.)
Even so, this book gives due emphasis to the accessible future, over the coming century or two, when we face great and unprecedented challenges, in a world that, as yet, has no tradition, no experience, of coordinated supranational management of macro-problems. He urges new capacities for ecological insight and for social learning. He also hopes that foreseeable brave new technologies, such as nano-assemblers, will help us solve our problems.
This book is notable in at least three respects:
He projects several hundred years of turmoil, arising from the present global mix of ideology, culture, inequality, environmental stress and demographic pressure. He projects 100,000 years of struggling with the next great glaciation (up to 10 degrees C colder), due to begin within several thousand years, and impinging on a human population that will have depleted Earth's stores of fossil fuels (including uranium). He gazes distantly, several billion years ahead, to the time when Earth becomes uninhabitable, and when the sun flares and then dies.
Now, I should say a little about the actual structure of the book. But, first, I will point out that this book is rather encylopaedic in content. There is rich, well-referenced, commentary on cultural evolution, social organization, political ideology, globalisation, and complex dissipative systems (yes, each one of us is one of those, as is the biosphere at large) – and on ethical frameworks, philosophy, economics, management theory, religion, demography, environmental sciences and much more. The writing is clear and incisive, the author lets us know his own view (often with wry comment), and he periodically moves us on when he thinks that he has said enough.
Having browsed through the entire manuscript, I then found it satisfying to go back and cherry-pick different bits, depending on my mood or prevailing interest. The index and the well-ordered sub-headings help this textual navigation. This characteristic will make it a good bedside volume, I suspect.
The book has three sections, entitled:
o Futures we have glimpsed (2 chapters)
o Understanding the task (2 chapters)
o Taking charge (5 chapters)
Those first two sections are about the human prospects for survival. Doug points out that while the future is not predictable, it is imaginable. He concludes several things from this first half:
1. While every century is difficult, the 21st century is going to be very difficult – politically, economically, environmentally and socially. He notes the particular problems in each of these four domains. For example, the growing possibility of a massive energy crisis may undermine capitalism as the dominant form of economic organisation. And socially, the barbarity, inequity and indifference that marked the twentieth century has left a damaging legacy of alienation, sociopathic behaviour and malevolence.
(Even Tony Abbott remarked this week that the fight against terrorism will not be won militarily. He acknowledges that, military might aside, privileged western countries will need to project clear and fair values – that while the openness and wealth of the west is envied, its narcissism, arrogance and materialism is bitterly resented by many of the world’s poor and dispossessed. Whether this acknowledgement is a straw for meliorists to clutch at, or a cynical political ploy to ensure the longevity of the terror agenda, I cannot tell - but at least that rhetoric carries us beyond the crude Bushite view of Good and Evil.)
2. Homo sapiens will almost certainly survive the next 1,000 years. However, there remains a chance that we may have to deal with runaway global warming, or with a sooner-than-expected onset of the next glaciation (accompanied by some hectic changes in temperature).
I was particularly fascinated by the sections dealing with the coming global glaciation, due to begin sometime in the next few thousand years, and due to last around 100,000 years – if the past chronology of glaciations is a reasonable guide to the future. I have a vivid projector slide, based on data from the Vostok Antarctic ice core going back through 420,000 years of annual ice formation. You’ll have to imagine it, since, against usual practice, I have foregone the use of Powerpoint for this talk. The graph shows these glaciations occurring, clockwork-like, every 100,000 years, with sharply-peaked interglacial periodss of 5-10,000 years in-between. Three things stand out on this graph of global temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide over nearly half a million years:
Now back to Doug’s main conclusions from the first half of the book:
3. The deeper future will pose a succession of ever-larger challenges, such as planetary wobbles, an ever-increasing day-length (to more than double today’s 24 hours), permanent drought (something like Mars?), and, five billion years hence, the death of the Sun. Just to keep our human or post-human successors on their toes (or on their post-human appendages), there will be intermittent macro-shocks from asteroid strikes and volcanic winters.
More generally, he concludes that, because human consciousness is a recent development, we are still an adolescent species. Like adolescents, we are selfish, driven by irrational fears and emotions, in need of instant gratification, and unconcerned about long-term prospects. The longer we humans survive, the more likely it is that we will mature into a lineage which understands itself, its role in the biosphere, and which is able to take responsibility for helping shape its own future.
The second half of the book explores strategies for managing and shaping the deep future. We cannot, of course, find a road-map able to guide us more than a few decades far ahead. But we can specify, generically, some broad desired outcomes for humans. Resonant with today’s nascent Sustainability Discourse, we should aim, above all, for Quality Survival. Indeed, Quality Survival for All. This, the book proposes, will require a world society and world government.
Now, what does “quality survival” mean? For some people it may mean playing a round of fair-weather golf daily. For some it may mean lifelong supplies of soma, viagra and Cuban cigars. For others, it may mean access to safe drinking water and enough good food. In this book, Deep Futures, quality survival refers to meeting more than basic physiological needs; it refers also to satisfying our higher needs for love, social bonding, autonomy, creative activity and existential meaning.
OK, but how to achieve this? Especially since, according to the book, managing the future is a “wicked” problem. Now this is rather classical language, and what “wicked” means here is that the problem has no definitive formulation and no certain “best” solution. Indeed, the problem is also elusive, shifting. So, the author’s proposal is that we adopt a “rolling” approach, a process of continuous adaptive management. Through such amelioration, we can positively help to shape the future. But this is not mere hand-waving stuff. Doug Cocks offers us a critical examination of the several main apparent problems to be addressed, including the need for social stability and social learning.
First, social stability. Societies embody many tensions. As they become more complex – which process of complexification almost seems to be a natural law – so they tend to become unstable, to change direction, and prone to implode. Or else they become grid-locked, rigid, unable to change. Either way, eventually the society disintegrates or disappears; indeed, that is the fate of all complex dissipative systems.
Second, social learning. There is a basic difference between biological “learning”, via the acquisition of evolutionarily selected genetic information, and social learning via ideas and theories formulated in the human brain and transmitted, as collective, shared property, through culture. However, there is much evidence that, in usual circumstances, societies, especially traditional and conservative societies, do not change their knowledge and attitude base much between generations. Social learning can only proceed effectively if there is tolerance, a hunger for knowledge, a capacity to think critically, and a continuing scientific base generating and testing formal ideas about how the world works. Inculcating children with a capacity for lifelong curiosity and learning would be a good start.
(I would also say that a good shock to the system, from outside, can stimulate rapid social learning. If the West Antarctic ice-sheet were to come adrift as the world warms, and slips into the ocean, then the resultant six metre rise in sea-level would prompt a fair bit of social learning. Presumably quite quickly.)
There are, says the book, those other perennial social, political and environmental problems. Specifically, we must learn to deal with the threat of war, and the burdens of oppression, population growth and resource depletion. There is a passage that connects directly, uncomfortably, with the great Australian environmental predicament:
As a rule of thumb, irrigation-based civilizations such as first arose in Egypt, Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley several thousand years BCE seldom last more than a few centuries before degrading the soil resource through salting and waterlogging. In general, it is intensification in resource use which leads to environmental depletion and, from there, to either sudden collapse of the cultural system or a shift to a new mode of production. Even when resource degradation has not been fatal, adjustment to it has usually been painful in quality of life terms for ordinary people.
Here Doug Cocks makes the argument for the need and inevitability of world government. He sees it as inherent in the inexorably increasing complexity of human societies, and the web of interactions between them. Now, he may indeed have Complexity Theory on his side, but, on my reckoning, we still need to explain and anticipate the centrifugal forces that have become evident in recent times as societies fragment into ethnic and cultural subunits.
This grand task of managing and shaping the future cannot be tackled solely via human rationality and forethought. Our rationality is never clear-headed; there is the burden of what Regis Debray calls the “assumption drag”: that is, our perception of the present is coloured by our experience of the past. Well, indeed, as Doug Cocks argues, the human lineage – as for any individual human or any particular society – has a life-cycle. There are stages – and the earlier stages precondition, to some extent, later stages. The human lineage therefore faces the familiar existential challenge of constructing for itself a successful life, across these stages of maturation – and then through those that apply to the eventual post-human lineage, should there be one.
Late in the book, Doug recognises that Posterity, representing us, may actually falter, may fail. If our lineage thus goes extinct, he hopes that it will be a graceful exit. He would like to feel that he is a member of a lineage that would die like Socrates, with dignity.
I think it best to allow the author of this erudite and engaging book the final word. Doug closes by writing:
She has yet to choose a vocation that will shape her
adult life in concert with steadily mastering the skills that vocation
demands. She wants to be free but has
not quite learned to tolerate the insecurity that goes with freedom. Indeed she sometimes still likes to be told
where her boundaries are. She enjoys competition and direct cooperation but is
still ambivalent about indirect cooperation.
Her need to belong attracts her to a gang life where competition with
gangs of ‘others’ becomes an end in itself.
Enough. I blush for these easy
generalisations about adolescence but the point remains, human life is a
powerful metaphor for the life of the lineage.
And, within that metaphor, the central lesson is that just as you and I
respond to the existential challenge---the challenge of finding ourselves
here--- by imposing meaning on our lives, so must the lineage.
Whether it is quality survival that becomes the inspirational image of the future that draws world society forward is less important than that there be one. As in Periclean Greece or the Renaissance, shared convictions bring creative forces together and give society a core of meaning. What I am emphasising, romantically perhaps, is the importance of some such vision emerging from this present period of transition and doubt. And, to go with it, the best rolling game plan that informed, clear thinking can devise.
Thankyou for your attention.
I like that touch at the end, Doug. I suspect that you will have many readers’ full attention – and I am delighted to play this part in launching Deep Futures: Our Prospects for Survival.
So, to you the author, thankyou for a stimulating read. And to you, today’s audience, thankyou for your attention.
Talk by Doug Cocks at launch of Deep Futures
National Museum of Australia 12/8/03
Thankyou Brian. And thank you everybody for coming.
I have had a few bad experiences with book launches. The eminent Judge who launched Use With Care had clearly not read the book. Peter Garrett arrived forty minutes late to launch Future Makers, Future Takers. When Ian Lowe launched People Policy he spoke so brilliantly that not even Sir Lawrence Olivier could have followed him. That’s why I’ve made sure Ian follows me today. And Bob Carr’s first words when he launched the same book were ‘ I want to make it quite clear that I strongly disagree with Doug Cocks’ ideas about population policy’.
So, you can see why I’m grateful to Tony McMichael. He’s here on time, he’s read the book and he hasn’t said that it is a ‘crock of warm spittle’. In fact, he’s been rather generous without going overboard, a balancing act that makes him believable as well. Much appreciated Tony. Thankyou.
Taking up just one of Tony’s observations, it might seem strange at first to be raising the past at a symposium on the future, but I do warm to the idea that our past is not static but growing all the time. And, given that our knowledge of how the past worked is the only springboard we have for leaping into the future, our capacity to leap higher and further improves by the day.
More than that, it’s a great story. Far more exciting than any sci-fi novel. It’s full of gaps still but the history of the cosmos, the planet, the biosphere and the human lineage can now be told with enough plausibility and rich detail to fire up the most jaded mind.
If I had to pick just one mind-blowing idea about the past from the many I encountered in reading for this book, it would be Julian Jaynes’ well-argued suggestion that human consciousness as we know it has arisen only in the past few thousand years.
My putative friends have been quick to rubbish the title of today’s book. Dark Futures and Deep Shit are just two of the unsolicited suggestions. John Passioura was particularly helpful. He came up with a title for my next book---Beyond the Future. Thanks Comrade.
Now, some proper thankyous. I’m happy, once again, to thank CSIRO, which in practice means thanking Brian Walker and Steve Morton. These two have given me the space which my sort of scribbling needs---out there on the fringe of capital S science. Mind you, it’s a two-way street. As I see it, CSIRO’s claim to be an enlightened organisation is much improved by allowing a few free spirits to float around. Not sure if the Productivity Commission would agree.
I mention a number of friends and colleagues in the Acknowledgements, with Mike Austin and Franzi Poldy topping the thankyou list, partly for being so willing to disagree with me.
The others who scored a guernsey there were John Burton, Cecily Parker, Roger Bradbury, Sarah Ryan, Michael Dunlop, Graham Turner and Barney Foran. Barney has been a particularly generous program leader. And it was his successor in that role, Barry Fordham, who came up with the idea for today’s symposium, capably orchestrated by Anne Leitch.
As for Inge Newman, it was grossly extravagant of me to label her the world’s greatest librarian. This must be very embarrassing for Inge. On reflection it’s doubtful if she’s more than the best librarian in the southern hemisphere.
Lastly, it has again been a pleasure to work with John Elliot, Publishing Manager for University of New South Wales Press.
The formula for book launches now dictates that I say something insightful about the book. Not a problem.
I enjoyed writing Deep Futures and I enjoyed reading it. After all, how do you know what you think till you see what you say? Ho Ho.
The book is clearly an exercise in what the Enlightenment sceptics called ‘exaggerated intellectual ambition’, a vanity they thought to be at the root of their society’s problems. Well, next question.
The surprise reward I have had from writing this book, and I hope readers will be similarly rewarded, has been---and here I blush to use a word that is new to my vocabulary---has been a spiritual one.
According to Veronica Brady, ‘spiritual’ means a feeling of belonging, of being at home in the world and in the universe. Not quite the same thing, I hasten to point out, as feeling ‘relaxed and comfortable’.
I detect that my epiphany comes in part from a better understanding of macro history and macro evolution. Knowing where you come from is supposed to strengthen your sense of identity, and I’m inclined to agree.
Another explanation for my new-found spirituality might be that the dragons seem to shrink when you confront them. I’m making a reference there to my choice of the game of Dungeons and Dragons as one allegory for humanity’s journey into the future, namely an escalating struggle between knowledge and catastrophe. Each threat surmounted creates a breathing space to improve our understanding of life and the universe before the next threat arrives. Not that it’s all threats of course. Every dungeon has its treasure trove.
The possible futures which I report as having been foreseen for H. sapiens range from Hobbes’ ‘nasty, poore, brutish and short.’ to social and technological ‘utopias’ where happy little vegemites romp hand in hand forever through an undulating landscape of milk and honey.
What I’m trying to say here is that merely by parading a wide range of possibilistic scenarios, we somehow make the deep future seem more manageable and less scary. Mind you, the word ‘manageable’ might ultimately mean nothing more than being able to accept gracefully that everything has a birth-death life cycle---you, me, the cosmos and the lineage.
Now we come to the ‘do gooder’ bit. Apart from the curiosity of the time traveller, the other question motivating this book was indeed about managing the future; ‘Starting now,’ I asked, ‘what, if anything, should we be doing for those who will think of us as ancestors’?
Groucho Marx is arguing the ‘do nothing’ case when he replies ‘What has the future ever done for me?’
My own more inclusive view is that if we want to survive well, we will need a two-pronged strategy. One prong is for chipping away at the perennial problems like injustice, alienation and poverty. The other is for probing several intractable and inescapable problems which are being exacerbated by an accelerating rate of social change. One example is the puzzle of unpredictable complexity and another is the puzzle of how to become a fast-learning society.
That’s why we’ve wheeled in some fine minds for today’s symposium. They are going to tell us where to start.
But let me finish with a modest practical suggestion for those of you who think our first priority is to improve life for this generation’s children and grandchildren. In fact, its called the grandchildren test.
It goes like this. Whenever a politician, or some other member of the ruling class, unveils a proposal to improve society, tug their coat sleeve and ask them insistently and petulantly, ‘What will this mean for our grandchildren, what will this mean for our grandchildren?’ It’s a question you can ask of any sort of economic, environmental, social etc proposal. Give it a go and see if you can draw blood.
Meanwhile, time flies, so, once again, thankyou all for coming. And my particular thanks to you Tony. I hope lots of you can stay on to enjoy the symposium and lunch.