Dear Mum: A Letter from Another Future
Published on October 1, 2019
Rohit Talwar – Futurist Speaker
By Rohit Talwar and Alexandra Whittington
What would be the consequences of a future where technology fails to deliver and the environmental crisis peaks?
In the previous post we presented an optimistic “Dear Dad” letter from the future highlighting how technological advances could enhance our lives over the next ten to fifteen years. To balance the blatant optimism of this first letter, and being true to our futurist calling, here we present alternative perspective of how things might play out: a letter from another future.
This letter is sent on Mother’s Day 2030—the same time horizon as our “Dear Dad” letter, but it reflects an entirely different image of the future. While Dear Dad paints a daughter’s picture of technological utopia and abundant opportunities, the “Dear Mum” future presented here shares a son’s account of societal decline, highlighting what could happen if we collectively ignore the signals of impending change and some of our worst fears come true.
In this more dystopian future, water, food, and natural resources run short, thanks in part to basic supplies being horded by the wealthy. A huge rich-poor divide in incomes and wealth forms the basis for civic unrest. At the same time, innovation lies dormant, forming a technological vacuum—an expanded and more pervasive second artificial intelligence (AI) winter that spans a broader range of technologies.
This innovation trough catches the modern world by surprise, causing discomfort and contributing to many points of tension. A major category of social unrest that plagues this future is inter-generational conflict, with the young feeling betrayed by the choices of their elders. The dark future scenario “Dear Mum” contains fears, challenges, warnings, and regrets—four horsemen of the global governance apocalypse that a futurist perspective is meant to prepare us for and inoculate against.
It’s been ten years since you passed and we last spoke, but you asked me to write to you today, a decade on— for Mother’s Day—to tell you what has happened to the world you left behind. I think the massive loss of human life has caused the most pain across the planet, and was perhaps the biggest and most avoidable legacy of those who’ve run the world for the last 100 years. The pain caused by this global death toll is matched and possibly exceeded by a deep sense of regret.
There is a sense of “global knowing” that, while there was so much that could have been done, so little was actually achieved because of politics, egos, ambition, greed, and financially motivated governance choices. Even though I personally consider you innocent, there are many who condemn you and your entire generation for allowing the rot to set in “on your watch.” I agree that everyone born before 2000 is complicit in causing this chain of catastrophic suffering. But it actually accelerated since you died ten years ago. I find it hard to blame you for something that was the byproduct of decades of cultural escapism—and that only spiraled out of control after it had claimed you as a victim.
The first thing I want to ask is, why didn’t anyone listen? For decades, scientists, philosophers, and experts across every domain from climate science and AI, to biodiversity and disease control had been warning us of the growing list of exponential risks. They warned, in ever more frantic terms, of the unseen and potentially irreversible threats arising from our pursuit of stellar profits through unregulated, unchecked, and largely uncontrolled exponential advances in science and technology. Indeed, you were still here in May 2017 when the scientist Stephen Hawking warned that humanity only had 100 years to get off planet earth. This was hardly the first such cataclysmic warning—in fact it was one of the last.
So, what actually happened? Well, pretty soon after you left us, things began to fall apart quite dramatically as far as ecological stability was concerned. Extreme weather and rising sea levels proved highly disruptive to a number of systems like agriculture, transportation, travel, and communications. Rising temperatures accelerated mass migration from hard hit regions and caused violent and chaotic scenes at many country borders. Indeed, rumors and video evidence abounded of government militias exterminating entire cohorts of refugees arriving at their borders and sinking overcrowded boats at sea.
Climate chaos also interfered with information and communication technology (ICT) systems, with networks collapsing and servers failing under the heat. This of course led to a number of problems with basically every aspect of life and the economy. Education, work, and public services became unstable and unreliable. In rapid succession supply chains broke down, raw material costs rose, the price of literally everything skyrocketed, and inflation naturally went off the charts.
The chaos meant that financial markets inevitably went into meltdown, banks collapsed, and governments were unable to underwrite the losses of those who saw their savings disappear. Companies slashed their workforces, wages fell, and few nations had any kind of workable schemes to provide guaranteed basic incomes and services. Countries around the world fell into recession leading to extreme social chaos and major economic losses.
There was so much despair from this combination of economic chaos, internet blackouts, and interruption of the electrical grid, and people grew more and more mistrustful and survival focused. Communities disintegrated—there were regular violent outbreaks in many of the worlds’ biggest cities. The chaos reinforced the rich-poor divide and increased the already disproportionate power imbalances. Those with wealth found it even easier to secure control over the provision of basic goods and services, supported as they were by fear-driven policies that effectively repressed the poor and enriched the already well-off.
Governments caved in to the demands of the super-rich and ceded ever greater control of public assets to the rich elite in return for guarantees that they would stay in the country, pay at least some taxes, and spend money in the economy. Income inequality rose exponentially, which led to distrust in every corner of society. Priorities shifted from preserving the status quo, to very overtly protecting the interests of the few. This acted as a tipping point for social unrest given the already tenuous imbalances between socioeconomic classes. Rather than seek to bridge a growing gap, the world’s decision makers chose to protect the few and sacrifice the many.
Ecological degradation led to widespread shortages of food and clean water. Natural systems were known to be vulnerable since the mid-2010s, and these issues led rapidly to an acceleration of observable and adverse natural phenomena. Various species displayed random and aberrant patterns, such as bee die-offs, loss of entire sub-species and varieties, amphibian mutations, and plant flowerings that defied seasons. These environmental shifts had a sudden impact on the food supply, a scenario dozens of scientists had seen coming.
Hunger became a global norm again, and while governments worked at a rather pedestrian pace and in a very tokenistic way to try to solve the problem, there was very little that could be done. For example, it was difficult to accelerate promising food science initiatives or overcome years of lax environmental policies, particularly in the developed world. Water and sanitation suffered as well, and clean sources became few and far between. Believe it or not, water access in 2030 is rationed, unpredictable, and conflict-ridden.
Mum, if somehow you are reading this, you must be thinking, “She’s got this all wrong.” When you were still alive, we knew these problems were coming up, but we also thought that technology-enabled innovation and human ingenuity would save us. We thought renewable energy would replace the dirty fracking and fossil fuel mining, which had contaminated so much land and water. We thought 3D printed food, laboratory grown meat, and genetically modified organisms would help feed the entire planet safely and cheaply. We hoped that personal technology and a world powered by AI would offer a pathway to more equal, transparent, and politically empowered societies.
We often talked about how the solutions just needed to be invented and that they were right around the corner. What we didn’t realize or accept was that a technological fix is just not enough. We are now learning that it takes very different mindsets, coupled with serious attitudinal reframing, behavioral shifts, and cultural change to get us out of our self-inflicted mess. A big shock has been the failure of some of our most promising technologies, which has occurred since you passed away ten years ago.
Back then, we thought that by 2025 AI, blockchain, 3D printing, and an internet of smart things would enable our deliverance from tenuous living conditions. However, by 2022 the public backlash against these technologies was in full swing and governments tried to control their development using heavy-handed and retrograde measures rather than forward thinking approaches. This led to a sharp decline in funding for research and development and a dramatic slowdown progress—and they have not yet picked back up. Most expect they never will, at least not in our lifetimes, which means not in time to save human life on earth.
Technological innovation was also dampened by the depressed spirit of the times, Moore’s law no longer applies, and we are seeing almost no improvements in computing power rather than the exponential gains Moore had predicted. Indeed, the last ten years have been a sort of Dark Age in terms of progress in science and technology. The fact that educational systems are so crippled and outdated hasn’t helped. Schools have closed or been merged, classroom sizes have tripled in some areas, and teachers’ pay has been frozen for five years after a series of real-term cuts.
Academic research programs have been de-funded, and entire universities, colleges, faculties, and departments have closed in higher education. Those schools and degree programs that do survive rely on the sponsorship of rich local benefactors. These new funders are in turn guaranteed a percentage of the lifetime income of every student they support, collected for them by government via the tax system. I never did finish my degree, Mum. Last time I saw you I was beginning my second year at university, but I never got to finish because I had to focus on survival, as did most of my other friends and classmates.
I know you were a victim, too. Cancer has always been a common cause of death, but in your case the environmental source of the disease has a sad irony; there is now clear proof that the pesticides, used to treat the crops that once grew so bountifully, were also slowly killing us. Our ability to feed so many so well (and create a good deal of waste in the process) was such a noble idea but ultimately not in our best interests.
Society learned too late that large-scale agriculture put far too much pressure on natural systems and poisoned the water supply. The resulting food crisis has taught us to respect the systems that give us life, and use them in a more healthy way. Unfortunately it is too late for victims like you, innocent martyrs to global mismanagement. But in a way, I’m glad you’re not here to see it yourself. I think you’d be saddened by all the ways in which humanity has sold itself short.
- How might different societies and governments react to receiving this information about the future?
- How might such a pessimistic image of the future encourage people to change unsustainable behavior and shape their choices?
- How should society balance its efforts and resources between building an aspirational future and also preparing for more pessimistic scenarios?