Posted on June 24, 2014 @ 07:53:00 AM by Paul Meagher
Systems thinking is a useful tool for trying to predict the future. Systems thinking will not necessarily lead to correct predictions, but if systems models are developed they can help us debate and refine our models in a way that other approaches can't. This is in part because systems models incorporate the idea of reinforcing and balancing loops that drive the evolution of a system. This seems to capture the essentials of the problem of predicting the future, namely, identifying the dominant positive and negative feedback loops and how they interact with various physical "stocks" to determine the evolution of major aspects of the economy over time.
When trying to predict the future there is the issue of how far into the future we want to look. This depends on what problem we are trying to solve. If the problem we are trying to solve is avoiding the meltdown of society due to climate change, peak oil, water scarcity, etc... then the "future" is probably not 2020. The societal shifts required cannot be implemented in that time frame as they will require huge infrastructure investments that will take longer to finance and implement. For example, a renewable energy infrastructure to replace most of the infrastructure that now runs on fossil fuels will not be a 5 year project; it is more likely to be a 35 year project with a 2050 date when the project might be considered largely "completed".
I'm aware of two recent books that use 2050 (or thereabouts) as a reference point for predicting the future. One book is
Reinventing Fire: Bold Business Solutions for the New Energy Era
(2011) by Amory Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute. Another is 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years (2012) by Jørgen Randers (who was a co-author with Donella and Dennis Meadows on the seminal Limits to Growth book). I recently acquired the Reinventing Fire book and will be picking up the 2052 book from my local library to help me understand what the future circa 2050 might look like.
The Reinventing Fire book tackles the issue of how we will transform our energy systems away from fossil fuels towards renewable
energies. Amory believes this energy transformation will be driven by the increasingly favorable economics of renewable energy,
cost savings through incremental and radical efficiency improvements, and the large amount of profits to be made by free market
capitalism as it exploits the tremendous opportunities that arise as renewable forms of energy displace more expensive
and less available forms of energy (fossil fuels). Amory looks specifically at transportation, buildings, industry, and
electricity generation as the main consumers of fossil fuels and how they will be impacted by the switch to relying more upon
renewal forms of energy. Amory provides a playbook for how the energy transformation will unfold citing many technologies and
design options that exist today which are expected to play important roles in the long transition towards a society powered predominantly by renewable energies.
I'll have more to say about the Reinventing Fire book in future blogs. I'm getting ready to read his chapter on the future of transportation which could be fodder for my next blog. I want to end today's blog by stressing the point that predicting the future involves picking a date in the future that you are interested in predicting an outcome for. It occurred to me that 2050 is as good a date as any and has the benefit of being more realistic in terms of when we might "solve" some current systemic problems like climate change, peaking oil, water scarcity, etc... If we enlarge our timeline for prediction, and concern, then maybe we can adopt a more optimistic and can-do stance towards what humanity can accomplish if given realistic timelines and a timeline that encompasses our children's future prospects. If we expect to solve major social and ecological problems by 2020 then we are likely in for disappointment, but if our timeline extends out to 2050 then the small leveraging steps we take today may not solve our problems by 2020, but they might be properly viewed as a part of a sustainability solution that can yield benefits to our children in 2050.