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25th Anniversary series: What might the future hold?

June 25, 2015

In our next series of blogs, we are going to be looking at some possible slices of the future. Humans started predicting the end of the world around 5000 years ago, and we’re still here to tell the tale. But where once prophets and religious obsessives warned of impending doom, today scientists are anxious about the possibility of global Armageddon. To take just one part of the debate, the Stanford scientist Paul Ehrlich has warned that species are going extinct at the highest rate since the dinosaurs ( ).

As strategists with a view of the future, we are often asked – but isn’t it all so difficult? And if we knew about the future, what might we do about it?

The slices of the future we will be considering in our blogs are those where people and organisations can prepare themselves. But there are some cataclysmic events that TV’s Channel 4 have gathered together, using science fiction novels and movies, where it is difficult to see how to prepare. To get these “off the table”, here are the 10 chosen events, in Channel 4’s order of “seriousness”, with against each the % of people polled who thought that if he world was going to end, it would be this way.

  1. Nuclear war (28%): Nuclear war and its aftermath has been a topic for movies since WWII, recently the film The Gstetten Saga: The Rise of Echsenfriedl, an Austrian science fiction and fantasy film. The growing tension between the last two remaining superpowers – China and Google – escalates in the early 21st century, and results in the global inferno of the “Google Wars”. More soberly, there has never been as much dissatisfaction with the international framework governing nuclear weapons (the Non-Proliferation Treaty) as there is today. The treaty is being reviewed and debated at the United Nations in New York (May 2015), and for the first time in 35 years there are serious concerns that it might tear apart at the seams. ( ).
  1. Pandemics (10%): in popular culture, for instance there is 12 Monkeys (2015-), a television series that depicts James Cole, a time traveler, who travels from the year 2043 to the present day to stop the release of a deadly virus. In real life, pandemics pose a very real threat. The scientific view is that “Pandemic disease is only one aspect of nature that we still don’t have the means to fully predict. Like the weather, it is virtually impossible to foresee with any certainty beyond a few days.
  1. Climate change (19%). The thinking on this has been influenced by a book Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet, ISBN 978-0-00-720905-7, a 2007 non-fiction book by Mark Lynas about global warming. The book attempts to summarize results from scientific papers on climate change. It shows the expected effects of six degrees(°) average global temperature increase. The effects are also compared to paleoclimatic studies, with six degrees of warming compared back to the Cretaceous. Special coverage is given to the positive feedback mechanisms that could dramatically accelerate climate change. The book explains how the release of methane hydrate and the release of methane from melting permafrost could unleash a major extinction event.
  1. Volcano (3%): paleo-biology suggests that at the end of the Triassic period, at least half of the species living on land and in the ocean went extinct, opening the way for dinosaurs to dominate Earth for the next 135 million years. In an article in the journal Science, researchers have confirmed that eruptions large enough to bury the U.S. under 300 feet (91 meters) of lava occurred at the same time that vast numbers of plant and animal species disappeared from the fossil record.
  1. Asteroids (5%) A favourite of movie makers (Armageddon, Deep Impact —), and the global adoption of Asteroid Day on June 30, 2015, to heighten awareness of the asteroid hazard and efforts to prevent future impacts, in memory of an asteroid strike on Siberia in 1908. The White House-sized asteroid made such an impact that it was estimated to be hundreds of times more powerful than the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima during World War II, destroying around 800 square miles.
  1. Nuclear accident (4%) The most serious nuclear accident has been the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. There have been more than 70 nuclear accidents, and the documentaries about these crowd out any science fiction.
  1. Bio terrorism (0%) Disease seemingly goes hand-in-hand with many of our worst nightmares in movies, including vampires and zombies — and experts have pointed out how fictional scenarios can shape public perceptions of real-life microbes – and the film Outbreak in 1995 was based on an ebola-like virus. It is difficult to estimate the real scope for bio terrorist attack, either by terrorist organizations or rogue states, but it cannot be dismissed out of hand.
  1. Artificial intelligence (2%) From the movie Age of Ultron showing artificial intelligence animating a robot army hell-bent on destroying the world, to TV mini-series Delete imagining a disaster in our all-too-fragile digital world where the web becomes dangerously self-aware with one systematic purpose, to destroy mankind. Movies about AI are mostly gloomy. In reality of course, AI is already embedded in many computer systems.
  1. Death of the sun (10%) It was surprising that so many people were worried about this as the Sun is expected to become a red giant in approximately five billion years, with the Earth having a minimum of 1.1 billion years before it becomes uninhabitable,
  1. Aliens from other planets (19%). Another favourite for science fiction and movies, perhaps explaining the 1 in 5 people who think this is the most likely way our earth will end. Stephen Hawking has revealed he strongly believes in aliens and warned that Earth could be at risk from an invasion. “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn out very well for the Native Americans.”

There are many excellent guides to major trends that will affect us all over the next decades. For guidance, see . What we have tried to do in this blog sequence is to highlight a specific emerging change from the many, and to explore some of the potential impacts.  We welcome thoughts on other drivers of change or more impacts of the ones we have highlighted.

Written by SAMI Director, Gill Ringland.

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