Sunday, January 17, 2010

Review: Earth 2100, a bleak but then hopeful look at our future

Earth 2100 is a rather television program presented by the American Broadcasting Company network on June 2, 2009. They showed what they called the worst case scenario of our future, rising oceans, fuel shortages, a warming climate, water shortages, the big cities of the south-west abandoned due to a lack of water, diseases, famine, a massive die-off of humanity, and on and on. It's told through the eyes of a baby born on June 2, 2009, and who lives until June 2100 (and beyond) to tell us how she lived through the catastrophe. But then they spent the last 10% of the show saying, well, we don't have to have this catastrophe, not if we do a few things. It's bleak but with a glimmer of hope.

The story is told by Lucy, the child born in 2009. She narrates the story of the coming century and perhaps the latter part of her story is being previewed for us today in earthquake-stricken Haiti. In Lucy's story the problems become so overwhelming that the U.S. government is unable to muster the resources to save New York City from flooding due to a storm and generally rising sea levels. The U.S. government may seem very strong today but faced with a strenuous enough series of disasters the resources of our country might be weakened enough to warrant the abandonment of New York City.

The reason I mentioned Haiti a couple sentences back is that today we are witnessing a country, devastated by an earthquake, the country itself was already very poor and lacking in national resources, and the earthquake devastated the Haitian government itself. The Haitian government was unable for a couple days to field its own people and resources to help with disaster recovery, instead the disaster recovery has been completely in the hands of the people on the streets, and in the hands of other countries who have been organizing a massive relief effort. Haiti's condition today demonstrates what could well happen to other countries as the problems we're facing become bigger and bigger.

In any case let's get back to the show.

One obvious question one should ponder is - just how real is the disaster scenarios they're presenting? Have they strung together a series of made-up disaster stories to alarm the audience and get a bunch of ratings? According to Executive Producer Michael Bicks, "this program was developed to show the worst-case scenario for human civilization. Again, we are not saying that these events will happen — rather, that if we fail to seriously address the complex problems of climate change, resource depletion and overpopulation, they are much more likely to happen." On their web site (see: 'Earth 2100': Is this the Final Century of Our Civilization?) they have a lot of extra documentation and footage explaining all the scenarios and background.

Unfortunately the versions on the ABC website are not embeddable, and fortunately youtube has them.

A bit of history they point to are several societies that collapsed, such as the Roman Empire, the Mayan civilization and so forth. The show I reviewed last week (see Review: Life After People - Depicts the fragility of our modern society) covered some of the same ground. Just because our society seems invincible doesn't mean it will last forever. In Earth 2100 one of the talking experts claims that every advanced civilization thinks at the height of their power that it will live forever. But they've all failed. Perhaps ours will, too, fail. The history of strong empires has not been good, they've all failed. If past events are any indication of future results the American Empire too will fail.

The disasters ABC depicts in this show are:

  • Migrations of animals fleeing the warming of the climate
  • Fuel shortages due to Peak oil
  • Rising oceans and climate refugees due to Climate Change
  • Strange diseases
  • Food supply susceptible to disease because the monoculture agriculture practice makes for a theoretical disease/insect which targets the one plant species grown everywhere

The scenarios they paint seem largely based on the events currently happening. The picture they paint is pretty darn extreme but to be honest it's plausible the future could be even worse than they depict. Or better.

One interesting possibility is for our society to get serious about avoiding these problems, to deploy enough society changes to lower greenhouse gas emissions, and none of the disaster scenario events occur. Would those people in our future understand the catastrophe which was avoided? Or would they scoff at us for believing bugaboo scenarios that never happened?

Think that's silly? What's your opinion of the Y2K scare? The Y2K scenario was taken seriously enough by businesses that they spent a lot of money re-engineering their critical systems to remove Y2K vulnerabilities. In the mid-late 1990's there was a resurgence of hiring COBOL programmers for exactly this purpose, to rework old COBOL based computer systems to avoid known Y2K flaws in the software designs. There really were Y2K vulnerabilities and bugs in some software systems. Sure enough on December 1, 1999 at Midnight the world kept on ticking. Even though the overall Y2K scare was overhyped and blown out of proportion, there was enough reality behind it, there were real honest to goodness bugs in some computer systems, that the scenario was one which could have happened.

In the case of climate change and peak oil the science is very well understood. The danger is very real. The costs are immense if we ignore the danger and do nothing.