The Future of Progress: A Concern for the Present

Consequences of climate change have been framed as eventualities, giving those in power a comfort zone of inaction. Our generation does not have this privilege.

The following essay was written by Lucienne Bacon and Lucas Kopinski, senior year students at Avenues: The World School. Bacon and Kopinski spent the previous school year engaging with Long Now ideas, such as the pace layers model, while they pursued an independent project reflecting on the importance and fallibility of metrics when it comes to balancing long-term environmental and societal health. The essay crystallizes their learnings and proposes a long-term index that combines social, environmental, present, and future considerations.

Born at the start of the twenty-first century, we are deeply concerned about the world that awaits us at its end. For too long, the consequences of climate change have been framed as eventualities. This has given those in power a comfort zone of inaction. But our generation does not have this same privilege; with each passing year we are being made vulnerable by unprecedented situations that have not been adequately prepared for or addressed. We had the right to inherit an uncontaminated world. Instead, we have inherited the responsibility to stave off the implications of climate change. Today we speak on behalf of a younger constituency who believes that immediate action is required to bring about the collaborations and transformations that will be necessary to do this. We have authored this paper as part of a larger effort to develop a resource that can help us understand the health of the human ecosystem relative to the environment.

Introduction

The illusion that we can continue to defer action on global conservation and climate change mitigation efforts placate those who fail to employ foresight, and leaves the human condition of future generations unprotected by preparations that could be made in the present. It is likely that this inaction grows from the narrative that human civilization is prospering in a way that it has never before, from declining poverty rates to increasing literacy. These and other positive trends are triumphs to acknowledge, but their continuity is and will continue to be actively threatened by the implications of environmental destruction.

A diagram of Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand’s pace layer model.

How will human development fare as it comes under siege from climate change? And will there come a time when it — at odds with yet dependent upon the health of the environment — can no longer prosper? These questions are an imperative to developments that are well documented in the pace layer model. The pace layer model is a system of six components that descend in order of change-rates; fashion moves the fastest while nature moves the slowest. However, in light of environmental changes the behavior of nature is beginning to display characteristics of discontinuity and a fast rate of change that were once unique to the uppermost layers. We must question the assumption that our successes today will only be heightened tomorrow and make ourselves vulnerable to the reality that human progress is never inevitably linear.

So that we can better analyze how the conditions of both human progress and the environment will change in the future, we must step beyond forecasting and into the world of modeling. We are proposing the creation of a model that could seek to examine if and how the environmental changes wrought by our development could impede on our wellbeing. In order for such a model to be effective, we must first understand the historic and contemporary relationships we had and have with the environment.

Humans and the Environment

The environment can impact civilization.

Throughout history, there have been many regional examples of the environment’s impact on civilization. In the 12th and 13th centuries B.C.E, Bronze age civilizations such as the Mycenaean Greeks, Egyptians, and Assyrians either fully or partially collapsed due to a combination of large volcanic eruptions and powerful earthquakes, leading to large-scale migrations and societal chaos. More recently, a similar pattern of environmental events such as sea level rise, glacier retreat, and wildfires, are impacting populations across the globe. While past effects from isolated events were detrimental to human societies on a regional scale, current environmental catastrophes are impacting the entire planet, and can be conclusively attributed to the consequences of human actions.

Civilization can impact the environment.

Human societies have had a tremendous impact on the environment around them. Historical examples include deforestation by the Mayan civilization in the Yucatán and aridization by the Anasazi culture in the U.S. Southwest. In modern times, similar types of habitat destruction continue and have been joined by a new anthropogenic impact: climate change. Recently, the United Nations released a statement detailing that “Today’s IPCC Working Group 1 report is a code red for humanity. The alarm bells are deafening, and the evidence is irrefutable: greenhouse‑gas emissions from fossil-fuel burning and deforestation are choking our planet and putting billions of people at immediate risk.” These impacts are linked to progress: climate change, habitat loss, pollution, and other forms of exploitation are the direct result of a worldwide increase in consumption and production of goods, foods, and products. Some of the world’s richest countries have the highest carbon footprints per capita, e.g. the US (15.52T), UAE (23.37T), and Kuwait (25.65T), while some of the poorest countries have the lowest carbon footprints per capita, e.g. the DR Congo (0.08T), Mozambique (0.21T), and Rwanda (0.12T). Despite these trends, we have observed that richer countries are viewed as the pinnacle of “progress.” Therefore, contemporary definitions of progress and its application in development are at least partially responsible for worsening environmental conditions.

The environment that we, Generation Z, find ourselves inheriting today has been deeply impacted by centuries of unfettered human activity. Most notably, post-industrial development and behaviors around the globe have had negative impacts on the natural environment, despite ostensibly improving human quality of life. Production demands insisting upon high growth metrics and the combination of industrial globalization and consumer demands have incentivized us to forgo environmental stewardship in lieu of “bottom line” results. These activities have led to the loss of nearly one third of global forests. Approximately one half of this loss occurred in the last century alone. The environment cannot sustain an economy that is focused solely on driving up production and consumption.

The cost of success.

Because civilization degrades the environment, which in turn impacts society, civilization may eventually compromise its own existence. There is a reinforcing feedback loop: human development leads to environmental exploitation, which enables further development.

The cycle can be observed in the relationship between population and deforestation. As population increases, there is a greater demand for food and other resources. Harvesting these supplies takes priority over conserving the natural landscape, so that biodiverse, carbon dense forests are lost to the demands of a growing population. Since forests play an integral role in mitigating climate change and other environmental pressures, extensive deforestation threatens the natural balance of ecosystems. Thus we see that for the sake of obtaining resources, we actively engage in practices that although beneficial in the present, do, in the long run, threaten the viability of the world we inhabit.

This unsustainable cycle has, in fact, happened once before. In the 8th century, the Mayan civilization experienced huge population booms. For a period of time, they were able to sustain their growth with intensive land use that included practices such as slash-and-burn agriculture. After many years, however, the forests were decimated, the land was no longer productive, and large-scale droughts plagued the Yucatan peninsula. This resulted in societal unrest, rebellions, and substantial population reduction.

This negative reinforcing relationship does not only apply to population and deforestation. CO2 emissions and its relationship to production and the economy is another example. As production rates increase to provide goods to different countries, so too do consumption rates. The economic benefits that result from this process signify that the bigger and faster these feedback loops can become, the greater the materialistic reward. But the byproduct of this cycle is CO2 emissions, which tend to grow as the cycle accelerates. Since a continuous increase in CO2 emissions is creating an unstable environment, and an unstable environment can lead to an unstable civilization as discussed above, increased industrial output, or “progress,” could likely lead to civilizational decline.

In all examples, human development comes at the expense of environmental welfare. A conceptual representation of this idea is that as human progress goes up, environmental health goes down. Because such a relationship is unsustainable, it begs the question: at what point will human civilization start to suffer as a result of exploitative actions? Postulating that such could occur has Malthusian undertones as it presumes the depletion of a finite resource. But the reason why we must not be too quick to dismiss the argument is because we do not know if the technology of the future will be able to outpace environmental changes; we do not know if technological development will have positive impacts.

Quantifying Progress

As discussed in the prior section, the environmental implications associated with climate change directly impact civilization. Although implications like regional temperatures are not all growing linearly, the correlation between them means that most will continue to get worse. Ultimately, the resulting conditions may be able to threaten the viability of human development. But to what degree?

Most of the models for human progress that exist today do not have the foresight needed to answer such a question. The Human Development Index uses gross domestic product (GDP), an indicator that is only viable for short term application and lacks the nuance needed to analyze the bottommost layers of society that are foundational to the challenges we face. The Social Progress Index and Environmental Performance Index both disregard economic indicators and uphold a standard for sustainability that coincides with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. While a sustainable focus will be paramount to global development, the methodologies of these indices are not structured to relay present actions to their long-term, future implications. Nor can they coincide our development with the health of the environment.

Instead of measuring our progress based solely around past and present data, a more conscious lens would be one that could also model how trends will age into the future. This would demonstrate if the successes we celebrate today can be sustained when faced by approaching environmental challenges.

A New Model for Development

Current data reveals a dramatic decline in nature’s ability to absorb and stabilize the impact of human activity. We are proposing the creation of a predictive model with suggestions for inputs that measure the potential impacts our various current activities have and will have on the global ecosystem. These indicators could include metrics such as scientific literacy, rate of deforestation, socioeconomic inequality, and ozone depletion. We are leveraging the relationships proposed in the pace layer model to construct a dashboard or index that will provide meaningful outputs that, ultimately, can be evaluated and analyzed uniquely and in the aggregate. Additionally, our model could solicit data from predictive markets, which provide unique insights into human behavior and collective actions. Our ‘beverage-napkin’ sketch incorporating these elements and influencers might look something like this.

A sketch of our proposed predictive model.

To conclude, we have before us what may be our last opportunity to educate the broader population, and to begin reforms to systems that are collapsing the delicate balance that exists between the natural world and humankind. Opportunities abound to enact change, but educating the populace as to why these large scale changes are critical is essential not only to our collective wellbeing but ultimately, to our survival. This model will work to present clear and meaningful data that conveys the truth about our evolutionary gains and the stresses those gains impose upon the planet that supports us. How we choose to balance those forces will ultimately decide if we are able to prosper in the coming decades of the 21st century, or merely survive.

Lucienne Bacon is a senior year student at Avenues Online, a climate advocate, and nationally ranked dressage rider.

Lucas Kopinski is a senior year student at Avenues Online and a research fellow at Avenues Tiger Works.

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