Sunday Star Times | Sunday, 15 June 2008

Climate change, terrorism, financial instability, peak oil, soaring food and fuel costs… whatever happened to the future?


According to the predictions of my childhood, by now I should be flying to work in an air car and have partially lost the use of my legs due to labour-saving technology rendering physical effort redundant; inter-planetary travel should be routine, and human conflict should have been left behind due to our super-evolved brains and generally more enlightened society.

The early 1970s was such an exciting time, at least if you were a kid. Science fiction thrived, encouraging a view of things to come as inevitably better. 2001: A Space Odyssey was already old, Concorde had just taken off, there were six manned moon landings between 1969 and 1972, Ziggy Stardust had landed to save us with Martian rock’n’roll… it really was great to be living in the past.

Yes, there was Vietnam, Watergate, Baader-Meinhof, the Yom Kippur War and the death of the 60s. But that was the present, which to the pre-teen consciousness is just background noise. Of course it was too good to last.

But if someone had told me back then that the early 21st century would in fact be a time of insecurity, paranoia and fear about the future I would have been amazed. That’s what’s happened, though faith in human progress replaced by an all-pervasive sense of impending doom.

Part of the reason, surely, is that none of us are very well equipped to understand the new millennium’s problems, let alone suggest solutions. This is as true of the mystery of how a block of cheese can cost so much as it is of climate change both baffling phenomena to your average carbon-footprint-leaving consumer.

In the latter case, not only are we expected to take on trust that it is really occurring, we are also required to buy into a proposed solution the emissions trading scheme so technically convoluted and practically disputed that one’s eyes glaze over at the mere thought of deciphering it.

If you’re not one of those natural born Cassandras who actually enjoy prophecies of doom, it can seem overwhelming. Fear of the unknown has become a policy setting.

The same is true of Muslim fundamentalism and terror. While the letters to the editor and op-ed pages groan with pseudo-profundity about the nature of Islam and the perceived threats to western democracy, not that many years ago most of us didn’t know our Mohammed from our muesli.

Now we’re expected to care about the differences between Sunni and Shi’ite, and have an opinion about the consequences of the collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate.

And tell me how one is supposed to intelligently debate the origins of the credit crisis or the latest oil shock? Even experts appear confused by the complexity of modern financial products and derivatives such as the kind of so-called collateralised debt obligations lying buried in the rubble of the sub-prime mortgage collapse. The best most of us can do is nod sagely at talk of the absurdity of unfettered banking systems, all the while watching our personal exposure to global credit markets with heart in mouth.

Similarly, one looks in vain for readily understood explication of the price of petrol. There seems to be much speculation that it’s at least partly caused by speculation, although how that speculation occurs seems to be mainly speculation.

Oil futures trading the buying and selling of notional “paper oil” may account for 60% of the current price of a tank of gas. Imagine the kind of monetary heft required to influence a commodity so fundamental to the world economy.

According to some observers, the real price of oil is now set by Wall St, not Opec. Yet regulation that would at least cause the costs to be subject to the laws of supply and demand rather than market manipulation doesn’t seem to be on any government agenda. Perhaps this is just another sign of the declining role of the nation state and the increasing power of trans-national corporations to determine economic reality. Just another thing to worry about, I guess.

Alternative theories are hardly more reassuring.

Rampant demand from India and China may also explain the price spikes but that won’t diminish any time soon and assuming you accept its veracity peak oil will do the rest.

Some find solace in our human capacity for innovation, in necessity being the mother of invention, in hybrid cars and sustainable energy. Others predict shortages, industrial decline, resource wars and a new Dark Ages. Your preference will depend on your temperament, probably, but there are food riots and fuel protests taking place right now around the world. Signs?

Who knows. Maybe every generation experiences that inevitable transition from youthful optimism to mature pessimism but to mine it seems particularly pointed. Raised on shooting for the moon, we’ve ended up fretting for the Earth. The future really ain’t what it used to be.

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