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Futurists Fear Droughts More Than Pandemics

Two noted futurists are less concerned about acute knockout blows from a pandemic and more fearful of diminishing water and increasing warmth.
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This article originally appeared on in April 2008. It highlights challenges society will face in the future, and experts debate whether a severe pandemic is one of them.

Gas prices through the roof, weird weather patterns, the world's mightiest economic power in desperate financial trouble, the "silent tsunami" of a worldwide food crisis and yet another unnecessary season of Prison Break — the signs of imminent global catastrophe seem to be everywhere.

In March 2008, an article in New Scientist speculated that the complexity of contemporary society has actually made it more vulnerable to collapse, and a severe pandemic could have a ripple effect that would ultimately cripple our economic and industrial infrastructure.

"Planners for pandemics tend to overlook the fact that modern societies are becoming ever more tightly connected, which means any disturbance can cascade rapidly through many sectors," wrote Debora MacKenzie, the paper's author. The piece plugged into the free-floating anxiety that seems to be part and parcel of the 21st century's zeitgeist — but some professional prognosticators think fears of a killer virus, and other such worries, are simply not realistic.

"We're not capable of a collapse in that sense, where one day we wake up and forget about providing electricity or making money," said Patrick Tucker, senior editor of The Futurist, published by the World Future Society. "Institutions will have a number of serious challenges (in the future), and there will be a lot of stresses, but every day our ability to meet those challenges gets stronger, partially because of our global interconnectedness."

"We've gone through pandemics before" — and survived them, added Marvin Cetron of Forecasting International, which does futuristic consulting for businesses and government agencies. In fact, even though the medieval Black Death killed off as much as 60 percent of Europe's population, and the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic took down as many as 100 million people worldwide, neither event was so disruptive that humankind was forced to retreat into the caves.

Not that futurist types are totally sanguine about the future.

Tucker, for one, said the issue of climate change has reached a point of no return. "A lot of radical change in the way people live is to be expected no matter what people do about climate change," he said. "We need to look into reducing carbon emission, but still, you can expect a lot of low-lying areas will be subject to continual flooding, ecological systems will change and that will affect species — we are on the verge of the second-largest species extinction in history. The scenario that the lower half of New York will be submerged by 2050, that is a realistic scenario. A lot of coastal land will lose value as real estate, and that has economic ripple effects."

Cetron has other concerns. He takes a scenario that seems to have been lifted from the 1982 post-apocalyptic classic The Road Warrior, and said the future will be all about the fight for resources, particularly the most precious one of all — water.

"We're losing water at such a large rate, there will be water wars," he said. "The aquifers are dropping, and that's a problem."

"Water shortage is already playing out in China," Tucker said. "China will be dealing with a lot of water stress because of rising consumer habits. Our friction in the future will be we all want the same thing, and it's shrinking. Those are the challenges we can see developing."

Cetron stressed the importance of the water issue because he said it is the most difficult to solve. New and different energy sources can always be found. Some technologies can help ameliorate climate-change issues. But when it comes to water, he said, "We ain't got no solutions. I don't know how to generate water. With a lot of things we can make more of them, but you can't make water. You can with desalinization, but the cost becomes prohibitive."

Which leads to the one Armageddon-like scenario that Cetron finds plausible. "If we have wars over commodities," he says, "then countries might use biological or nuclear weapons on each other. That's a possibility if you're talking about scarce resources."

Tucker feels the current round of apocalyptic paranoia has a lot to do with the fact that "change is happening faster and we feel less in control of it." Yet he still believes that global interconnectedness is a plus, and even though it may "lead to problems, and we're seeing that with the subprime fallout," it's still one world after all.

Cetron agreed: "There is no border for some of these issues. It means the world will realize we have to work together. We're interdependent whether we like it or not."

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