Global Scenarios for the Millennium
by Hardin Tibbs
(Published in YES! A Journal
of Positive Futures Spring 1998)
here to Download an Analysis of our Future
Towards an Optimistic Future by Hardin Tibbs, September 2000
' Change in the Global Context '
It sounds too clichéd to be true, but the major scenarios for
the years around 2000 really are catastrophe or transformation. To see
why, we need a way of looking at history with a wide-angle lens.
Two measures can help us do this-one is global human population, and the
other is the flow of materials through the economy. We know how these
two have changed over very long periods of time, and we also know that
they are among the most important factors shaping future global conditions.
The growth to today's population level of 5.8 billion was sudden and historically
anomalous. Sometime around 1750, at the onset of the industrial revolution,
the population began to grow at an unprecedented exponential rate. Exponential
growth means a doubling with each given unit of time. Like a rocket taking
off, at first it appears slow, and then suddenly accelerates into an astonishingly
Figure 1: Global Population Growth
Figure 1 shows a simplified view of world population for the past several
thousand years. It also shows the extraordinary jump that has happened
in the last 250 years. For thousands of years, the human population bumped
along at a few hundred million people worldwide, growing slowly. In fact
the increase was not steady during this period-there were alternating
surges and contractions-and there was no consistent exponential growth
towards present levels as many people assume. The average growth rate
from 1650 to 1950 was about 12 times greater than during the previous
10,000 years, and it more than doubled again after 1950.
Today, the world population is still growing extremely fast, even though
the growth rate is slowing slightly. More people have been added
to the world population in the 1990s than existed in the entire world
in 1750. The world population has doubled during the lifetime of anyone
now over 40, and if present rates of growth are maintained, the total
population will double again within the next 40 to 50 years.
The graph for the flow of materials through the industrial system over
the same timeframe looks similar to Figure 1, except that growth is twice
as fast-during the last few decades it has been doubling every 20 years.
Environmental impact is determined by industrial throughput, so, for example,
the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere every year has
also doubled twice over since 1950.
The shape of the curve in Figure 1 looks like a quantum jump, or a square-wave
trace on an oscilloscope. Nothing in history up to 1750 gives a hint of
what was about to happen. And the question now is whether anything in
our experience helps us to understand what is going to happen next. Even
if the human race eventually masters space travel and spreads to other
planets, there will presumably still be an upper limit to the viable population
size on any one planet.
There is general agreement that the Earth cannot support indefinite exponential
growth. But what will bring this growth to an end, and how soon? Scenarios
help answer these questions by preventing us from getting locked into
denial or apathy. If we can't be sure there will be a crisis we tend to
stop thinking about it, but if we do predict it we become fatalistic.
Either way we stop looking for solutions. Scenarios cut through this dilemma.
They work by allowing us to think about future possibilities without having
to decide which one is "true." Far better to put an optimistic
scenario next to a pessimistic one and realize that the choice of outcome
can be ours.
The official scenario of governments around the world is that world population
will smoothly decelerate and the growth curve will flatten out, like the
upper "question mark" curve in Figure 1. This is not an unreasonable
scenario: the population appears to have passed its peak growth point,
and many biological systems do show this "S-shaped" growth pattern.
But this optimistic outcome is not guaranteed: extremely rapid growth
is causing social and cultural dislocation around the world, and technological
advance is running ahead of our ability to control it. By almost every
measure, we are living at a historically unique time of high risk. There
is a real but unquantifiable possibility that instead of a smooth deceleration,
the population could plunge as a combination of economic and ecological
disasters strike, triggering wars and causing food production to plummet.
Hence the other basic possibility shown by the lower "question mark"
curve in Figure 1 is a future population collapse.
A French riddle for children, quoted by Donella Meadows, illustrates what
happens if there is exponential growth in a closed system: "Suppose
you own a pond on which a water lily is growing. The lily doubles in size
each day. If the plant were allowed to grow unchecked, it would completely
cover the pond in 30 days, choking off all other forms of life in the
water. For a long time the lily plant seems small, so you decide not to
worry about it until it covers half the pond. On what day will that be?"
The answer, surprising on first encounter, is on the 29th day. What is
also worth noting is just how small the lily is for most of the month-as
late as the 25th day it still covers only 1/32 of the pond.
The figure below shows the last few days of this growth diagrammatically,
and shows that the first 20 days are far too small to even show at this
scale. Having reached the halfway point, it only takes one more doubling
to use up the remaining resources-in this case half the surface area of
the pond. By analogy, if the exponentially-growing human economy is now
using half the output of the biosphere (see text), we may well have reached
the global "29th day."
A water lily doubles in size every day for 30 days. When is the
pond half full?
Source: Donella Meadows et al, Beyond the Limits (Vermont: Chelsea
This frightening possibility is certainly plausible: many biological systems
show population crashes when crucial environmental resources are depleted.
And the global human population has crashed in the past-for example the
Black Death killed between a third to a half of the population of Europe
and Asia in the 14th century.
Of course, even if the global system does go into crisis there is always
a chance of recovery. In fact, some people believe we will not get serious
about change unless there is a crisis. But waiting for a crisis is risky:
it could undermine our ability to respond-and an uncontrollable collapse
of population, society and industry could spell the end of technologically
advanced civilization just as surely as total nuclear war.
If these scenario possibilities are far in the future they are perhaps
a distant concern for today's generation. Unfortunately there is every
indication that they may be imminent. One of the unnerving features of
exponential growth in a finite environment is that it will use up all
remaining available resources during a single doubling period after it
reaches the halfway mark. And we do appear to be close to that point.
An estimate made in 1986 by Peter Vitousek at Stanford University indicated
that the human economy was then using 40% of the total annual biomass
production of the land-based biosphere. If we are now close to the 50%
mark, it will only take one more doubling of consumption to use up the
other 50%. Because industrial production is doubling every 20 years, within
20 years we may be using 100% of total biospheric output, leaving nothing
for natural habitat and natural ecosystem functioning.
But we may not be able to reach 100% without running into serious problems
such as water supply shortages and the cumulative effects of chemical
pollution, not to mention the resulting possibility of armed conflict.
In short, we may only have as little as 10-15 years (or less) left before
things go seriously and suddenly wrong. This is also the timespan within
which we must act if we are to voluntarily decelerate exponential physical
All these possibilities are summarized in Figure 2. The entry path to
each of the scenario outcomes is the same: "business as usual."
This path is unsustainable and leads inevitably to crisis if no other
action or change occurs. But there is also a path of "voluntary transformation,"
in which the economy becomes much more sustainable and reaches a state
where it no longer depends on continued exponential growth of people and
industrial throughput. If a crisis does happen, there are two possible
paths. One is a total collapse, and the other is a recovery leading to
the same kind of post-physical-growth economy as the voluntary transformation
Figure 2: Global Scenario Framework
The downside scenario is not pleasant to think about, yet it is not difficult
to paint the picture of major global problems reaching crisis pitch. There
are plenty of candidates: global climate change, food and water shortages,
weapons of mass destruction, genetic depletion and damage, antibiotic-resistant
epidemics, social inequity and injustice, energy shortfalls, economic
depression, chemical pollution, and ecosystem failure, to name just a
These problems are not isolated - many have common root causes, and they
tend to amplify each other. Under adverse circumstances they could all
reinforce to create one mega - crisis, a crisis of crises. This is the
downside scenario, and it is easy to become mesmerised by the apparent
inevitability of the slide into chaos.
This is why it is important to understand the positive changes that are
needed to prevent a global crisis, to fully appreciate the nature of the
upside scenario. If we clearly see the risk, and if we understand what
is needed to avoid it, we stand a chance of acting with constructive foresight.
If it is inevitable that population and materials flows will decelerate
in the relatively near future, what are the implications of the scenario
pathways which can get us to a new kind of economy successfully? First,
the positive pathways, whether voluntary or through a crisis, imply very
significant social, technological and economic change - hence the use
of the term "transformation." In the positive scenarios, the
outcome is a completely new kind of economy. It would be able to deliver
prosperity equitably around the world, in balance with the natural environment,
without depending on exponentially-growing materials flows, and at the
same time population growth would slow and stabilize.
How can this outcome be achieved? We will have to learn new ways of doing
things, and this implies new attitudes and ways of behaving, new laws,
and new technology. Technology is a particularly important source of change,
because it most directly determines the scale of materials flows through
industry, but it is not the whole story.
Figure 3: How Values Shape Technological Outcomes
Figure 3 shows the contribution technology can make. The path of viable
future development in any optimistic scenario is from the bottom left
quadrant of the matrix towards the top right, as the arrow indicates.
Change in either values or in technology alone is not enough: the two
must happen in conjunction. One of the reasons for this is that technology-and
new technology in particular because it is more powerful-can either help
provide solutions or make the situation worse. What makes the crucial
difference is human intention.
Technology and scientific knowledge are advancing extremely rapidly and
are now providing the capabilities we need to create an economy that does
not depend on ever-increasing physical growth. If underlying social beliefs
shift - with a growing interest in less materialistic personal values
and deeper meaning - this can be expected to lead to greater concern about
global issues and the environment, leading in turn to new priorities in
technological design. In this way, new technological potentials can be
directed along a path of development which is part of the solution rather
than part of the problem.
For example, if biotechnology in agriculture is applied in a narrow reductionist
way (bottom right quadrant), it could contribute to ecosystem destabilization.
Yet exactly the same technology applied within an ecosystemic paradigm
(top right quadrant) could result in increased food production and improved
ecosystem health. (Another way of expressing this would be to say that
just because biotechnology is biological, does not mean that it is also
Equally, expressing new social values using only today's technology is
likely to mean unnecessary austerity. For example, a sustainability outlook
might lead people to choose to give up heating and air conditioning and
shiver or swelter in conventional houses (top left quadrant). But by expressing
their new intent in terms of technology they could choose instead to be
comfortable in houses with passive heating and cooling (top right quadrant).
Behaving less wastefully is praiseworthy, but why ignore the potential
of new technology?
The matrix in Figure 3 does not tell the whole story of the scenarios-our
beliefs shape more than simply technology - but it does illustrate why
new technology is not enough on its own to enable the safe deceleration
of exponential growth.
If our beliefs and values change, the way we determine value in transactions
will also change. This means change in economics, which today has become
the most powerful expression of the mechanistic paradigm. Economics started
as an overlay on a rich field of social values. Today, most of the underlying
values have been driven out in favor of the values inherent in economics
itself-which are not human values at all, but the values of mechanism.
The transformation in economics must start with a renewal of human values,
and a growing need to reassert them in the way we value activity and productivity.
Our infatuation with mechanisms has led us to elevate the automatic machine-like
functioning of the market to be the highest value in economics. We treat
the market as if it is able to make moral decisions. As a result, society
has become increasingly insensitive and lacking in compassion. Only humans
can make judgements about conditions humans should experience-this cannot
be delegated to a non-human machine, however ingenious and computer-like.
The market does have value as a computing platform, but in effect it is
running the wrong software. Economics analyzes "the allocation of
scarce resources among competing wants." But with today's technological
capability we could in principle provide for everyone. And we are coming
to see the world itself as a living, provident organism, not a lonely
lump of rock in an empty universe. Economics and the market need to be
reprogrammed for abundance and cooperation, instead of scarcity and competition.
But can we have abundance and deceleration of exponential physical growth
at the same time? The keys to this are better satisfaction of non-material
wants, more equitable distribution (made easier by a mindset of abundance),
and reducing the amount of materials and energy needed per unit of economic
Technologically, providing many more people with an adequate material
standard means each product must use less material-a process referred
to as dematerialization-allowing more products to be manufactured with
the same flow of materials. If nanotechnology - manufacturing with atomic-level
precision - lives up to its promise it could profoundly accelerate dematerialization.
The exact shape of a future economy of post-exponential abundance is still
speculative and the technical details are complex, but it would probably
involve a balanced expression of four sets of key values. These would
be: material (like the current economy); ecological; communal; and personal.
Aiming for quality in each of these four categories would lead to developing
and maintaining four corresponding kinds of capital-manufactured, ecological,
social, and human. The economist Paul Ekins calls this the "four
capitals" model of a sustainable future economy, in contrast with
today's economy, which is based on exploiting three factors of
production: land, labor and capital.
In a sustainable economy, issues such as global social equality would
be a primary concern. Although this article uses population growth as
a primary indicator of the situation we find ourselves in, it is not
a proposal that we should try and manipulate population levels directly.
The most powerful means of slowing population growth are indirect, but
valuable in their own right: alleviating poverty and improving education.
If people have a sense of economic security and a feeling that they have
some say over the course of their lives and can make a meaningful contribution,
they are less likely to resort to large families as a form of insurance
The idea that the richest need to help the poorest is a familiar refrain,
but probably the most effective way this could happen would be by addressing
the way the global economic system perpetuates inequality. This would
mean a rethink of such things as international trade arrangements, international
debt, interest rates, international intellectual property rights, exchange
rate speculation, and international armaments manufacture. However, the
northern countries will not even be able to appreciate what the problem
is without a shift of perspective that appreciates the condition of the
whole, instead of upholding the narrow interests of one country or economic
Continued blind belief that we already have a system that can deliver
the best long run outcomes "automatically" is a major obstacle
to the change that is needed. The entire existing system is a human construct,
which has evolved as a result of conscious design decisions reflecting
past priorities. But the priorities in today's world of globalizing industrialization
and growing global inequality are very different.
We now need to think about designing - with the participation of all -
a new global framework of internationally binding laws, institutions,
and economic structure that can deliver prosperity equitably to the population
of the entire world. In fact, the scenarios suggest that we will inevitably
find ourselves doing something like this if we move along the optimistic
The scenarios presented here are "global scenarios." They deal
with global-scale developments that can frame customized scenarios developed
by corporations, government agencies, and non-profits. Global scenarios
are useful, because they assemble and present the findings of background
research in a way that allows individual organizations to relate their
planning to larger-scale issues without first having to do their own detailed
research and analysis. When focused scenarios are nested within global
scenarios, fine-grain futures are given a large-scale backdrop. Then,
if developments in a particular industry are seen to parallel large-scale
trends, the industry's strategic environment can be interpreted with more
For example, the global scenarios indicate (when developed in more detail)
that energy sources will "decarbonise" in the optimistic scenarios.