Who owns the story of our future?

Researching for his first book, Mark Stevenson spent a year looking at the scientific horizon – and came back cautiously optimistic

I’ve spent a large part of the last year thinking about the end of the world as we know it; what some academics cheerily call ‘global catastrophic risks.’ 12 months spent meeting these experts has alerted me to at least five versions of nanotech apocalypse, a whole host of ‘machines take over’ or ‘machines stop working’ disasters, countless possible biotech risks that make the 1918 flu pandemic (body count estimate: 50 million) look like a light sniffle, plus new and ominous uncertainties about climate change. Our future could end up being exciting, but short.

It’s very easy to regurgitate the terrible story of our future that I’ve been hearing since I popped out the womb. You know, the one that says: “Life happens to you, the future is not going to be very good (especially if you vote for that person), it was better in the old days, you’ve got to look after yourself, the world is violent and unsafe, your job is at risk, the generation below you is feral and dangerous, things are changing too fast and you can’t trust those scientists/new-agers/left-wingers/right-wingers/nerds/religious people/atheists/football fans/rich people/poor people/neighbours. You are alone. Make the best of it. Vote for me. Buy my paper.” Hardly inspiring is it?

So it’s surprising to find out that things could actually get better. Not just a little bit better, but off-the-charts better. For every potential water war there’s a cheap nano-membrane that can revolutionise desalination. For every echo chamber of hate on the internet there’s a collaboration that’ll make your heart sing. For every engineered pathogen there’s a new victory in the war on cancer through genomics, for every worry about scarcity you’ll find an example of innovation that’s bypassing the problem. At the same time, new kinds of organisations are emerging – institutional innovations that will help us grapple with the challenges our current systems aren’t designed to handle.

A favorite of mine is the petrol station that takes CO2 out of the air (using the ambient air carbon-scrubbing technology being developed at Columbia University by Klaus Lackner) and feeds it to photosynthesing bacteria that excrete petrol (a technique championed by US company Joule Unlimited, which is building on work done in the department of genetics at Harvard Medical School). Put these technologies together and you’ve got a carbon neutral gas station that pulls fuel out of the sky. These technologies exist today and a host of companies funded by greentech investments are looking to commercialise them.

How about the man who has a bona fide way to (safely) sequester gigatonnes of CO2 while increasing biodiversity and food security – all by using, wait for it, fences? Allan Savory (who recently won the Buckminster Fuller Challenge – an annual award for ideas that offer “significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems”) figured out that by getting animals on farms to mimic the way herds move across natural grasslands, you can get the plants that cattle eat to act as a natural (and massive) carbon pump, sequestering huge levels of carbon into the soil, which in turn rejuvenates the land.

People like these clearly aren’t listening to the doomsayers. In our public discourse, we need to shift ourselves from a tired old game of making bets on how the world will end, to a new game of betting on all possible futures, including the good ones.

That said, I do find pessimists and cynics useful, although I prefer to reframe them as ‘critical friends.’ They’re certainly more constructive to have around than the wishful thinkers, who embrace the dangerous cocktail of denial and hope called apathy.

I’m not saying the future will be better, but I do know that if you’re not even aware that it could be, the chances of making it happen aren’t very good. This isn’t some crazy dream. The tools to fix so many of our problems – from climate change to poverty – are waiting to be taken out of the bag and put to use.