The Global Citizen: A Computer Model

A new computer model of the long-term future of the world does something hardly any model -- computer or mental -- ever does. It explores the fact that we all see the world through biases. (Yes, even you and, hard to believe, even me.)The model is called TARGETS. It was put together by researchers at the Dutch National Institute of Public Health and the Environment. TARGETS starts out in the year 1900 and runs to 2100. It plots out the path of global population, energy use, economic output, water and food supplies, environment and climate.Like most computer models, this one is used not to predict the future but to test possibilities. What if great new solar energy technologies are invented (or not)? What if the climate is way more (or less) sensitive than scientists think it is? What if birth rates go on dropping (or don't)?These are critical questions, but inherently unanswerable. Plenty of people think they know the answers, though. The problem is, they disagree with each other, often impolitely.TARGETS doesn't try to guess who is right. Instead it spins out many futures, each assuming that folks with one particular bias make the policy and that the world actually does, or does not, behave the way their bias expects it to behave. The three biases tested are called "hierarchist," "individualist," and "egalitarian." For short I call them red, blue, and green.Reds see the world as full of risks, but none that can't be handled by informed experts and intelligent governance. Global warming is real, but it can be controlled with carbon taxes and regulations. Population growth needs to be subdued with strong family planning programs. Poverty, water scarcity, environmental destruction can all be solved with vigorous bureaucratic measures.Blues have a cheerier world view. Risks are small, nature is resilient, the planet is huge, humans are ingenious. All that's needed is for those overbearing reds to get out of the way and let entrepreneurs and new technologies take over. The future promises great abundance, unless we regulate everything to death.Greens think the planet is more fragile than either reds or blues are willing to recognize. They fear that heedless blues, left to their own devices, will run the human economy straight onto the environmental rocks and that the reds are too ponderous, too attached to their own power and privilege to act in time. Greens trust in ordinary people much more than the other two types do and assume that social changes, more equitable sharing, less consumptive lifestyles are possible and desirable.I assume you need no further introduction to any of these types. You hear from them all the time.The TARGETS team starts by simulating three "utopias," scenarios in which each of the three types runs the world, and the world behaves just as that type expects. Reds managing a red world experience a future much like the favored scenarios of the World Bank or the United Nations. Effective international collaboration squashes fundamentalism and anarchy. Corporations are forced to comply with world-wide labor and environmental standards. The global population reaches 12 billion, average life expectancy rises to 81 years, pollution stabilizes, nutrition is 25 percent better than in 1990. There's a climate problem -- fossil fuels still dominate the economy, global average temperature goes up by 4 degrees F., and sea level rises two feet. But this well-governed world can deal with these minor glitches.Blues running a blue world don't care much about family planning or income sharing, so they end up with over 13 billion people. That doesn't matter though; there are plenty of resources in this world and gobs of money. Average income is twice that in the red world, because entrepreneurs are free from regulatory shackles and there are no serious environmental limits. The climate isn't bad either, partly because blues don't believe in a climate problem, partly because new energy technologies, from nuclear power to biofuels, take over.Only greens could run a green world of close-in limits. They get the population stabilized at only 7.5 billion. People aren't nearly as rich as they are in the other two "utopian" scenarios, but they have more than enough, and presumably they've stopped being materialist anyway. Greenhouse gas emissions are by far the lowest of the three scenarios, but climate is also most disrupted, because this scenario assumes that the climate actually is as easily deranged as greens believe it is.The TARGETS modelers don't tell us which of these futures to believe. I suspect they don't believe any of them. They seem more interested in the set of runs where one bias runs the world, but that bias is wrong about how the world behaves.For example, if greens run things but nature is actually as resilient as blues think, everyone turns out to be much poorer than they need to be. It's a world of massive lost economic opportunity. On the other hand, if blues run things and the planet turns out to be as vulnerable as greens think, food production plummets, life expectancy sinks to 60 years, sea level rises 5 feet, and Florida, Bangladesh, and Holland go under water. (I added that last part; it isn't in the model.) That world would probably plead for the intervention of some good strong reds.What's refreshing about the TARGETS exercise is that it forces us to recognize our biases and to consider the humbling fact that we could be wrong. It reminds us to think about the possible consequences of wrongness. Which risk would we rather run? That we treat the earth carefully and turn out not to enrich ourselves as fast as we could? Or that we enrich ourselves avidly and collapse our environment and our economy with it?The answer seems obvious to me, but then I'm a green.(Donella H. Meadows is an adjunct professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth College.)


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