Making predictions is always a perilous enterprise. Nonetheless, authors and publishers continue to feed our fascination with the future. Scary futures seem to sell particularly well; doom has many fans. On the other hand, technological optimists and champions of unfettered business often see futures where scientific knowledge turned into engineering marvels will solve all humanity's problems.
Laurence C. Smith's book on the future works precisely because he avoids both the temptations of fear and of unbridled optimism. Neither does he try to tell the whole story of humanity's future. Instead, he reflects on how the key global trends might play out in the "Northern Rim Countries" (NORC), those north of 45 degrees latitude surrounding the Arctic Ocean. Focusing on the North, where climate changes are having the most dramatic effects, and where the planet is relatively sparsely populated, makes the big questions especially interesting.
Smith starts his account with the accidental discovery in 2006 that grizzly and polar bears are interbreeding in the Canadian North. Right from these first pages, he makes it very clear that change is already upon us; it's happening now and will continue gathering speed in the next few decades.
His most significant point, key to the whole book, is that the trends will be substantially shaped by political and economic choices made in the near future; thinking very clearly about this matters now. There's no need for panic; wars and catastrophes will not be part of the future if we think ahead and make sensible plans.
Smith shows how in a lively account of the long journey from his office in the geography department at the University of California, Los Angeles, north in search of insight into what is coming. Mixing anecdote and big-picture analysis effectively is rarely easy, but he succeeds, not only because he writes well but because, like many of his fellow geographers, he is passionate about his planet and its peoples.
Four big trends are, he suggests, key to understanding what's coming. Demographic changes, and the continued, albeit slowing growth of the global population matter, especially in North America where our numbers increase in part because of migration. Second, the world is becoming an urban civilization and the great cities we have built make huge demands for natural resources. The NORC have plenty of resources, and even if they are often difficult to get to, many of them will be developed.
They will be used because globalization, the third trend, makes the world's economy much more interconnected and shapes production and development decisions worldwide. While China and India are becoming more important, no single state decides these matters. Ikea and Wal-Mart now span the globe; they need the resources of the North.
Smith is a climate-change specialist and his focus on this, his fourth trend, is what got him wondering about the themes in his book in the first place. Climate change is happening mainly because the globalized economy is so dependent on fossil fuels, the use of which has already elevated carbon-dioxide levels to those of the Miocene epoch 15 million years ago when there was less ice at the poles and sea levels were much higher than they are now.
The world is warming over all and species are moving. That's why grizzly and polar bears run into each other. Permafrost is melting across the North, making getting to resources tricky in many places as railway lines buckle, buildings collapse and ice roads are open for shorter seasons. People are on the move to the North too, although developing Arctic oil and gas fields is not as easy as the Sarah Palins of this world might have us believe.
These pages are interesting precisely because Smith makes it clear that while many things in the northern parts of the planet are changing, the future is in part open to how people react to the trends that are unfolding. On his travels, the climate scientist has come to the crucial understanding that Arctic residents don't need southern experts to rescue them or "save" their cultures. Because the big global trends are affecting them, what they need is the opportunity to take some control of their destiny and gain new ways of living from the economic opportunities that will arise.
Thinking clearly about what kind of a planet we are collectively making has now become an essential task for all citizens. The future will play out in dramatic fashion in the North. It's high time we faced up to both the opportunities and the responsibilities involved. Doing so without either scare stories or misplaced optimism clouding our judgments will help, and Laurence Smith's cautionary tale is a very timely addition to the discussion.
Simon Dalby is professor of geography, environmental studies and political economy at Carleton University and author of Security and Environmental Change.