pollution - Beth Fulton
Runaway atmospheric pollution

Futures of this type are about the loss of many aspects of society that we value.

We have used the word ‘catastrophe’ rather than ‘collapse’ (which is often used in other literature) because collapse is not always undesirable (e.g. collapse of a despotic regime).

Catastrophe futures might emerge because good intentions don’t work out as planned (e.g. over-use of an essential resource while intending to grow an economy, or restraining use of resources to protect them but causing an economy to collapse), or because of direct destruction of desirable aspects of society (e.g. invasion of a country and destruction of its culture or the spread of a disease that destroys people’s health and wellbeing).

It is easy to think of how ‘catastrophe futures’ might come about, and there are many and varied possibilities. Shocks and emergencies are typical triggers for catastrophes, but their impact (e.g. whether they lead to further catastrophes and even societal collapse or are stimuli for adaptation and/or transformation) depends on how prepared society is for them (e.g. what built infrastructure and human, social, and natural capital is available). Many catastrophe futures could occur from failure to take opportunities to grow sustainably, apply restraint, or transform Australia.

In the Canberra workshop, people were encouraged simply to think about what could go wrong. They ended up focussing strongly on how the other three scenario archetypes might fail and flip into catastrophes. In Adelaide, participants were introduced to a typology of disaster management that suggests risks become crises when the unexpected occurs, crises become disasters when there is major harm, and disasters become catastrophes when recovery from the disaster is not effective. This focussed thinking on the sorts of challenges that humans might not manage well. Very similar catastrophes were imagined as in Canberra.

It appears that both groups followed similar thinking processes from different starting points. In particular, both groups identified ways in which catastrophic scenarios can become self-reinforcing, bringing out the worst in people and situations. There were rich discussions on what we are doing now in 2016 that either increases or decreases the likelihood of catastrophic futures. Participants drew on references from popular culture more than in any other scenario, and this contributed to the ease with which participants were able to imagine and engage with catastrophic futures. It suggests that artists have a key role to play in helping us imagine alternative futures, and that catastrophic futures make for more compelling drama than other future scenarios.

Interpreting catastrophe 

This archetype is sometimes called ‘collapse’ in the literature. This term was avoided because it was thought there were too many types of collapse to contain in one archetype. For example, the collapse of a dysfunctional totalitarian regime might be seen as good (and probably would be a transformation scenario), whereas the collapse of a community’s economy could be seen as a catastrophe. We decided to focus only on catastrophe futures in this archetype.

What some see as catastrophes, others might not. For example, collapse of the internet might be considered a catastrophe in some respects but a relief in others. Some see climate change as a looming catastrophe, while others see it as a challenge that can be managed and may even offer opportunities.
In many catastrophes (e.g. the global financial crisis) there are winners and losers, who see the event in very different ways. Would we regard events that had disastrous effects somewhere else (e.g. an ecosystem decline in another country or in Australia but far away from where we live) or that we bene ted from (e.g. collapse in food production somewhere else that becomes a market opportunity for our food producers) as catastrophes?

Lack of change might be seen as a catastrophe by some (because it might lead to stagnation) but might be seen as comforting by others.

Catastrophes can be environmental, social, or economic. While some natural disasters are outside human control (e.g. volcanoes), others are made worse by bad decisions. Social catastrophes (e.g. collapse in democracy) and economic ones (e.g. collapses in financial systems) usually have complex origins. All three kinds carry the risk of societal breakdown from local through to global scales.

What catastrophe futures might be like in Australia in 2050 

Future catastrophes could take many different forms. Some might be repeats of past events and some might be novel occurrences. Fires, floods, droughts, and heat-waves are possible features in catastrophe futures. Other environmental problems include greater spread of diseases affecting wildlife and livestock (including the sorts of problems currently affecting honey bee populations), collapsing sh stocks, toxic algal blooms, widespread pollution, collapsing biodiversity, and increases in pest species. Sea-level rise in neighbouring countries is likely to pose challenges, at least in terms of aid, for Australia.

Various health conditions are associated with environmental challenges (e.g. viruses transmitted by animals, food insecurity and/or famine, water shortages, heat stress) and also from unregulated growth in population and consumption of resources (e.g. demand for food and energy outstripping supply, increases in mental illness, anti-social behaviour and crime due to overcrowding, and inadequate support services).

Catastrophe futures also feature failing infrastructure (e.g. information technology, waste management and sanitation, security, energy supply, financial systems), growing inequality, low quality aged care, high mortality rates among the elderly and disadvantaged, and social isolation.

Disease pandemics and other population health problems are another feature of catastrophe futures. People may become increasingly unwilling to take responsibility for anything or anyone but themselves. In this type of future, people act in their own immediate interests and stop cooperating with any laws or contributing to any social cohesion or civility. Refugees would not be welcome and would be treated harshly, possibly leading to tensions with neighbouring countries.

Conflict features strongly in catastrophe futures, including riots and violence driven by political and financial unrest and personal insecurity, and resources being diverted to protecting Australia’s borders from refugees and invaders. Conflict is likely to come from growing inequity (whether in income or opportunities for employment, health, security, and access to resources and services).

Over-reliance on technologies, including information technologies, is a potential vulnerability if these systems fail, if they are used against us (e.g. cyber terrorism), or if laws, regulations, and social norms fail to keep pace with rapid technological change.

Other catastrophes could arise in the form of more global and/or regional financial crises, loss of confidence in money, hyper-inflation, high levels of income inequality, devaluation of currency, widespread unemployment, vibrant black markets for scarce resources (e.g. gold, drugs, petrol, food, medicines), loss of economic access to food, and a high level of profiteering from elites in privileged situations.

Governments could become dysfunctional and unable to meet people’s needs, leading to widespread non-cooperation with laws and regulations, secession, and/or the formation of regional and/or corporate power alliances. Such futures could include declining education systems, lack of support for multicultural communities, and unclear and ineffective rules for ownership of Australian land and institutions. Poor communication via the media, government, and other sectors could lead to a lack of meaningful public discourse on matters of importance and, instead, foster rumour and fear-mongering, suppression of access to information, and proliferation of misinformation.

At the other extreme, the need to address catastrophes might allow the emergence of an overly authoritarian government, where individual surveillance, dictatorial leadership, and strict limitations on individual rights and freedom of speech are commonplace.

In general, catastrophe futures feature low quality of life for most, with little happiness, high unemployment, no leisure, overcrowded conditions, high levels of violence and homelessness, and growing uncertainty and insecurity in damaged ecosystems and urban environments. Loss of infrastructure (built and social), trust, and connectivity make society more vulnerable to shocks and less able to recover and adapt.

How catastrophe futures might come about 

Many of the characteristics of catastrophe futures described above in themselves create conditions that increase the likelihood of further catastrophe and collapse: there is a vicious circle that is difficult to stop once set in train.

Shocks and emergencies can trigger catastrophic cascades, particularly if our environment and/or society have been weakened and made more vulnerable. While some shocks might be within our power to avoid or control, others might not be or might only partly be (e.g. extreme weather events, financial crises that start somewhere else, bush res and floods, terrorism attacks, cyber-attacks, pandemics, and global environmental collapses such as fisheries). Australia could be particularly vulnerable to political events outside its influence (e.g. military conflicts, unrest that creates a ow of refugees to Australian shores, and unhealthy political alliances and trading relationships).

Environmental and social problems can arise due to complex chains of cause and effect. Examples might include population growth leading to environmental impacts on food supply and then social collapse due to food insecurity; rapid changes in environmental, health, and international security together causing the collapse of the insurance industry; or growing inequities that create barriers to opportunity and fuel conflict. Often such problems become catastrophes because immediate responses (whether by individuals, communities, businesses, or government) make the problem worse. Some aspects of human psychology work against societal learning, making us potentially more vulnerable to catastrophes (e.g. inflexible belief systems, failure to empathise with others, adversarialism rather than understanding alternative views, complacency, blind faith in technological solutions, unwillingness to take responsibility, and inability to imagine things that have not happened before).

Anticipating change, preparing for it, and learning from experience build an ability to cope with shocks. While the above reads like a catalogue of horrors, it allows us to think about how to avoid or at least prepare for undesirable futures. Valuable contributions to adaptive capacity include insurance systems, well-maintained critical infrastructure, a portfolio of alternative sources of energy and resources, risk assessment and planning, a precautionary approach to ecosystem management, building resilient (rather than ‘just in time’) supply chains, good leadership and governance, and a culture that values learning. It was concluded that anticipating change, preparing for it, and learning from experience are essential elements of the ability to cope with shocks.