Ci'Num scenario 1: Collapse

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Position in the scenario tree

  • Will we have the global organizational capacity to address the overshoot? - No
  • What is the primary constraint of human activities? [irrelevant]
  • What are the main mechanisms for organizing large scale systems? [irrelevant]

Initial Description

Despite having the necessary technologies at hand, we have collectively done little to reduce global warming and to plan for shortages in fossil energies, fresh water, arable land, etc. Crises occur in growing frequency and seriousness, severely damaging the world economy and producing human catastrophes, both natural and man-made, especially in developing countries. Hundreds of millions of refugees roam Asia and Africa, and migratory pressure on the North becomes insupportable. Borders close, local conflicts multiply and threaten to expand, mobility decreases, economies and societies retract and relocalize. Public spirit is low, spontaneously erupting in local conflicts. Alliances shift and solidarity can no longer be extended globally as each group fights for its own survival. Technology is used mostly to plan for and cope with current or coming difficulties, and to provide alternatives or escapes from an uninspiring daily life. Alternatives are found in frugal, hyperlocal community-building as well as in semi-autonomous, encrypted and somehow tolerated virtual networks.


(click image to see it full-size)

CiNum Scenario1 Timeline.PNG

Full scenario

In retrospect, these seem like quiet, easy times, although of course they weren't. Everything seemed to work. As a symbol, the 2008 Beijing Olympics were an unprecedented success: Spectacular (205 records beaten!), grandiose, popular (4.5 billion viewers, all screentypes considered), safe and very profitable! China did justice to its new status as a world giant. Sure, doping was rampant, and athletes and spectators alike came back to their own polluted cities, feeling certain that no metropolis could be worse than Beijing. Al Gore was touring the world with yet another frightening movie, but what did it matter? We had fun; money, information and images flowed; innovation sprouted all over the place. The system worked.

Race to the top

That common feeling was expressed in the election of a right-wing conservative to the U.S. presidency in November, 2008. Americans and others felt they needed leadership for growth and safety; not abstract, forward-looking, planetary principles. "Clean" growth was fine, as long as it was fast growth. Fractured discussions to do something about climate--which ultimately should have led to a second Kyoto round by 2009--were soon abandoned when it became clear that neither Russia, nor the U.S. would sign, and China, in a bid to grow, announced it was officially moving away from its "one child" policy.

Certainly, we were aware of the pending crises, but only intellectually. TV news reported on unusual climate event-- meters of rain in Britain while Eastern and Southern Europe suffered drought and scorching heat. But these signal events happened sporadically, far away and were gone in a few weeks. It was hard to see a pattern forming, no matter how many blogs, prophets, reports and rockstars drove it in your face.

And it was just too great a time. You were into Web 2.0, 3.0, mobile or ubicomp, and busy with your own inventions and ideas. You could invent all you wanted and implement it, get it funded and millions of users in a matter of weeks. With people interacting, cooperating, building things together online, it seemed as if our original vision for the web and its promise were coming true-- and this time, with viable business models! Biotech, neuroscience and nanotech were making fast progress. They yielded new cures and diagnoses, better GMOs, spectacular new materials and, perhaps, some less publicized drugs and methods that mostly soldiers, movie stars and aspiring champions took. New products came on the market constantly; and consumers liked them, emerging countries contributed to growing the market and keeping prices down. And their populations got access to western affluence and people felt optimistic.

So we grew. India vowed that its Delhi Commonwealth Games would be even grander than Beijing's, and China responded by pumping more money into the Shanghai World Expo. The price of oil hit $150, then $200, and that hurt, although not so much: There was plenty of money, and besides, careful planners knew there were a few weeks each year when prices went sharply down despite upward trends.

In many ways, we felt that global warming and the shortage of exhaustible resources --oil,water, etc.,-- would simply disappear as problems. We would discover inexhaustible sources of energy. We would suddenly be able to control climate or recapture the CO2. We bought green cars; we recycled garbage; we gladly paid taxes for our carbon footprint--our fuel and air travel; we video-conferenced and worked from home most Fridays. We did enough, even to justify our opposition to the wind turbine that would have ruined the view from our country house.

These were fun times, really. Until it hit us.


In 2015, a naval skirmish, between China and the U.S. over two supertankers that both countries claimed for their own ports, pulled our attention to the drastically depleted state of oil inventories. The incident triggered a chain of events that sent oil prices soaring through the roof; grounded 40% of the fleet at UPS and Delta Airlines; forced major industrial plants to shut down pending a resumption of regular oil supplies; and led whole cities to ban air-conditioning despite the scorching summers.

Then, the unrelenting news stories. What began as a trickle started to gain momentum with a stream of reports about waves of African refugees heading for the beaches of southern Europe; of millions more -- some said it could go as high as 250 million--displaced by water shortages, erupting violence over water rights, and crop failures. The airwaves bombarded us with images of millions of internally displaced people looking for food, water and safety. And even as our attention was riveted by this human face of drought and a spreading desert, other reports of climate problems began to puncture our equanimity. There were massive floodings in Shanghai, Tokyo, New York. Experts warned about things getting worse when sea levels rise to 2 meters. In Asia, large swaths of the southeast were battered by an unusually destructive rainy season. Floods in the Ganges-Brahmaputra Delta killed and displaced millions of Bengalis and effectively destroyed most of Bangladesh's infrastructure. Communities along China's dynamic Pearl River Delta faced mass evacuation from disastrous spring floods caused by melting glaciers in the north. The world attempted to mobilize to deal with these disasters. But most of the leaders and organizations- governments, aid agencies, the NGOs- were so caught up with problems in their own backyards that there was no real response, no display of grit and determination to assist and demonstrate our global solidarity.

Adding to all that: terrorist incidents that jolted the public to a new level of fear about domestic security and massive deployment of new security and surveillance technologies. Three of the most deadly and cunning terrorist attacks took place just before the final days of the London Olympics, unleashing havoc. First at Wembley stadium where safety systems were highjacked, all doors closed and electric fences turned on, creating mass panic. The second, an biological attack during a gymnastics competition. They happened simultaneously with a synchronized attack on the city's central ICT networks, disabling communications, surveillance nodes, detection sensors and GPS services. It effectively prevented any kind of timely response.

The events had devastating ripple effects. Stock markets tumbled. Air travel nearly grounded, hit hard by fears of more attacks, obstructive security measures -- making plane travel increasingly inefficient and burdensome -- fuel prices, and air traffic restrictions. Several major airlines filed for bankruptcy. Public confidence shattered: savings soared, and consumption, construction and investment plummeted. Security agencies finally took over regulatory control of the Internet, allowing a de facto tripartite regime --U.S., China, and Russia-- to control most of what circulated on the Net. In 2013, the world economy decreased by 2% and international trade by 22%.


Al Gore won the 2012 presidential election in the U.S. It led to little of substantive achievement. Everybody was scrambling for his or her survival. Pension systems where crumbling in the western world, forcing radical changes and raising social tensions. Full retirement age moved up or altogether disappeared in some countries, and family members were strongly encouraged--and sometimes mandated-- to rely on one another for their social safety net. Seizing the occasion, 40 "Least advanced countries" officially and simultaneously let it be understood that their foreign debt would not be honored. Insurance companies revised their policies to exclude most climate-related risks. Borders were closed more tightly than ever in the West and Asia, effectively consigning economic migrants and the growing number of refugees, displaced by ecological catastrophes and local conflicts over natural resources, to a permanent no-man's land.

Diplomatic relationships chilled notably among most countries. Multilateral diplomacy was entirely replaced by bilateral agreements, dictated by the need for securing markets and energy sources.

Faced with tough and unforeseen budget problems, countries cut down on all non-essential spending, and in some cases, on even core activities such as education or R&D. Corporations did the same. Venture capital disappeared, except perhaps at the heart of Silicon Valley. R&D and innovation became almost clandestine activities, although they never fully ceased to take place.

A few hacktivists felt duty-bound to protect the free flow of ideas that was a significant part of the pre-2012 era. On top of the physical and heavily controlled Internet, they set up an encrypted, dynamic virtual network which came to be called the Altronet. The Altronet successfully resisted official and not-so-official attacks, and then almost seemed to be left alone, perhaps because authorities and bad guys alike knew that it filled a gap and that they could use it for their own purposes as well. By 2020, most Internet users were de facto Altronet users.


Despite the Altronet, by 2020-2025, globalization was a thing of the past. Individuals, corporations, communities, and countries were all left to fend for themselves. International trade became half of what it was 10 years earlier. Some financial markets chose to disconnect from real-time global trading networks. Currency alienation set in as local exchange practices gained increasing favor. After the UK, Spain and most Scandinavian countries exited the union, the EU gave up all pretence of being more than an economic space -- and even then, countries took to invoking safeguard clauses and opt-outs on most occasions, and negotiated their own bilateral agreements. Local conflicts multiplied over access to water, trade routes, pipelines or even trade tariffs. Governments of fragile states inevitably gave way to warring factions and pockets of religious, tribal or ethnic warfare. Despite the instability, the situation did not escalate to nuclear or biological warfare.

The only thing on which developed countries could still agree was the protection of key infrastructures such as the Suez and Panama canals, network nodes and root servers, root identity providers, GPS satellites and, when they could, intercontinental pipelines.

Local communities slowly learned to cope with the new situation. Local currencies emerged, facilitated by electronic networks, contactless cards and simple, open software. After Nike, Sony and LVMH showed what it cost to continue operations as centralized multinationals, firms like Coca Cola, McDonald's, Siemens, Toyota and HSBC reinvented themselves as loose networks of local companies. Using knowledge accumulated by its engineers, when they were subcontracting to western firms, and its own brand of inventiveness, India launched and exported its version of GMO-based "2nd Green Revolution", despite well-grounded fears and protests over health and environmental risks. Many countries developed their own brand of "generic" IT equipment. India's generic and cheap "intelligent" drugs also came to the aid of Eastern Europe was it was struck by a wave of new vector-borne diseases, brought north from tropical climes by global warming.

Local values emerged or were rediscovered. There was a resurgence of local culture; and historical events, personalities, artifacts, works of art and places gained new authority as the foundations of a new future. Designers, artists, fashion designers, learned to use these symbols in combination with recycled materials, giving material expression to the values of their time. Compensating for the lack of funding and international coordination, researchers and innovators built interdisciplinary local clusters, microfunding mechanisms and ultra-short innovation cycle mechanisms, yielding significant results in a number of areas: very low-powered IT, intelligent recycling, biomass and other renewable energy sources, new discoveries in traditional medicines, resistant and frugal GMOs and genetically engineered livestock, advanced warning and crisis-management systems, resistance-enhancing synthetic drugs, etc. Of course, scientists and innovators used the Altronet extensively to interact with other experts elsewhere in the world, but they had difficulties reaching sizeable markets, preventing them from making a difference with their discoveries.

People learned to do a lot of things together remotely. However, they could not rid themselves of an emotional distance, and tended to give priority to links in their proximity. The age of Promethean science and technology was long gone. Science and technology had to be modest, problem-oriented, sensitive to the urgency of current problems and the fragility of local ecological, economic and political systems. Cloning, human enhancement and most nanotechnologies were mostly banned, although not everywhere. In fact, some mistrust could be felt about those technologists which, it was sometimes said, "led us to where we are".


By 2030, the world population was slightly under 8 billion, close to the bottom estimate of the UN's 2006 forecasts. Climate change had ruined the lives of hundred of millions, and energy remained a major constraint, despite the halving of growth rates compared to the pre-2012 era. In fact, faced with constant emergencies, public entities and corporations had not yet taken many conscious steps to change their ways of producing and of doing business.

Individuals had gone further,though, because of economic constraints and out of economic necessity, which saw millions of unemployed inventing local jobs: on-demand taxis (often 2-wheeled), selective garbage collection, recycling management, repair-it-alls, etc. These individuals came to form an important part of the social fabric.

Many local centers of authority, which emerged when the world was coping with the new, post-globalization situation, felt a strong need to define (and defend) the territories in which they operated. They wanted to assert and live by their newfound values, to define who was local and who was foreign, to protect their fragile activities from competition. Regions in Europe as well as North American states and provinces reached quasi-independent status. Cities, like Barcelona, practically seceded. Internal passports were created in some countries, and of course (as early as 2020), reinstated within the European Union though that was limited.

Climate and conflict refugees also needed their territories. In one of this period's rare major international initiatives, they were directed towards three new "Refustans", bought from Russia, Australia and Tanzania, and made habitable. The story of these new countries remains to be written, but their initial years were clearly reminiscent of the histories of Australia's or of the American West.

"Territories" were not just geographic. They were areas of religious, ethnic, cultural or of some other distinction, which formed their own borders, defining citizenship, forging rules and institutions, and used the Altronet to effectively operate as coherent entities. The quasi-independent State of California was the first to recognize their existence by revising its constitution to become a "State of Communities".

The Altronet played a significant role in facilitating the emergence of a new federation of organizations. It was used by local currencies and exchange systems for inter-system trade and compensation. Some community disputes were settled on the Altroverse, the open-source federation of virtual universes that first emerged as the "Metaverse", then later merged with the Altronet. Some prominent trials were conducted in this 3D space, with judges, prosecutors and lawyers. In fact, the Altronet is generally credited with preventing many conflicts. Some believe that it will help build intertwined communities into a new, more open international community.

Amplify, comment and contribute!

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