Imagine it’s 1985, China’s GDP is around US$300 per capita, Dubai’s first skyscraper is just six years old, New York’s World Trade Centre is impenetrable, Donald Trump was just a businessman and if you are riding the bus and don’t have a book, your options are to either stare out the window or the seat in front.
Fast forward 30 years and China is an emerging global superpower, Dubai is a burgeoning centre for international trade, the World Trade Centre is destroyed, Trump is the 45th President and technology commands our attention.
How rapidly things evolve over time, and often by surprise.
we just didn’t see it coming
For decades we’ve been unable to predict major modern day social, political, economic and technological realities.
Today we take our personal devices and the Internet for granted. But there was a time when this reality was not imagined—even amongst industry experts.
Robert Metcalfe, the inventor of the Ethernet cable predicted that:
…the internet will go spectacularly supernova and in 1996, catastrophically collapse.
His main worry was that the Internet would never be able to handle large amounts of data.
These events can also be described as ‘black swan’ events—events that come out of nowhere and drastically transform how things are.
The energy sector is not immUNE
For decades, analysts have attempted to predict future energy and emissions trends.
In 2004, Julian Darley warned in his book High Noon for Natural Gas that dependence on foreign sources of natural gas was leaving the United States vulnerable.
The United States had spent billion of dollars on facilities to import natural gas, only to repurpose these facilities for natural gas export as the (unexpected) shale gas boom made the United States the world’s largest natural gas exporter.
In fact, new and more efficient extraction methods unlocked far more oil and gas than experts had predicted.
The US Energy Information Administration had also projected in 2010 that US energy-related emissions would continue rising for the next decade.
In reality, the following trend occurred:
In A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume argues that humans fall into the trap of thinking that past outcomes can help us predict future experience, when there is no evidence that the past and future are correlated.
So why do humans continue to predict the future if we continue to get it wrong?
Perhaps because it gives us a feeling of control over our fate.
One of the most powerful influences on fear is uncertainty. The less we know, the more threatened we feel. Predicting the future gives us something to hold onto.
Yes, there is scientific modelling that can project climatic trends over time with confidence.
And yes, the uncertainty of the future can be unsettling.
But can it provide a sense of comfort knowing that social, political, economic and technological change can happen rapidly and unexpectedly?
We don’t know what breakthroughs will emerge between now and 2050, whether it be fusion energy, or an unknown development that reduces emissions in notoriously difficult sectors like agriculture or heavy industry.
So let’s not lock ourselves into thinking that a doomed future is set in stone.