Adapt to What? Laurence Smith’s World in 2050
‘Tis the season to be reading! In a sweeping panoramic new book titled The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future, UCLA professor Laurence C. Smith delivers a well-written and comprehensive account of the key drivers shaping the next four decades of evolution in our global civilization and eco-system—and the intimate relationship between the two.
Smith treats four key drivers in a constant and complex interplay: demographics, resource consumption, globalization, and climate change. But there is a fifth, he adds without hesitation: technology. Technology will shape our adaptation to the future environment, but in an incremental and practical way. Indeed, as Smith promises at the outset of the book: no silver bullets, no World War III, and no hidden genies. In other words, let’s be pragmatic about how we approach the future rather than wait or hope for Black Swans, either positive or negative.
Smith turns Jared Diamond’s famous question about why civilizations to collapse on its head, asking: what causes civilizations to grow? And where are they growing? Smith takes us to the places we would least expect to find the answer: the societies of the Arctic Circle.
World in 2050 is a lively hybrid of academic reportage. Smith traveled on ice-breakers in the Arctic Ocean and visited indigenous communities in Finland to gather revealing stories of how the Far North is by necessity ahead of the rest of us in adapting to a warmer future. In fascinating ways—such as animal and insect life migrating to higher altitudes and latitudes—human civilization is in fact moving northward. The quite radical shifts in lifestyle we might experience by 2050 emerge through such gradual shifts we can already witness today.
Smith witnesses how even the most northern parts of Scandinavia are coming to look like Nevada, sparsely populated but dotted with confidently industrious towns specializing in niche areas like timber, natural gas production, shipping, and other areas. The gradual opening of the Northwest Passage to shipping will have an economic impact well beyond the Arctic Circle as it cuts delivery times and strengthens northern ports at the expense of those that are central nodes today.
There are other revealing stories of social and political adaptation Smith observes in his travels across the Northern Rim. He visits the newly autonomous territory of Nunavit, an Inuit populated zone the size of Mexico that has been granted self-rule by Canada and has the fastest demographic growth rate in the world’s second largest country—where previously only the population and economy straddling the U.S. border were thought to matter. Greenland too is on the verge of independence from tiny Denmark, its 60,000 population salivating over the wealth from natural gas reserves increasingly accessible as its ice-pack melts. Over in the sparsely populated Russian Far East, Chinese are increasingly swallowing Siberia (something we have discussed in a 2009 TED Talk.
Smith reveals some of the bolder hydrological solutions being discussed for the world’s water crisis stemming from climate change and consumption patterns, always honest about their potential and pitfalls. Through a complex set of aquifers, dams, and canals, a Northern Water Complex could capture the overflow of Canada’s northern rivers and pump water southward into the drying American southwest. A similar scheme in Siberia could help replenish the now trickling Amu Darya and Syr Darya Rivers of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
Throughout his book, Smith is balanced about he prospects for technological solutions. The fact that coal is growing in usage as a source of energy vis-à-vis oil and gas raises alarm bells given the limited success and costs associated with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technologies, for example. But technology does give us confidence that we will survive and can adapt. The only question we have not answered, then, is: “What kind of world do we want?”
Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.
- The meaning of the word 'confidence' seems obvious. But it's not the same as self-esteem.
- Confidence isn't just a feeling on your inside. It comes from taking action in the world.
- Join Big Think Edge today and learn how to achieve more confidence when and where it really matters.
If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.
In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.
- Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
- If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
- It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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