2000s >> 2006 >> no-1219-march-2006

Transport 2055: the missing scenario

In 2020 a global economic slump as severe as that of the 1930s breaks out leaving millions of unemployed in all countries. By 2022 GDP in Britain has fallen by a fifth to 80 percent of its previous level. Two years later the UK banking system collapses. Power cuts had already been routine, as in Third World countries today. In the years that follow GDP continues to fall and most people, to survive, leave the cities and settle in small communities that have to be as self-sufficient as possible, bartering with other communities for what they cant produce themselves. Some local transport is still by car but most is by bike or horse. Armed bands roam the roads between communities, and the communities have to protect themselves by equipping some of their members with Kalashnikovs. By 2043 the population of Britain has fallen from its present 60 million to only 42 million, as a result of millions migrating to other countries and millions of others dying either from sickness and disease or in armed clashes and massacres.

This is a scenario painted in a document published in January by a government thinktank, Foresight, which is attached to the Department of Trade and Industry, entitled Intelligent Infrastructure Futures: The Scenarios Towards 2055 (www.foresight.gov.uk). It is one of the four possible futures described in the document prepared to inform government decisions on transport policy. The other scenarios are not so nightmarish as the one above dubbed Tribal Trading by the governments futurologists. There are also Perpetual Motion, Good Intentions and Urban Colonies.

Perpetual Motion is a scenario based on the assumption that a viable alternative to carbon-based fuels for powering transport other than aviation has been found (in hydrogen). No restrictions on the use of personally-owned vehicles for individual transport are therefore necessary. At the same time Information and Communications Technology continues to develop, making possible telepresencing (a combination of videoconferencing and virtual reality to allow a virtual meeting where people are present as holograms), so reducing the need for business travel. ICT also allows people to be always on”, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Even low-paid service workers are so used to being always available that their holidays are no longer a real break. As a result, already by 2020, stress is the new obesity. By 2050 over 90 percent of UK citizens are equipped with an electronic ID device that does everything from advise them on entitlement to public benefits to alerting them when their children leave the school grounds.

The Good Intentions scenario assumes that oil continues to be the main source of fuel for transport and that a Kyoto-type agreement on limiting carbon emissions is eventually signed by all countries and enforced by the threat of UN sanctions. As a result the government is forced to confront the right-to-drive car lobby and impose restrictions on the use of private cars. This is assumed to take the form of each person being allocated an individual carbon-use entitlement which can be traded for cash: After bitter political conflicts, sometimes violent, a tough national surveillance system means that people only travel if they have sufficient carbon quotas and these are increasingly tightly rationed. This doesnt just apply to driving a car. The carbon credits smart card is needed by any citizen who wishes to use any kind of carbon resources, from having a shower, to driving, to eating out, to listening to a digital music system.

The assumption underlying the Urban Colonies scenario is that the government does actually carry out the green agenda politicians are always talking about and put clean environment practice at the heart of its economic and social policies. Most people live and work in more compact cities than today. Car use falls and is replaced by walking, cycling and public transport. Local electric vehicles are ubiquitous. More food is grown locally, so reducing the need for transport. Everything either gets recycled as a raw material for another production process, or returned, clean, to the earth or water. Every council runs its own freecycle scheme to help people who have things they want to dispose of find a willing recipient. In 2026 a Consumer Goods Act is passed requiring all goods to be repairable. The use of open source software is widespread and the public Internet is used only for public messages. The result is a world in which the main aims of policy are to reduce energy consumption and eliminate waste, where corporations have retreated from the high water mark of influence they enjoyed at the end of the 20th century.

Foresight organised a number of workshops at which their scenarios were discussed. Perpetual Motion appealed to the business community and the technological optimists amongst the scientists, though Good Intentions (too much, much too late) was seen as in some respects the most plausible scenario.

Surprisingly perhaps, the final outcome of Tribal Trading decentralised community-based schemes to grow food, with bartering and alternative currencies coming to the fore was not seen as unattractive by everyone. An outside futurologist is cited as claiming that some (presumably, Deep Greens) see this as having much in common with their aim of ecocommunalism, though of course preferring a more planned and orderly transition to it than that set out in Foresights scenario (though quite how the population of Britain could be reduced from 60 million to 42 million within less than forty years by 2043 without some enormous catastrophe is hard to see). Most workshops participants, however, saw this scenario as the least likely to happen, on the grounds that political action would be taken to avoid the event assumed to precipitate it (the sudden end of the Oil Age), even if this took the form of the use of military force to secure additional energy supplies.

The first two scenarios Perpetual Motion and Good Intentions both explicitly assume the continuation of capitalism. Mobile phones and hand-held computers linked to the Internet will have their use in any future society, but the main use Foresight envisages for them is to order and pay for goods and services; at the same time they serve as a means for firms and advertisers to keep tabs on what people are buying and for the state to keep tabs on what they are doing. A society in which workers would be subjected to such Big Brother surveillance and be forced to be available to work 24/7 is another nightmare scenario. As is one where people have to acquire carbon-use units just to eat out or have a shower.

The only scenario that has any sort of attraction is Urban Colonies. But, given capitalism, this is the least likely to happen as its attractive features are precisely the ones that go against the logic of capitalism. It would still be capitalism, but a capitalism unrealistically assumed to have been tamed and humanised by taxes and government action. A capitalist world in which the main aim of policy is to reduce energy consumption and eliminate waste rather than to maximise profits? A capitalist world in which corporations have lost the influence they now have? The Internet under capitalism freed from advertising? Futurologists are allowed some flights of fancy, but this is ridiculous.

To be fair, Foresight themselves point out that this scenario carries with it an implicit critique of market capitalism and conventional economics. They also claim that among its guiding spirits might be included the Victorian socialist, William Morris. If Morris had to choose just between the four scenarios on offer he might well have chosen this one, but he wouldnt have regarded it as socialism. He once asked why in a socialist society would a law against adulteration be needed since no one would then have any reason to adulterate food. Such a law only makes sense in a society based on competition for profits where some firms will always be tempted to take this short cut to profitability. Much the same could be said of the 2026 Consumer Goods Act passed to force firms to produce products that are easily repairable. Why in a socialist society would anyone want to produce something with welded or moulded parts just so that people have to get a new one if it breaks down (quite apart from wanting to make something scientifically calculated to break down earlier than it need)?

Foresight have missed out one other possible future: a scenario in which sometime in the course of the next fifty years a world-wide political movement sweeps away capitalism and production for profit and ushers in a society based on the common ownership and democratic control of productive resources. On this basis humans are in charge of their social environment and what they decide to do can be implemented without coming up against the barriers of profit and the market or the vested interests of an entrenched propertied class.

In the field of transport, it can be imagined that a right to mobility is available to everyone by means of a comprehensive and efficient free public transport system and access to free public vehicles. This could involve, in an urban context, a hydrogen-powered automatic transit system, flexible and demand-responsive public vehicles which are a hybrid between buses and taxis (both as in the Urban Colonies scenario, but free), supplemented by a fleet of public self-drive vehicles for hiring without charge when needed for a specific journey or period. Under these circumstances, privately-owned vehicles for the exclusive use of one person or family would not be necessary and the congestion and pollution caused by present-day dependency on private cars for travel avoided. All this would be in the overall context of a society where production would no longer be for sale on a market with a view to profit, but for use so that only good-quality, easy-to-repair products would be made and, as a society geared to serving human welfare, clean environmental practices would be adopted as a matter of course.

This of course is only a scenario. But at least it does better than the Foresight document with its three nightmares and one non-starter.


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