Seeing as today is the day-to-end-all-days according to the Maya, I thought I’d throw down a little on my ideas regarding Armageddon and how it related to the development of Atopia.

As Jarrod Diamond illustrated so effectively in his book “Collapse”, complex societies in the past have almost all collapsed as a result of the natural environment surrounding them being used up.

This is easiest to document in South Pacific islands, such as Easter Island, where the society is isolated, but examples abound such as the dichotomy between poor-and-desperate Haiti (which destroyed its natural environment) and green-and-prosperous Dominican (which didn’t) which occupy the two halves of Hispaniola island.

Now, for the first time in human history, more humans live in urban rather than rural environments, the cities have become the islands that we live upon, and these islands (whether we acknowledge it or not) depend entirely upon the natural environment that surrounds them for food and water. We are fast using up the natural environments surrounding the urban islands where most of us now live, and there is nowhere else for us to go.

While many future predictions of disaster have proven unfounded (such as the ogres of Malthusian exponential population explosion) and others have been tempered (such as Toffler’s Future Shock, although information overload is still on the horizon), the World3 model created by the Club of Rome in the 1970’s and published in the book Limits to Growth (and updated in the 30 Year Update, World3:2004) has proven to be right on the mark. This complex model takes into account everything from population to pollution to technology innovation, and has been a near perfect predictor of levels of human activity for the past 40 years. This is the model I used in Atopia.

All of the paths upwards to “peak population” (currently predicted by almost any model to be about 9 to 10 billion people near mid-21st century) are fairly smooth and straightforward, but, ominously, it is extremely difficult to arrive at a “soft landing” stable population after this point.

Almost all “declining population” solutions predict precipitous population declines, which translates to large scale death due to disease, famine, war and the collapse of the environment. Coming up with a “smooth landing” would require coordinated global activity by governments, something we haven’t been able to demonstrate to date.

An addition to the previous idea is that the modern world, since the Renaissance, has been built on a mindset of “growth”; larger economies, more money, more people, more technology. The largest part of this is driven simply by increasing population. In the middle of this century, world populations will start dropping quickly; this has already started in highly developed countries such as Japan. GDPs will start to drop endlessly, turning most of economic theory on its head. The problems endemic to Japan, such as deflation, will begin to consume the world until we can figure out new models. This will take time.

A corollary to the first two points is that almost all of human conflict has been a story about resources, the depletion of resources and the fight over remaining resources. As natural resources deplete, humans will naturally fight for what’s left. Even if we are merging with machines, human nature will remain, and human nature is to fight for resources. By the middle of this century, we will be experiencing very difficult economic situations as GDPs start shrinking, temperatures will be increasing, and rising sea levels will start to force mass migrations from low lying areas just as we start to experience the start of severe natural resource shortages. Major conflicts over all of these will erupt.

The fight for water is the prime example of what is to come, and is central to the “Weather Wars” in  The Complete Atopia Chronicles. While much of the 20th century could be characterized as a fight over oil, the 21st century will be a fight over water; as Mark Twain once said, “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting.”

Water equals Food & Industry & Money. As temperatures rise and water tables drop, water will become an increasingly scarce commodity in much of the world. To illustrate this, a September article in USA Today documented the fact in many municipalities water prices have more than doubled across most of the US in the past decade. As the majority of the US population ages, an ever increasing proportion of Americans are retiring, and they tend to move south to places that won’t have any water in 20 or 30 years. Rising populations in southern US cities (read: Atlanta, Phoenix) and fast diminishing water tables will result in extremely high water prices.

The real fight, however, will be because there are currently no international treaties governing “upstream” water. Six of the greatest rivers in the world flow out of the Himalayas, and collectively provide fresh water to over 3 billion people, half of the world’s population. Two of these rivers (Yangtze and Yellow) flow into China, while the other four (Indus, Ganges, Brahmaputra and Mekong) flow into India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Indochina peninsula (Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia etc.).

However, all of these rivers start in the Tibetan plateau located within the control of China, and China has already begun creating a system of dams high in the Himalayas to divert water flow. There are over three-thousand cubic miles of freshwater stored in the glaciers in the Himalayas, and the Chinese have started a determined program to capture all of this. As the world’s largest river delta in Bangladesh dries-up, and everyone from Laos to Vietnam goes thirsty, and nuclear-armed Pakistan and India see the Indus and Ganges dry-up, it could lead to conflicts. See here for an example.

In Atopia Chronicles, I added another more speculative wrinkle to this: the ability to alter weather, in particular where and when it rains. The technology to start early the process of rain in clouds has already been demonstrated (by seeding clouds with microscopic particles that start the process of “nucleation” – essentially giving the raindrops a starting point) and also technology to alter ocean surface temperatures (by seeding ocean surfaces with iron dust to feed blooms of plankton that then soak up the sun’s energy and heat the water, potentially diverting weather systems). So what happens when countries start seeding rain clouds to empty their water on their country and not the next, or start shifting weather patterns to bring water to their country? This why I called them the “Weather Wars”.

OK, phew, so that’s my brain dump. Anybody got any thoughts?