Adapted from The Meaning Of The 21st Century: A Vital Blueprint For Ensuring Our Future, by James Martin (Eden Project Books, 2006).
Today, most of the public and their leaders have remarkably little knowledge about the future. Exploring the future calls for the use of logic, an understanding of history, technology and the behaviour of complex organizations, to weave together many long-terms trends.
In 1970, a secret set of meetings was arranged between 12 top American and 12 top Soviet computer scientists to find out whether and how they could cooperate in research. Over decades while I roved the world, lecturing and consulting on practical techniques for building complex systems, I took a keen interest in the world’s larger problems. Recognizing how much research and education this subject needed, I set out to found the James Martin 21st-Century School at the University of Oxford, the mission of which is to identify and find solutions to the biggest challenges facing humanity in the 21st century and to find the biggest opportunities. It is critical to teach the subject matter of this book to the rising generation who will have to cope with the situation. The story of what is happening to humanity and its home planet can largely be put in place now – not the details but the broad trends.
Water is essential for food production, but we are taking water from aquifers at a rate that will cause many of them to run dry.
There are many solutions to our problems but it is common to find corporations resisting the solutions, and government that seems incapable of taking the actions needed. But the problem with the catastrophe-first syndrome is that the potential catastrophes are getting bigger. Historians of the distant future will describe two extraordinary transitions: the Industrial Revolution, which set into motion the change that grew into the thundering avalanche we have today, and the 21st-Century Revolution, which prevented the avalanche from wrecking our world. The fast growth of the massive new consumer class in China and elsewhere is redrawing the world economic map. As China’s aquifers decline and China increasingly diverts its river water to cities, it will be able to grow less grain. Unless very strong action is taken by wealthy countries to move destitute countries to the first rungs of the ladder of economic development, death tolls will rise in such countries, scourged as they are by AIDS, malaria and diseases caused by unsanitary water.
In Egypt it hardly ever rains; so, for 5,000 years Egypt has been entirely dependent on the Nile. Some authorities have attempted to calculate how many people the Earth can support in the second half of this century. Today’s population is growing rapidly and is on course to reach 8.9 billion by 2050, or earlier. The fertility rate is well below the replacement rate in almost all advanced parts of the world, including China. James Martin founded the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford, which has 30 institutes doing scholarly research into the problems, dangers and opportunities of the near future. This blog will be used to explore, exchange, and create ideas around 21st century collaborative learning and the environments and tools that make this learning possible--with the big goal of helping teachers and those who prepare teachers redesign teaching and learning for success in the 21st century.
Up in the mountains on a satellite internet connection, my DL speed is a fair 1.07 Mbps, but the upstream is a trickle at 17 kbps, worse than weak dialup. PREVIOUS POSTA Multi-Literate Teacher I found Vance Steven's Moodle course entitled Mulitliteracies for a Digital Age. When filming this book, I stood in Times Square, surrounded by the world’s most extraordinary blaze of electronic information, and reflected that absolutely all of that information was about the present day. Much can be predicted about future technology because of the lengthy time lags between research and development and between the creation of products and their application. Then I joined IBM and was trained to design computer systems that helped provide solutions to complex problems. In a sense, there is no more important subject matter because civilization’s survival depends on it. In addition to water depletion and soil degradation, food production will also be seriously lowered in some countries by drought and heat waves caused by the rising quantity of greenhouse gases.
Humanity can’t go on for ever using more water than can be replenished or taking actions that will trigger a runaway change in Gaia.
However, it needs more grain because the hordes of young people in its new consumer societies want to eat meat instead of rice, and they want high-quality meat from well-fed animals.
The number declines as the ecological footprint grows due to increasing consumption patterns. The number depends upon how badly the climate is damaged and how well the First and Second Worlds eat. If we head towards the grim state he describes, we will get plenty of warning and probably do something about it. At the current rate of increase of carbon in the atmosphere, the Earth’s control mechanisms will reach runaway positive feedback long before our population reaches an acceptably low figure. He is the largest individual benefactor to the University of Oxford in it’s 900-year history. Traffic, Hits, and Ratings I have never been motivated to have a well thought out marketing plan for encouraging traffic to my blog. There are numerous ways we can steer future events so as to avoid the catastrophes that lurk in our path and to create opportunities for a better world. A US Senator assured me that public voting is based on the present and has no interest in the future.

The US State Department trained us how to behave – for example, how to handle the vast amounts of vodka we were given during the endless toasts at Moscow banquets (empty your glasses into the flower vases), and what to do if you got back to your hotel room and found a beautiful naked woman in your bed (I was disappointed). But my training as a problem-solver led me to believe that there were solutions to all of the profound problems we describe. There could be step-by-step replacement of carbon-based fuels, steady improvement in food-growing capability, measures to conserve water, a lock down of sources of fissile uranium, growth of anti-terrorist measures, a drive for eco-affluent lifestyles, and so on – it’s a long list.
As if that weren’t bad enough, we are diverting huge amounts of water from farms to cities, and that trend will grow because there are massive migrations of people from the countryside to cities. The planetary damage caused by the successful countries will breed anger among the unsuccessful.
If gentle change towards sensible behaviour doesn’t happen, the world will head to situations where only revolutionary change will work. A war with the anger of World War II and modern technology could set back civilization for centuries.
The subsidies that damage the environment are massive, and subsidies that could help the environment are small. There are many situations in cities around the world in which they will pay thousands of dollars per ton for water. The newly rich classes who buy grain will probably have no concern for the three billion or so people who can’t pay the market price for grain.
Thus, for part of the year, the great river is only a trickle by the time it reaches the sea.
It also declines as global warming shrinks the farm production of many marginal areas, and increases the spread of deserts. Lovelock says that Gaia will do the culling and eliminate those that break her rules – as she always has done. A sober estimate comes from Sir Crispin Tickell, who thinks 2.5 billion is a reasonable target. Humanity, once it wakes up to such demise, will take extreme action to rescue the situation. As the Earth’s population becomes lower and its activities become eco-friendly, then our task will be to ensure that in the future we live within what Gaia can handle. He has written more textbooks than any other living person – 104, many of which have been seminal in their field. A revolutionary transition is ahead of us, and our children have a vital role to play in it; so, there is so much that we need to teach them about their future. We are driving at relentlessly increasing speed into an extraordinary future, but we are driving blindfolded. There will always be passionate arguments about politics, taxation, and wealth redistribution, but that is not my subject here. For example, when I wrote The Wired Society in the mid-1970s, there was no personal computers, cell phones, and nothing called the Internet. In the age of Nixon, we went to cocktail parties in the UN and it was like going to a different planet. To my surprise, I found the Russian scientists warm and friendly but with a total misconception of what America was like. It was necessary to alert the public to the grand-scale challenges of the 21st century and teach their potential solutions. Particularly alarming, we may cause Gaia, the control system of the planet, to wobble into a new state. If governments continue to take almost no action, the transition, when it eventually happens, will be traumatic, expensive, and often violent.
To make the 21st-Century Transition as painless as possible, its various changes should be made as early as possible, before the problems become too bad. As we commented, Norman Myers catalogued $2 trillion per year of “perverse” subsidies that do more harm than good.
On the contrary, it is the beginning of fundamentally new forms of progress, which greatly enhance affluence and culture while healing, rather than harming, the environment. Young people in the new consumer classes are building up a fever pitch of excitement about their new lifestyles.
Because of this, water is increasingly being diverted to cities, and this leaves water-short farmers with even less water. Now, however, Ethiopia and Sudan, countries upstream of Egypt on the Nile, are rapidly growing in population and are dependent on the Nile for growing food. Farm production is also lowered as aquifers run dry and huge amounts of water are diverted to the rapidly growing cities. James Lovelock is a kindly, cerebral man living in a cottage isolated in the beautiful countryside of Devon. New cities will be built nearer the Arctic, and new farmlands opened up, with Russia’s vast sub-Arctic region becoming the largest breadbasket of the world.
We will be able to estimate that with precision as the Earth becomes well-instrumented, and Earth system science becomes an intensely computerized discipline.
There will be too much carbon and methane in the atmosphere, not enough forest, too much farmland, too much desertification and the Arctic ice will melt too fast. We can identify critical high-momentum trends independently of politics, and there are urgent changes needed, regardless of which political parties are dominant at the time.

Some 25 years later, the book was hailed as an astonishingly accurate forecast of a world using those technologies. The UN delegates had no clue about what was happening in technology, and we computer gurus had no vision beyond our own world.
Most of us concluded that there was a great potential for cooperation; however, the game evolved into the KGB watching the CIA watching the KGB, and nothing useful happened.
Morgan had an extraordinary advisory board, with George Schultz, Condoleeza Rice, Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, the Saudi Arabian Minister of Finance, Britain’s Lord Howe, and the CEOs of many global corporations. Its faculty does detailed research on solutions, including those described in this book, and synthesizes the knowledge in order to understand our options for the future.
A massive transition is inevitable, and the agenda can be created for the generation that is going to bring about that transition. For example, we are drifting towards irreversible climate change faster than we are taking any actions to stop that happening. If taxpayers were given a listing of subsidies they pay, sequenced by the net harm from those subsidies, they would be in revolt.
Historians will regard the early 21st century as a barbarian world – seeing there was no need for all the environmental damage, the destruction of ocean life, or the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons.
When China and India run short of water so that they can’t grow enough grain, they will buy grain in the world markets. These countries want to divert the Nile water to their cities, and Ethiopia is planning to build a dam on the Blue Nile, which will lessen the flow of water to Egypt.
He wrote The Meaning of the 21st Century, which was made into a major film, and is a Pulitzer nominee for his book The Wired Society.
Some solutions to problems will meet resistance for parochial political reasons, often because there are large vested interests. Encouraged by this, I developed files about the world’s future problems and what experts had to say about them.
Where steady transitions are possible, for example with the change to non-carbon fuels, almost nothing is being done.
The 21st-Century Revolution will bring a brave new world of transhumanism, nanotechnology, biotechnology, post-Singularity computing, genome-based science, and transponders linking our brains directly to networks.
Buying a ton of grain is equivalent to buying a thousand tons of water, and buying 18 pounds of meat is equivalent to buying roughly a ton of grain. The population of these two upstream countries is projected to grow from 106 million today to 231 million by 2050.
Today we have a fairly good understanding of the Earth’s control mechanisms, and we have highly intricate models of climate change. He avoids sensational language and talks with a smile, but what he says means that we will have, by far, the largest and most gruesome famines that humanity has ever known. He was a pioneer in the automation of software development, and was ranked 4th in Computer World’s 25th Anniversary Edition’s most influential people in computer technology. The US Environmental Protection Agency tries to repair environmental damage after it has happened, but it seems to have almost no ability to change the economic practices that cause the damage in the first place. Myers estimates that worldwide the subsides for road transportation, which essentially covers oil and cars, is in the order of $400 billion per year, and the car industry itself is about $600 billion – about a trillion dollars for the oil and car industries together. The largest human migration in history is China’s current migration from country areas to new cities; so, the diversion of water to cities in China will become massive.
China will have to buy huge amounts of grain and this will cause the price of grain to go up. The conclusion is that the Earth could not support today’s population if they lived decently. World Summits on Sustainable Development have had agendas of immense importance but have taken almost no action on anything. India is likely to follow a similar pattern, a decade or so later, as its population eventually becomes larger than China’s.
We have a choice, he says, between these unspeakable nightmares and somehow gaining control of our own destiny. Their follow-up can be described as studied avoidance of any changes that are controversial.
The Transition Generation will be increasingly frustrated and angry about the roadblocks to transition. He is an Honorary Life Fellow of the British Royal Institution, a Fellow of the World Academy of Art and Science, an Honorary Fellow of Keble College, Oxford, and a Senior Fellow of the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies at Monterey, California. The United Nations Committee on Trade and Development has the acronym UNCTAD, which is often said to stand for Under No Circumstances Take Any Decision. If Egypt’s population grows at its present rate, it will be massive by the time the water runs out.
Global warming will make this situation worse by lowering farm productivity in many water-stressed countries. Craig Venter, the legendary genome mapper, commented in our interview with him, “I’m not afraid of computers.

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