The future has arrived. Those things we were warned about for decades are here. They are now palpable.
In the 1950 film “All About Eve,” aging actress Margo Channing, played by Bette Davis, warned at a party, “Fasten your seat belts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”
For the world, it will get bumpy for the next decade and beyond as we adjust to three massive, disruptive realities: climate change, artificial intelligence and brutal competition among countries for raw materials for new, carbon-saving technologies like electric vehicles.
This summer, with its aberrant weather the world over, is a clear declaration that climate change is upon us. It is no longer hypothetical; it is here.
The process of living with it begins now.
This summer isn’t a template, it is the first manifestation, from wildfires in Hawaii to elevated temperatures in Argentina’s winter to heat in the Middle East that approaches the point after which life becomes impossible to sustain.
It isn’t all heat, either.
It is storms, deluging rain and previously unexperienced cold. David Naylor, who heads Rayburn Electric, near Dallas, told me what worries him, what keeps him awake at night, is the weather. The cold — new for Texas — is a more significant challenge to keeping the lights on for his customers, he said. Weather has pushed out cybersecurity on the list of worries for many utility executives.
Climate change has also brought droughts. The mighty Zambezi River has run so low in recent years that there hasn’t been enough water for hydroelectric production from the Kariba Dam, which spans the river between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Power shortages and blackouts are now endemic.
Mass migration is another consequence of climate change.
Artificial intelligence will be a big disrupter, with some significant benefits. But for now, AI is a daisy chain of question marks.
What is known is that truth is endangered. Stuart Russell, professor of computer science at UC Berkeley and one of the leading authorities on AI, told me when I interviewed him on the PBS program “White House Chronicle” that the “language in, language out” professions are in danger. Lawyers and journalists had better watch out. Much of their work can be done by AI. Already in India, AI newscasters are interfacing with live reporters. In New York, a lawyer went into court with a case based on AI, down to citations. All of it was fiction.
The world is already awash in misinformation and “alternative facts,” as Kellyanne Conway famously declared in defending President Trump. Prepare for the era of fabrication where certifying facts will get harder and harder, and provable truths will be the new gold.
Finally, the materials essential in the recent technologies — those that will help us fight global warming — are pointed to be the cause of severe disruption and some ugly realpolitik.
Supplies of vital materials are controlled by China. It has been relentlessly buying up the sources of rare earths and other minerals for decades in Africa and South America. Seventy percent of the lithium — essential for the batteries in mass electrification — is processed in China. Lithium deposits exist worldwide, from Zimbabwe to the United Kingdom, and from Chile to Australia, but the processing is centered in China.
Likewise, gallium, used for computer chips, and a whole array of precious metals are either sourced in China or processed there.
In dealing with this imbalance, it would be a mistake to think this new disruption is a reprise of the Cold War. It is quite otherwise. The Soviet Union sought to export ideology, which aroused fear in capitalist nations or those wanting a private sector to flourish. The Chinese are ambivalent about ideology outside of China but offer trade and investment on a global scale.
China has bought up much farming and nearly all African mineral production. In South America — the new Aladdin’s cave of mineral wealth — China is buying up and financing.
Around the world, there is a reluctance about choosing sides; jobs and money talk.
The Economist points out that attempts to curb Chinese dominance in critical materials processing and manufacturing aren’t working because countries from Mexico to Vietnam are transshipping.
Bette Davis’ character might have suggested a shoulder harness and a seat belt.