Feb 052002

02/02/02 was a monumental day for groundhog lovers as the great prognosticators, Punxsutawney Phil and his southern counterpart, General Beauregard Lee, made their predictions. Other prognosticators are not not nearly as cute and fuzzy as Phil and Lee, nor do they often get as much press.

Take, for example, some of the prognosticators from the World Economic Forum, a group defined as “an independent organization committed to improving the state of the world.” Funded by private corporations, the forum acts to further economic growth and social progress throughout the world by creating partnerships with businessmen, political figures, scientists and societal leaders.

The Swiss-based foundation declares itself impartial, non-profit and independent of political, partisan interests. Overall, this seems like a nice bunch of people, despite the fact thousands protested their meeting last Saturday in Manhattan.

Why protest this group? Most protests arise against many of the big businesses that fuel the forum in the first place. These protests are largely made by environmentalists, AIDS activists, labor unions and anti-globalizationalists (folks who don’t want corporations like McDonald’s and Starbucks, with gross annual products exceeding the GNPs of many third-world nations, to cover every square inch of the civilized globe). Many of these issues and protests are justified, but what I would like to focus on today is the most recent message presented by the scientists in the WEF.

What kind of message? Sir Martin Rees, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, said it best: “Extreme pessimism seems to me to be the only rational stance.”

Pessimism about what? Like Phil and Lee, weather was of great concern to many scientists at last week’s science meeting. If carbon dioxide emission trends continue like they are, we can expect a 5.8 degrees C increase in global temperatures in the next century. With extreme monitoring, this number could drop to 1.8 degrees C. Either way, this sounds no good. There will be increased flooding in some areas and droughts in others, along with erratic cyclones and storms. These will result in economic disruption in many struggling regions. Disease prevalence, both from old and new sources, will likely increase as tropical boundaries spread. WEF scientists also predict more bitter economic stratification and conflict as the richer countries of the world deal with many of these issues (creating protective dikes, for example) while the poorer nations are left to literally drown in their woes.

Bioterrorism, of which we recently got only a small taste, will become more prevalent according many WEF experts. This, combined with information that al-Qaida was “casing” America for weaknesses in damns, nuclear power plants and other tall buildings, leads to some nasty predictions.

I rolled on the floor laughing when I first read this next prediction, but the idea of a computer-generated social crisis is still worth pondering. One thought is that machines will soon do all the thinking (be it in financial accounting or on the battlefield) and the people will stop. Another is that people will begin getting cybernetic upgrades while machines will get organic ones. The associated problems, ranging from human unemployment to robot civil rights, could create quite the social crisis indeed.

So why am I pulling a Chicken Little and reporting that the sky is falling?

Because it’s good to remind ourselves sometimes that we can’t continue to sit on our laurels and expect a bright future. We can kill bin Ladens in popular wars right and left, but what will we do when we finally have to fight the world we’ve created?

Protests are one thing – action is another. Will our actions, when they come, be in time to do any good?

Ken Hamner is a cynical graduate student.

 Posted by at 5:00 pm

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