Back to the future, kids

by Stan Hirst

Permit me to introduce the apples of my eye – my grandkids.

They’re Canadians, so naturally there is one boy and one girl. I use the term ‘Canadians’ somewhat collectively, since a quick review of their family trees shows ancestors from 10 known genetic ancestries. Plus, there is a bit of Neanderthal in there as well, according to DNA analysis.

They do well at school. They can play the piano, ride bicycles, swim, cross-country ski, play soccer, fiddle with anything that has dials, knobs and switches or goes beep, and they frequently aggravate their parents. Totally normal, well-balanced kids. Take after their grandfather in every respect, except for the piano bit. I’m proud of them.

But I am deeply concerned for them. Not as kids, mind you. They’re well supervised, guided and taught. No, my concerns are for them as the grown-ups which they one day will be, and for the situation in which they will find themselves in as they enter maturity and have to fend for their own children in this rapidly changing world of ours.

What will their world look like? I don’t own a crystal ball, but Big Think, an internet portal set up in 2007 to cogitate and debate on such things, has ventured a variety of prognostications which at least give me a good impression of whither goest my kith and kin.

By mid-century there will likely be 9 billion people on our planet, consuming ever more resources and leading ever more technologically complex lives. According to the futurists the majority of these people will live in urban areas and will have a significantly higher average age than people of today. My unfortunate middle-aged grand-kids and their offspring will, figuratively speaking, be immersed in a great sea of cranky old elders like me. Nothing new for them then, just more of the same. I’m betting that medical science, despite its ever-accelerating rate of discovery and innovation, will not have eliminated ageing and its unwanted attendant afflictions such as mental illness.

The kids are tech savvy now (8-year-olds with their own e-mail addresses!?), so as adults they will merge seamlessly with the pervasive and highly interconnected networks of the future. They and their children will spend their whole existence immersed in overlain and interacting smart grids running every detail of their lives. Their homes and they themselves, via their Apple 1105’s, will be multi-linked to energy, information and resource distribution systems which will provide their every need and requirement. Well, almost every need – they’ll still have to open their own boxes of Choco Pops.

Their work environments will be similarly completely multi-linked. There are drones zooming around the countryside now delivering parcels, so a few decades hence will almost certainly see offices and industrial plants linked worldwide on a real-time basis. Grandson engineer in Calgary, he of Lego renown, will design a supermod skyscraper, transmit a few million specs to a company in Guangzhou who will set up the production contract and eventually build the modular monstrosity in Kyrgyzstan.

Granddaughter neurosurgeon, who as a 6-year old once expressed the concern that “people don’t have very good brains” will sit in her plush (pink?) workspace in Vancouver, surrounded by consoles and sensors which watch her hands and eyes. On the monitor she will see, in crystal-clear resolution, the shaved head of her tranquilized patient in Mombasa, Kenya, 15,000km away. She will also see the many electronic instruments and strobes positioned around her patient, all of which are controlled by the switches, buttons and mice on the console in Vancouver. In 6 minutes she will scan the patient’s brain, detect the lesion, analyze it, transmit the diagnosis to the resident surgeon in the Mombasa hospital, bombard it remotely with iomega waves, check the patient’s responses, transmit a report to the printer in the hospital admin office in Mombasa, wave goodbye to the theatre staff, and sign off. All in a day’s work.

My grandkids might be well equipped for the future, but I can’t say the same for the country I’m leaving behind for them. The Canada we know now is already a land of extremes, from freezing cold to searing heat, from drenching rain to parched drought. We all know what climate variation is like now, but the change forecasts from climate scientists suggest that we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

It will certainly be warmer by mid-century – a country summer average of about 20C higher. Wetter too, by an average about 5%. However, averages are statistical devices to summarize large amounts of data and can be misleading. Climate change will feed into Canada’s already considerable natural variability and won’t do anything to smooth the fluctuations out. In effect, the likelihood of droughts or more wet periods in whatever region my kids choose to live will certainly be quite different to what they now know.

The additional rain is unlikely to fall as gentle spring showers, much more likely as great flooding downpours or winter rains that drain away before they can nourish crops. In Saskatchewan where the other grandparents in the family tree once resided and farmed, the amount of water that falls as snow has already declined by 50 per cent. The number of multi-day rains has increased by the same amount. These trends will very likely continue, but ironically prairie crops will not benefit from the longer growing seasons because the precipitation gains will be offset by higher temperatures and higher evaporation.

The mild winters will allow mountain pine beetles to survive and infest forests in western Canada, killing trees and turning parched and overheated trees into tinder boxes. Wildfire seasons already begin weeks before they used to. In the Northwest Territories, where temperatures are climbing at a rate faster than almost anywhere on earth, the 2014 fire season set a record of 3.4 million hectares of scorched forest. In the earlier part of 2017, B.C. experienced its worst-ever wildfire season, with 894,491 hectares burned by 1029 recorded fires at a cost of $316 million. It’s a tad mind-numbing to project such figures to the time when the next generations have to deal with, and pay for, the ongoing consequences of climate change caused by their grandparents.

This is a dynamic that will be seen more frequently across the country in coming decades – financial benefits for some and devastating losses for others. A warmer climate and longer growing season may benefit crops such as corn, soybeans, forage and horticultural crops in eastern Canada, but the same climatic pattern could be calamitous for southern regions of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, where food production already takes place in a semi-arid climate.

Western Canada may still look a lot like the country that the kids’ pioneering forefathers called home, but the ecological boundaries will shift. By 2050 extensive areas of the boreal forest’s southern fringe will have converted to prairie. Drought-prone spruce will be lost first, followed by pines and then aspen, to be replaced by prairie grassland. There will no more glaciers in the Rocky Mountains and in the coastal ranges.

Along the Pacific coast fishery catches will decline by an estimated 4 – 10% by 2050. Wild Pacific salmon hauls are calculated to drop by an estimated 20-30%. Not all the prognostications are negative – west coast fishermen can expect more pacific sardines and clams. Over on the Atlantic side catches are expected to increase, but fishermen will have to sail further north to find them. Commercial fisheries could also open in an ice-free Arctic Ocean with catches of turbot, Arctic cod and Arctic char. It has yet to be estimated if these fisheries will be sustainable in the long-term.

Some climate change forecasters see many positives in Canada’s future. Melting ice in the Arctic will open up shipping routes in the Arctic Ocean, significantly reducing the time and cost of international trade. Changing ecological conditions could bring more fish into the Arctic Ocean and into the northern reaches of the Pacific and Atlantic. The implications are that global trade in and out of Canada could triple, while the economic value of the planet’s oceans could to trillions of dollars.

Canada currently has access to more than 20 percent of the world’s freshwater reserves – a resource that will be more valuable than gold over coming decades. Climate change will impact those reserves by eliminating glaciers and altering precipitation but, compared to the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa and the southwestern USA, we’ll still have an advantage. The challenge will be defending our fresh water from others, especially the Americans.

Countries that are already struggling economically are going to be severely pummeled in the next decades. Drought may set off more civil wars in Africa. Entire cities and regions of the Middle East might become too physically hot to survive in. National income declines of 80 to 90% compared to growth scenarios without climate change could become common across the developing world.

Canada – the true North strong and free – has always been an open country in all senses of the word. It has been especially welcoming to immigrants, as the kids’ own family trees attest. It will become even more attractive to outsiders a few decades from now. A lot of these immigrants will come from south of the border as Americans are driven from their homes by flooded coasts, storm-ravaged cities and deluged or drought-stricken prairies. Some U.S. immigrants may seek alternatives to an increasingly violent and erratic governmental system in their own country.

Other waves of immigrants will show up in Canadian cities from Asia, Africa and the middle East as the internecine strife and wars so prevalent now in those areas becomes worse with burgeoning populations and diminishing water and agricultural land resources. Huge waves of future immigrants and refugees will certainly strain the tolerance for which Canada is so famous. As regions and countries across the planet collapse, millions of refugees and other migrants will head north. Future governments will inevitably attempt to admit only the most skilled or in-need migrants; the country’s population could swell to 100 million people as a result. The most likely situation is that many migrants will be turned away, and Canada’s land borders could become militarized with drones and gunboats patrolling our shores.

I frankly doubt my grandkids will wind up as fishermen, foresters or firefighters, so will heavy rains, severe droughts, burgeoning bark beetles and burning forests make any difference to them? Without any doubt – a resounding yes. Everything is connected, especially when the ecosystem components and resources undergoing the changes are the lifeblood and economic underpinnings of their society. There are very few items in the list of resources they will need or seek out in their future that will not, in some way, be impacted by climate and population changes. Just as now, and even if they’re living in some super condo in some or other supercity, their essential food supplies derived from land-based agricultural crops and farmed livestock, or from marine-based fisheries and seafood sources, or from freshwater-sourced crops and fisheries, will always be totally dependent on favourable climates and on adequate supplies of fresh water.

Am I justified in being concerned for my grandkids as they go into the future? Its hard not to be concerned, that’s what you sign up for when you become a grandfather. Need I be concerned? Surprisingly, I don’t really think so. They are being given love, support, encouragement, education and motivation in spades now. I think they will be as prepared as any for the changed world they will inherit.

There is one more factor in their favour – those 10 ancestries buried in their DNA. In the murky entwining of their genetic heritage are Dutch, English and Asian ancestors who journeyed centuries ago in rickety sailboats from the far reaches of the world to Africa to establish homes, farm the land, and dig for diamonds. Their ancestry includes grannies and granddads from central Europe and Scandinavia who hauled themselves halfway around the world to establish farms and entrench their families on pristine Canadian prairies.

So will the kids make it in the new world coming?

Hell, yes.

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7 comments

  • I appreciate the optimism (which from you is a surprise!), but unless we really get a handle on our environmental problems, especially climate change, I don’t see the future quite so brightly. If Canada were less connected to the rest of the world I might agree. But, like it our not, we are wrapped up with what is happening elsewhere. Globalization means we’re all in this together. The idea we can, for example, “defend” our water is naive. If California runs out–despite commendable efforts they’re making to conserve what they’ve got–they will get ours. Probably not by war, but by trade agreements, treaties, fraternal bonds, etc. & etc. If the Mideast blows up (even more), we will be affected by refugees, oil shortages, peacekeeping obligations, fraternal bonds, and so forth. I detect a certain “Fortress Canada” aspect to your analysis. If Trump can’t establish a “Fortress America (e.g. US),” and he can’t, I hardly think we can retreat behind our huge boundaries. To emphasize: We’re all in this together.

    • My optimism is not directed primarily at Canada’s future or at the global situation as you intimate. On the contrary, I foresee a somewhat Bladerunnerish situation complete with murky skies, refugee hordes and Trumpish replicants in charge. So I have to expect that my grandkids will have to live in an environmentally and socially challenged world. I do predict however that they will deal with life in this altered Earth it as well as possible because they will have had all the basic prerequisites – love, support, encouragement, education and motivation – that their parents are able to give them. I wish I could say the same for my foster kid in Africa, but I have little influence there.

  • Lovely article and my only quibble is this. Wendell Berry suggested that we should not hope for a better world than this as THIS is the world we have learned to love and the more we know of it the deeper our appreciation. Some social science research suggests that “conservatives” are more sensitive to the past than to the future and I have some sympathy with the view that WE would like our grandchildren to experience the world that WE explored as children before climate change, pollution, urbanization and industrialization changed and debased the nature of that world. A “better” future or a “restored” past may be a semantic concession to environmental issues that would in practice look the same.

  • Stan, thank you for your expert and thorough analysis of what our grandchildren might expect particularly with regard to the effects of the climate changes which are likely to occur and which will affect so many aspects of their lives. I agree that with the benefits given to them by us, especially education and the many other social benefits of living in Canada, the next two generations appear to have a secure basis for dealing with these changes. Technological progress seems likely to provide them with an exciting and challenging future and the possibility of being financially well-off.

    And yet there is something that bothers me and I am trying to understand what it is. Maybe it is because I am writing this on Remembrance Day and being reminded of Passchendaele, Dunkirk, D-Day and Hiroshima amongst the many examples from the 1st and 2nd World Wars which have influenced the otherwise “normal” unfolding of events.

    However we of the pre-baby boomer generation (we are Elders after all) have been fortunate in riding a long post-war period of stability and increasing prosperity and have been lulled into a false sense of economic security. Future political factors seems to have been left out of your equation, these are likely to affect the world’s necessary response to many aspects of climate change. But currently the future is skewed by isolationism, self-interest, and most particularly avarice at a national and personal level (see the Panama and Paradise papers). Examples in N. America abound.

    As the climate changes you describe bite into the needs and direction of future generations, it will become increasingly necessary to share the planet’s resources. Doug Saunders in his recent book (Maximum Canada) considers it highly desirable to aim for population growth towards a 100 million for a sustainable economy in Canada. You may regard all this as too altruistic but unless there is a major re-ordering of our priorities, including dealing with the 1% who cream off their unjust incomes, I cannot share your unbounded optimism for our grandchildren.

  • I am indeed glad that children such as yours will enter the future with such hope and support. However, the sad fact is that of the 900 million people in the world who must survive on less than $2 per day half are children. Their families cannot afford the basic health care and nutrition needed to provide them a strong start in life. Nearly 160 million children in the world are born stunted.
    About 124 million children and adolescents do not attend school, and 2 out of 5 leave primary school without learning how to read, write or do basic arithmetic. Nearly 250 million children live in countries and areas affected by armed conflicts, and millions more bear the brunt of climate-related disasters and chronic crises. Their plight can only become worse in the climate-impacted world you describe.
    I urge everyone to read about the facts and the solutions in https://www.unicef.org/hac2017/.

  • Right on, Stan, as we ride on! Your knowledge, concerns and hopes are intertwined, as are ours for today’s and tomorrow’s children. And, we ride along this uncharted journey, united, doing all we can…

  • Thank you from the bottom (and top) of my heart for your insightful, trustworthy and relevant forecast of our grandchildren’s future. In spite of a justifiable sense of grief and pain for what they will have to face, I feel bolstered by your writing and justified in my sense of hope for their (and even their grandchildren’s) future.
    Will they make it? Alongside you and many others, I also answer loudly, “HELL, YES! We pray and hope, we drum and sing, we walk, we stand, we write, we speak, we will not let them down.
    Thanks again, Stan. I will return to read your article at regular intervals over time as a resiliency exercise.

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