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Facing the big questions


I want to draw your attention to a publication released this week by the government's chief scientific officer Sir David King on the vital if esoteric issue of what our world and infrastructure will look like in 50 years time - and how this will affect our lives and decisions.

A warning first - it's big.

As the result of a year's work involving hundreds of experts, scientists, engineers and policy makers, the Foresight Report on Intelligent Infrastructure Futures runs to several volumes.

It paints pictures of some seriously challenging - not to say frightening - options for the generations ahead.

Like the plot of a stylish film that I'm sure I've seen (doesn't Arnold Schwarznegger save the planet? ) it proposes four distinct future scenarios. And the decisions we make now regarding the way we work, and the amount we travel, consume and socialise, will decide which of these visions of Heaven or Hell we arrive at.

Are we, for example, content to continue to place our faith in market forces and clean energy technology to drive the world to greater success and consumption? Or are we destined to spiral towards a huge energy shock and world recession leading to a return to basic tribal existence?

The third alternative would see us decide to radically alter our lifestyles, scale back on consumption, and scale down reliance on technology and travel to minimise the impact of our lives on the planet. Or finally we might opt to ramp up our dependence on technology, develop clean energy and allow intelligent software to map, control, monitor and police an energy efficient society.

The options are melodramatic enough, in fact, to form the basis of the next BBC docudrama series.

But the report does tackle some very serious issues about the choices we need to make to safeguard future economic and social development.

And while it is interesting to mull over such issues from an academic point of view, there is some real life practicality behind this vast work, not least if, as Sir David points out, we are now designing and investing in infrastructure that will last for a century or more.

So which way should we go? Sir David raises two important questions.

'The first: will society embrace a world where we track, and perhaps control, the movement of all goods and people?' The second question is 'whether or not we develop an alternative source of energy for transport that has minimal impact on the climate'.

It is an important time for Sir David to report. Also out this week from the Department for the Environment & Rural Affairs is another weighty tome - Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change. In its 390 pages it predicts, among other things, some terrifying sea level rises caused by climate change.

Prime minister Tony Blair says in the foreword 'greenhouse gases need to slow, peak and reverse'. My apologies for constantly bringing up the subject of global warming but these two reports highlight questions we all really must answer.

Antony Oliver is editor of NCE

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