Thursday, January 1, 2015

Nine predictions for the year 2015

Street mural, Denver, Colorado
My over-arching prediction for 2014 turned out to be accurate.  We mostly muddled along with the status quo and we neither made progress on solving our problems nor did we bring our civilization finally crashing down upon our collective heads.

Of the more specific predictions that I made - I could only give myself credit for 2 of 9.  Not a very good showing - except perhaps by the standards of those who predict specifics about the future.

Nonetheless, it is entertaining to make a few more predictions just to see.  In that spirit here are my 9 predictions for 2015:
  • It will be one of the three hottest years ever recorded globally.
  • Obama attempts to put ending mass incarceration onto the public agenda.  In particular, the incarceration of non-violent drug offenders.  The possibility of blanket pardons cause the Republicans to go ballistic and half of the Democratic party runs for cover.
  • Ebola flares up in Asia.  These several thousand deaths rattle the global economy much more than the African outbreak did.
  • Americans are shocked when police officers in a major metropolitan area are found to have intentionally singled out and assassinated several critics of police brutality.
  • Globally, disgust with their political elites continues to bolster support for radical, anti-establishment parties, and in more than one European country they win power, if not for long.
  • Occupy re-emerges as a political force among the younger generation - organized around its "debt jubilee" and other efforts to disentangle young people from participation in an economic and political system that is rigged against them.  The Establishment derides them as naive and disengaged.
  • (Carried over from last year) One of the world's great monoculture crops will mostly fail this year.  Although this will be blamed on a new pest or blight, the failure will actually be due to a combination of narrow genetics, unstable climate and the decline in agricultural research.
  • Kitchen gardens, backyard chickens and other small animal husbandry continue to increase dramatically in popularity and practice in the US.  Grassroots pressure to change zoning and regulatory restrictions continue to find success.
  • Oil stays below $70 per barrel.  Low gas and oil prices drive several mid-sized energy companies in the US to loan defaults and bankruptcy.  The government organizes a multi-billion dollar bailout of loan guarantees and subsidies to keep drilling operations going, and to keep dreams of Saudi America alive.
So, I'll revisit these at the end of the year and see if I can top my 2 for 9 mark!

Streetscape, Denver, Colorado

Looking back at my predictions for 2014.

Driving into Denver
I don't always have my fingers on the pulse of popular culture, but I get the sense that for most people 2014 didn't feel like a rosy year.  In fact, it seems like it was a year that people are anxious to put behind them.

Interestingly, I can't see any particular reason why 2014 was any worse that any of the years preceding it.  The big, dramatic media stories - the Ebola outbreak, Asian plane crashes, civil war in the Levant, police homicides, political gridlock, etc. - were nothing out of the ordinary.

If I were to project my own experience, I would guess that for more and more people it wasn't so much the bad news that was the issue - it was the dearth of good news.  As I framed my predictions from a year ago, we are facing multiple, overlapping, civilization-threatening challenges and it is becoming harder and harder to pretend that we have any kind of feasible plan to meet them.

To the extent that a person looks up from personal efforts to secure a portion of bread and circus and tries to grasp the bigger picture, the credibility of the cheerleaders of progress and happy trends seems to be failing.  Instead we have climate change, fossil fuel dependency, economic stagnation, a malaise in democratic governance, an unraveling of Pax Americanaand the general unsustainability of our way of life.

I short, I think 2014 sucked mostly because the nature of our predicaments became just that much harder to ignore.

From this perspective, my over-arching prediction that we would limp along upon a slowly crumbling status quo seems to have borne out.  But that was hardly an ambitious effort at prescience, and so I also made 9 more specific predictions.  Grading myself on a curve, and giving some partial credit, I'd have to give myself a 2 out of 9.

Here's how I grade myself:
  • In US politics, Republicans will spend another couple of months convincing people that their greedy insurance companies are actually Obamacare, before they pivot and take credit for all of the things that are popular about the program.   
0 for 1.  As far as I can tell, the Republicans never did pivot, but continued to demonize their caricature of health insurance reform - with a healthy majority of legislators still paying lip service to repeal.  So, no credit for that one.  I'd drop this one for 2015.
  • Democrats will get some credit for successfully pushing for minimum wage increases, and Republicans will mostly get out of the way eventually.  Life will improve slightly for millions of people and small businesses.
1 out of 2. I'll give myself credit for that one.  Every minimum wage referenda on the state ballots passed, even if the Democratic party wasn't as aggressive at leading and claiming credit as it might have been.  Momentum seems to be there for more.
  • Having disappeared almost entirely from the political and media discourse, climate change will be back in the news as hot weather, drought, and sea level rise continue to intensify.  Notably, it will be treated not as a problem to be solved, but rather as an inevitability that must be adapted to.  The solution that dare not speak its name (i.e. changing our way of living) will continue to be tabu.
1 for 3. Not strikingly right nor strikingly wrong.  Climate change discourse remains a muddle.  Notably, the idea that fossil fuels will have to remain in the ground has been emerging occasionally into the public discourse.  But no credit for this one.
  • Among the Chinese, there will be unrest in 2014 stemming from ecological degradation -- especially pollution in the air, soil and food.  The Chinese government will react by purging some high-profile officials and when that doesn't settle things, it will look for a pretext to stir up the distraction of a nativist backlash against the Japanese, Tibetans or Uighurs. 
1 for 4.  China more or less stays the course.  But this is a prediction I'd renew for 2015.
  • Energy production will limp along at a plateau, just enough to keep the global economy sputtering, while food prices will be kept just low enough to avoid riots and revolutions.  Predictors of doom and predictors of a new prosperity will both be disappointed.
1 for 5. Can't really give myself credit here. The US's shale and fracking boomlet continued, despite indications that energy companies have been losing money.  This enabled an increase in energy production, which, in the context of an global economic slowdown, created something like a glut.  Now oil prices have collapsed, which will stimulate many economies, even as it bankrupts energy companies that have been investing in the new frontiers of hard-to-get fossil fuels.
  • On the tech front, Google Glass and smart watches will fail to extend their reach beyond the chic geek digerati.  But late in the year there will be the first incarnations of true digital assistants - programs that can adapt to individuals and manage their social networking and digital connectivity.  The nimbler of the telecoms will get on board and start working on these new digital PA's.
1.25 for 6. Well the easy prediction that these iterations of glasses and watches were duds was kind of a no-brainer.  The digital personal assistant, however, didn't materialize.  In fact, there was nothing at all exciting on the tech front - unless you buy into the chimera of driverless cars . . . 
  • The Sochi Olympics will be a fiasco impressive even by Russian standards.  The one upside being that few people will go in person so the inadequacies and brutalities of the effort won't become as notorious as they might have.
1.75 for 7. Half credit.  The destructive grandiosity of Sochi looks paltry next to the annexation of Crimea a few months later.
  • One of the world's great monoculture crops will mostly fail this year.  Although this will be blamed on a new pest or blight, the failure will actually be due to a combination of narrow genetics, unstable climate and the decline in agricultural research.
1.75 for 8.  Cocoa is faltering under a blight, and candy makers are running out of reserves, but it's not a failure.  No credit, yet.  The prediction is one I'd renew for 2015.
  • On the global spiritual front, the push by Pope Francis for a more modest, non-consumerist and even ascetic spirituality will be echoed in popular movements within religions around the world, including evangelicals, muslims and others.  Governments will be unsettled and ambivalent about this development.
He's been busy, but no signs of a Franciscan revitalization movement, yet.

I'll throw in a quarter point for not being embarrassingly wrong on anything - just to round it up to a tidy 2 for 9.   When it comes to the details, my original prediction - that predicting is hard - turns out to be my main point of prescience.

I'll leave this post with a reminder that despite my doomerly tendencies, I remain optimistic.  Here's a picture of the boys climbing the wracked body of a great cedar tree on the Olympic Peninsula.

Porter and Nico