The story so far: Novel layers of uncertainty facing the world right now are interacting to create a “new uncertainty complex” never seen before in human history, says the Human Development Report 2021-2022 recently released by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). It explains that while humans have “long worried about plagues and pestilence, violence and war, floods and droughts”, three new sources of uncertainty have now stacked up, leaving us to navigate uncharted waters.
Are we worrying more at a global scale?
The UNDP’s Human Security Report showed that six in seven people worldwide were plagued by feelings of insecurity even before the COVID-19 pandemic captured our psyches. This was the case in even in the richest countries.
Last year, researchers at Princeton University revealed that there was a sharp increase in expressions of anxiety and worry all over the world, after analysing the text of 14 million books published over the last 125 years in three languages- English, Spanish, and German. These distortions were higher even than those reported during the Great Depression and both the World Wars.
Another quarterly study , the World Uncertainty Index, covering 143 countries and published by International Monetary Fund and Stanford researchers, found that concerns about uncertainty had steadily increased since 2012, but reached a historical peak with the onset of the pandemic.
Uncertainty and insecurity are not new or necessarily greater than in the past, and there are record achievements in standards of living and technological progress. The report seeks to answer why, despite this, worries about the future are high, often rising, and different right now.
What is the ‘new uncertainty complex’ and what are the novel factors driving it?
The global storm of conditions over the last couple of years has exacerbated feelings of uncertainty — the pandemic followed by the war in Ukraine disrupted global supply chains and commodity prices. They also upped food and energy insecurity, which were made worse still by record-breaking heatwaves, fires, droughts, and storms. Each of these revealed cracks in the global systems and governance on which people rely for stability.
During the pandemic, for instance, new waves following one after the other caught countries off guard. This, and the “ongoing mutability and the seesawing of lockdowns” have meant that COVID-19 generated questions for people everywhere, without any easy answers. Foremost among these, the report pointed out, was: when is this “over”?
Multiple sources of uncertainty arising from acute crises are not brewing in isolation but are interacting in ways that generate a new uncertainty complex. “In this new uncertainty complex shocks can amplify and interact rather than dissipate; they can be propagated in systems rather than stabilized by them,” the report says. The pandemic and the war are merely two manifestations of this uncertainty complex.
According to the report, “there is a nagging sense that whatever control we have over our lives is slipping away, that the norms and institutions we used to rely on for stability and prosperity are not up to the task of today’s uncertainty complex.”
The report identifies three novel sources of uncertainty or volatile crosscurrents at the global level that are stacked up to create the new complex, which is unsettling lives and slowing the pace of human development.
Factor one: the Anthropocene and its inequalities
This report, like the one last year, talks about the concept of the Anthropocene, a word increasingly being used in the scientific lexicon to describe a new geological epoch or age: the age of humans. It is the age where “for the first time in our history the most serious and immediate, even existential, risks are human-made and unfolding at planetary scale”.
Extreme weather events like droughts, wildfires, heatwaves and so on have increased in frequency and intensity since the 1950s, with almost uncontested agreement among scientists that they are driven by climate change. High urbanization and agricultural production have disrupted forests, wetlands and grasslands to such an extent that the amount of humanmade materials, such as concrete and asphalt, “now outweigh the Earth’s biomass”. The integrity of ecosystems is threatened by over one million species facing extinction. Nuclear weapons and the threat of proliferation and zoonotic viruses transmitting to humans are both products of the Anthropocene.
It is argued that while human societies and ecology have influenced each other for a very long time, the Anthropocene is different in that the speed and scale of interaction between the two is so large, that “humans are now shaping planetary trajectories”. Moreover, the outcomes of interactions — from climate change to cutting-edge technologies— could be many and often unknowable, which is a great source of uncertainty.
The report points out the four ways in which the uncertainties of the Anthropocene are expected to undermine people’s mental wellbeing: traumatizing events, physical illness, general climate anxiety and food insecurity.
Inequality: Its fast pace and unpredictability aside, the Anthropocene has another defining feature— growing inequality and power imbalances. It is estimated that those who have contributed less to planetary pressures like climate change are expected to bear its brunt the most. The report mentions, for instance, how mortality and labour reductions owing to extreme heat will impact low and middle-income countries more.
Besides, climate change, it says, is an “inequality multiplier”. While income inequality is at record high levels, there are stark inequalities between who contributes more and who will be impacted more by carbon emissions. The top 10% of global income holders are responsible for almost half the annual global emissions while the bottom 50% account only for 12% of emissions.
While lower income groups or countries face greater exposure to temperature fluctuations resulting from emission-induced warming, and might be comparatively less equipped to adapt, those “responsible for planetary pressures are not equally affected by them and believe they have the resources to shield themselves from the adverse effects”.
To compound this, the incentives for higher income groups to curb planetary pressures are distorted and their aspirations or choices are often driven by social norms and peer lifestyles. Their aspirations also often influence those of lower income groups.If more lower income groups have increasing positional aspirations like large housing, large cars and other large goods, increasingly out of reach due to
by growing inequality, it can lead to “alienation and frustration”.
This would mean that aspirations, instead of driving collective action towards the climate change, could negatively alterpeople’s perception of the future, in turn leading to less concern “about how individual behaviour affects future outcome”. Ultimately, “alienation and frustration can contribute to polarization, making collective action towards easing planetary pressures more difficult” the report contends.
Existential threats: Another feature of the Anthropocene are existential threats, which also fuel uncertainty. The report points out that for the first time, human-induced existential threats “loom larger than those from natural hazards”.
Unlike previous existential threats that were independent of human actions, like asteroid impacts or volcanic eruptions, existential threats of the Anthropocene and their outcomes are far-ranging and dependent on humans— from nuclear war to artificial intelligence and genetic engineering.
The report describes signs of slow-onset climate change as tipping points; if they interact it could result in a cascading domino effect and irreversible damage to ecosystems. The report cites this for instance: climate change is provoking Arctic sea-ice loss, which in turn contributes to a slowdown of the Atlantic circulation, causing possible disruption ofthe West African monsoon. This could possibly trigger drought in the Sahel regions, drying up of the Amazon and warming of the Southern Ocean, further accelerating the melting of Antarctic ice.
The report argues that the existential threats of the Anthropocene provide scope for realising the power that humans have over our entire planet, implying “the responsibility to act”.
Factor two: Social transformation to ease planetary pressures
As the Anthropocene poses unbridled planetary pressures, it also calls for their easing , which would mean fundamentally transforming how societies live, work and interact with nature. But such transformation— like policies to alter carbon taxes, transitioning societies and industries to renewables and adopting new technologies — brings in another novel source of uncertainty- what the report calls transitional uncertainty. This is because even the path to transition is uncharted and can have multiple, unprecedented, and unequal outcomes.
Transitional uncertainty: Some uncertainty pertains to who will win and who will lose in the process of transformation, which, which the report says, will likely differ across regions and groups. It states for instance: “The green economy could add more than 24 million jobs worldwide by 2030. But these jobs will not necessarily be in the same regions that stand to lose jobs as fossil fuel industries shut down, nor will they require the same set of skills as in a fossil fuel–based economy.”
Energy transitions from fossil fuels to renewables are driven by new technologies and lower costs, but not all solutions will be magic bullets, leading to further uncertainty. For example, biofuels, originally thought to be an excellent alternative for fossil fuels, later revealed challenges related to land use, a large carbon footprint, deforestation and poverty. Notably, this year’s cooking palm oil shortage in Indonesia was also in part attributed to the increased use of grains to make biofuel.
While multiple economies are dogged about transition to wind, solar, and hydropower, energy storage, which is critical to maintaining supply during seasonal and daily differences, remains an issue. Extreme climate events can also affect renewables, like how the recent heatwave and drying up rivers in China affected the Sichuan province, which is largely dependent on hydropower.
The shift to low-carbon economies will depend on extraction of rare earth minerals needed for electric vehicles and solar panels. Reports have revealed that their mining, in some cases, has led to more emissions and usage of protected green patches.
Uncertainty related to technology transformation: Rapid technological shifts are changing how humans interact with technology and with each other, creating new uncertainties. Artificial intelligence is reducing human effort in sophisticated tasks, while also in some cases learning and amplifying stereotypes. “Social media, originally meant to connect us, are contributing to divisiveness.”
Automation in industry is happening rapidly; the World Economic Forum estimates that 97 million new jobs will be created by 2025 but 85 million jobs will also be lost across 15 industries in 26 economies.
Human interaction with algorithms has also been detrimental in many ways. An example is that of Facebook’s algorithms, which, according to investigations, wereamplifying posts propagating hate speech, misinformation, extremism, and inflammatory statements in India and elsewhere.
Factor three: Polarization
Polarization coupled with democratic backsliding is on the rise across the world, the report states. Misinformation online has moved faster and farther than scrutinised information, leaving different groups of people with entirely different and selected facts, and another layer of uncertainty- not knowing what to believe.
Uncertainty can also fuel political polarization, especially among those who do not like to live with uncertainty. The report cites research indicating that in the uncertain aftermath of a shock, such as a financial crisis, support for political extremes increases. Political polarization reduces generalized trust and divides society into “us” and “them.”
“The conjunction of uncertainty and polarization may be paralyzing—delaying action to curb human pressures,” the report contends, adding that in today’s uncertain times, cooperation and dialogue are often put on the back burner, as armed conflicts and military spending peak.
As a result of interacting and increasing uncertainties, the report asserts: “The real paradox of our time may be our inability to act, despite mounting evidence of the distress that human planetary pressures are causing ecological and social systems.”