The current horrific images of refugees risking their lives to find a safe place to live may be only a taste of worse scenes to come.

In one of his final lectures before his death in 2013, multimillionaire scientist James Martin warned of the inevitable chaos as climate change worsened, painting a picture of human suffering not unlike what we are seeing today.

However, as the Harper government sets new targets for greenhouse gas reductions, it may be time to face the fact that the future value of Canada's fossil fuels may be dwarfed by a much greater source of wealth. It might be time to change our focus from oil to building an economy that will be successful in the face of global warming.

Martin — famous for predicting the current internet-connected world in his 1979 book, The Wired Society — also said if some lucky countries, including Canada, played their cards right, they could be heading for a state of grace that he called "eco-affluence."

Chaos and affluence

The predictions of both chaos and affluence seem to be in conflict. But according to Martin, the largest single donor to the University of Oxford in its long history, they are two sides of the same coin.

No one knows for certain how the impact of climate change will unfold, says Myles Allen, a professor of geosystem science at the Oxford Martin School.

But he says Martin's forecast of increasing heat nearer the equator, the spreading of deserts and the depletion of water from underground aquifers are all consistent with severe population dislocations that would spark conflict.

Martin said the dust clouds familiar from Depression-era scenes that wiped out farms from the Canadian Prairies to Texas will destroy vast tracts of existing agriculture. And just as in the North American dust bowl, that will only exacerbate economic problems.

"We could see the birth of a global renaissance, but we could could also see a collapse into extreme chaos. We'll probably see both," Martin said in his lecture "The Transformation of Mankind." 

Growth without exhaustion

Even then, Martin observed that humans annually were using 200 per cent of what the world could sustainably produce, exhausting minerals, soil and ecosystems.

He said it is obvious that couldn't continue. But he insisted that economic growth did not require using up irreplaceable assets.

Jim Martin, Scientist, author and philanthropist

James Martin, the largest benefactor of Oxford University in its history, said the world faced the prospect of both chaos and eco-affluence. (Courtesy Oxford Martin School)

Instead, he said the world should focus on "eco-affluence," which he described as increasing human well-being without damaging the ecology.

"There are all manner of things which enormously raise the quality of life and the enjoyment of life, without damaging the environment."  

Martin's eclectic list could go on for hundreds of pages, he said, but it included everything from fine arts and fine wine to atomic-scaled manufacturing and nanotechnology. 

He foresaw new cities across the North, new climate-friendly technologies, new ways of growing food with less water. 

The areas of the world best able to benefit, he said, were advanced northern countries with small populations compared to their land area and relatively abundant fresh water supplies.

"The longer you leave it, the more painful it will be and the more expensive it will be," said Martin.

Speaking on CBC Radio's The Current yesterday, Canadian economist Jeff Rubin, author of the new book The Carbon Bubble, warned that Canada should not be counting on a return to the oil boom.

He, like many others, has warned that Canadian oil reserves will become "stranded assets," having value in name only but no longer worth the cost of extraction.

Carbon bubble

Rubin says by concentrating so closely on fossil fuels, "we have put our eggs in the wrong basket."

Instead, we should be recognizing Canada's advantages in agriculture especially as climate change extends the Canadian growing season on the Prairies. We should also be thinking of where water will come from for those crops. 

Oddly enough, the huge economic benefits that fossil fuels have provided in the past may make refocusing our attention on eco-affluence difficult in the future. 

As Rubin pointed out, many Albertans insist that oil sands extraction should continue to expand, even while falling share prices are telling oil sands companies to back off.

This week, China announced it is changing its tax rules to encourage the use of commercial non-polluting vehicles.

But many governments, especially in North America, are reluctant to interfere in the marketplace to redirect their economies, thinking it smacks of big government.

The Martin School's Allen says that may come back to bite them once the impact of climate change worsens.

"I find it quite ironic that a lot of opponents of short-term action on greenhouse gas emissions oppose them in the name of maintaining a small state," says Allen.

"If we don't get on with making a managed transition away from high emissions, climate change might actually be a reason for a dramatic extension of the state."

Follow Don Pittis on Twitter:@don_pittis.

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