“Politics is not just the battle for today, it is also the war for tomorrow.”
Welcome to Futurist Friday, where tomorrow intersects with politics, policy and prediction. The point of this exercise is to describe the likely future based on current analysis of trends, curves and activity occurring today. The hope is to encourage discussion and debate on what needs to be changed, what actions can be taken and; why should Alan Boyle have all the fun?
The format of this article usually covers five year increments to the year 2100. This week, 2050 will be covered. This column will focus on the upcoming brink for humanity. A word of caution, some of this will seem rather dystopic, however as history has shown, it is always within peoples’ nature to change. I must give credit to FutureTimeline.net as an invaluable source for the speculations presented.
Welcome to the Future 2050-Responsibility, Consequences and Actions
“They who fight with monsters should look to it that they themselves do not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”- Friedrich Nietzsche
For approximately 6 million years, hominids and their eventual human descendants existed within the vagaries of the planetary environment. About 150,000 years ago, the population of humans was about 13,500. This number fell to between 1,200 to 4,000 about 30,000 years ago. As the population recovered, people put their faith in various belief systems and societal structures, hoping these would serve as protection against the caprice of the planet’s constant change. Yet from the Black Death’s removal of 25 million people (estimated ¼ of Europe’s population) in the 14th century to the 20 to 100 million exterminated killed by the “Spanish Influenza” from 1916 to 1918, and the monstrous earthquakes, typhoons and fires (not to mention wars), humanity was but a fleck of foam on the tidal waves of happenstance.
During these times, and perhaps because of them, the human race sought to achieve mastery, dominance and dominion over all natural systems. Using their innate talents for tool building, innovation and insatiable curiosity, combined with relentless drive, humanity created a system a scientific, social and economic processes that seemed to bring their goal within their grasp. Now, in the midst of the 21st century, the unknown and unintended consequences begin to be revealed as planetary systems choke on humanity’s effluvia at the same time as humanity starves after centuries of hedonistic, narcissistic, self indulgent gluttony.
This leaves the world in a state of contrasts and paradoxes. Science and technology have continued to advance in response to emerging crises, challenges and opportunities. This has created radical transformations in genetics, nanotechnology, biotechnology and related endeavors. Conversely, many of the same technologies have been so disruptive that it has led to a more frightening, unpredictable and chaotic world than ever before. Humanity stands at the brink, all balanced on a knife’s edge, survival or destruction, prosperity or collapse.
Some of the most cherished economic, political and social structures have been turned on their heads. In a sense, capitalism remains the dominant economic model, but is now evolving drastically in response to ecological impacts, resource scarcity, demographic trends, technology and a host of other factors. The endless consumer culture prevalent throughout most of the developed world has largely collapsed, replaced by the overwhelming need to conserve. Though there are still many wealthy people around, money is concentrating into a shrinking upper class. By 2050, traditional free market capitalism is largely viewed as a broken system.
As more and more wealth trickles upwards to the hyper-rich elite, there is a burgeoning consensus that money itself (and the profit motive) is a major obstacle to future progress, and that more socially equitable means of personal resource acquisition and distribution may be needed for civilization to flourish. Debates are heated and wide-ranging on what reforms need to happen to adapt to the rapidly changing world. The world’s population can sense a great transition is approaching, unlike any in human history. It is clear that some new global paradigm will appear; but it is unclear what it will be.
Decades of stagnant economic performance, the global economy is fragmented, chaotic and perpetually sluggish. Nearly half of the world’s nations have “junk” credit ratings, effectively making them bankrupt. U.S. national debt is almost 400% of G.D.P., even above levels seen during World War II. China and India, though surpassing the U.S. in overall G.D.P., have also stagnated.
Due to these economic catastrophes, international politics faces enormous challenges. Although the number of democratic countries has risen significantly over the years, many have turned inward, cutting off foreign relations. Revolutions, wars and failed states have produced a strikingly different geopolitical map than seen at the beginning of the century. To repair and maintain the fabric of society, an increasing number of regions have abandoned their national currencies in favor of interest free, non-fiat, non-inflationary local ones. Decentralized cash systems such as Bitcoin and other electronic alternatives have dramatically increased in use.
Social systems are under extraordinary stress today. Younger generations are increasingly resentful towards the elderly-seeing them as the cause of many problems, and a drain on capital as the ratio of workers to seniors continues to fall. The rich and poor have continued to grow apart, now that upward social mobility has become next to impossible. Massive protest demonstrations outside of corporate headquarters and gated communities are commonplace and widely broadcast throughout the media. Global warming has created almost 150 million climate refugees; six times more than 2010. The refugee influx to foreign nations has put a further strain on economies. The U.S. faces increasing threats of “Balkanization” as climate refugees from the southern part of the country put incredible strain on the resources of the areas to which they move. Combined with the reduced food production, separatist sentiment runs high. Alaska becomes one of the centers of this sentiment, until the federal government takes steps to pacify the population through a mix of federal spending programs and isolation of separatists using the legal system. Resentment towards migrants has produced an upsurge in nationalism with many isolationist parties sweeping government elections. To maintain order and stability, martial law and military occupation is a feature of many cities around the globe. Radical new political parties and movements have emerged, advocating the overthrow of the reigning system.
Recycling and waste reduction, neglected by many countries for decades, are now among the issues moving to the forefront of social planning. New regulations and market pressures have forced corporations to move away from the model of planned obsolescence and mass production, to a model of responsible conservation. Most firms no longer sell entirely new models of their products when technological advances are made. Instead, replacement parts and upgrades form the bulk of profits, with items made of universally interchangeable parts. In a world of increasing resource conflicts, “doing more with less” has become an essential way of life. A system is also employed where customers return products at the end of their life cycle, to be used as materials for the next generation. In some of the worst hit countries, mandatory resource dumps are organized, in which citizens are obligated to recycle unnecessary possessions. These systems are seen as intrusive and it makes them highly controversial.
Adding to this rapidly shifting milieu of circumstances, the widespread use of robots, automation, 3D printing and other technology has rendered obsolete many traditional human roles. Though industries have made vast improvements in speed and efficiency, it has come at the expense of a declining labor force. Due to this, overall government revenues have seen a net reduction.
Radical Islam and it’s resentment of the West continue to produce new Jihadists. In addition, underground groups ranging from those angry at the first world’s neglect, to anarcho-primitivists, have sprung up. By 2050, at least one nuclear terrorist attack on a major world city has been conducted by one of these groups. Large amounts of nuclear material had been missing from Russia since the 1990’s and some inevitably fell into the wrong hands. Being orders of magnitude greater than 9/11, the effects of this attack leave a deep psychological scar on many people alive today, fueling paranoia and suspicion between nations.
In spite of this turmoil, progress has been achieved in cooperating on certain key issues, such as global warming. Carbon emissions have fallen substantially compared with 1990 levels, in large part due to a global carbon tax and the widespread deployment of solar, wind and wave power, together with fourth generation nuclear power. Fossil fuels were declining in availability at this point in any event. Fusion power is becoming available in developed countries. Orbital solar is emerging as a growth industry. Energy efficiency and conservation have produced further reductions in CO2 levels.
Unfortunately, carbon emissions from earlier decades are locked into the climate system. This delayed reaction will continue to affect weather patterns and climate stability, as will the on-going destruction of the Earth’s rainforests, some of which are transitioning from carbon sinks to carbon sources. Sea levels have risen over a foot by now and are beginning to affect much of the world’s coastal real estate. Large-scale carbon capture and sequestration appears to be humanity’s last and only hope of reversing these trends.
With all the turmoil and tumult of the time, human nature remains constant. More people are responding to the pressing crises, yet a significant minority remain in denial. If the majority can affect change greater than their aggregate influence, the situation can be made to have a positive outcome. Failing this effort, there’s plenty of room in the fossil record for another bipedal, tool using primate.
Rational behavior…depends on a ceaseless flow of data from the environment. It depends upon the power of the individual to predict, with at least a fair success, the outcome of his own actions. To do this, he must be able to predict how the environment will respond to his acts. Sanity, itself, thus hinges on man’s ability to predict his immediate, personal future on the basis of information fed him by the environment.-Alvin Toffler