While many disastrous scenarios are discussed, future events, both good and bad, tend to be less extreme than predicted. While energy and food shortages, climate change, and ecological disasters are predicted on good evidence, humans always focus on what is measured, reported, and made “top of mind”. The very fact that people will focus on and deal with those issues mitigates their severity. While sustainability and the population explosion haven’t been made big topics in the news, more and more people are becoming aware of their importance, and of the need for conservation as well as energy source innovation. How might the next fifty years play out, given our huge, looming problems?
Consciousness around our big issues is increasing. While their ability to deal with exploding populations and other issues may be limited, and increasing more slowly than their understanding, it is encouraging that increasing numbers of people in the developing countries recognize their problems and, more importantly, their long term implications. There’s an old saying in business that “People will optimize what is measured,” and as the global media reports more and more about ecological and other problems that are sure to become more serious in the next few decades, people search for more solutions. As a result, the big future problems are usually not AS bad when they are fully upon us, and the big future inventions are usually not as good as promised. The result is that humanity tends to muddle through even when cataclysm was forecast.
Future energy shortages may be mitigated by new inventions. While it may be a lot less than we’d like, funding is still being committed to finding new sources of energy, and more of that (though still a relatively small amount) goes to non-fossil-based energy sources all the time. While it is easy to predict gasoline at $10 per gallon in a decade or so, and natural gas so expensive a hot shower costs $5, such prices would put these things almost bey0nd the financial capability of the majority of people. Rather than see such extreme economic hardship drag down the global economy, the developed nations will likely throw a lot more money into research and development of alternatives, and even the big fossil fuel conglomerates are quietly funding their own research in these areas. In a few decades one or more of our current research directions (electricity from fusion, methane hydrates from the sea bottom, improved solar and wind power, greatly increased efficiencies, new types of insulation, etc.) will probably come through to prevent a large increase in energy costs, and while there will be some big price excursions those will only serve to focus effort and investment on practical solutions.
The population explosion, while one of the most difficult problems and a root cause of most others, will be slowed. Progress at raising standards of living and reducing birth rates will be uneven, and political situations in some countries will exacerbate local and regional crises from natural and man-made disasters. Those crises will only serve to focus more world attention on the countries with the worst problems and, perhaps slowly, they will be brought into new ways of thinking. In some cases previously hard-line religious fundamentalist states are starting to recognize that they must change or suffer greatly, and change is starting to occur. Those political entities that do not face the future squarely and come up with practical solutions to their problems will suffer ever worsening catastrophes until they must change or become inviolable, at which time new political regimes would emerge or take over and create needed change. Those events will cause problems for the global community, but will also bring responses that will help mitigate the damage and promote needed changes.
Climate change will occur, whether for human or natural reasons. We have been fortunate as a species to have such a stable and calm period in which to evolve as we have. Historically, however, change always occurs, and we will adapt as we have in the past. Our ever-improving ability to forecast change in advance and plan for it will be tested and will improve. Whether drought takes hold in what are now major agricultural areas or falling sea levels put oil terminals out of reach for freighters, those who adjust early to the changing conditions will do better than those who delay. We need a lot more focus on long range contingency planning, something which is more difficult in the capitalist societies where corporations keep the focus (including that of government) on short term results. It will come, however, sooner or later, trickling in as the problems “come home to roost” and affect the general electorate. As a species we will cope with the changes, mostly survive the disasters, and find a way to muddle through.
Perhaps fifty years hence, we will have a more diverse energy infrastructure and, still, many problems. The big city of 2050 may be more densely populated than today, if only to save energy and cost, and outlying suburbs may be severely declining as less and less people can afford to commute to work. The roads may carry a mix of electric and hybrid vehicles and people may have found ways to live on a lot less energy than they use today. Local food may take a much larger place on our dining tables, and restaurants, especially fast food outlets, may have greatly changed and more healthy menus. The middle class in North America may be less likely than today to have a summer cottage or a boat, and family sizes and birth rates in developed countries may fall even further which, combined with more stringent efforts in the countries now suffering major population explosions, may prolong the time to a global population peak. New energy sources will combine and compete with traditional sources to lessen the energy shortages. Big catastrophes will occur, but with less impact than is currently predicted. Big innovations will come into general use, but implementation and acceptance will be slower than expected (but still effective). Thus, humanity is most likely to muddle forward in spite of all. Hopefully we will get a lot smarter in the process.
As always, I welcome your comments. — Tim Prosser