I read a lot of news, and a fair bit of science reporting, and spend a fair bit of time thinking about what I expect to see in the next fifty years. This is a very long post about the things I expect to see.
- Everyone reading this will probably live to see near-maximum planetary population, barring personal unfortunate accident or being in the wrong part of the world during a disaster event. UN population data puts maximum world population at around 9 Bn, largely achieved within the next thirty-five years (there's a soft tail between 2050, which is well within planning horizon, and 2075, which allows for the last quarter billion people). If you're reading this in North America or Western Europe, which is where most of my friends live, so you probably are, your regional / national population will expand most slowly, growing only ~ 20% by then, with a median age of 39 years old, and a life expectancy of 85 to 105, depending on whose data you accept, up from 37 years old and average 78 year life-spans today. We're aging, we're living longer, we're not replacing ourselves, and we're moving to the city. We're also getting wealthier, much faster in the developing world than we are in the first world. More on that to come.
- The North American electric utility industry believes that distributed photovoltaic solar generation will destroy the modern regulated power utility. Once major industrial customers start moving peak load generation to solar, a concentration cycle starts where rates rise to pay for stranded costs, users buy more distributed generation capacity,which strands more costs... In the medium term, utility power producers are toast.
- About getting wealthier.. At the present rate of industrialization, the world will run out of non-industrialized workforce by 2040 or thereabouts. Over the last decade, while the West has stumbled, and seen the most serious banking crisis in eighty years, the Southern Hemisphere and Southeast Asia have brought a billion people up to a 1960 standard of living, and half a billion to par with the first world. This is the greatest easing of human misery, in the shortest period of time, in the history of humankind. Over that period, life expectancy has risen to 67 years, and infant mortality has fallen to rates seen by the US in 1954. In case you're worried about us using up the planet, I feel compelled to note that a population of 9 Bn can be supported quite comfortably by the planet at a 1963 level of per capita resource and energy use. Which brings us to..
- The US has seen total aggregate demand for energy level remain flat since 1983. Until recently, when aggregate demand started to fall because of the Great Recession. Meanwhile, we've become one of the top five natural gas producers on the planet, and the US is on track to become the largest producer within the near future. Unfortunate side note: resource-extraction-centric economies are much less pleasant places to be than less resource-extraction-centric ones, so that's bad. Also, countries that are not trade-entwined start more wars with each other, which suggests that the coming century could be less peaceful than the last two decades have been. But reaching that 1963 level of energy use, with 2013 or better levels of production, economic activity, and physical comfort, seems like an entirely tractable problem.
- Also on the upbeat front, violent crime in the US has fallen, over the last three decades, to levels not seen since the early 1950s. An older population is apparently a less violent population, even if we splash the violence that occurs all over the global evening news. Similarly, rates of death by accident have fallen, rates of death by war have fallen, and generally people all over the world are less likely to be ravaged by war or crime than they were through any part of the 20th century (an admittedly violent time).
- Over the next four decades, give or take, the baby boom will be drawing retirement out of the world financial system. Within several decades, $900 Tn of financial assets will be chasing $90 Tn of annual economic activity. This will be strange, more so as workforce participation in North America and Europe falls to historically low levels, primarily because of the aging population, but also because everything we do continues to become more and more labor efficient. It is not at all clear how this plays out - given the massive imbalance between available capital and productive uses of capital, I expect capital to become incredibly cheap, but also incredibly risk averse, because it is chasing the only return on offer, but without any reliable ways to make it back if things don't work out.
- Modern 3D printing, which has essentially already taken over manufacturing, makes controlling the production of personal firearms essentially impossible. Barring someone figuring out some way to not only make 3D printers refuse to print firearms, or ammo, or firearm parts, but also refuse to make parts for a printer that will make those things, the gun control ship is in the process of sailing off into the distance. The future may not have more guns, but it certainly has cheaper and easier ones.
- Meanwhile, it is getting harder to suppress the manufacture of explosives. Sure you can arrest and expel teenagers for making baby Clorox bombs on campus, but I can't imagine anyone actually successfully making it harder to make explosives, although I expect them to make a bunch of ineffective, hysterical attempts to do so. Chemistry has survived longer than Law.
- This is not going to make law enforcement and civil authority more laid back. Even if society has decriminalized marijuana and accepted gay marriage, if you're charged with protecting public safety, and you know that two normal-looking kids can maim hundreds and shut down a major city, this does not make you relaxed and sanguine about disaffected, potentially violent youth whom you do not personally know. Think of it as the coming War on Some Backpacks.
- On a more upbeat note, not that that would be hard, the future will probably be much more food- and water-secure than we've been worrying might be the case. Between cheap solar, graphene water filters, and high yield crop varieties, it looks like we may, over the next twenty years, purify (and desalinate, where necessary) water a whole lot more easily than we do today. I assert that this is an unmitigated good, given that disease easily cured by access to clean water kills hundreds of millions.
- The low cost of math and data transmission in the modern era is leading to some stunningly pure experiments in economic theory, Gresham's Law, and the theory of money in general. Even if Governments move to defend their monopoly on the production of Currency, and Banks collude with them to defend their monopoly on the Rents derived from the Credit and Payment Systems, that effort feels just as doomed as Hollywood's monopoly on profiting from copyrighted works or the Big Telecom's monopoly on, well, Telecommunications.
- Back to bleak, I have hard time convincing myself that we don't see an air-travel-powered influenza pandemic or a major urban center destroyed by a pocket nuke within my lifetime. It's just too easy to do.
- Incandescent lighting is dead, it just hasn't fallen over yet. Halogen and Flourescent lighting, both Compact and not, seem like they're are not far behind. It's LEDs and electroluminescence all the way down, with occasional glowing trees, from here on out.
- I don't know which way I'm betting on compact Thorium reactors or human colonization of Space (unless, say, India and China decide that a space race is how they're going to finish industrializing the other half of their population), but they're both really expensive unsolved problems, and it's not at all clear how useful it is to have solved them. I'm also betting against flying cars, or passenger light-than-air craft, no matter how much they have figured in my own fantasies of the future, or how many clever ideas I might have for manufacturing Helium. Again, an unfortunate combination of really hard and not very useful.
- Two final thoughts from the I-can't-imagine-what-else-happens file: self-drive cars are on borrowed time. It may take a generation, but as soon as State legislatures figure out that an eighteen wheeler without a chronically sleep-deprived human behind the wheel kills fewer drink drivers than our standard issue kind, the Teamsters will be out of the business of touching the wheel. Secondly, we will live in a world of autonomous flying robots, from taco copters to dragonflies to surveillance sharks. They're just too useful, and too cheap, not to happen.
In conclusion, I expect the 21st century will look a lot more like the 19th century than the 20th, albeit with less human misery and longer lifespans. The biggest black box is how does the world change when we hit peak humans - our entire modern history has been shaped by always having more humans, wanting more stuff, and having more children being a path to greater prosperity. And all bets are off if we back ourselves into actual widespread environmental collapse. I'm unwilling to take bets on how little sea level rise we end up seeing, but I still think we dodge the runaway greenhouse gas models.
Welcome to the future. It's going to be a great adventure.
Citations to follow in next post