Thoughts on the Future pt. 2

I frequently encounter thoughts from people about the future that follow a classical dystopian futuristic narrative.  This narrative has a very simple logical structure: if x, y, and z technologies (e.g., genetic engineering) allow us to something (e.g., live much longer), and all of our current problems remain the same (e.g., climate change, increasing population size), then catastrophe will ensue.  Here is an example of a specific comment from Hubski:

“If we do happen to somehow achieve immortality before the end of the century, the glory of it all won’t last long. The coming ecological catastrophe that is global climate change will make sure most people won’t be sticking around more than they should be. The level of change and cooperation needed to avoid it is impossible if somehow we decide that we deserve to be on earth longer than was ever designed.”

This same form of reasoning was used by early 20th century demographers to suggest that there would be a globally catastrophic famine before the year 2000 because they predicted that the Earth would have more than 6 billion humans.  They reasoned there would be massive population growth (and were right), but did not factor in how our technologies would also increase food production.  As a result, there was no globally catastrophic famine.

So, let me just address some of my own thoughts on the specific issues and problems mentioned above.  In 2013, climate change is a major issue, and we need to address it.  The important thing to remember is that we will.  Renewable energy technologies are not going away, they are only going to get better, and they will eventually become our main source of energy (despite how much the fossil fuel industry fights it).  Also, there are other technologies that will be developed this century (e.g., nuclear fusion) that will make energy super abundant and cheap for the entire planet, with no negative side effects.  This is not far fetched.  This follows current trends in energy production.  Also, there are already nanotechnologies being developed that will be able to modify the chemical composition of the atmosphere.  It is extremely likely that by the 2030s we will be able to use either genetically engineered bacteria or nanotechnology (or both) to balance out our atmospheric composition to desired levels.

The second issue commonly brought up regarding the future is overpopulation.  However, overpopulation will not be a major issue in the future.  The demographic transition, which is a process that has been happening for centuries and will be completed this century, will lower our overall population before 2100.  Most estimates project that our population will reach a maximum of 10 billion individuals before starting to decline.  If current trends continue, the logical conclusion of the demographic transition is that individuals live indefinitely but will have no offspring.  Furthermore, even if the demographic transition ends and population starts to rise for other factors that are currently unpredictable, it will likely not be a big issue.  This is because we will likely have a higher level of access to resources and energy in the future.  Most futurists predict that we will become a Type 1 civilization before the end of this century, meaning that we will have complete control of all resources on our planet.  Once we have reached that level, we could essentially host far more people on our planet than we do now (even though we may not need to).  Of course, we may have more intelligent beings on the planet in the future, because most (or all) beings will likely be non-biological.  However, it is impossible to discuss post-singularity populations.

Let me be clear, there will be problems in the future.  There may be bigger problems in the future than the problems we are facing now.  However, the problems we are facing in 2013 won’t be problems in 2100, because we are a very adaptable species.  When we recognize a problem we dedicate a tremendous amount of resources to solving the problem.  We don’t solve problems perfectly, and we never will, but adaptation is strong and the problem will, given enough time and resources, be overcome.

Finally, I think classical dystopian futuristic narratives are far too common.  These narratives are even infused in some academic subjects and are definitely prevalent throughout the popular media and public.  Creating these narratives may serve important functions, since they alert people to problems and generate the motivation at various levels to make sure the problem is solved.  However, throughout the 21st century, we all need to start to rethink our current understanding of the future.  We need to better understand how our species evolves, and how we adapt to problems.

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About Cadell Last
Hello. I'm probably drinking coffee and reading.

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