Day to day news in the US and much of Europe is depressing. Amid this seemingly interminable mess, it can be helpful to take a long view. Our world is being transformed at a stunning pace. Despite the challenges, much of this change is making human beings healthier, freer and more prosperous. Here’s a quick summary of the forces likely to change our lives in coming decades.
Recent decades have seen declining fertility rates globally. Prosperous nations have led the declines, which have advanced so far in places like Japan and Germany that populations are now in absolute decline, even when immigration is taken into account. China’s population will peak in a about a decade, with a contraction steeper than Japan’s already built in. Working age population is already shrinking in China. Fertility rates are still growing in only a few deeply impoverished corners. Even in India, population growth is slowing.
Rise of Cheap, Renewable Energy
Energy prices are in accelerating, long term decline. Complicating that decline is the emergence of cheap renewable energy on a scale suitable for personal energy production. Developed countries with an abundance of expensive energy infrastructure may find that strength converted to a burden as older, centralized hydrocarbon-based systems become financially impractical.
Dislocation Caused by Hyper-Advancing Technology
Just thirty years ago, an early Apple Macintosh computer carried a laughably small 128KB of RAM. Today you’d have to shop carefully to find a toaster with less processing power. A next generation of “quantum” computing platforms are on the edge of delivering a new wave of acceleration. Self-replicating software run on these massive processing platforms promises a mind-boggling pace of creative destruction.
Dominance of the Global Talent Economy
A century ago, a country’s access to reliable supplies of natural resources was considered key to a competitive edge. Now, the ability of a culture to harness the talents of the widest possible range of its people defines power, influence and prosperity. Cultures mired in practices that drag participation by women or ostracized groups will underperform cultures open to ambition regardless of background. An ability to deliver high quality mass education will be to emerging societies what oil and coal wealth were to industrial economies.
Not so long ago, climate change predictions used dates like 2100 to describe their first serious impacts. Warming was characterized as an issue for our grandchildren. That is no longer the case. Our predictions about time-frames appear to have been far too conservative. Carbon pollution is impacting weather now and the future outcomes are beginning to look very disturbing. However, carbon concentrations may be peaking. Our technological revolution is introducing carbon alternatives and limiting energy demand.
Disappearance of the “Wild” World
There is no more wilderness on our planet. No ecology exists independent of civilized human impacts. Earth is a human park. Some portions of that park are being managed well. Much of it is being managed poorly. None of it will survive in anything like its previous forms without our affirmative intervention and administration. The age of wilderness is over.
Weakening of the Nation-State System
A sizable minority of humans will cease to define their identity in national terms over coming decades. That trend will not be limited to our classic definition of the “wealthy,” but will likely extend very broadly among people who work for corporations. Nation-states are losing their former relevance as containers of a common culture and boundaries of economic interests. As this trend advances, their waning political relevance is inevitable. This is likely to create unrest within nation-states, as older or rural populations who have less day-to-day interaction with an emerging economic system see their defining identity lose its weight, and their political and economic power slipping away.
Pressure on China to Liberalize
One of the great questions of the next twenty to thirty years is the capacity of China to grow economically without granting its population more political influence. China has evolved from a Communist dictatorship to a strange, capitalist technocracy. Everything we think we know about politics says this can’t last. Absent popular representation, generational turnover should harden the ruling class, shutting off its already limited meritocratic ethic. The last generation’s successful risers should be expected to hand privilege to their family and clan, closing off the ladder they climbed. Technocracy should calcify into a straightforward autocracy, burdening growth and stirring unrest. Will it happen and how fast are the questions haunting the world’s fastest growing economy.
Global Competition for Immigrants
Almost all economic logic is built on the assumption of endless population growth. Population decline may not undermine prosperity as much as some fear, but it will demand political innovation. Countries successful in attracting immigrants will buy time to cope with this emerging dynamic. Countries may also find that the pursuit of “skilled” migrants is less valuable than once believed. Migrants already tapped into a global economy are less likely to settle anywhere. Their identities are likely to remain more global than local. An ability to attract and incorporate settlers without advanced degrees or already-defined skills will probably be a stronger determinant of long-term success.
Concentration of Capital and Power in Cities
We’ve had civilizations for almost 10,000 years, plenty of time to adapt to their impact. Across that period, only a small percentage of people lived in cities. In the previous decade, we passed a major milestone. For the first time, most human beings now live in cities. By 2050 we expect nearly ¾ of human beings to live in cities. We have not had time to develop technical and social adaptations to accommodate this evolutionary demand. Rural countrysides all over the world, including the US, are falling into dysfunction as population growth declines and promising young people drain away from farms and smaller towns. Thanks to automation, genetic engineering, and population trends, we have probably already reached “peak farmland,” the point at which our demand for new arable acreage declines. The value of the most productive farmland may continue to rise, but returns on investment on more marginal land are likely to collapse. Across much of the world now, rural areas are becoming ungovernable. This trend is likely to accelerate as the financial and political power of cities rises, with uncertain implications.
Emergence of a Global Mass Culture
We have already seen the rise of global elite culture, not unlike what we experienced in the decades leading up to the First World War. What we see beginning now is the first global mass culture. Cultural globalization remains a relatively elite phenomenon, but it is no longer confined to the wealthy. What was decried thirty years ago as cultural “Americanization” is now truly globalization. Japanese and Korean video game culture, South Asian music and food, and Latin American entertainment are saturating pop culture almost everywhere on the planet. A truly globalized popular identity is beginning to emerge, even among people who lack the means for international travel.
Custom Genetic Engineering
Our most radical advance in gene editing emerged from a company that makes food additives. CRISPR is a gene editing technique adapted from the immune systems of microbes, which can be used to make intentional, permanent genetic changes in an organism. Researchers at Danisco used it protect their yogurt cultures, making them more resistant to viral attacks. Genes derived from CRISPR are in almost universal use in dairy products. US laws make research into human applications of gene editing very difficult. Other countries like China and South Korea have embraced this research enthusiastically. Given for the first time the capacity to influence our own biological evolution, implications are so large as to be almost entirely beyond prediction.
Over a longer timeframe, even the most frightening political developments tend to flatten out. A single human lifetime ago, Germany was in ruins. Wracked by two disastrous wars and poisoned by Nazism, its people were defeated and starving. Decades of carnage meant that the population of Germany in 1945 was about the same as it had been in 1910.
Today the German Chancellor is often described as the Leader of the Free World. Germany is prosperous, healthy and politically progressive. In the long run, things generally work out fairly well for humanity as a whole. However, as John Maynard Keynes once pointed out, “in the long run, we are all dead.” The long view giveth, and the long view taketh away, but those who line up their plans with larger trends tend to see the best outcomes.
Cultures and individuals who leverage these big trends are likely to prosper while those who swim against this tide are swept into irrelevance. It pays to look past the headlines and plan for the future.