Trends impacting the world in our lifetimes

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.

Population Decline

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.

Climate Change

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.

46 Comments

  1. So it appears that the leader of the merc group Blackwater is being asked to run for the Senate by bannon.

    I imagine when he, moore, ward, et al are “elected” in 2018, we shall see some new political offices created, or new players in old offices.

    Office of Racial Policy: moore
    Office of Military Policy (or just secretary of defence): prince
    Ministry for Public Enlightenment: bannon

    If those offices seem a little obscure, go back to a central European country in the early 30’s.

    1. Me, too, Ryan. Squirmy…Never seemed he was being straight with his info. There sure are a lot of men having to step back, aren’t they? And, notice they are not refuting the claims….just goes to show how pervasive the problem is and what women have put up with for way too long.

  2. On the comment about George Orwell – Eric Blair –
    You will find that he states that his politics changed after his experience in the Spanish Civil War

    “a violent Communist-backed insurgency against that nation’s military-backed junta”
    or
    As most of us would put it “a force of freedom fighters trying to stop a Fascist military takeover of their government”

    The actual actions taken by the “communist backers” put Orwell off the communist cause completely!

    His later work (almost all of his work) was anti totalitarian

    1. EJ

      With respect, Duncan, I think your chronology might be a little out.

      Blair wrote in 1937, during his time in Spain as a member of the POUM (a Trotskyist militia) that “I have seen wonderful things and at last really believe in Socialism, which I never did before.”

      In 1938, after he returned to the UK,
      Blair joined the ILP, an organisation of socialists and communists who were anti-Stalin. This position got him into difficulties during the Second World War, as the British government distrusted communists while also clamping down on anti-Stalinist publishing after the alliance with the USSR.

      In the Second World War, Blair was (amongst other things) an organiser of the British “Home Guard”, an organisation of local armed militias made up of those not fit for military service. He wrote that he hoped it could become a “revolutionary people’s militia” in the form of the POUM. When it became clear that it would not be, Blair grew disinterested and later returned to publishing.

      In 1947, near the end of his life, Blair wrote an essay in favour of a federal socialist Europe, calling for (amongst other things) workers to own the means of production. He remained anti-Stalin but said that he considered Stalin to no longer be a communist, just another dictator.

      If I may ask: do you consider yourself a socialist (in either the 1930s or the 2010s meaning of the phrase)?

      1. Orwell definitely did not like totalitarian governments of either shade

        And in the UK if Labour had not won the post war election and made massive changes – if the Tories and “steady as she goes” had won then there probably would have been an revolution in Britain
        The same in the USA – FDR’s “New Deal” prevented a revolution
        Also way back Bismark’s “welfare state” did the same thing

        I would call myself a “socialist” –
        As an engineer I am very aware of just how much everything I do is only possible because of the enormous amount of work that has been done by others over the ages – everything that we collectively own and have is the result of actions taken by our predecessors
        So the “Fair” way would for us all to own equal shares of our inheritance

        But as an engineer I don’t think that the “Fair way” would work very well! – so I’m in favor of society using whatever tools work –
        For some things it’s public ownership
        For other things it’s private ownership

        But when we use capitalism we should always be aware that we are “stealing” from the public in order to achieve better results – and that if we don’t achieve better results then we should think about returning those assets to their rightful owners

        I would regard myself as a Pragmatic Socialist

        And I agree with Orwell about Stalin – only I don’t believe the Russian Revolution was EVER “communist” –
        IMHO the Russian revolution against the Duma (Parliament) was actually a reactionary revolution with the Czarist “machine” simply changing a few names and taking over the same powers it had when the Czar was in charge

        It called itself communist – and used the appropriate buzzwords – and some of the mid and low level types may have believed it – but it was a straightforwards autocracy

      2. EJ

        If you consider yourself a socialist then I have no objection to you using Blair as a spokesman. He was, throughout his life, part of your movement and an outspoken opponent of things like the wage system and the private ownership of land and businesses.

        I think we agree on that.

        However, please permit me to suggest that “socialist” and “autocratic” are not polar opposites, and that totalitarianism is something that has emerged, to a greater or lesser extent, in most real-world nation-level implementations of socialism.

        Many of my socialist friends tell me that to them, what happened in Central Europe between 1945 and 1991 wasn’t actually socialism at all, that they were merely dictatorships using Marxism merely as a comfortable veneer rather than believing in it. Is that also your position?

  3. While I agree with many of the trends you mention, I disagree on China’s liberalization.

    We always make the mistake of viewing China from our own framework. I don’t just mean American or democratic. I mean the entire Western world. China’s history is profoundly different than the Western Enlightenment that underpins our understanding of politics, nation state, etc. and that goes back to Grecian times. This is different than even Russia, which, while distinct from Western Europe, was still essentially a Westphalian nation state.

    Western understanding of political systems and nation states predicted that China would collapse several times already (Mao’s Cultural revolution, which decimated the population; the collapse of the USSR, which supposedly “proved” that communism was ultimately untenable; Deng’s economic liberalization, in which economic freedom would ultimately lead to political freedom; and Tiananmen Square, when the military refused to fire on its own citizens in direct violation of the orders of its civilian commanders).

    The latter is very telling. Western-type governments generally fall when the military decides to support (or at least not suppress) a civilian uprising over the current government. Which is why it was all over for Mikhail Gorbachev and the Communists when Boris Yeltsin stood on a Red Army tank in front of the Russian parliament. Tiananmen Square was remarkably similar: a civilian standing in front of a column of tanks, on the very grounds of the government’s seat of power. But the government didn’t fall this time. And if the theory keeps predicting a collapse that doesn’t happen, then our theory should be re-examined.

    IMHO, Nixon was wrong about China. It’s not a western nation state so his fundamental premise for engaging with it in the manner he did was wrong. China has not become our ally; it has grown more belligerent with its neighbors; its political system is more entrenched than ever; and economic liberalization and growth has led to its citizens demanding *less* political freedom than ever before.

    I don’t know what frame to use to understand China, because I’m not Chinese and I’m too steeped in the Western world to really step out of that framework. But I think China will continue to confound our predictions. That’s the only prediction I’m willing to make 🙂

    1. You are quite correct. Xi moved a step closer to consolidating power within his office. He is fighting the establishment communist base within the party, but gaining ground on them. (Sound familiar?) The Chinese political model is far far away from being liberalized.

      Consider that Russia and China are both run by a strongman with a close-knit cadre of power-brokers. It is far more likely that the U.S. will follow that template as opposed to moving back to a democracy. Orwell’s nightmare edges closer every day.

      1. EJ

        Let us remember that Eric Blair, who wrote under the name George Orwell, violated his own nation’s laws in order to travel to Spain and help a violent Communist-backed insurgency against that nation’s military-backed junta, because that insurgency promised to carry out mass property confiscation and redistribution, and to end the capitalist system. Blair, a lifelong hater of the capitalist system, was heavily in favour of shooting soldiers if it meant ending capitalism, especially if those soldiers were backed by the Catholic church and by large rural landowners.

        Blair never knew Fidel Castro, but they would probably have seen eye to eye.

        What I’m saying is, it’s weird that people use the term “Orwell’s nightmare” as if Blair was some form of liberal hero. Blair hated liberals. We should probably find a different hero. What about Popper?

      2. It is irrelevant of what Orwell’s politics were. 1984 reads like a template for what has happened in Russia, and what is happening in China and the U.S. With Flake leaving, and what McCain’s odds are with glioblastoma, that makes at least four more senate seats that will definitely convert to the bannon movement. Corker’s seat will go that way because, well Tennessee. Then we have Moore and the two Arizona seats.

        People talk about riding out the storm. The storm has not even started yet. Whoever bannon sets up as the next puppet tyrant will be far more effective than the current psychopath. And when I say effective, I mean far more effective in implementation of the master plan.

  4. Apropos: The Economist’s in-depth article about how to deal with those left behind by geographical and economic changes:

    https://www.economist.com/news/leaders/21730412-time-fresh-thinking-about-changing-economics-geography-right-way-help-declining

    Below, I mentioned Detroit’s blighted home buyback program. That solution is talked about here in The Economist as a ‘land bank initiative’. Here’s more details:

    http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/05/18/how-detroit-is-beating-its-blight-215160

    Pair this with the thread on the idea that maybe the work to repair infrastructure should be on shrinking it. It’s a little like what Obama did with the car buyback program: got inefficient and old, decrepid, and unsafe cars off the road by giving people a little more money for them than they would get selling it, and so they could afford newer, more efficient and safer cars. In the same way cities struggling to keep lights on can remove entire neighborhoods they don’t need to light, by moving people closer together.

    A de-suburbification, if you will.

  5. We have two futures to refer to.

    One is, roughly, Star Trek, minus the intelligent aliens and universe full of interesting planets to visit (sorry sci-fi fans, the chances of both unlikely to the point of absurdity. Easier to win the lottery while getting hit by a lightning bolt swimming after the shark that bit you after you survived an asteroid dropping on your head). Sometimes called the post-human or post-scarcity economy, most of the labor is automated and the resources recycled. There’s no longer need to ‘trade’ because every individual has a high enough quality of life that they can commit their attention to, essentially, adventures, art, philosophy, and exploration of the universe. With no trade means no money. Fully automated space communism.

    The other is Soylent Green. And not roughly — nearly exactly. Sweltering, overcrowded cities with no remaining infrastructure decay under the masses of impoverished, mostly homeless people. What jobs and services exist, such as police work, is barely held together by any sort of codes, rules, or compensation — internal private ‘credits’ are passed around to a staff that use discarded materials like baseball helmets (there’s no more money or time for sports) and plows (there’s no more construction) to essentially scoop masses of human beings into small enough corrals to hand out cheap, nutrient deficient and flavorless squares of clay-like synthetic food. This is mostly just to not have to deal with mass burials — the only well-operated public service is an euthanasia hospital. The rest of the ‘landscape’ that isn’t completely destroyed by pollution and global warming* is entirely owned by a group of detached oligarchs who live in sweeping penthouse apartments far above the streets, and their wife-mistress-sex-slave partners who take any level of abuse from them for the only opportunity in the world to stay fed and sleep in real beds.

    * Note: Star Trek was progressive. Soylent Green was conservative. Soylent Green’s premise was based in Malthusian global-warming-is-totally-real environmental fact recognized in the 70s, and Star Trek just believed we’d overcome it. Neither ‘side’ pretended it didn’t exist.

    These two are the extremes, so the ‘reality’ will probably fall somewhere in the middle. However, our current trajectory is decidedly Soylent Greenish, and rather much less Star Trek. Theoretically, as of 2015, it was mostly that way because of inertia — the overall ‘establishment’ belief was that a generation raised on Star Trek was waiting for the people who were already in their 30s and 40s by the time these two stories came out to die off and cede space in the system to go to work. Instead, as of Nov. 8th, 2016, the work of putting together Soylent Green is active and directional by the selfsame group of people who intend to live in the highrises above the starving masses, because they’re damned tired of those city streets being maintained on their dollar. And they won’t just ‘die off’ — their win inspired a whole new generation of dumbfucks to aspire to real power of their own.

    Furthermore, Soylent Green is simply the more realistic endgame based on nothing other than the second law of thermodynamics. Entropy sets in and things decay. The more complex the system, the quicker that happens. Soylent Green also had a more realistic assessment of how nation states handle masses of people. Star Trek leaves all the masses back on earth and only populates the spaceship with enough red shirts to make the danger to the crew seem heightened.

    However, Star Trek isn’t prohibitively the fanciful whimsy of neckbeards on their futurology forums in between inventing memes used as dog-whistles by the Alt-Right. There’s also serious political literature about such developments including from Francis Fukuyama’s construction of the Last Man. In a previous post one of your commentators mentioned neo-liberalism’s lack of ‘big vision’ to sell people, but I think that’s because neo-liberals honestly thought we were on board with the End of History — with some tweaking, we could simply refine liberal democracies to increase self-representation past the point where quality of life is an anxiety and then we all get to sit around in Japanese gardens talking about abstract art.

    Ironically even as my friends virtue-signaled frustration at ‘hipsters’, without realizing they were feeding the ‘coastal liberal elitist’ animus, technically that group of people are the result — feckless to a fault, but they can afford it. Without needing to worry about the next paycheck, they have time to compete on who read the most obscure country’s most obscure author; without wondering where the next meal would come from, they could instead worry about whether it was sustainably sourced. I can understand people whose lives felt at threat resenting that behavior.

    However, the problem is that that resentment is following the path of tearing everything down instead of trying to attain the same quality of life for everybody. And that’s where we have to question some economic assumptions.

    Namely, many people tend to talk about economics by stating that growth is required for a ‘healthy economy.’ Firstly, though economics may be softer than physics, it still tries to prove shit with math — I’d like to see the math behind the theory that an economy can’t be enriching without growth. Without the math, there’s at least a couple counterfactuals worth putting forward:

    First, economic growth isn’t the same thing as population growth, it’s a growth of VALUE. So a rising quality of life for a single person grows the economy without the single person being required to birth another person to continue that growth. And theoretically, there’s no end to the growth of quality of life. There’s always more leisure to do.

    Secondly, growth is explicitly limited by scarcity. Somehow we seem to be in some cognitive dissonance where people believe we have to maintain Growth At All Costs, but also and at the same time Resources Are Scarce. Both may be valid, but not in the way so often stated and not in relationship to each other. Petroleum oil is scarce. Sunlight eliminates that scarcity. Solar power increases supply of energy to meet global demand; but storing it at this point requires lithium, which is scarce. Your belief in Star Trek vs. Soylent Green boils down to whether you believe we’ll always find the sunlight-that-displaces-oil new resource — lithium replaced by XXX, which causes a scarcity in YYY, which is replaced by ZZZ, ad infinitum until fully automated space communism, unless ZZZ truly is Omega and there is no other resources; the growth limit is plowed into head-on and the rest is starvation.

    That’s all assuming Growth Is Necessary, which goes back to my question about the math. Why can’t there be a window of human population utterly self-sustaining in healthy, fully developed communities that are capable of recycling all resources on Earth in a closed loop, leaving the existential threat of entropy to astronomical scales of time? I don’t understand why we have to start with the assumption that ‘our economy doesn’t work doing that.’

    Now, that window might be lower than our current population. I doubt it, but even if it is, then the goal of humanity over the next few generations would be to let population decline peacefully via planned parenthood (see what I did there?). As for the system that is built currently, we already have positive, motivating starting points for how this can look without screaming about immigrants taking our jobs.

    Firstly, Detroit is currently, systematically shrinking. The infrastructure there is in negative growth — but that’s not been negative to ECONOMY, which is different. The municipality of Detroit is buying up blighted homes and getting rid of them, all while moving people closer to city center. This is reducing the negative results of decline. It’s not a program without its problems, but it’s a starting point for understanding that cleaning up old infrastructure is work, and where there’s work there’s jobs, and where there’s jobs there’s investment.

    Similarly, internationally, ‘developing’ countries are hungry for the services and skills of ‘developed’ nations. I should know — my first job wasn’t in the United States, it was abroad, where I got paid a premium for my American education and my expertise despite the fact that this was my first post-collegiate job, so I had arguably less experience than the people hiring me. China gets this — see the One Belt, One Road policy. Growth is no longer national, it’s international. These coal miners want jobs, they should consider what their skills would be worth in some of the more stable areas of Africa. They won’t, but they should.

    Thirdly, infrastructure shouldn’t be maintained, it should be replaced. Elon Musk gets that, which is why he’s seizing the clearing out of aged infrastructure in Puerto Rico as an opportunity to rebuild it in his own fashion. He’s only one person though — think of what could be done if the guy who claims he’s good at building things thought the same way about the damages from Harvey, Irma, and Maria. There’s prime opportunity to overhaul the whole system wherever nature clears it out, and set the stage for overhauling the rest by choice and structured management. And he’s even the sort of guy who is willing to operate under heavy deficits to build things, so this could all have been essentially a 21st century New Deal, except that he’s much more concerned with being a racist fuckwad who would leave the masses to munch on Soylent Green than do anything stinking of leadership, effectiveness, or intelligence.

    But, theoretically, the opportunity is still there.

    AND, this would be running the government like a business, because businesspeople are all about that there efficiency and consolidating, right? Why not consider doing that to our municipalities and infrastructure, eh?

    Leading us to the question of what will happen to these rural communities? To which my answer is, the same answer given in Fukuyama’s idea of the Last Man: tourism and leisure, of course. And again this isn’t just theoretical, but what’s actually happening. Attendance at natural parks is at an all time high. States are competing over tax breaks for entertainment industries, to get their local images onto cinema screens and hire all these former construction workers as set-builders. Retirees from the city flood places like Florida, Arizona, and Texas; they need health and human services, which surprise surprise, are the growing industries. The miners complain about having no jobs while their wives get to work caring for other people instead of hating them.

    I’m not much of an optimist. These current growth pains in structure of society both civic and technical all have their problems, need improvements, have unintended consequences. And above all, they require leadership from people who actually believe that things can get better, not zero-sum brinkmanship by people who honestly believe that cities are hellholes filled with violent crime because brown people. And I know I’ve been bringing up Hannah Arendt a lot lately, but the biggest takeaway I got from Origins of Totalitarianism is that nation-states fall apart at the seams when it comes to two types of ‘surplus population’, those from outside of the nation-state seeking refuge and care (immigrants and refugees), and those from inside the nation-state who feel discarded and powerless (the masses). Whichever nation or, thinking outside the box, civic and government structure emerges that can properly assimilate both the alien and the alienated will be the one that progresses us closer to fully automated space communism. Whichever nation attempts to solve the problem by purging people from its ranks is walking us toward Soylent Green.

    During the 20th century, the United States trended decidedly Star Trek-ward. And it made sense, considering all that ‘all men created equal’ and stuff.

    Now it looks like in the 21st Century, China has the head start on assimilation, and is getting by without all that ‘all men created equal’ stuff through technological surveillance and top-down management controls.

    If China is the winner of the assimilation race, then the fully automated space communism future itself divides into two possibilities:

    1984 versus Brave New World.

    ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

    1. Aaron, you outdid yourself, my man! Loved the population segue to Planned Parenthood….which, of course, makes total sense…and in the darkest parts of their brains, everyone knows it, yet…games…

      Thanks for the update on Detroit. I still worry about the Flints of America where those who can fix things have walked away…but hope rings eternal and blighted cities across America have re-invented themselves. Rural areas are tougher but the ever-expansion of cities will hopefully lift these areas up if transportation modalities would expand…Fewer cars makes so much sense as does mass transit and frankly, more flexibility for the workforce to telecommute in their jobs.

      An interesting area that fits neatly into the whole “what is the future of the world discussion” is garbage -Real garbage.. Fewer people – less garbage, yet maximum land utilization – creates more garbage/refuse even if the amount stabilizes through static population growth. I attended a demonstration 25+ years ago to observe a new concept in refuse management, bio-conversion. The company that hosted the visit and demo’d their process was Bedminster Bio-Conversion International, head-quartered in Dublin, Ireland. A very forward-thinking member of our community learned about this alternative to landfill and brought area leaders to a Texas site….a 5-hour bus trip which this man paid for just to get the people he felt were decision-makers to see this operation in motion. (This same man, a few years later, (the early 90s) tried to interest Pepsico in a new idea he had dreamed up…(He was always thinking outside the box.) His family owned a Pepsi franchise and he wanted to utilize the existing infrastructure of their bottling plants to launch a new product – fortified bottled water with nutritional additives and flavors for commercial sale. He felt it was a natural “fit” given that the plants, bottles, distribution systems, customer base were all in place. He took his idea to the top and they said “interesting” but no go. The rest is history. My friend should have become a titan in this new industry but couldn’t launch this on his own. Imagine if he had where he would be today. So, yes, I am in complete agreement with Chris on the importance of “brains” – as long as they are utilized for the betterment of society and not purely profit-driven.

      http://www.bedminster.com/nantucket1.html

      There are people with creative genius everywhere but the system doesn’t easily make room for them. Another friend of mine risked family savings to patent a drilling device that an uneducated (no college) oil field worker had designed and today they are both multi-millionaires. Without my friend’s legal expertise, seed capital, and encouragement, that drilling tool that is an indispensable item in drilling today, would have either not been developed, or would have remained a dormant idea for many more years. When the focus of a society is growth at all costs but quality of life with a healthy living environment for all its citizens (accepting readily that there will always be stratas of sorts), happiness and security would be attained and measured differently. The creative process would be encouraged and supported. So, I embrace your concept of less dependence upon economic growth and more emphasis on quality of life as long as there is sufficiency of basic needs being met for all people, which is clearly not the case in the current economic model. Population control is implicit. Tolerance of one’s views on procreation is essential but in great jeopardy today.

      As for what America’s role in the world will be, I used to have more confidence that we would always be among the leaders. I am not a proponent of “exceptionalism” because my personal belief is that success should be shared, not harbored.

      You made me think, Aaron. Good post.

    1. My 90-year-old neighbor and I have been discussing the obvious reduced number of birds in our neighborhood.

      We haven’t seen a mocking bird in months. They were raucous residents the whole 30 years I’ve lived here.

      Even the hawk, who shopped the neighborhood twice a day for years, stopped come around in June. Not enough to eat.

      My neighbor believes people are idiotically using broad spectrum insecticides. This latest research seems to indicate that’s just part of the problem for bugs.

      It’s depressing.

      1. Hi, kayray.

        I live in Spring Branch in Houston.

        The 2011 drought was hard on some amphibians in our neighborhood, specifically, toads. Each yard had dozens of toads that sang up a storm all night long. Now there are very few. Quieter, yes, but sadder, too.

        The number of little lizardly green anoles is also much reduced. They have relatively new competition from at least two other types imported by pet stores in the past several years.

        I’m feeling very discouraged about this right now. Humans act as if we want to kill the Earth.

      2. I live in far west Houston. Fort Bend County. I haven’t noticed but then I haven’t really paid much attention either. I have noticed that a lot of the bees I see are dying or lethargic. Right now because of the non-stop land clearing for houses we have tons of displaced wildlife and stupid idiots who want to kill all of it.

        “oh, I heard there was a bobcat seen last night. Won’t someone think of the children” type stuff and wondering why we can’t just kill them.

        I used to live in Kemah and people would buy houses along the water and then complain about the waterfowl. People are idiots and now we have a non-thinking orange neanderthal in the WH who appointed Scott Pruitt to run the EPA. We are well and truly fucked.

        I actually went to the EPA website and filed a complaint of gross malfeasance against Pruitt.

      3. kayray, I’ve been taking classes to become a Texas Master Naturalist. One thing I’ve learned is that developers may sometimes be required to mitigate their effect on wetlands, for example, there’s really no one making sure that they do.

        Another thing I’ve learned is that while high-echelon Texas politicians (Abbot, Patrick, et al) embarrass us on a regular basis, there are lower-echelon (city, county, TPWD) who work every day to give us clean water and wildlife habitat. Very impressive.

        And a third thing I’ve learned is that a typical suburban lawn begins to shed rain water after about an inch has fallen. Native prairies nine inches of water before they start shedding rain water.

        A prairie in every yard, that’s my goal :-).

  6. Population decline interested me because of its sweeping impact. As fewer people are needed to “run” things, and the cost of having children and educating them escalates, how will this reduced income stream affect services and finances necessary for living? It appears that income gains continue to favor the top 1% and it is obvious (to me) that too few are concerned about the diminishing ability of the masses to pay for the basic necessities of life, much less generate wealth that is passed down. The sociological and economic upheaval resulting from the concentration of wealth in combination with significant population declines will have to be accompanied by balancing adjustments in all other areas – food, housing, water, employment. Once more, the working poor will struggle most. Our world has always been able to adjust to changes but these changes seem astronomical in comparison to the eras we’ve transitioned through in the past.

  7. On cities:

    Cities are here to stay, but I feel like something is amiss. I am looking at the political but also technical/engineering difficulty of constantly redeveloping to add density in my native Bay Area, and it gives me pause.

    While surely our terribly NIMBY-ish housing policy is a classic prisoner’s dilemma issue (that the legislature has recently passed laws to try to coordinate to avoid each municipality playing chicken with one another), I am starting to wonder why we aren’t able to take adequate advantage of the relatively ample land in the area. I don’t mean from a code/zone perspective, but why so much money and decision power concentrated in a particular location in Sand Hill Road, Palo Alto, and more recently in San Francisco for those with urban tastes.

    Why is the drop-off of entrepreneurship so deep outside these two power centers, even in California? By looking around our nearby area, like Vacaville, Hayward, Livermore, Orinda, we can mostly control for weather, culture, and access to educated graduates. These are all within an hour’s drive.

    My theory: companies go to report to their venture capitalists. That’s the only way it can work, but there is a norm and perhaps a sociology of doing this face-to-face, often at the VC office. I don’t know what it’s like to work as a venture capitalist, but I presume they also want face-time with one another. There’s but a handful of major venture capital offices: you can walk across a significant amount of the power structure in thirty minutes.

    This bottleneck smells vulnerable to me, and first society that figures out both the material means and the cultural norms to better conquer time and space and build the smallest cities that are yet large enough to amortize the cost of infrastructure stand to benefit. There are definitely some forms of anti-scaling of tractability of some problems as cities get bigger.

    The question is: how small can you go? Or is bigger always better?

      1. I know you are being tongue in cheek, but seems expensive. There’s an unfathomable amount of good land…but why do so many cities seem to go flat? Why can’t we plan them and build them?

        Like in physics, there’s some “dark matter” that pulls cities and their power ever tighter and closer, even at exorbitant cost, but it seems hard to reproduce or even detect.

      2. Daniel, you are likely aware that there are whole cities master-planned from scratch and those that have experienced re-birth through community leadership, investment, and new purposing. A good example of the first is The Woodlands, Texas, a residential project by George Mitchell, American businessman, real estate developer and philanthropist from Galveston, Texas (pioneer of extraction of shale gas). His interest in sustainability led him to develop the community (now numbering 110K residents) to include many environmentally-friendly concepts for its time and location in the south. Much lauded, the project had many ups and downs but is noted today as one of the best master planned communities in the nation.
        http://www.rgiwoodlands.com/history.html

        Examples of existing cities that have been saved from extinction or decline are part of an interesting series by Politico, “What Works”, that highlights some of the most successful initiatives. (http://www.politico.com/magazine/what-works).

        Tightly controlled cities (SF) overly protected by a NMBY philosophy have a tough time keeping housing affordable. This problem repeats everywhere land is circumscribed by either environmental constraints or public fiat…Vail, CO, resort communities and highly urbanized areas landlocked by water, mountains, or wealthy people. This has caused so many problems for people who work in these cities but cannot afford to own or even rent property.

        Obviously, the most successful interventions have occurred through philanthropy or a very focused vision by people who have a strong connection to the area or a vested interest in its financial stability. Cities whose decline has resulted in poor people as their chief inhabitants – too poor to move and too poor to renovate – are both societal and moral challenges. But, there are successes out there and as time and need dictate, change will occur because people have to live somewhere. How “well” they live is the real challenge.

    1. It’s a really good question, with pretty simple answers. My company is based in downtown SF. If we were based in Vacaville, we probably would have been bought out by another company based in SF or the valley years ago, and broken up for scrap.

      When the plane lands at SFO, I can get to the office with a twenty minute Lyft ride (in good traffic times), or a cheap, easy 40-mn train ride. When customers want to visit our headquarters to talk with execs, they can combine their trip to see us with a visit to Salesforce, ServiceNow, Box, etc etc, and probably walk from one meeting to the next.

      And of course, SF itself is the cultural center of the whole area (not San Jose or the valley). If someone comes to visit, customer or family or whatever, they don’t ask go spend some time in Concord. CA benefits from a lot of natural beauty, so people might want to roam up and down the area a bit, but generally if they want people or culture-related attractions, they want to go to SF (or maybe these days Oakland).

      You can’t simulate this in Bakersfield or Vacaville or even Sacramento. With a heavy investment of planning and education, you might start something that could develop over 30-40 years into something comparable, but you probably won’t get anything out of it more interesting than San Diego.

      People sometimes ask why Caterpillar just moved their HQ (and all senior mgmt and creative professionals) from Peoria to Chicago. It’s the same dynamic. Being based 2.5 hours from Chicago was the rough equivalent of trying to work from a moon base. Customers faced a lousy, unappealing trek to visit them. When they worked on big contracts, they’re partners wanted to meet them in Chicago rather than coming to their crappy little town. They couldn’t attract talent because no one wanted to live there. Cat will pay a fortune in real estate, taxes and bribes for the chance to have a presence in Chicago. And it will be worth every penny.

      The raw material of this financial engine isn’t coal or iron, but well-honed brains. Even if they live on the margins, like in Orinda or Livermore, they can change from one company to the next without much change in commute. They can easily and frequently have lunch or drinks with people who work for the other major players, maintaining a circulation of ideas and talent.

      I doubt that we’re going to address our problems with inequality by making Bakersfield a new economic hub. I suspect that the path forward looks much more like Tokyo – smart, careful concentration.

      However, that presents us with a problem that I don’t know how to solve. What happens to Peoria? What happens to Dayton and Amarillo and all of these other backwaters, stripped of what little economic relevance they ever possessed. I don’t know. And I don’t know how you govern these places now that they have largely slipped off the economic map. Maybe you’ve got a point. I don’t know to make it work, though.

      1. First and foremost, there’s a problem with transportation, is there not? Urban areas have their legs cut out from under them because they’re too far away from cities to even compete in the first place. So unless someone figures out a much faster way to get people from place to place (really, comparatively instantaneously), the game’s over before it even begins.

        Of course, that’s assuming that you’re competing on an even playing field. Are there any other conceivable economic interests that an urban area could produce outside of what a city can do?

    2. >] “I am starting to wonder why we aren’t able to take adequate advantage of the relatively ample land in the area. I don’t mean from a code/zone perspective, but why so much money and decision power concentrated in a particular location in Sand Hill Road, Palo Alto, and more recently in San Francisco for those with urban tastes.

      And do what with them, exactly? You might as well reclassify them as large-scale retirement centers for people to spend their days planting trees and revitalizing the environment, because that’s about all the economic impact they’re going to be worth in the not too distant future.

  8. The two with most impact are global warming and declining populations in industrialized nations. And please don’t call it climate change. Yes, certain areas are going to face drops in temperature, like North Eastern U.S., Canada’s East Coast, U.K., and much of Western Europe, but overall, the planet’s temperature is going up, and fast.

    What I am very interested in is how the capitalistic model will handle a declining consumer base. Companies like P&G can only sell so much toothpaste to an individual. Yes, every multi-national has recognized that they must sell to emerging middle-class markets like China and India, but if the overall planetary population starts dropping, very soon the whole model of ever-increasing profits collapses. Or what happens when the tax base starts shrinking? What happens then? I know in the medium term first world countries can maintain a consumer base/ tax base through immigration, but eventually, even continents like Africa will reach a point of population contraction.

    And there is no question that global warming will accelerate that population contraction. Lack of fresh water and food on a planetary scale has a tendency to stop population growth.

  9. There is one big trend that you did not mention

    Violent crime is dropping – in fact Crime is dropping

    This was one of the really BIG changes in the world that I grew up in – “Everybody Knew” that crime was increasing – and would keep increasing

    People have not yet got their heads around this but it will change all of the plans

  10. I have been pondering the bullet points in your article for awhile. One of the things being considered is to use our technology to Terra-form our own world. Like remove CO2 or created methods to block and reflect solar radiation back out to space.

    When trade was open to China the intent was to force them into a path of liberalization and intertwine their economy with the world to make the warpath unattractive. Nixon’s Administration was brilliant and their strategy seems to be working.

    If we want a sustain growth rate of 3% we need immigration. Our own native born birthrates are below replacement levels.That is at odds with Trump’s white nationalism rhetoric of 3% growth and but no immigration.

    Custom engineering on humans is coming and is scary. We will have a moral debate on this and it’s impact will affect the human race.

    Population decline has been apparent for decades to demographers. But soon the average Joe and Jane are going to realize it.

    The energy revolution is on two fronts. Power needs have been in decline for awhile and will continue to decline. And power will be generate locally even family by family. Power coordination will still be something a large corporation can do. But they will not hold the balance of marking power anymore.

    Very good article that made me think.

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