Predicting the future is extraordinarily difficult and becomes downright impossible when you extend your time horizon sufficiently. Five years is probably a good ballpark limit for forecasts involving any detail””Ian, Stirling, Numerian, and others are good at pushing toward this limit and were able to predict many of the particulars of the current economic crisis. But beyond five years you start getting into terra incognita and must generalize. To predict what 2040 looks like (30 years out) you must really generalize and are often stuck just proposing some ”œwhat if” scenarios.
I’ve added one or two sections here that were not originally asked for, mostly because I think they are important categories that relate to many of the originally requested subjects. I’m also waaaay over the word limit””I’m writing a thesis right now and have picked up the academic bad habit of writing too much. I hope you can get through this whole thing!
I should probably have put this section later on since the pace of technological change and the technological systems we adopt are very much a function of geopolitical maneuvering, societal willingness to adopt/invest, and social friction. But I think that most people predicting the future miss something here and so I have moved it to the front of the line.
I’m not a techno-optimist. I don’t think that technology will solve all our ills or that any magic bullet will arise to fix everything for us. In fact, every technological development (and I include new forms of social organization here) will solve one problem and introduce others. But the pace of technological development is still increasing and has become shockingly fast””so much that most of us don’t see it as it happens anymore and we only receive disjointed, out-of-date, poorly explained reports in the mainstream media. Something that shocked me recently: A company named Complete Genomics just sequenced a human genome for $4400 using common materials and an innovative procedure. There are still some kinks to work out, but speculation has it that we could see personalized gene sequencing for maybe a couple thousand dollars within 5 years. Now consider that the human genome project cost $20 million and took about 15 years to finish””and that it was only completed around 2003! The cost decreased by a factor of 10,000 in 6 years, while the time to sequence a genome has decreased substantially too.
I can’t predict exactly what technologies we’ll be using in 2040 since it depends a great deal on what society is willing to tolerate and invest in (and what will actually diffuse on a mass scale). I’ll throw in a liberal sprinkling of ideas in the following sections. However, I want to note that the time from invention to adoption is shorter now than at any time in human history. Technologies that we consider science fiction today or that aren’t even on our collective radar will likely be daily reality in 2040 or just on the cusp of becoming real. The bigger issue, of course, is who will benefit from these technologies and how will they increase or decrease the gap between the haves and the have-nots?
Climate change will begin taking its toll by 2040. We may mitigate some carbon emissions between the present and that future date, but it will not be enough to halt significant additional CO2 and other greenhouse gas accumulation in the atmosphere. We may be able to reduce the severity a bit, but temperatures will increase and climate shifts will occur.
However, different parts of the world will take this very differently. The rich nations, historically the largest CO2 emitters, will receive the lightest hit for two reasons. First, they are sitting on a mountain of accumulated wealth and knowledge and have a long history of powerful social coordination. If sea levels rise, Manhattan can be saved through a massive public works project. The same cannot be said of cities that are outside the current developed and developing worlds (China being the leading example of the latter). This doesn’t mean that Manhattan will be saved””if indeed sea level rise is severe enough to warrant its ”œsaving”””but only that it is much more likely than in a poorer country.
Second, the rich nations are overwhelmingly in the northern latitudes while the poorer nations tend to be in middle or southern latitudes. The effects of warming will be most pronounced in the north and will lead to the extinction of many species adapted to the historically cold climate. However, new species of both plant and animal will move in. Net biodiversity will decrease, but this loss will be counterbalanced (in terms of human utility) by the newly productive land liberated from the interiors of Canada, Scandinavia, and Russia. Increases in carbon fertilization (due to increases in atmospheric CO2) will also play a big role in increasing agricultural yields in these northern latitudes. The northern tiers of the US, China, and Japan will also see an increase in land productivity while their southern regions will suffer from drought to varying degrees””the predictions I’ve seen have southern China and Japan getting off lightly while the southern/southwestern US will be in full-blown drought leading to desertification. If these predictions hold (a BIG ”˜if’) then we may see a reversal of US migratory trends over the last few decades. People in the south will begin moving back to the north to escape the poor conditions. 2040 will likely be the beginning of these trends and I’d expect things to really get into full gear by the latter half of this century””say, 2070. The oceans will probably suffer no matter what, as higher amounts of carbon will alter their chemistry and lead to extinctions and loss of biodiversity””leading directly to lost production for human endeavors.
Undeveloped nations will be hit very hard by environmental degradation and climate change. These nations (likely to still be most of Africa, the Middle East, much of India, some of Central and South America) are those with much less material wealth, less knowledge, and a lower capacity for large-scale, concerted social coordination that is either voluntary or induced through the threat of state violence.
Overall, 2040 will be near the nadir of biodiversity on Earth. It will roughly be the time at which human-caused extinctions will have reached their maximum. However, there will be a countervailing force that has the potential to do either untold good to the existing biosphere or untold harm: genetic engineering and the rapid construction of artificial organisms. We’re already making genetically modified crops and bacteria and will further develop our capabilities in this area. Such advances are similar to those brought about by the adoption of animal husbandry and agriculture, but accelerated by a factor of several thousand and thus giving them the potential to do great harm if unleashed without careful planning. Biodiversity will slowly begin to rebound after 2040 thanks to a combination of conservation (which slows and hopefully halts the losses) and human invention of new life (which adds new creatures, on a small scale at first but gradually moving to larger organisms). I have no idea where this leads, but I suspect that 2040 will be near the start of a re-imagining of human interaction with the non-human environment. We will either continue to destroy most of the ”˜evolved’ environment to replace it with one of our own design (beyond what we currently do with our cities and farms) or we will learn to more peacefully interface with the existing environment and accommodate it with our own technologies. Failure to pursue one of these two paths will result in ruin and collapse.
Also of note: I don’t foresee food or water shortages in the developed world. For example, we already have the technology to synthesize proteins to create so-called ”œvat grown” meat but simply lack the scaffolding to grow it into something palatable to most people. Rather than having to feed cows large quantities of food and water and deal with their methane emissions, we can synthesize a food product that is nutritionally equivalent. As far as water goes, the major issue with its availability may end up being energy. As water resources are increasingly strained and rainfall patterns shift due to climate change, the richer nations will likely invest in both political and technological solutions to water provision. I would expect to see more emphasis on cheaper desalinization and water purification plants to ensure adequate supplies. The poorer nations of the world will unfortunately suffer, though this may be mitigated somewhat depending on whether or not cheap and easily-diffused technological or social innovations in agriculture are devised.
Overall, state power will have decreased by 2040 compared to its apparent maximum in the mid-1900s. The causes of this slippage are hard to define, but I would point to the influence of communication technologies, the proliferation of information and media, and changing cultural views on authority and centralized power. Information proliferation is the most interesting to me, since we can already see its effects today. Fox News, as ”˜old media’ as it is, represents the creation of an alternative, coherent worldview that many of its followers take as gospel. This view is supported by legions of bloggers and political operatives but is often so at odds with what we here at the Agonist take to be true that we dismiss it as crazy. But similar fragmentation of what was once a relatively dominant, central, ”˜modernist’ worldview in the US and other developed countries is happening thanks to similar avenues of information generation and propagation. I get most of my news from about ten internet sources, mostly bloggers. I tend to be better informed than my peers who watch only the regular news, but at the same time my opinion is being shaped very differently from theirs””the biases of my sources are different than the biases of their sources. This trend will only accelerate and is part of the reason for the loss of state power: the loss of the national narrative.
The more powerful states, those in the developed world, will react to this in two ways: Some, especially those with more recent imperial and authoritarian histories, will tighten their grip even while more people and institutions slip between their fingers. I predict that these countries will likely include the US, UK, Russia, and China. The degree to which the government of each country can actually function while clamping down on the population will vary greatly with circumstance and history””I imagine China and Russia will make do, while the US and UK will see increasing unrest and problems at home. However, it may be possible for governments such as those of the US and UK to manage their populations in very different ways than authoritarian rule. In particular, these states may excel at information manipulation and persuasion, leading to a sort of ”œsoft” authoritarianism where the terms of discourse and thought are broadly kept within acceptable limits, allowing the ruling class to go about its business without resorting to violence against most citizens. Only those that deviate from norms in some significant way (or that are designated as an unacceptable group) would be exposed to violence””namely, cultural/religious minorities and illegal immigrants. In fact, the above scenario sounds quite a bit like what has been developing in the US for the past few decades. Just imagine it becoming even more sophisticated.
Some developed countries will tend toward accommodation of decentralization and multiple power bases within their borders. Systems of influence and patronage will become more common in both the authoritarian powers above and the remaining developed nations, though the former will maintain much more hierarchy in their imperial structures while the latter will appear a bit more feudal. Not to say that history will repeat itself and we’ll see newly resurgent absolute monarchies and feudal aristocracies, but some development along these lines will happen, mediated by the current technological, social, and economic status of the world.
At the risk of repeating some of my above argument, the most fundamental change in terms of power and states will actually happen in the soft power arena. Data collection, targeted persuasion, and social influence will become much more effective ways of coercing people. These techniques will be used by state powers, corporate entities, and other social organizations such as nonprofits, churches, gangs, etc. Of course, influencing and persuading others is nothing new under the sun””it’s as old as humanity itself. But the exercise of these methods at such a fine level and with such effectiveness will be new.
The armies of the developed world will increasingly rely on autonomous, robotic systems when fighting both each other and the armies/insurgencies of the developing/poor nations. These machines will be given the authority to make kill decisions on their own, without human operators present. These systems will also be deployed domestically in police, security, and surveillance roles, though they may not be the sole province of state armies and will likely start seeing a great deal of private use. But you can bet that the most advanced will enter service with states first.
War is in the future. I don’t know what it will be fought over””probably some smaller resource wars, mostly relegated to those areas that are not able to adapt and secure what they need in the future (mostly the poorer nations). Regional wars and perhaps a big global one may happen and be led by ideology, internal political maneuvering in a major state, or economic failure. The latter two could certainly come from the US if its descent from power is too severe (but I’m getting ahead of myself). Water and energy won’t lead to major wars if new technologies and practices are able to spread rapidly enough. Lack of political will to adopt solar, wind, nuclear, coal with sequestration, etc. and invest in water and other basic needs will lead to higher probabilities of wars. And wars will lead to more rapid adaptation in the social, economic, and technological realms, leading to a feedback effect. In fact, there will probably be one major war at the start of the rollout of the new energy regime that will determine the winners and losers of the next geopolitical cycle and will move us forward quite a ways (if we don’t destroy ourselves).
Additionally, someone will break the taboo of using nuclear weapons. Taboos are always broken. It will likely be one of the marginal nuclear powers, using a nuke or two against a non-nuclear neighbor in a local war. There is a small probability that one of the major powers, especially the US or Russia, will do this depending on how bad conditions at home become. My money would be on the US since we have nowhere to go but down and desperate, disintegrating empires will sometimes look for desperate solutions to their military problems. A tactical nuke would be most likely, in my opinion.
Status of women
Women’s status will increase dramatically in countries that develop economically between now and 2040. This means that nations such as China and Brazil will make great strides. The currently-developed nations will also see improvements, though once again only in the presence of economic growth. Since their growth will be lower, they will improve less but are already starting out at a high level.
I’d like to think that the status of women will increase universally and I do have a feeling that it will go up a bit in the poorer countries, but for the most part, given our current patriarchal society, women’s fortunes are tied to economic growth. The history of development in the West has been one where improvements in living conditions and quality of life have allowed for some of the excess to be channeled to women. Men have almost always received first dibs and women have either (1) been forced to take whatever was afforded them by men or (2) had to fight tooth and nail for a share of the surplus to make their lives more tolerable. Other countries may take different routes during their development, so that small additions to standards of living and relatively small technological changes could lead to much more progress for women. For example, the spread of easily-accessible birth control throughout all corners of the world would greatly improve women’s status. The trick is getting it past whatever local elite males would try to regulate its spread. So I don’t think there will be as much progress as we would want to see in poorer countries, but there does exist a potential for breakthrough developments.
However, the prospects for highly disruptive technologies will throw a monkey wrench into any more particular predictions and could really change the way we think about gender and basic humanity. This section should almost become one concerned not with the status of women, but with the status of both genders and how they are culturally defined. If the 20th century was the triumph of physics and its offspring (nuclear tech, semiconductors, combustion economy, etc.), the 21st is going to be at least partially ruled by genetics and biology. Rather than make predictions, I’ll ask some open questions: What happens if parents can choose the gender of their child? What happens if you can alter the DNA of your offspring in the womb? What happens if the average lifespan can be increased beyond 100? Beyond 200? What if it becomes relatively easy to change your physical gender? And how would those developments affect our society and reproductive rates? How would they affect women’s status? How would they affect men, children, parenting, the concept of family, wealth distributions among generations, and the pace of innovation in our societies? We may not even be able to conceive of some of the changes that we could see by 2040 or that will be just starting out in that year if we do develop the capacity to heavily alter our biology.
Global status of nations
Here’s the rough picture I see in 2040, accounting for different scenarios:
Europe will do relatively well if it can prevent its population from declining too much and can extend the working life of the elderly through better health in old age and longer living. It will also need to encourage immigration, though this may lead to significant problems with integration and nativist political movements. If Europe fails to deal with its population problems then it will decline and become a bit of a backwater in terms of development. No longer at or near the leading edge, but not backwards and poor either. Just stagnant. But I’m optimistic that Europe will be doing relatively well by 2040, though it will never again assume the mantle of world-spanning hegemonic culture that it once held. Well, not anytime in the next few hundred years at least.
The United States is in for some troubling times. First, it is currently (in 2009) an empire just past the height of its absolute power. It first peaked in relative power immediately in the aftermath of World War 2 when it was an unanswered nuclear superpower with half of the world’s manufacturing capacity. Since then it has increased its absolute military, economic, and diplomatic power but its relative power over the rest of the world was lower given the presence of the Soviet bloc. The US enjoyed a second peak in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed””this second peak being one of absolute power.
The country has nowhere to go but down. The global economic and political order that it has overseen since the end of World War 2 is eroding and may soon collapse. It will likely not make the transition to the new order while retaining its role as hegemon. The only real question is how quietly the American people and the ruling elite will take this fall””itself a function of how quickly the fall happens. Beyond this I can’t really say much. There is a large span of options available to America, ranging from maintaining superpower status (while accommodating China, Europe, and Russia as equals) to a massive civil war and subsequent dissolution into two or more separate nations. I think the most probable scenarios are right near the middle of the above two boundaries, namely that the country will lose power and status over time and will just learn to accept its lowered standard of living and lesser role on the international scene. This will be in full swing by 2040. Life will not be fun here, especially in the southern metropolises that were thrown up so quickly during the cheap oil years and which will feel the brunt of climate change and energy shifts during this century.
Of course, the downfall of the US will lead to large economic problems for the rest of the world since we are the heaviest player in the last/current economic order. Not sure how this will play out, other than via a global depression leading to a new expansion somewhere down the line.
China will do well so long as it can continue to offer employment and a better life for its people. In particular, the wave of surplus young men (estimated at almost 40 million by 2020) that will start coming of age shortly poses a very large problem. These young men must be absorbed into some productive capacity by a forward-thinking Chinese government. If the government fails to do so, and with few prospects for marriage and subsequent family life, the men will probably turn toward crime and riskier pursuits. It may be possible that the status of women in China will receive a further boost from this, as their relative scarcity will improve behaviors and attitudes toward them. At least I hope it will. However, it is also possible that increased crime and a large number of ”œidle” men will result in greater political unrest and major problems in China.
China’s population will also be aging very rapidly and this will pose a burden on a country that is rushing headlong through industrial development and facing large environmental problems. China has a lot of work cut out for it and could either be a basket case or the next global superpower by 2040. Sorry, but 30 years is a long time, the challenges facing China are very unique, and its potential is so large that a lot of possibilities exist.
Russia will do fine as well, provided that (like Europe) they can stabilize their population. Russia is sitting on a vast reservoir of energy resources and has a technological base to draw from for future innovation and adaptation. It won’t be a world-leader and will still face problems with massive corruption and relatively brutal centralized power, but it will at least muddle through.
Some currently poor nations may do well and find ways to capitalize on the shifts induced by rapid technological, social, and environmental changes, but most will continue to languish behind the richer nations. Wealth and power tend to have increasing returns, meaning that the more you have the better off you are and the greater tendency you have to accrue more wealth and power. However, the tendency over the past several hundred years for wealth and power to be exercised in the construction of complex systems from which greater wealth and power could be derived could potentially result in problems. Complexity eventually results in decreasing returns as new systems (and the new problems they spawn) become too unwieldy to handle at some point and begin to ossify. There is a significant though perhaps not large chance that the developed nations could start running up against a wall of complexity in the near to mid future if they fail to innovate sufficiently in the social and economic spheres to account for the increasing complexity of their societies. Encountering such a wall would lead to a sea change in global power balances. But, as it stands, I think the most likely overall scenario will be that the rich nations will mostly remain rich, the currently ascending nations will draw near the rich ones, and the poor will largely remain poor.
I could write more, but you’re likely exhausted. I know I am.
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