What Does the Future Hold for Us?
It's the start of a new year. 'Tis the season to frolic in the future -- a time to consider our utopian dreams and confront our dystopian nightmares. Or, as my grandfather is fond of saying, now's a good time to hope for the best but prepare for the worst.
So, let's check the futurology front. And who better to consult than the forward-looking folks at The Futurist magazine?
Every year since 1985, TF editors have been publishing "the most thought-provoking ideas and forecasts" that surfaced in their pages in the previous year. This year's "Outlook Report" is fascinating, as always, including the Top 10 future forecast for 2008.
1. The world will have a billion millionaires by 2025.
Meanwhile, water-shortages and poverty will grip two-thirds of the earth's population. Wealth-gap? How about wealth chasm?
2. Fashion will go wired as technologies and tastes converge to revolutionize the textile industry.
We're talking "color-changing or perfume-emitting jeans and wristwatches that work as digital wallets." They call it "smart fabrics."
3. The threat of another cold war with China, Russia, or both could replace terrorism as the chief foreign-policy concern of the United States.
Citing Edward Luttwak, the editors note, "scenarios for what a war with China or Russia would look like make the clashes and wars in which the United States is now involved seem insignificant. The power of radical jihadists is trivial compared with Soviet missile capabilities, for instance. The focus of U.S. foreign policy should thus be on preventing an engagement among Great Powers."
4. Counterfeiting of currency will proliferate, driving the move toward a cashless society.
There's Big Brother and then there's Big Brother's big brother -- Big Biz Brother.
5. The earth is on the verge of a significant extinction event.
The World Resources Institute reports the coming century "could witness a biodiversity collapse 100 to 1,000 times greater than any previous extinction since the dawn of humanity. Protecting biodiversity in a time of increased resource consumption, overpopulation, and environmental degradation will require continued sacrifice on the part of local, often impoverished communities."
6. Water will be in the 21st century what oil was in the 20th century.
Though the world is full of water (the salty kind), water shortages and droughts are popping up faster than season premiers of yet another new reality TV show. Future war protestors will be carrying signs that say "No War for Water!"
7. World population by 2050 may grow larger than previously expected, due in part to healthier, longer-living people.
Think the world is crowded now? Too much traffic? The UN upped its global population forecast from 9.1 billion people by 2050 to 9.2 billion.
8. The number of Africans imperiled by floods will grow 70-fold by 2080.
Despite the racially-tinged savage imagery we have of the "dark Continent" in the U.S., Africa is actually experiencing rapid urbanization, which is why World Trends & Forecasts cautions that "if global sea levels rise by the predicted 38 cm by 2080, the number of Africans affected by floods will grow from 1 million to 70 million."
9. Rising prices for natural resources could lead to a full-scale rush to develop the Arctic.
And we're not talking only oil and natural gas. There's also a huge Artic supply of nickel, copper, zinc, coal, freshwater, forests, and even fish, all of which are needed to feed the insatiable and metastasizing global economy.
10. More decisions will be made by nonhuman entities.
"Technologies are increasing the complexity of our lives and human workers' competency is not keeping pace well enough to avoid disasters due to human error," pushing us toward "electronically enabled teams in networks, robots with artificial intelligence, and other noncarbon life-forms" who "will make financial, health, educational, and even political decisions for us."
Memo to Election '08 reporters: It's important to focus on the Big Issues of today. But the time is ripe to get the presidential candidates talking (out loud) about the Big Issues of tomorrow.
Questioning them about any one of the above forecasts might stimulate a much-needed discussion about vision, while getting the candidates to reveal something deeper than poll-driven answers and platitudes. Listening to people talk about their vision for the future is how you know if someone is utopian or eutopian.
The word "utopia" comes from the Greek for "no place" or "nowhere." Utopian thought is meant to describe a vision of a better future society -- but one beyond our grasp.
Eutopia is a vision of a preferable place -- but one with a bridge that gets us from here to there. Visions of a better society don't attract a critical mass of people. Only future visions with a visible, viable bridge can do that -- a lesson many progressives have yet to learn.
It's not just a vision thing. It's also a bridge thing.