I’ve been doing some thinking about what we can possibly ‘reasonably expect’ from the next 100 years. Bear in mind these are not predictions, just speculation. Attempts to ‘accurately’ predict the future are almost certainly doomed to failure. Nonetheless, some thoughts…
- Global warming will carry on. If anything serious was going to get done about it, it would probably already have started. Sadly, I think we can honestly say that the Kyoto Protocol really hasn’t been very effective – all it’s really managed to do is get people talking about the issue. I suppose that’s something, but it’s not really enough!
- This implies new land rushes. Once the ice-cap is gone, Greenland will be a lot more habitable. Extensive human population there is hardly absurd, in fact there is historical precedent.
- Depending on how far temperatures rise, one might even imagine an Antarctic land rush, although if this does happen, the population centres will presumably be in East Antarctica, where most of the land would be.
- Major worldwide economic problems when the oil runs out.
- A global subsistence crisis will likely be part of the above. Consider: the Earth has enough arable land mass for 2 bn people, using conventional agriculture. Petrochemical-derived fertilisers allow us to squeeze more energy out of those square miles of ground, which is why a population of ~7 bn can currently (just barely) be fed. However, when the oil starts running out, so will said fertilisers, and also it will be harder to physically-transport them to the places where they’re needed…
- One way or another, I strongly suspect that the world population in 2110 will be lower than the population in 2010. Climate change plus tropical diseases moving north/south plus oil crisis plus too many hungry mouths doesn’t make for a pretty combination. If I had to guess, I’d say 1 – 2 billion rather than 9 – 10 billion.
- On the other hand, economic and political turmoil on Earth perhaps make space colonisation more likely. It’s hard to imagine running a colony set-up at a conventional corporate-style profit, but the cost/benefits analysis looks rather different if you’re fleeing social meltdown back home.
- If colonisation does happen, then I suspect Mars is a more likely target than the Moon. Mars has comparatively-abundant water and more favourable gravity, even if the Moon isn’t quite as bone dry as we once thought.
- Or, in fact, oddly enough, Venus might also be a good bet. There’s a layer in its atmosphere with Earthlike temperatures and pressures, P&T conditions similar to those atop Mauna Kea (not entirely pleasant, but humanly bearable – I can say that from experience!), and solar energy would be abundant. One can imagine balloon cities, drifting above the Venusian clouds – Buckminster Fuller has seriously proposed engineering along those lines, so it’s actually less mad then it sounds.
- Back on Earth, America will cease to have any significance at around the time the oil wells start coughing up dry. It’s economy is utterly dependent on cheap oil, American politics is strongly in hoc to the oil companies so there’s no dynamism for adjustment and there’s no pressure for change from much of the American public, either. With that combination, complete failure is the only option. The country itself may – may! – survive the transition, but its superpower status won’t.
- Call me cynical, but I suspect the European Union won’t manage much better. Scandinavia tends to weather crises well, and the Germans are notoriously resilient, but some of the rest of us seem a bit too self-absorbed, apathetic and unwilling to face the serious change that would be necessary to adapt. (Sorry; small disgruntled liberal moment there. It’ll pass. Eventually.)
- Somewhat more optimistically, by the middle of the century astronomy will be a different place. We will very likely have spectra of Earth-mass exoplanets, and will certainly have some idea of the mass distribution of super-Earths. (I can say that with confidence … it’s already possible to put bounds on the upper limits.) We will also have a clearer idea of whether this planet is a flukish outlier, or if the Galaxy is littered with them.
- Will there be a First Contact by 2110? I don’t know. My intuitive feeling is ‘no’; personally I suspect that civilisations are thinly spread both in space and time. However, that is just a personal feeling, and may be utterly baseless. We don’t even know for a fact if there are inhabitable planets around Alpha Centauri A or B yet, so in principle, there could still be a civilisation ‘next door’.
- What will actually happen is probably lots of stuff that I haven’t thought of here, and very little of what I have…