It has been one of my tenets that this is the age of decision, that the next hundred years are the critical one in which the future of the human race for millions of years to come will be decided. It is certainly a melodramatic thesis; it may even be true.
The argument is simple enough. The industrial age which we are now in is an unstable transition period which is, of necessity, short lived. Before the invention of agriculture and civilization the human race was in effective equilibrium with its environment. During the period of pre-industrial civilization the race was in potention equilibrium with its environment, potential because it was possible for the race to do so if necessary even though it was a period of expansion and growth. The current industrial age is not even in potential equilbrium. The whole structure rests on the extraction of non-renewable resources and continued growth — neither of which can be sustained over a long period of time. We may be pumping oil out of the ground fifty years from now; it seems most unlikely that we will be doing it five hundred or five thousand years from now. [Actually, we probably will. I can picture the last oil well bringing up a dribble of oil as a gaggle of school children stand around and listen as a guide explains that in the twentieth century wells like this sustained industrial civilization. Some things never change.]
It seems clear enough that this transition period must end and that in the long run the world economy must cease depending on non-renewable resources. So what will happen? It seems to me that there are only two real possibilities. One is a future of high technology; the other is a predominately agricultural future.
The technological future would be one where the energy problems have been solved (presumably by a combination of hydrogen fusion, solar power, and geothermal power), where all raw materials used are either renewable, e.g., timber, or are effectively inexhaustible, e.g., magnesium from the sea, and one in which the social problems in living in such a world have been solved. This is the future if we manage to solve the problems of today and successfully muddle our way through the crises of tomorrow.
Can we make it? It seems likely that we won’t. Our social institutions are designed for a world that is coming to an end, a world of inexhaustible (but not renewable) resources, a world of ever expanding growth. For every problem we solve we plant the seeds of two new ones. The odds are that the whole house of cards will come tumbling down in the next century, that the industrial society will collapse in social chaos. When the collapse comes it will take with it the means for creating the infrastructure for a technological future. We won’t make it. If we don’t, what sort of future is in store for us?
Perhaps we will do best if we first take the long view and then figure out how we might get there. Suppose we do not solve the energy problem; we don’t have a high energy economy. In particular we don’t have mechanized agriculture. (The oil is long gone — what do you power the tractors with?) More than half the world population will have to engage in agriculture. Without cheap transportation the cities will have to shrink; they can’t be supplied with the goodies of life at the rate they are now. A world without lots of high energy sources is an impoverished world – more so than one might think. What do you build with? Iron? Don’t be silly. Even if the ores weren’t exhausted, what would the steel mills run on? No, it will be back to wood and stone. And if you have to build with wood and stone and have to use manual labor it becomes expensive to build. There is a double bind here; not only will everything be more expensive in terms of the manual labor required but there will also be less labor available because of the needs of agriculture. The upshot is that artifacts of all kinds will become much more expensive to produce and that, in absolute terms, there will be many fewer of them.
It would be a mistake to suppose that the future will be like the past, that it will be medieval in character. After all, the knowledge of the past will still be there. The medicine of the future won’t retain the gleaming hospitals of our day but the basic knowledge will still be there. There may not be tractors but there will be scientific agriculture. Consumer electronics will go but computers will be retained (but not for everybody). There will be some bio-engineering. There will be some science and technology but there won’t be very much of it. There will still be shipping, although there won’t be trucks and automobiles. There may be bio-engineered beasts of burden for land transport. One artifact that you may be sure that will be there are guns.
What sort of political structures are likely? I expect that the world will not be unified. I expect that the most common form of government will resemble Chinese communism. The great advantage of state religions built around the notion of serving the people is that practitioners of the religion are the ones who benefit from it. This is an uncertain prediction. Our era has been devoted to the perfecting of various forms of popularly based totalitarian governments; we may expect that people in the future will find still other ways to misgovern themselves. I expect that border wars will be a recurring ongoing feature and that ethnic divisions will widen. Most governments will be strong governments in the sense of doing a lot and regulating a lot. Freedom of expression and individual dedication to art will be sparse. Liberty will be a luxury.
Thus, the future: Agricultural, totalitarian, socialistic, literate, fragments of technology preserved, efficient medicine and production of basic necessities, essentially static but internationally anarchistic. The population will be about the same as now. The standard of living will be sharply lower in what are now the industrialized nations and higher in todays underdeveloped countries. The future in a word: impoverished.
Reprinted from Personal Notes #7, 1977.
This page was last updated August 11, 1996.