Futurism: What is it, Why Care About It?

Thomas J. Hardman, Jr (thardman at earthops.org)

When one contemplates one's career, if one is not retired, one contemplates one's place in the future. To chart one's course through the future with any hope of accuracy--and thus of success--one must study the future. The future is unknown in detail, or through the scope of all time, yet there are many tools available for prediction, ranging from dreaming and guesswork, through a more rigorous form of prediction which is based on analysis of historical trends, examination of the present situation, and projection of trends. This is "Futurism". It is one of my lifelong career interests, both in terms of attempting to foresee my own place in the future, and in terms of a possible career in which I might analyze trends and make recommendations to decision-makers who would implement policies.

According to the World Future Society's website (faq.htm), "[t]he future doesn't just happen: People create it through their action--or inaction--today."

First and foremost, when one considers what the future may hold--and therefor what options may exist for the planner--one must consider that for a person, perhaps the most important consideration will be the other people with whom one shares the planet.

Demographic Changes

If today's population growth trends were to continue unchanged, the world's population will approach as many as twelve billions of persons by the year 2050 (UNCPD, p. 1, Table 1), with a lowest-expected population of about 7.4 billion which assumes both high mortality and massive global reduction in birthrates. One may presume that with a likely doubling of the population within the next fifty years, there may be a doubled level of competition for resources.

In particular, within the United States, we expect to see an increase of about 135 percent in the number of persons over the age of 65 (AOA/DHHS, demography.html, Table 1), until by 2030, such persons comprise nearly 20 percent of the US population. As medical technology continues to improve, and continues to increase in both cost and the amount of resources expended, there may be significant competition for access to healthcare, and certainly there will be challenges to the healthcare infrastructure (AOA/DHHS, health.html):

The projections of a joint team from the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago indicate that, if residency ratios remain unchanged, the number of persons residing in nursing homes will double or triple by 2030 (Rivlin and Wiener, 1988). The number could rise by over 300 percent for those aged 85 and over. Even if residency ratios decrease by 6.5 percent per decade to 2030, as the report of the team assumes in one projection series, the number of residents of nursing homes will increase at the least by 57 percent.

Thus, a little research into "the Futurism of the Elderly" might encourage one to believe that there might be growth opportunities in the business of caring for the elderly. There may also be intense competition for other resources.

Energy

"Total world energy consumption is expected to expand by 58 percent between 2001 and 2025, from 404 quadrillion British thermal units (Btu) in 2001 to 640 quadrillion Btu in 2025" (Doman, EIA/DOE). We note that these projections do not tell us where these energy resources will be found. We further presume that if world energy consumption is expected to increase by 58 percent between 2001 and 2025, that it will increase by a similar amount between 2026 and 2050.

Water

Other resources will also be the objects of competition for access and control. Certainly freshwater will continue to be a serious concern:

Water resources are renewable (except some groundwaters),with huge differences in availability in different parts of the world and wide variations in seasonal and annual precipitation in many places. Precipitation is the main source of water for all human uses and for ecosystems. This precipitation is taken up by plants and soils, evaporates into the atmosphere via evapotranspiration,and runs off to the sea via rivers, and to lakes and wetlands. The water of evapotranspiration supports forests, rain-fed cultivated and grazing lands, and ecosystems. We withdraw 8 percent of the total annual renewable freshwater, and appropriate 26 percent of annual evapotranspiration and 54 percent of accessible runoff. Humankind's control of runoff is now global and we are significant players in the hydrological cycle. Per capita use is increasing (with better lifestyles) and population is growing. Thus the percentage of appropriated water is increasing. Together with spatial and temporal variations in available water, the consequence is that water for all our uses is becoming scarce and leading to a water crisis (UNWWAP , pp. 8-9).

Food

Further, we may maintain an interest in global food production. Some authors suggest that we may come up against hard limits to agriculture's abilities to provide food-security to a population exceeding nine billions by 2050, yet others are more ambiguous in their findings:

Our analysis suggests that continuing advancements in agricultural technology and expertise will greatly increase world food production in the decades ahead; but it is doubtful that the increase will be large enough to supply the expanding food needs of the planet's human population, the growth rate of which is expected to exceed that of agricultural production over the next half-century. When the productivity-enhancing effects of the ongoing rise in the air's CO2 concentration are additionally considered, however, world agriculture is predicted to be able to meet world food needs. But since rising CO2 concentrations are considered by many people to be the primary cause of global warming, we are faced with a dilemma of major proportions. If proposed regulations restricting anthropogenic CO2 emissions (which are designed to remedy the potential climate problem) are enacted, they will exacerbate the future food problem by reducing the CO2-induced stimulation of crop productivity needed to supply future world food requirements not provided by expected advances in agricultural technology and expertise (Idso & Idso, 1999).

Findings of such ambiguity and with such open-ended outcomes must cause one to examine the options which are hinted at in this summary. What would be the results if we were to accept increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in our air? Would that contribute to global warming? What would be the outcomes if we were to restrict carbon-dioxide concentrations through global accords? Could we abide the increasing numbers of the malnourished?

What May the Future Hold? Promise, or Problems?

Futurism is all about asking questions, and not accepting the answers to one's questions as anything other than a signpost pointing to more and better questions to be asked. Futurism is also about speculation on the unknown, and occasionally upon the unknowable, and sometimes Futurism is about dreams, and vision. Straightforward projection of known trends cannot always predict the actual shape of things to come. For example, in the 1920s it would not be reasonable to predict that the early mid-century development of penicillin, streptomycin, and a variety of other antibiotics would practically eradicate entire classes of historical scourges of mankind, permitting the population to rise to levels far beyond those which ordinarily would have assured propagation of epidemics. Yet by 1951, C.M. Kornbluth published his groundbreaking and widely-read short-story The Marching Morons, which predicted a future overpopulated by dolts, barely kept functioning by increasingly sophisticated systems maintained by a dwindling population of desperate intelligentsia. Kornbluth may have been the first science-fiction writer to have analyzed social trends and projected them in a realistic story (Severing, 1996), but--regardless of accuracy of predictions--his work does not rise to the level of "Futurism" as it does not include citations of peer-reviewed research. Yet still he was able to point towards many milestones along the road to future horror, many of which are well-documented.

Urbanization continues apace. By 2007 one half of the world's population will live in urbanized areas, and already some 75 percent of the populations in the "more developed regions" lived in urban areas in 2000 (UNESA, 2002, Tables p. 1). UNESA further points out that:

Almost all of the population increase expected during 2000-2030 will be absorbed by the urban areas of the less developed regions whose population will likely rise from approximately 2 billion in 2000 to just under 4 billion in 2030. The urban population of the more developed regions is expected to increase slowly, passing from 0.9 billion in 2000 to 1 billion in 2030. [...] During 2000-2030, the world's urban population is projected to grow at an average annual rate of 1.8 per cent, nearly double the rate expected for the total population of the world (1 per cent per year). At that rate of growth, the world's urban population will double in 38 years (table 1).

Yet Urbanization may very well have its limits:

The logic of urbanization is clear--those countries that urbanized most in the past forty years are generally those with the largest economic growth. Urban areas, generally, provide the economic resources to install water supply and sanitation, but they also concentrate wastes. Where good waste management is lacking, urban areas are among the world's most life-threatening environments (UNWWAP, 2003, p. 15).

There may be other problems facing us in the future. Marine fisheries have increasingly been a source of protein, yet it seems that perhaps we must re-examine our approaches to harvesting the bounty of the sea:

Industrialized fisheries typically reduced community biomass by 80% within 15 years of exploitation. Compensatory increases in fast-growing species were observed, but often reversed within a decade. Using a meta-analytic approach, we estimate that large predatory fish biomass today is only about 10% of pre-industrial levels. We conclude that declines of large predators in coastal regions have extended throughout the global ocean, with potentially serious consequences for ecosystems. Our analysis suggests that management based on recent data alone may be misleading, and provides minimum estimates for unexploited communities, which could serve as the missing baseline needed for future restoration efforts.

Ecological communities on continental shelves and in the open ocean contribute almost half of the planet's primary production, and sustain three-quarters of global fishery yields. The widespread decline and collapse of major fish stocks has sparked concerns about the effects of overfishing on these communities. Historical data from coastal ecosystems suggest that losses of large predatory fishes, as well as mammals and reptiles, were especially pronounced, and precipitated marked changes in coastal ecosystem structure and function (Myers, 2003).

Clearly, a wealth of information is available. Yet, perhaps too few are engaged in the practice of integration of this information through systematic analysis of present trends for presentation to decision-makers in terms readily comprehensible to decision-makers, or perhaps there is insufficient comprehension on the part of decision-makers. We do appear to be on a path towards global catastrophe, and would appear to be endangered by a variety of forces almost entirely of our own making, and many of these forces seem to continue to gather strength simply because those who are empowered to make decisions either make no decisions or make decisions which are ineffective, or which are simply wrong. We must hope that this is due to their lack of information detailing where dangers lurk, or where potential solutions are to be found, and that a remedy may be enabled by properly informing the decision-makers.

Thus, my ongoing interests in a career in Futurism:

We care a lot [...] because we're out to save the world.
It's a dirty job but someone's got to do it (Faith No More, 1985).



References:

AOA/DHHS (Administration on Aging, US Department of Health and Human Services), Aging into the 21st century. Retrieved on Jun 23 2003 from http://www.aoa.dhhs.gov/aoa/stats/aging21/

Doman, Linda, EIA/DOE (Energy Information Administration/US Department of Energy).
International energy outlook 2003: World energy consumption. Retrieved on Jun 23 2003 from http://www.eia.doe.gov/oiaf/ieo/world.html

Faith No More (1985). We care a lot. We care a lot[LP]. Sacramento: Mordam Records

Idso, Craig D., & Idso, Keith E. (1999). Forecasting world food supplies: The impact of the rising atmospheric CO2 concentration. Summary. Retrieved on Jun 23, 2003 from:

http://www.greeningearthsociety.org/Articles/1999/averts/averts1.htm

Myers, Ranson A. & Worm, Boris (2003). Rapid worldwide depletion of predatory fish communities. Biology Dept., Dalhousie University, Halifax Nova Scotia Canada.

Retrieved on Jun 24, 2003 from http://www.dal.ca/~bworm/Myers_Worm_2003.pdf. Archived at http://www.radicalcenter.org/archive/Myers_Worm_2003.pdf on Mar 29, 2007.

Rivlin, A. M., & Wiener, J. M. with Hanley, R., & Spence, D. (1988). Caring for the disabled elderly: Who will pay? Table 2-4 (pp. 30-50) Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.

Severing, Heribert E. (1996, 2002) Gone but not forgotten: Science fiction genius C. M. Kornbluth. Retrieved on Jun 24, 2003 from http://www.severing.nu/cmk.htm

UNCPD (United Nations Commission on Population and Development) (2002).
Highlights, world population prospects, 2002 revision. Retrieved on Jun 23, 2003 from http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/wpp2002/WPP2002-HIGHLIGHTSrev1.PDF

UNESA (United Nations Population Division Department of Economic and Social Affairs)
World urbanization prospects. (2002). Retrieved on Jun 25, 2003 from http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/wup2001/WUP2001report.htm
World urbanization prospects: Data tables and highlights. (2002). Retrieved on Jun 25, 2003 from http://www.un.org/esa/population/publications/wup2001/wup2001dh.pdf

UNWWAP (United Nations World Water Assessment Programme) (2003).

Water for people, water for life: Executive summary. Retrieved Jun 23, 2003 from http://www.unesco.org/water/wwap/wwdr/ex_summary/ex_summary_en.pdf

WFS (World Future Society), Welcome to the World Future Society website. Retrieved on Jun 23, 2003 from http://www.wfs.org/