In thinking about mankind’s future, one can be either an optimist or a pessimist.
Let’s start with an optimistic mindset. Taking a long view of mankind’s history, humans have moved far beyond the Neanderthal stage and today homo sapiens are the dominant human species. Humans have passed through the hunter/gatherer stage, the agricultural stage, and the industrial stage. Post-industrial mankind is equipped with the tools of science and technology. World poverty has been substantially reduced. Wars are fewer and less disastrous. Many people around the world own homes, drive cars, and have steady jobs.
If one wants to be optimistic about mankind’s future, read Steven Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now.[i] Steven Pinker is a Harvard professor of cognitive psychology. His basic argument is that humans have made substantial progress in every single measure of human well-being. He supports this with seventy-five charts of the timeline behavior of human well-being variables such as longevity, income, democracy, equal rights, safety, literacy, sustenance, and happiness. Each well-being indicator improves over time, not evenly, but substantially. Since the end of the Cold War, the world has experienced fewer civil wars, genocides, and autocracies. Since the 1950s, the world experienced “a cascade of Rights Revolutions including civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, children’s rights, and animal rights.”
Pinker acknowledges that some well-being indicators can worsen for a time, but their general movement shows improved well-being. Most people are not aware of this progress. Our daily news focuses on bad happenings. News editors prefer the approach of “if it bleeds, it leads.” Our daily headlines carry awful stories of war, terrorism, crime, pollution, inequality, drug abuse, and oppression. We are constantly reminded of existential threats of overpopulation, resource shortages, and nuclear war. Readers end up with a pessimistic mind-set, often with a feeling of existential anxiety.
Pinker hopes to make a convincing case for optimism. An optimist believes that the world could be made much better than it is today. He hopes that we will see “newborns who will live more than eight decades, markets overflowing with food, clean water that appears with a flick of a finger and waste that disappears with another, pills that erase a painful infection, sons who are not sent off to war, daughters who can walk the streets in safety, critics of the powerful who are not jailed or shot, the world’s knowledge and culture available in a shirt pocket.”
Pinker summarizes where mankind stands today:
“We live longer, suffer less, learn more, get smarter, and enjoy more small pleasures and rich experiences…Fewer of us are killed, assaulted, enslaved, oppressed, or exploited.”
Are we better off as Pinker suggests? The answer is yes if you read Seth Godin’s description of life in the year 1960.[ii]
The world was a twitch away from total nuclear destruction. White bread was a health food. Diabetes and obesity were relatively rare. The newspaper was the way most people heard about the news. We thought things were moving very fast, frighteningly fast. Women rarely worked outside the home, and the Rev. King was a relatively unknown preacher. No one owned a computer. The number of books published every year was quite small, as was the local bookstore. It was almost impossible to spend more than 45 minutes a day keeping up with current events. It was against the law for blacks and whites to marry in Virginia, and for gay couples to marry just about anywhere. Apartheid was mostly unremarked upon in the US. UPS never came to your house. A long-distance phone call was a big deal. Air conditioning was rare, bottled water had not been invented yet, there were no billionaires, there were three or four channels of TV, movies were only shown in movie theaters, and most dangerous diseases would certainly kill you. The air and water were clean, but we were working overtime to make them dirty. Congress wasn’t a version of pro wrestling. Milk came in only one formulation (whole), you probably worked at the same company for a very long time and relatively few people went to college.
We can agree that mankind’s past presents a record of human progress. The question, however, is whether human progress will continue? Will the great majority of human beings continue to progress to enjoy more satisfying lives?
Or can pessimists make the case that human progress is over and the future of mankind will be marked by anxiety and despair.
We know that young children worry about many things, such as losing their parents, getting injured, not have enough to eat. And full grown adults carry many worries about their future. Michelle Goldberg, the New York Times journalist, described her observation:[iii]
“Pessimism is everywhere: in opinion polls, in rising suicide rates and falling birthrates, and in the downwardly mobile trajectory of millennials. It’s political and it’s cultural. At some point in the last few years, a feeling has set in that the future is being foreclosed. When, in the 1970s, the Sex Pistols sang “There is no future,” there was at least a confrontational relish to it. Now there’s just dread.”
Adults need to discuss not only their personal fears about their own future but also their nightmares about the future of mankind. Mankind is haunted by seven different nightmares about mankind’s future. These nightmares, starting with the worse, are:
- The planet ends.
- The planet can no longer feed and support 7.7 billion people.
- The planet will be awash with water damage and water shortages.
- Robots and AI will take over most jobs and create mass unemployment.
- A great war will break out between the U.S. and China.
- Civil unrest will grow with fighting between the haves and have-nots.
- Countries will increasingly fall under authoritarian leaders and Fascism
What are the sources of these nightmares? Can we estimate a probability of occurrence for each nightmare? Are there actions that mankind can take to prevent these nightmares from occurring?
Let examine the underpinnings of each nightmare.
- The Planet Ends
Some distinguished thinkers, including Elon Musk, worry that planet earth will expire at some point. This would mean the end of mankind as well. Mankind clearly needs to find another planet to inhabit. It could be the moon, but if earth is destroyed, the moon might also collapse. Elon Musk is betting on Mars as the best second best planet to live on. His aerospace company, Space X, is working to set up Mars as mankind’s next habitat. During the next few years, Space X will send supplies of water and equipment to Mars. By 2024, Space X will send its five month space mission to Mars with a crew ready to live on Planet Mars.
The fear that the earth will end has many sources.
- That the earth will be hit by a major asteroid. Some scientists estimated that a 7.5 mile-wide asteroid crashed into the ocean 66 million years ago in a port town in Mexico with an impact that wiped out the majority of dinosaurs.
- That the sun will die. Many stars die millions of years after birth. When a star runs out of hydrogen fuel, it will contract under the weight of gravity.
- That the earth’s oxygen will disappear or be insufficient to support life.
- That the earth’s temperature might rise to unlivable levels of heat or conversely, temperature might fall to freezing levels that will kill all life.
- That the earth will be hit by solar flares. A solar flare is a sudden release of solar magnetic energy that emits radiation that can kill human life.
- That the earth will be infected by a mass disease like the Spanish flu of 1918 that infected 500 million people worldwide and killed an estimated 20 to 50 million victims.
The main concern is that these events are non-predictable and non-preventable. Most earthlings would be smart not to waste time worrying about the end of the earth because they can do little about it. Leave the “end of the earth” concerns to the imagination of science fiction writers.
- The Planet Can No Longer Feed and Support 7.7 Billion People
The second nightmare has to do with world population growth. In 1970, the world population was 3.7 billion. By 2011, the world population grew to 7.0 billion. Today (2020) the world population stands at 7.7 billion. The UN expects the world population to grow to 9.8 billion by 2050. The nightmare would be that the earth cannot feed so large a population. The amount of arable land is limited and the top soil is getting poorer. Several parts of our oceans are dead zones with no living marine life.
A recent book, Empty Planet by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson, takes issue with the U.N.’s forecast and believes that population will eventually decline.[iv] They see global population peaking around 2050 at 8.5 billion and declining by 2100 to 7 or 8 billion. They cite the declining fertility rates in many countries. In Japan, women want a career and prefer no or few children, especially because their husbands don’t help their wives in raising children. The more empowered women are, the more likely they will want fewer children. The more people who move from rural to urban areas, the fewer the number of births. More than 70 percent of the world’s population now live in urban areas where food, housing and clothing costs are high. In the U.S., the poor depend on government food stamps and other programs. Recently President Trump said that he would hope to move 3 million people off food stamps. This is disturbing.
Is the earth able to support even 7.7 billion people? In the world, 800 million people can’t get enough calories. Two billion can’t get enough nutrients. More children will inflate our medical costs in a vicious circle.
Dr. Christopher Kevin Tucker, author of A Planet of 3 Billion, claims that the largest population that the earth [v]can support is 3 billion![vi] He is the President of the American Geographical Society and says that we need to eat less meat, use our water more carefully, and take another set of steps. He warns that “humanity’s century-long binge has incurred an unsustainable ecological debt that must be paid down promptly, or else cataclysm awaits.” He wants us to go back to the 3.7 billion that populated the early during the First Earth Day in 1970. He is aware that we can’t bring the human population down from 7.7 billion to 3 billion but makes us aware that overpopulation is a major problem that has been neglected.
- The Planet Will be Awash with Water Damage and Water Shortages
Even if we find a way to feed all the people in the world, we will still face a set of water catastrophes. The first problem is whether the earth can supply people with enough fresh and drinkable water. About 2.5% of the Earth’s water is freshwater. But only 31 percent of this water is accessible because 69% is in the form of ice cap and glaciers in places like the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheet. Given that 31 percent of the 2.5% fresh water is available, equates to 1% of all the water is fresh. A further worry is that salt water is penetrating fresh water areas that will require more expensive desalinization applications to take place. Of the 1% freshwater, most of the third world countries don’t have the resources to provide safe and clean water. Many deaths occur in India due to the poor quality of drinking water, a problem that Bill Gates addressed recently in his campaign to help India sanitize its water supply.
The second problem is flooding. As our economy continue to release green gases and methane into the atmosphere, these heat trapping elements cause the ocean to heat and glaciers to melt, resulting in raising the sea level. The tragedy is dramatized by the sight of polar bears left standing on a fragment of floating ice facing imminent death. The rising sea level is flooding coastal cities such as Miami, New Orleans, Venice and many others. Whole barrier islands will get covered with water and many important cities and countries will face hardship and destruction.
A third problem is the destruction of marine life. Many species of fish depend on healthy coral reefs in the ocean. Unfortunately many coral are dying due to ocean acidification and diseases. Furthermore tons of plastic and other industrial items enter the ocean and kill many species.
The good news is that steps are being undertaken by major environmental firms to reverse the destructive effects of industrialization. The economy’s growth has depended for its energy on nonrenewable sources such as coal, oil, and gas, all of which produce CO2 and heat the earth’s air and water. Slowly the world is turning to solar, wind and other forms of renewable energy that is not carbon-producing. A good case can be made for countries to turn to nuclear energy that does not pollute the earth’s atmosphere. Other measures are to help companies, farmers and citizens to conserve water more carefully and distribute it more equitably. Otherwise, there will be a large number of places suffering from inadequate water supply while other places are awash with too much water covering and drowning their landscape.
- Robots and AI Will Take Over Most Jobs and Create Mass Unemployment
During most of human history, mankind had to do hard work physically and mentally to procure and provide sufficient food, clothing and shelter. Early man had to gather food from plants and kill animals. They moved from hunting/gathering to farming and animal husbandry that required great physical effort throughout the year. Industrialization brought them into factories and offices requiring a variety of physical and mental work. Advances in technology and the digital age made it possible to carry out some jobs with mechanical equipment and electrical energy. To reduce labor costs, enterprises examined every job that could be done at lower cost by mechanical and electrical means and computer programs. Many physical jobs were replaced by machines and assembly lines. Many mental jobs were replaced by algorithms and artificial intelligence. Accountants had less work to do. Lawyers could search for court cases more quickly. Grocery clerks might became less necessary as new type groceries are managed by sensors, facial recognition and credit cards. Deliveries can done by drones or automated trucks, not requiring so many truck drivers.
Does this sound like a nightmare or a blessing? It is nice to have less work or simpler work but the disappearance of jobs mean the disappearance of wages. If most work can be automated and done without human effort, the result is mass unemployment. The first problem is how to get an income when there is no job? The second problem is what are workers to do when they no longer have to work?
The most logical solution to the income loss is UBI, the. UBI is Universal Basic Income a model for providing all citizens of a country with a given monthly sum of money, regardless of their income, resources or employment status. The government would raise some of this money by cutting other social programs designed to support people with insufficient income. Some of this money would come from passing higher income taxes on the wealthy, including a wealth tax. The rest of the money would come by the government printing more money. UBI could take other forms, such as not paid to persons with adequate incomes, and money being deposited to each baby born, not to be available until age 18.
What about the problem of workers having no work. Persons who have had a job all their life have a difficult time in retirement. If they had no hobbies, or learning interests, or travel interests, they are left with watching television or card playing for entertainment. Fortunately, there is a growing literature on how to spend time enjoying leisure.[vii] The economist John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s predicted that his grandkids would work just 15 hours a week. He imagined that we would basically work Monday and Tuesday, and then have a five-day weekend. He thought his kids could lead a wonderful life this way.
- A Great War Will Break Out Between the U.S. and China.
The fifth nightmare is that another great global world war will break out, possibly between the U.S. and China. Another great global world war is not likely to happen if there is a prevailing superpower nation with great military strength that behaves wisely and no one dares to attack. This was the U.S.’s position during the thirty years following the Second World War. Fortunately, two of the powerful but defeated states, Germany and Japan, had converted into peaceful states. They were able to grow their economic and political power through peace means rather than through war. Russia, U.S.’s partner during World War 2, sought to challenge U.S. power in what erupted as the Cold War. The U.S. worked hard to contain Russia’s expansion and power, and this kept war from breaking out. The falling of the Berlin War in November 9, 1989 marked the end of the Cold War and the fall of communism in Eastern and Central Europe.
In the 1980s, China’s growth took off rapidly. China became the “world’s factory” in supplying the rest of the world with cheap consumer products. China turned to technology and built a large number of steel plants and used the steel to construct skyscrapers and modern railroads and dams. China then invested heavily in the digital revolution building major software companies such as Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu (their answer to Amazon, Facebook, and Google). Then China came up with the brilliant idea of building a “belt and road system” that would facilitate the movement of its goods from China all the way to Europe, using mainly its own labor and finances. By bringing construction and businesses into surrounding countries and financing their development, China acquired political power and respect and occasionally took over assets from foreign businesses that couldn’t pay back their loans. Today the world faces two great powers, the U.S. and China, each with a very different political system. The U.S relies of private enterprise company for it economic growth. China also relies on many strong private companies but the difference is that China does much more long term planning and has greater influence on its state and private companies and their policies. The economic battle is between a highly decentralized economy that observes well-accepted business norms and a highly centralized economy that steals technologies from abroad, keeps some its important markets closed or at a disadvantage to foreign companies, and keeps its currency artificially low.
No one is saying that China or the U.S. is likely to decide to go to war. China can continue to gain more wealth and power through peaceful means than through war. The U.S. sees China doing its best to gain power in the South China sea and continues to engage in some unbusiness-like activities that irritate the U.S. The U.S. initiated the trade war with China believing that China would easily slow down and change its ways. But the trade war hasn’t ended and has produced a great cost to both nations. China continues to build its navy and its military strength, as the U.S. does the same. Hopefully, no major incident or issue occurs to bring either party to start a war with the other.
Wars can still break out in other areas, such as with Iran or an unsettled situation in Syria or the middle east. But none seem to pose more than a regional war. not a global world war.
- Civil Unrest Will Grow with Fighting Between The Haves And Have-Nots
One can imagine a long period of civil unrest coming out of an enduring polarization of the two political parties that refuse to get along or compromise. As long as the income difference grows larger between the haves and have-nots, the have-nots, if organized, will go after the wealthy. Major social revolutions have taken place in the past in the Russian Revolution, the Chinese Revolution and in other areas. In the United States, some white supremists groups are gathering arms and expressing their discontent with migrants, politicians, or the wealthy class. They wave their guns and in some cases act as “domestic terrorists.”
The wealthy have to do more than just build high fences and hire guards as they often do in South American countries. They have to moderate their gains and allow more money to flow into the pockets of the poor and the working class. There are now some well-known billionaires such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates asking to pay higher top rate income taxes and higher wages to the working class. Politicians and political parties must call for more equity in the sharing of the fruits of productivity gains and the gross national product.
- Countries Will Increasingly Fall Under Authoritarian Leaders and Fascism
Civil unrest and disappointment can breed populist politicians who outline and promise good sounding reforms to get elected. Once in power, they do their best to divide the population between those for them and those against them. They describe certain groups as plotting against them or lying about them. They charge that the press is against them and creating and distributing fake information. They complain about the decisions coming out of biased judges. They oppose investigations into their activities and vilify their critics. In the end, they become autocrats or dictators and few people have the courage to attack them or speak against them.
We have seen the rise of authoritarian leaders and the slipping of democracy in such countries as Turkey, Poland, Hungary, Philippines and elsewhere. It is as if the public is crying for stability and ready to support a leader who is willing to suppress noisy critics.
Countries need a strong set of institutions that provide checks and balances. The executive must be subject to the will of the elected legislators. Both have to support to the basic principles of their Constitution as assessed by a free and unbiased Supreme Court.
Three Alternative Policies for Moderating these Nightmares
Why do I present these seven nightmares? Partly because many citizens are distressed or displeased with the way things are going. Many feel deep anger, fear or hopelessness. The seven nightmares have different probabilities of occurrence and present different levels of harm. Not all nightmares can be addressed by one platform. There is a need to shape a vision of the future that might make gain wide support from a majority of citizens.
What becomes clear is that there are three competing visions for how to best respond to these nightmares. They are:
(1) the standard economic growth model,
(2) the degrowth, depopulation model,
(3) the wealth redistribution model.
- The Standard Economic Growth Model
The U.S. has been applying the standard economic growth model through its history and it has yielded a high level of economic growth and prosperity. The model grants a high level of economic freedom for business leaders to use market forces to build their businesses, jobs and incomes. The government plays a background role in providing defense, civil services, infrastructure of roads and ports, public education and public safety, all of which are needed for businesses to perform profitably. The government avoids directing the economy but does respond with remedies when threatening situations arise, such as recessions, disease outbreaks, or weather related emergencies.
This model is likely to continue because it has worked so well in raising the living standards of citizens. But the same model produces some of our nightmares, such as the overheating of the planet, the deteriorating condition of the oceans, the overconcentration of wealth and the continuation of poverty and inadequate incomes.
- The Degrowth, Depopulation Model
A number of economists and social critics have proposed replacing the standard economic growth model with a degrowth, depopulation model. They fear that the planet’s carrying capacity cannot well support even today’s 7.7 billion people, let alone the predicted 9.8 billion forecasted for 2050. They predict that a growing number of people will go hungry, lack water, get ill and lead to earlier death or rebellion and turn to authoritarian leaders full of promises that they cannot deliver.
The degrowth, depopulation model calls for taking a number of bold steps.
- Getting citizens and companies to switch away from nonrenewable energy (coal, oil, gas) to renewable energy from solar, wind, and possibly nuclear energy.
- Training people, companies and farmers to use less water and share fairly its water with water-deprived areas.
- Getting people to buy less clothing and reuse, recycle or redistribute clothing to others
- Getting companies to do a better job of designing their products and distribution systems to minimize waste and short lived products.
This de-growth model also calls for efforts to reduce population growth. This means an active effort to encourage families to have fewer children. Consider China’s “one child” policy:
China made this decision in 1979 (after a decade-long two-child policy) to better control its population growth. A second child would go without the benefits enjoyed by the first child. The family would be shamed for trying to have more than one child. The policy was partly aimed at rural and religious groups who believed in larger families needed for labor and to provide assistance to parents in old age. The one-child policy led some families to abort or kill female children when x-rays showed that the pregnant woman was bearing a daughter, not a son. Giving birth to only one son led to the phenomenon of the “boy king” whose family did everything possible to please the boy. After all, this boy would be responsible as an adult to provide and protect his parents when they were old.
In 2016, the Chinese government changed the policy to permit families to have two children. The government saw a new problem emerging in the form of not enough girls for the sons to marry. The government had successful limited population growth but at a high price.
The depopulation movement does not have to be one of limiting families to having only one or two children. The real need is to sell “family planning” accompanied by a wide distribution of condoms and other means of preventing pregnancies. Thailand was able to reduce its population birthrate from 7 children per family to 2 children per family. Thailand’s Population and Community Development Association (PDA) gave a prize to Dr. Mechai Viravaidya, who passionately promoted condoms to the Thai public. He spoke at a variety of events, proclaiming “The condom is a great friend. You can blow a balloon with it. You can get it in different colors. You can get it at toolbooths and washrooms.”
The real need is to discourage families who habitually or religiously insist on having a large number of children. The Catholic church sees children as a blessing and encourages Catholic families to have as many children as possible. A similar attitude occurs in Muslim families. In rural communities in developing countries, families would like to have six children because three of them are likely to die in childhood, leaving three children to help work in the farm. What this means is that depopulation promotion calls for different strategies and appeals put out to different groups. This also calls for continuing to empower women to stand up for their right to say how many children they will have and to marry the right men who agree to their wish.
- The Wealth Redistribution Model
Getting citizens to move from the standard economic growth model to the degrowth, depopulation model is likely to produce hardship for a number of people. With slower economic growth, there will be fewer jobs and lower incomes. It is not fair to let a substantial number of lower income people to bear even more pain and suffering for the sake of bringing down the population size. Those who are unemployed have to receive financial support and social welfare. If the government supports the unemployed by printing money, this is likely to produce inflation and the rise in prices will fall heavily on those who are already poor. The answer has to be passing more taxes on the wealthy, in the form of a higher top income tax rate and possibly a wealth tax. The average CEO who used to be paid about 20-40 times what the average worker in their firm earned today is paid over 300 times what the average worker in their firm is paid. Why should a huge number of citizens be without a basic standard of living while a small class of people live with much more wealth than they ever need. There are not only people who have achieved a wealth of 1 billion dollars but many billionaires have many billions of dollars. The economic system seems rigged to a lot of citizens and if this gets worse, this can lead to rebellions or authoritarian leaders who suppress the rebellion. Citizens need to discuss their views on how much wealth disparity is too much. The question is increasingly being asked: “Should billionaires exist?”
The article has described seven nightmares that no longer should be hidden under a rug. They all deserve extended discussion. Some nightmares are extreme and not very likely to happen being very preventable. Other nighmares are quite real and threaten to change our lives drastically. We do not need to overheat our planet and allow our cities to be flooded and our oceans destroyed of marine life. We can use technology to grow more food and create less waste. We can reduce our physical labor and improve our lives with robots and AI. When unemployment strikes, we can give financial support through generous social welfare programs. We can try to avoid wars and use soft power to calm warring parties. We need to provide a more equitable distribution of income and strive to eliminate poverty. We need to expose politicians presenting false claims and cures about what can realistically be done to improve people’s lives. Where there is life, there is hope.
[i] Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, Viking, 2018.
[ii] Seth Godin, “58 Years Ago”, July 18, 2018.
[iii] Michelle Goldberg, “Darkness Where the Future Should Be,” The New York Times, January 26, 2020.
[iv] Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson, Empty Planet, New York, Crown, 2019.
[vi] Christopher Kevin Tucker, A Planet of 3 Billion, kindle edition, 2019.
[vii] Henry A. Feldman, 40,000 Hours: Optimizing Retirement, 2019.