Two Takes on the Future

by Stephen Morris

Yuval Noah Harari (@harari_yuval) | Twitter

[This was written just before the Pandemic showed us that all our brilliant futurists are no smarter than the rest of us.. SB SM]

Amid the concern about global warming … er, climate change … er, climate crisis, two recent reads have put a different spin on what we might expect from the future. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari makes the point that humankind has managed to rein in traditional cause of death such as famine, plague, and war. For the first time ever, more people die from eating too much than from eating too little; more people die from old age than from infectious diseases; and more people commit suicide than are killed by soldiers, terrorists, and criminals put together.

Harari asks what will replace famine, plague, and war at the top of the human agenda? As the self-made gods of planet Earth, what destinies will we set ourselves, and which quests will we undertake? Homo Deus explores the projects, dreams, and nightmares that will shape the 21st century – from overcoming death to creating artificial life. It asks the fundamental questions: Where do we go from here? And how will we protect this fragile world from our own destructive powers?

Harari’s answer is in his title. We will become gods, or maybe even God. We will live forever.

A different answer is hinted at in Empty Planet by John Ibbitson and Darrell Bricker. For the past half a century statisticians, pundits, and politicians have warned that a burgeoning population will soon overwhelm the earth’s resources. A growing number of experts are sounding a different alarm. Rather than continuing to increase exponentially, they argue, the global population is headed for a steep decline—and in many countries, that decline has already begun. A smaller global population will bring with it many benefits: fewer workers will command higher wages; the environment will improve; the risk of famine will wane; and falling birthrates in the developing world will bring greater affluence and autonomy for women. 

Could this provide the antidote to climate change that technology, thus far, has failed to produce? Not so fast. The authors warn that enormous disruption lies ahead, too. Aging populations and worker shortages weaken the economy and impose crippling demands on healthcare and social security, impacts that we are already experiencing.

Empty Planet offers a vision of a future that we can no longer prevent, but can possibly influence. The world is undeniably becoming more urbanized. Urbanization causes a drop in the fertility rate, for three reasons. On the farm, children are a profit center. Not so in Manhattan. Second, urbanized women choose to have fewer children. Third, urbanization in today’s world often weakens traditional family ties and replaces their social functions with networks of friends, co-workers, and affinity groups that do not exert pressure to have more children. Other factors at work include the diminished role of the church, improved contraception, availability of abortion, and the economic need for dual incomes.

At some point, the authors argue, the trends become self-perpetuating. Fewer children mean fewer women to bear new children, but simultaneously “Employment patterns change, childcare and schools are reduced, and there is a shift from a family/child oriented society to an individualistic society, with children part of individual fulfillment and well-being.” Said differently, it’s a societal choice.

The authors predict population will top out at nine billion by around 2050 (it is seven billion now) and then decline. Some declines will be most precipitous in China, currently at 1.4 billion but reduced to 560 million people by the end of the century. This is the polar opposite view of what we were told in the 1960s and 1970s by futurists like Paul Ehrlich and the authors of The Limits to Growth.

Governments, historically, have proved relatively ineffective in controlling birth rates. Global migrations of the human species tend to be more influential, as is apparent in reading the headlines in today’s newspapers. The authors’ solution to the empty planet is for the country to admit many immigrants from the Third World, but to be discriminating in terms of letting in only individuals with needed skills. Therefore, their “solution” is a band aid on a gushing wound.

Simultaneously, the authors sing the praises of small families. Parents devote more time and resources to raising the child and provide a positive role models of a working father and working mother. Women stand equally with men in the home and the workplace. Small families are synonymous with enlightened, advanced societies. Their positive portrayal, however, seems to be at odds with their basic premise that we are headed for a population collapse. Inevitably, our future will “involve smaller families, empowered women, rampant consumerism, and complicated romantic and family relationships.”
An unintended consequence of lower population will be the achievement of many of the goals associated with global warming … er, climate change … er, climate crisis. But don’t count on it. The future has a knack for charting its own course. Think of Malthus, Ehrlich, The Jetsons, Peak Oil, or Y2K. While thought-provoking, Empty Planet’s imagined world of the future will probably seem quaintly anachronistic by the time Homo Deus has evolved.

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