Last week I wrote about the rising curve of human technology since the 17th century and suggested what it might mean for the future. Now I’m going to dip a toe in the perilous waters of future gazing and see where, in the short term, such technologies might lead us.
But first, a few looks back, to see how quickly things have changed.
When the Washington Monument was completed in 1888, it was capped with a small pyramidal casting made of aluminum, chosen because it was likely to be a good lightning conductor. At the time, aluminum was fairly rare as a metal. It was not more valuable than platinum, as some have suggested, but it cost about $1 per ounce, which was the typical daily wage of the average construction worker on the monument.1 Although aluminum is a fairly common element in the Earth’s surface, being bound with oxygen in crystals of alum, Al2O3, found in the red earth bauxite, it took large amounts of electricity to drive off the oxygen—and electricity was in short supply in the mid-19th century. Within fifty years, after the building of large hydroelectric dams in the U.S. West, aluminum became widely available—plentiful enough to dominate the skies with airframes made during World War II, and then cheap enough to make building siding, lawn furniture, and throwaway cans in the years after. Aluminum is the wonder metal of the 20th century, along with titanium and stainless steel.
And at the turn of that last century, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture,2 41 percent of the American workforce was employed in farming. By 1930, that number had shrunk by about half to 21.5 percent; by 1945, to 16 percent; by 1970, to 4 percent, and by 2000, to less than 2 percent. Credit for the change goes to improved use of machinery and its overall efficiency; changes in land use, with larger “factory farms” and the loss of the picturesque but noncompetitive “family farm”; and the “green revolution” in the production and use of fertilizers and weed and pest controls, as well as the genetic modification of crops. All of those chemical and biological developments are still in play and will only increase in their use and effectiveness. So we can count on the next hundred years bringing us new hybrid crops and tougher, more robust, more nutritious food resources. The only limiting factors will be arable land and fresh water—and even the supply of those may change.
Okay, let’s start with water. Right now, humanity depends on two sources for the water it uses for drinking, bathing, toilet flushing, and irrigation: rain and snow falling from the sky and running off in the local river; and ancient rains trapped in subsurface groundwater and aquifers that are tapped by wells. The more use we make of those aquifers—which collect slowly over the ages and drain quickly under pressure and pumping—the less we have for the future. But the world’s surface is three-quarters water, just that most of it is laden with mineral salts and thus undrinkable and unsuitable for farming. We have known how to filter out the salts by reverse osmosis since the middle of the 18th century. We could live by this process today, except for the fact that it’s costly. But the cost is not so much in the plants themselves and their placement as in the energy they require. (And the cost has actually dropped for flash desalination, from $30 per cubic meter in the 1960s to about $1 in 2010.) If you have abundant electric energy to run the pumps, you can have all the desalinized sea water you can drink.
So the key to the future of our water supply, our agricultural irrigation, and our population growth in general is going to be energy. Right now, like it or not, our most abundant energy resource is fossil fuels: coal, oil, and gas. Coal is abundant—we have about a thousand-year supply in North America at current consumption—but bulky to move and messy to clean up. Oil and gas can be piped to their users, and while we recently thought we were running out of easily tapped reserves—the specter of “peak oil”—technological advances in the form of horizontal drilling and hydrofracturing of oil and gas shales have extended our future. But—thinking in terms of centuries rather than years or decades—one day we will run out. And, in the meantime, hydrocarbons are much more precious as a chemical feedstock than as an energy source. Wind and solar power, being diffuse resources dependent on adequate siting, will not replace hydrocarbons in our energy future—not unless we change the landscape, harvesting solar power in orbit and beaming it down to huge diode fields on the planet’s surface, as in my novel Sunflowers, or planting windmills in mechanical forests along every ridgeline, as if they were trees.
But what I call the “enterprise of science” is well aware of the energy problem. Physicists and engineers all over the developed world are studying its production and storage from many angles. Although fusion power, electricity from the deuterium and tritium in sea water, always seems to be ten years off into the future, always receding from our grasp, one day we will figure out how to produce it, even if we have to invent artificial gravity to make it work. And once we have the design and formula worked out, we can adapt and scale it for efficiency. Biologists are at work, too, trying to use our newfound genetic ingenuity to manipulate algae into growing and secreting lipids, or hydrocarbon substitutes, from water and sunlight without adding to—but rather subtracting from—the atmosphere’s carbon-dioxide burden.
And about that carbon dioxide, greenhouse gases, climate change? All of that is this year’s daily fright, like Malthusian overpopulation or the collapse of “peak oil.” Listen: climate has always been changing, and people have always adapted to the new conditions. When winters came early and lasted longer at the beginning of the Dark Ages, they migrated south. When coastlines shifted, they moved inland. You can say the difference today is we have billions invested in shoreline real estate that is too valuable to lose. But in the Bay Area, where I live, a lot of that shoreline was saltwater marsh a hundred years ago; in another hundred years, it may be saltwater marsh again. Shrug. Changing climate, like most effects of weather—is an inconvenience, not a catastrophe. Consider the inconvenience of having to shovel tons of snow repeatedly every winter and what it does to the economy to dig out homes and plow the roads after every blizzard. And on the plus side, pushing the snow line further north into Siberia and the Canadian tundra will open up new lands for agriculture.3
And speaking of the Reverend Thomas Malthus and his prediction that human population would rapidly outgrow agricultural resources, leading to worldwide starvation, that didn’t happen, did it? When I was growing up, we heard dire predictions about vastly overpopulated countries like China and India, where people were regularly starving. And Africa, where apparently people are still starving—although much of the famine appears to be genocide by political manipulation of the food supply. We have seen that, as countries develop economically and technologically, with a greater proportion of their population moving into the educated and skilled classes, the population and its growth rate tend to shrink. Much of Europe—at least among the demographic that populated Europe over the past thousand years—is now reproducing below its replacement level, figured at 2.1 children per couple. Japan has been below that rate for decades, and the U.S.—again for the population mix of the last century or so—is trending that way. When people become prosperous and educated, and their medicine saves most of their babies who would otherwise disappear into the infant mortality statistic, they have fewer children and generally treat them better, so they live longer, more productive, more satisfying lives. China, India, Africa, and South America will eventually catch up with this curve before the planet implodes.
Add in the advancements that will come with the genetic revolution in biology and medicine, and most of the medical problems we see today will fade away. We will find ways to target and repair cancer cells. We will resurrect failing hearts and brains through tissue repair. Organ repair and replacement will become a matter of manipulating your own stem cells, as in my two-volume novel Coming of Age, rather than receiving an organ donation—willing or not—from another human being, with a lifetime of immune suppressants to follow. Issues of congenital and developmental conditions, susceptibility to the environmental causes of degeneration and disease, and the mystery of differentials in health and fitness among people will unravel as we analyze, predict, and eventually control all the biological processes of life. People will then live a lot longer, with even richer, more productive lives.
Normally, you would then expect the Ponzi scheme of Social Security and Medicare—where you need more and more young people working to pay for the care of ever more retired parents and grandparents—to collapse. But I don’t expect this to happen, and not because I believe the U.S. Congress will pay back the money it has drained from these funds for other uses. With more automation of materials extraction, manufacturing, and the supply chain and infrastructure that support them, the need for human hands to dig, make, and trade things is rapidly diminishing.4 That trend is only going to accelerate with artificial intelligence, 3D printing, and other physical amplifications of the computer age. The question is not whether we will have enough people to work in the economy, but how people will work to support themselves in the cornucopia of food, goods, services, and entertainments that is going to be showered down upon them.
I once thought that some form of Universal Basic Income—a global and permanent government dole—would be necessary to replace the “Protestant work ethic” with which my generation was raised (or, as my mother would say, “No work, no eat!”). But people are inventive and creative, and a life of easy handouts is not part of human nature. I think, instead, that people faced with an economy of predictable, unexciting, machine-made and -supplied goods and services will return to valuing human artistry and craftsmanship, at least in the areas that interest them. Yes, you can get a basic, particle-board-and-veneer desk at IKEA, but you’ll pay more for something hand carved with a flourish from a renowned local craftsman. And yes, you can watch computer-generated movies on the widescreen most evenings, but you will still hunger to go out and sit in a theater with other human beings to watch real actors speak from story lines reflecting varied human thought.
I am not a Pollyanna. The future won’t be all rosy. There will be dislocations, disruptions, and growing pains in the new world into which we are venturing. But we’ve had those difficulties along the way already and survived them. Our life today is unimaginable to someone living two centuries ago. If you had told a 19th-century farmer that in the 21st century one person would do the work of 100 of his kind, he would have despaired and wondered how his children will survive. For him, the change would be a huge, looming, unsolvable problem. But now we look back and we can barely comprehend the drudgery and futility of his life, laboring sunup to sundown, hacking at the land with a horse-drawn plow, hauling buckets of water from the well and manure out to the field, just to feed his family and still have something left over to sell at market.
And come what may, people will still have imaginative and enticeable human spirits. They will still able to look at a flower in the dawn light or the sea at sunset, breathe a sigh, and find a measure of contentment in the moment.
1. See The Point of a Monument: A History of the Aluminum Cap of the Washington Monument by George Binczewski, JOM, 1995.
2. See The 20th Century Transformation of U.S. Agriculture and Farm Policy by Carolyn Dimitri, Anne Effland, and Neilson Conklin, USDA Economic Research Service.
3. And climate change may not always be toward the warming side, regardless of the CO2 burden. Consider the change in sunspot cycles over the past twenty years at spaceweather.com. The last cycle, No. 24 since the Maunder Minimum of the 17th century, was much weaker than the previous cycle that peaked in 1998. This and the even weaker cycle No. 25 that we are now entering suggests we may be headed toward another solar minimum.
4. Watch any episode of the television series How It’s Made and count the number of human hands at work vs. the number of machines. We live in a mechanized age.