The Year 2050, the Imaginary and the Unimaginable We do not know what tomorrow will bring, but we are getting ready for the day after
Both “imaginariums” and “histories”, while differing on essential ingredients, visions and vestiges respectively, share an essential imperfection – incomplete information and/or bounded rationality. We compose mosaics (using also our imagination) about a past which we did not witness; and we extrapolate tendencies/trends (undoubtedly, with a historical basis) for a future which we may or may not be there to witness. Combining “path dependencies” with “disruptive revolutions”, we can generate scenarios with varying confidence.
The new year(’s eve) is a propitious moment for this sort of exercise regarding what awaits us next year, next decade or in the next century. Foresights and forecasts (the former more liberal than the latter, which are assumed to be more rigorously constructed, but also more limited and rigid) are all the more engaging the easier they are to seemingly validate. The only way in which futurology can seem less of a game or a bout of “play acting” is if the author puts his chips on the table and witnesses the confirmation or not of his predictions, while taking the gain or loss to his reputation or fortune of his “bet”. Or else… This being said, let’s move on to… 2050.
The future as (re)seen from the past
“The study of current trends in order to forecast future developments” – this is the economizing definition (double entendre intended) of futurology given by the Encyclopaedia Britannica. The speculative and descriptive elements of futurology may seem to resonate with science fiction literature, especially its utopian/dystopian branch, but the actual “scientific methods” of the field originate in the “technological prognosis” developed towards the end of the Second World War through contributions such as that of Theodore von Kármán (Toward New Horizons, 1947). The field was in thrall to the belligerent anxieties of the age, with its sudden atomic turn, and futurology developed the technique of scenarios (see Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, 1960), which also advanced the paradigm of “expert opinion” (as in the work of mathematician Olaf Helmer). Bertrand de Jouvenel published L’Art de la conjecture (1964), laying another stone at the systemic foundations of futurology.
In the contemporary era, the year 2000 became a fetish for futurologists, with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and its Commission on the Year 2000 and continuing with the Global 2000 Report to the President (1981) which, along with other documents of reference for the age (Ehrlich’s Population Bomb), adopted a neo-malthusian alarmism which continued for some time then morphed to their latter forms which are still with us to this day. The explosive mix they foresaw was overpopulation and excessive industrialization on the basis of an economic boom, on the one hand, and food insecurity, pollution and resource exhaustion, on the other hand – the bible for this approach was the Club of Rome’s commissioned report, The Limits to Growth (1972), developed by Dennis Meadows et al. from MIT. Facing critiques and cautionary messages from mathematicians, economists, geoscience and cybernetics specialists, the futurologists kicked it into high gear: Alvin Toffler (Future Shock, 1970), Daniel Bell (The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, 1973), Jonathan Schell (The Fate of the Earth, 1982), Nigel Calder (The Green Machines, 1986) and many more.
The futurology frazzle continues to this day, with 2050 as a new target (since 2100 seems too far away). A year or two can still make an enormous difference, when tendencies meet exogenous shocks (as in the pandemic). In February 2017, PwC published a landmark study, The Long View. How will the global economic order change by 2050?, which approached the issue of the distribution of power (geopolitics) and prosperity (geoeconomics) between developed nations and the ones currently dubbed emerging or developing. It was suggested that the global economy may double by 2050, assuming policies that are favourable to growth and to the opening between nations, without embedded neo-protectionist tendencies, such as those which emerged during the 2008 crisis, but also as part of Trumponomics, but also assuming that no major catastrophes with civilizational impact will take place.
The new powers… and prosperities
But just such an apparent cataclysm came about, not three years later: the novel coronavirus pandemic. Will those predictions stand the test of time? The answer is: we will live and see! The specialists at PwC saw in 2050 a world in which things would differ significantly, even if we look at the top 10 in GDP in purchasing power parity (PPP) – China, India, the US, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, Mexico, Japan, Germany, the UK – compared to the 2016 top 10 – China, the US, India, Japan, Germany, Russia, Brazil, Indonesia, the UK, France.
The emerging markets would continue to be the engine for the growth of the global economy. By 2050, the E7 economies (China, India, Indonesia, Brazil, Russia, Mexico and Turkey) might grow their share of the global economy from approximately 35% to 50%. In 1995, their combined GDP was half that of the G7 (the US, the UK, France, Germany, Japan, Canada, Italy), but the E7 might be double the G7 by 2040. China would still be the largest economy in the world, with 20% of the global GDP in 2050, India would be in second place and Indonesia in fourth.
A series of other emerging markets would also take centre stage. Mexico may surpass the UK and Germany in PPP by 2050, when six of the seven largest economies in the world may be from the emerging group. Meanwhile, the EU-27’s share of world GDP may fall below 10% by 2050, smaller than India. Vietnam, India and Bangladesh would be three of the fastest growing economies in the world in this period, while the UK’s rate of growth would outpace that of the EU-27, proving Brexit right.
Climate change occupies a principal place in the modelling and modulation of the “futures” or, better yet, of our scenarios. We will not discuss here the possibility/probability that our approach to tackling climate change will prove fruitless, especially if the deciding factors are non-anthropogenic, regardless of our own ecological negligence’s contribution. The rational option then may be to adapt to the new environment while striving to nevertheless improve it and ameliorate the most drastic changes. The current orthodoxy is of man’s original sin in climate change, heavily weighted historically towards the West. It should be addressed by the “evildoer” through decarbonization; there is a consensus, let’s get to work! There are two 2050s in terms of climate – one at 3oC over pre-industrial times, and one at just 1.5oC. The differences are quite “graphic”.
The 2050 of climate change escalation comes with heated, cloying air made easier to breathe by filtering it through masks similar to the antiviral ones but more complex and expensive. This pollution will be addressed by “washing the air” with artificial rain: the results are unclear, and the rains turn acidic. The various ecosystems cross a critical threshold and, instead of absorbing CO2, they become net emitters; other critical points involve the extinction of species and environments (the Great Barrier Reef becomes... the Great Burial Reef); the arctic ice melts, differences in albedo lead to more solar radiation absorbed by an expanding planetary ocean, the land floods and the salting of fresh water sources hinders agricultural areas; the sands of the Sahara cross the Mediterranean and occupy vulnerable soils in Spain, Italy, Greece and the South of France. Climate migrations become a common sight, in search of respite from extreme weather and water and food insecurity; conflicts are become more common.
Engaged in keeping resources within their borders, nations become adamant in keeping foreigners out, and armies become border guards. Even the former good Samaritans will have gradually shut their borders, their wallets and their eyes. Various totalitarian panopticons are reopened and regenerated. Global travel becomes rarer for those wanting new cultural-touristic experience, but also not for ships laden with goods or components of global production chains. Only the waves of hot air circulate, along with microorganisms from melting Siberian permafrost, resistant to our antibiotics, plus information. This information will flow from a social-media overwhelmed with panicky jeremiads and official channels pouring out positive narratives which can no longer aspire to seduce but merely sedate a boiling world (in both senses). Then, there is the counterfactually and redeeming 2050 (idyllically painted in The Future We Choose by Christiana Figueres and Tom Rivett-Carnac).
All will be well?
“The number of people living in cities will likely triple. The air could be thick with pollution, worsening lung conditions and respiratory diseases. More than half of the world's population may not have adequate access to water. The types of fish we eat could become extinct. Millions could be without food. The rain forests could face total annihilation. Superbugs could kill 10 million people each year. Diseases will spread with ease. The number of people living with dementia will likely triple. Hurricanes could become more frequent and more severe. Rising water levels could flood major cities across the globe. Large-scale blackouts could become commonplace. If you want convenience, you'll have to forsake privacy. Cyberattacks could increase, causing tangible damage to the world. Oil could become prohibitively expensive”. (Another painting, another painters: 15 ways the world will be terrifying in 2050, by Christina Sterbenz and Erin Brodwin. And there is, as well, the awesome alternative.)
These utterances and many more suggest that the fears of the direct and indirect consequences of climate change also go well with a “Technopocalypse”. After all, the green and the digital are the twin obsessions of Europe and the world.
The Fourth Industrial Revolution had been, from the start, slated to come with the good and the bad. What the good and bad are is debatable, regardless of moral objectivity and mainly because of our inequality. The great corporations which will administer the inoculation of every field of economic activity with AI will grow rich, while the losers will be the recently privileged workers, similar to the fate of blue-collar workers in the age of outsourcing and offshoring: white collar workers, fiscal consultants and even programmers will suffer most, while plumbers and workers specializing in repairs and maintenance will be relatively unaffected. It is said that artists will also suffer (writers, poets, painters, musicians) since AI may lead to a saturation of artistic content. A countercurrent, not necessarily based on protectionist public policy, but adopted and spread voluntarily, reaching even into other corners of the economy, will be the “buy human” concept. The authenticity of the artistic good will therefore be validated by a minimal input of “human touch”. Who knows, maybe the future of art is not virtual, but based on the recycling of old artifacts, with the asociated techniques. Behold the “cultural circular economy”, a last bastion of tradition.
The tyranny of expertise
An oft-neglected aspect by the crafters of future scenarios is the social and political dimension of the future. Often, they are included inasmuch as they reflect the author’s wishful thinking and pet peeves, or are some direct consequence of a particular technological and environmental element of the scenario. Sometimes, they are subject to the taboos of the era, either neglected completely or emphasized in the opposite direction for the shock value of contrast. “Serious” futurology is just as subject to these limitations, especially the Fukuyama-ish “end of history” mentality (also prey to a selection bias since most futurologists are Western or Western transplants) with regards to liberal democracy and the whig theory of history as progressing towards greater supposed progress and freedom (redefined each generation, in accordance with its fixations). For instance, populations are treated as interchangeable with regards to the impact of culture on innovation and the virtues required for certain political systems to take root and function. The waxing and waning of this or that group is treated in a hydraulic manner, via the impact on local/global resources or on fiscal resources in the aggregate, not as a qualitative change with impact on political and social systems. Old societies are less innovative, more risk averse and prey to inter-generational conflicts for distribution of public goods and income. Young societies struggle to root people and prevent the radicalization (regardless of religion and ideology) of its unattached young men. Diverse societies are prone to crises of identity, self-segregation and (violent) frictions between groups, especially when there are heavily rooted inequalities – some groups being overrepresented in overclasses, underclasses or age groups. How the inequalities are justified or (de)legitimized also matters.
Liberal democracy is the default assumption, leavened with a strong dose of (globalist) technocracy that contradicts the idea of preference mattering as opposed to expert determination and implementation of “right” answers in a widening array of human issues, from taxation to child rearing. Other political systems are unimaginable, except as present continuities, and would certainly be treated as involutions. Meanwhile, no futurologist has approached the issue of social and political capital – the evolution of interpersonal trust, especially among strangers, and between the authorities and the governed. Is our future tribal, focused on nepotism and bereft of solidarity outside a well-defined, ethnic, religious, familial or national group? Does demographic decline make war more or less likely (thinking that you are tempted to start your fight today if you know that you will decline in the medium and long term)?
An yet they move
We are undergoing the greatest demographic transition in history. Vast swathes of the global population are experiencing not just below replacement fertility, but crippling low fertility (leading to guaranteed population spirals). Even China is entering its period of demographic decline, starting with labour force declines, as its largest cohort is past childbearing age. Japan is well into its population crunch, as are all European countries, despite heavy immigration masking it in numbers (though not in average age). Many places in the world are still experiencing very high fertility rates, some of them not even qualifying for emerging status. Even if they will eventually succumb to education, feminism or economic imperatives and end up below replacement levels, the game of demographic musical chairs will ensure that the world will look much different than it does today, which also looks much different than it did 50 years ago. The United Nations’ yearly population estimates place the population of Africa at 2.8 billion in 2050 and 4.4 billion in 2100, compared to 1,3 billion today and just 250 million in 1950.
Immigration (the surplus of one place covering the deficit of another and being the children they did not have) offers only a partial answer, so long as the “secret sauce” of a successful and orderly society is still largely under debate (is it institutions, norms, culture, laws, education, innate qualities, simple resources, being first to colonially exploit others and get ahead?) and little thought is given to successful and continuous reproduction of valuable cultural and human traits or even the moral dimensions of these issues.
The fate of faith
Seeking also to look as little in the mirror as possible, the decline of organized religion, especially in the West (but also the MENA region), is mentioned matter-of-factly, but these and other cultural and spiritual crises are ignored as factors in what the world will look like in 2050. Neither is the growth of replacement secular religions and the astonishing tumult they are already generating today (the culture wars, the progressive-conservative divide, cancel culture and many other issues are essentially religious, just as Carl Schmitt explained ideology as “political theology”). The many moving parts of scenario-building rarely encompass these issues.
Our relationship to each other and to our political community as it extends from the past into the future is dependent on these issues, and social capital is as important as financial capital and is impossible to fake, only recklessly spend. Just as our predecessors realized that there are some environmental commons that should not be polluted, generating socialized costs and losses and privatized profits, our descendants may unify the various strands of thinking with regards to the continuity of human societies into a theory of sustainable reproduction of social/political capital. At this point, any approach may be better than the “magic dirt” theory of assimilation and social mobility, whereby the simple presence of another suffices to osmotically turn him into a part of the whole, minus inoffensive exotic remnants like food and quaint customs.
The societies of 2050, at least the ones not wracked by permanent social and political upheaval, will likely feature heavy handed state enforced propaganda, not just for the social revolutions advocated today, but also for old fashioned jingoism, national supremacism and other means that work to create unity. It has been done before and it is being done today, though outside the borders of the West. The purpose of enforcing a unified moral framework and one of loyalty, which eventually segues into religion (if only “political/secular/civil religion”) is not just to keep a particular ruling class in power or to simply emasculate and humiliate the lower classes, but to generate solidarity and predictability in social interactions, as well as enforce unwritten social obligations (such as a willingness to fight for one’s country, having above-replacement sized families or maintaining generational transfers from the currently productive to the elderly, the sick and the young). Another critical factor is the enforcement of a shared reality that is necessary even for a democratic regime to ensure a certain level of harmony and the maintenance of policy decisions in a relatively narrow band (not switching from nationalizing property today only to privatize it tomorrow). Of course, that shared reality must be at least partly drawn from objective reality, or the discontinuities and disequilibria will grow until the system eventually collapses, as it did in the former Communist world. Unfortunately, the rights, liberties and freedoms that we take for granted today, for better or worse, and the expectation of a certain definition of social progress, will be on the chopping block. The state leviathan can only grow, as the complexity of the problems we face also grows, and as libertarianism is a minority persuasion and one more rooted in a particular people, place and cultural background than its adherents would like to think, all three of which are rapidly receding on the world stage.
(In)conclusions about the future
Most futurists and futurologists are attracted to this speculation for the same reason that science fiction authors from the genre’s golden age were: they start from technological possibilities and ecological melodramas and build narratives with various metaphysics connected to the aforementioned evolutions. We need to be careful, especially with the disinhibitions that imagination presupposes: reasonable predictions are based on incrementalism and an awareness that nature (especially the human variety) does not do leaps and bounds.
2050 Anno Domini is a random but evocative point in the timeline in which, beyond Martian colonies (where exploitation is as important as exploration, following the jettisoning of space’s anticapitalist taboos) and transhumanism (focusing on increased lifespan, health and human capability), some things will stay the same… as always, man is fated/cursed to live with his head in the clouds and his feet on the ground.