Saturday, November 6, 2010

I'm Off the Future. . .

. . .at least for a while, anyway.  All of this future shock stuff is wearing me down.  No robots mowing our lawn.  No jetpacks.  No "Tea, Earl Grey, hot" popping out of the wall.  Just doom and gloom.  Friend Jerry sent me an email after my last Armageddon post telling me to get the heck offline and visit the mountains.  I think he was politely telling me to stop worrying (and maybe get a life, too). 

Still--no jetpacks.  Weren't we supposed to have jetpacks by now?

Nonetheless, for reasons best explained at some future date, I've been plowing through most every credible thing I can get my hands on concerning forecasts of what the world will look like over the next 50 years or so.  This includes Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near, George Friedman's The Next Hundred Years, and now, Laurence C. Smith's The World in 2050.

This latest by UCLA's Professor Smith is a terrific book.  He tells compelling stories, deals in data and facts, and tries hard (though with only modest success) to be anything but an alarmist.

Let's start with the bear.  In 2006, a hunter on Banks Island, 2,500 miles north of the United States in the Canadian Arctic, shot and killed a polar bear.  But it was a small, odd polar bear with patches of brown on its back, paws and nose, and rings around its eyes.  The shape of the face wasn't right for a polar bear, either.  Off went the DNA sample and back came the results: this was a half-breed, the product of a grizzly bear father and a polar bear mother.  A first.

Think about that for a moment.  Don't you just wish National Geographic had been able to film that little tryst in the wild?  It reminds me of something that happened to my roommate at 33 Dunster Street in Cambridge my first year in business school.  (We weren't able to get that on video, either.)

Another pizzly (grizzlar?) was found this year.  That means it was more than a one-night stand.  The grizzlies and the polars are breeding.

(Not to get too far afield, but if this can happen, don't you think it might just be possible--contrary to what most anthropologists tell us--that the Neanderthals didn't die out but simply bred-in with the dominant Homo erectus?  I mean, could that have been any more intimidating then a wayward grizzly stumbling upon a fetching lady polar bear?  And there's a really good joke here that I can't tell, cause this blog is rated PG, but it starts "a lady Neanderthal walks into a bar". . .and the punch line is: "They don't call me Homo erectus for nothing!")

Ha.

It might also explain certain aspects of the Tea Party, but I digress.

Anyway, grizzlies are not the only thing moving north.  A 2003 global inventory found that, on average, plants and animals are shifting their ranges about six kilometers toward the poles, and six meters higher in elevation, every decade.  Spring is coming to us, on average, four days earlier every decade.  As Smith writes, "If these numbers don't sound large to you, they should.  Imagine your lawn crawling north, away from your house, at a speed of five and one-half feet each day."

The result, the megatrend here, is important: Smith believes that the northern quarter of the planet--a "New North" lying roughly above 45N (think Minnesota and N. Dakota)--will be a place of "increased human activity, higher strategic value, and greater economic importance than today." The winners in this scenario (Smith calls them "Northern Rim countries" or "NORCs") will be the U.S., Canada, Iceland, Greenland (Denmark), Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia.  Most of those places are already pretty nice places to visit and live, so in a sense, the strong are going to get stronger.

All of which is the (very) long way to the point of Smith's superb book, which is a thought experiment.  There are four ground rules: No Silver Bullets (technology will improve in increments), No WW III, No Hidden Genies (a meteorite impact, a pandemic, etc.), and The Models Are Good Enough (focus on robust conclusions, not the outside limits).

There are also four Global Forces (with great associated discussions) that Smith puts in play: Demography (ridiculous growth and rapid aging), Natural Resources (ridiculous consumption growth), Globalization, and Climate Change (think halfbreed bears and moving lawns, but there's other compelling data here).  Spinning through all this is technology, of course.

Smith then describes what happens as each of these Forces evolve.  He talks about the rise of megacities and the fact that we are adding one complete Seattle to the planet every day.  He forecasts that we will have 9.2B people on earth in 2050, and that for every 100 born, "fifty-seven will open their eyes in Asia and twenty-two in Africa, mostly in cities."  He compares the elegant way Singapore has created healthy growth with a place like poor old Lagos, Nigeria.  He shows that water-rich Norway has 82,000 cubic meters of renewable freshwater per person while Kenya has just 830.  He suggests that rising temperatures could leave the Southwest U.S. with a "drought worse than anything ever seen in modern times."  (In fact, he quotes experts that believe we are already eight years into such a drought.)  He reasons that "stationarity" (the notion that natural phenomenon fluctuate within a fixed envelope of uncertainty) is dead; from personal experience, I think we've had three "hundred year floods" in our town in the last decade.  He shows that we are already locked into global warming--it's just a question of degree.  He projects that by midcentury the Lyme-disease tick will be all over Canada and smallmouth bass will live in the Arctic Ocean.  (In the last 40 years Atlantic warm-water species have pushed northward 700 hundred miles.)  He writes that skinny polar bears are, for the first time, eating one another.

He predicts that 15% to 37% of the world's species will be committed to climate-change extinction by 2050, marking the sixth great extinction on earth.

So now I'm thinking, maybe the Singularity ain't such a bad thing after all.

Smith ends with a few words of hope, but I think he's just being a good guy, like telling someone who is about to ride a barrel down Niagara Falls that you'll buy them dinner when they reach bottom and dry off.

I do take some solace in the fact that all of Roosevelt's best economists tried to forecast life in the United States a generation ahead in the 1940s and completely missed the Baby Boom.  That television was supposed to put movies out of business.  That 19th-century minds were fearful that horse manure would smother 20th-century cities.  That the local weather people never get the snowfall amount on my driveway correct.

Still, based on Smith's narrative, my best advice is: Buy a home in Frostbite Falls, preferably in the path of a glacial run-off, and put all your money in pharmaceutical stocks.  And, when the Singularity comes knocking and asks if you'd like to live forever, take a day or two to think about it.

Anyway, I'm off the future for a while.  Maybe back to the mountains, Jerry.  Maybe get a life, or at least focus on the present great one I've got going.  Stay tuned.

(P.S.--"They don't call me Homo erectus for nothing!"  Ha.  Sometimes I just crack myself up.)