“5 Ways the World Will Change Radically This Century”

LiveScience presents us with a brief overview of changes we can expect this century as a result of our population explosion. The article is relatively brief so you should feel safe popping over to check it out, but in any case here’s my excerpt of the highlights:

According to the United Nations Population Division, our population will hit 7 billion on Oct. 31, and though fertility rates have begun to decline across much of the globe, we’re still projected to reach 9 billion by mid-century and level off at around 10 billion by 2100…

Shifting people

… According to Joel Cohen, a population biologist at Columbia University and the keynote speaker at Monday’s conference, India’s population will overtake China’s around 2020, and sub-Saharan Africa’s will overtake India’s by 2040. Furthermore, “In 1950, there were three times as many Europeans as sub-Saharan Africans. By 2100, there will be five sub-Saharan Africans for every European. That’s a 15-fold change in the ratio,” Cohen said…

Jean-Marie Guehenno, former UN Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations and director of the Center for International Conflict Resolution at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, said the migration of people from Africa to Europe will present a major challenge in the near future. “You can look at it as an enormous potential from a European standpoint … or you can say, ‘[Africa] is a continent that still has 15 percent that are not going to school,’ and that can be seen as a threat,” Guehenno said. “How are you going to manage that immigration so that this aging continent of Europe benefits from it while managing it? That is going to be a huge question.”

Urbanization

Globally, the number of people living in urban areas matched and then overtook the number of rural people sometime in the past two years. The trend will continue. According to Cohen, the number of people living in cities will climb from 3.5 billion today to 6.3 billion by 2050. This rate of urbanization is equivalent to “the construction of a city of a million people every five days from now for the next 40 years,” he said…

Water wars

… No resource is more precious and vital than water, and, according to economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia, there are already parts of the world that, because of the rapidly changing climate, are at a severe crisis point. “Take the Horn of Africa for example: Somalia’s population has risen roughly fivefold since the middle of the 20th century,” Sachs said. “Precipitation is down roughly 25 percent over the last quarter century. There’s a devastating famine under way right now after two years of complete failure of rains, and [there is] the potential that this is entering a period of long-term climate change.”

Conflicts over water shortages will probably play out as class warfare, said Upmanu Lall, director of the Columbia Water Center. “Wealth inequality tends to grow as a country’s population grows, and this is a very important point to note because per capita consumption of resources has been increasing dramatically. Couple that with inequity in income and couple that with [the issue of] the availability of water,” Lall said…

Future energy

… “Energy is the basic resource which underlies every other,” said Klaus Lackner, director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy. “And actually, technology is not quite ready to solve the [energy] problem. We know there’s plenty of energy in solar, in nuclear, in carbon itself — in fossil carbon — for probably 100 or 200 years (if we are willing to clean up after ourselves and pay the extra to make that happen). But none of these technologies are quite ready. Solar has its problems and is still too expensive.”

… In short, the future will match one of these two pictures: Either some new, superior form of energy extraction (such as highly efficient solar panels) will be widespread, or the technology, or its implementation, will fail, and humanity will face a major energy crisis.

Mass extinctions

… Aside from the lack of land and resources left for other species, we’ve also caused rapid changes to the global climate, with which many of them cannot cope. Some biologists believe that with the current rate of extinction, 75 percent of the planet’s species will disappear within the next 300 to 2,000 years. These disappearances have already begun, and extinction events will become more and more common over the course of the century.

These are all very troubling concerns, but I can’t help but feel that any predictions into the progress of the next 100 years are bound to be naive. Technology is advancing so rapidly – and its advance is accelerating so rapidly – that I feel like it’s always too early to make doomsday predictions. For example, every day there are new articles on advances in energy generation, a small fraction of which I’ve discussed here; just one breakthrough could radically change our energy outlook. 

A real-life example of an advance allowing unforeseen population growth is the Green Revolution, which overthrew mainstream predictions of widespread famine by revolutionizing agriculture in the developing world. That’s not to say, of course, that we can lie back and trust someone else to technology our way out of these problems, but I think it’s important – in terms of being realistic – to keep an open mind to completely unexpected circumstances that will defy our predictions.

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3 Responses to “5 Ways the World Will Change Radically This Century”

  1. powerklash says:

    Great article. I couldn’t imagine a world where water is scarce like this. Unfortunately, it looks as though I may not have to imagine… Is there any way to fight this? other than population control?

    • I’m obviously no expert, but my impression is that there are three main approaches to this issue. First is water conservation. For example, you may have seen modern toilets with two different ways of flushing, one of which uses less water for when there’s no solid waste. This is obviously small potatoes though in the broad scheme of things.

      Secondly there’s wastewater treatment, where sewage is treated to yield reusable water; it looks like Singapore may be the only country currently using this to produce drinkable water, called NEWater.

      Third is perhaps the most intuitive one, desalination. Desalination of salt water already happens on a relatively large scale, but it looks like it’s too expensive and energy-intensive to implement more broadly, as a real solution. One would hope that improving technology will change that outlook in the future.

      Thanks for commenting!

  2. JakRyan says:

    Wars over scarce resources (“energy”, “water”) is as old as society itself. The civilized world (historically the West best of all) has learned to harness free-trade capitalism to deal with the problems geographic resource distribution inequality can create (it appears that way, at least)

    Urbanization has been occurring for well over a century and it seems humans can adapt well enough, the same would go with variations in the climate (of the non-biblical kind). Shifting demographics… that’s probably going to cause the most suffering and fatalities.

    However, I would suspect that the problem of the next hundred years probably hasn’t even occurred to us yet (would someone from 1912 be able to predict the melt-down of our financial sector, the rise of Islamic terrorism, the proliferation of nuclear weapons?…. )

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