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Forecasting the future

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The term “car accident” will be obsolete. Poland and Turkey will be new world powers. Your clothes can call an ambulance. America wants more Mexican immigrants, not fewer. These are just a few predictions I’ve read recently, scanning the next hundred years. No Nostradamus puffery here, no fortune-tellers, but plausible scenarios from economists, political scientists, and physicists. We’ve just hit the shiny new year of 2015. It’s a prime moment for books about the future — legitimate books. Think of them as science nonfiction.

George Friedman, CEO of the private intelligence corporation Stratfor, is a big player in this field (The New York Times compares him to a Magic 8-Ball). And provocation pulses from his “The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century” (Anchor, 2009). OK, he didn’t call the 2008 stock market crash, but he did say Russia would set about “re-creating its old sphere of influence” (see invasion of Ukraine, 2014). And he explains the “rational, feasible process” behind his predictions. It’s all about framing the right big picture.


For instance, if Europeans had grasped the significance of German unification in 1871, they might have been less surprised by German aggression in the 20th century. The biggest picture now projected is the end, by 2050, of our population explosion. That’s why America will be begging for Mexican immigrants; our dire labor shortage and aging citizenry mean we’ll need many more workers, especially caregivers for the elderly.

Will China surpass us in power? No, says Friedman. By 2020, China will fragment; a capitalist economy and authoritarian government ultimately can’t coexist. We’ll still dominate, because our Navy plies all the oceans (no country has ever achieved this but us). This sea power is why we control international trade, and why we “could invade other countries — but never be invaded.” Then again, by 2050, we’ll see three “new great powers.” Poland will finally emerge from the shadows of Germany (a pacifist non-threat) and Russia (a weakened non-threat). Turkey will reprise its Ottoman Empire muscle, “a stable platform in the midst of chaos” of Islamic ferment. And Japan will reprise its militaristic past, because it will need to wrest raw materials and manpower from outside its borders.


Friedman admits he’s underplayed climate change. But Laurence C. Smith warms right to it in “The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future” (Plume, 2010). He’s a professor of earth, planetary, and space sciences at UCLA, and used model projections and data to form his main thesis: Countries north of the equator will grow ever more powerful, while countries to the south will vie for survival. Indeed, boomtowns will pop up in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Russia and Scandinavia. As the permafrost melts, we’ll build roads, bringing construction jobs and a real estate rush.

Meanwhile, technological breakthroughs will enable us to map and extract whatever is under the Arctic Ocean. Some say 30 percent of the world’s natural gas is up there, and we’re already mining diamonds in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Friedman believes Russia will grow weaker, but Smith begs to differ: If climate change toasts up Siberia, it could rival the American Midwest as the world’s breadbasket.

James Canton is the CEO of the San Francisco-based Institute for Global Futures, and has hard-core futurist roots: Yahoo calls him “Dr. Future” and he’s worked both at Apple and with Alvin Toffler, author of 1970’s mega-bestseller “Future Shock.” Indeed, there’s plenty of shock (and schlock!) in his “The Extreme Future: The Top Trends That Will Reshape the World in the Next 20 Years” (Plume, 2006). The book darts about with lists, sidebars, and catch phrases; those who up their longevity by meds and gene therapy, for instance, will be known as Enhancers.


His health-related prophecies zapped me the most. I hope this pans out: In 2020, we’ll start to restore memory through stem-cell therapy. But not this: In 2025, plastic surgery will be our second-biggest household expense, after food. One theory even gets its own snappy formula: I + C + D = P2 means Innovation + Capitalism + Democracy = Prosperity and Peace. But the best candy arrives in likely future headlines. To wit: “Android/Human Marriages Legal in Vegas Only.”

Canton also pokes fun at the high whiff factor in futurizing. Take Charles H. Duell, the head of the US Office of Patents who, in 1899, said, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” So on to this next book, which considers the hit-or-miss nature of predictions. “In 100 Years: Leading Economists Predict the Future” (MIT, 2013) was inspired by John Maynard Keynes’s 1930 essay “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” Keynes was spot-on about the rise of our standard of living — the US gross domestic product has grown, in real terms, by a factor of 16. But he flopped mightily in calculating that, due to this prosperity, we’d be working 15-hour weeks. He thought our biggest problem would be how to fill our leisure time. Cue the heavy sigh.


Editor Ignacio Palacios-Huerta gathered various economist stars (including several Nobel laureates) to try to better Keynes’s average. One prophecy thrilled me: Andreu Mas-Colell says that, by 2113, “we will have managed, due to the combination of natural growth and deliberate action, to completely eliminate poverty in the world.” Another skeeved me out: Alvin E. Roth discussed “repugnant transactions,” as in how once-sanctioned practices can become repugnant (like slavery) while once-repugnant practices become sanctioned (like charging interest). His future example is performance-enhancing drugs, which “may come to be seen as akin to good nutrition.”

Michio Kaku is the guy who said “car accident” will fade as a term (driverless cars will automatically avert them), and that your clothes can call 911 (fabric-embedded chips will monitor your vital signs). He’s a theoretical physicist, so get ready for a theoretically wild ride in “Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100” (Anchor, 2011). Kaku interviewed 300 scientists, and many of his predictions spring from their fresh prototypes. So get ready for “nanocars” that travel through our bloodstream to make diagnoses, and “terraforming” Mars, whereby we inject methane into its atmosphere, defrost the place, and make it a Plan B outpost for an injured Earth.

Judging by this next book, though, we won’t need Mars’s help. “Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think” (Free Press, 2012) is the big bestseller by Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. It’s “a tale of good news,” for technology is rapidly solving the problem of scarcity — we have enough to support ourselves. (The bigger problem is accessibility.) Indeed, our life spans jumped 60 percent from 1900 to 2000. And though it sounds counterintuitive, the healthier we get, the lower our population growth; Moroccans averaged 7.8 children in 1971, for instance, but today it’s 2.7 because parents believe children will reach adulthood, and so choose to conceive less. Add in hopeful news about synthetic biology, robotics, nanomaterials, etc., and optimism no longer seems cockeyed.


Even so — how much can we trust these predictions? Not so much, says “Future Babble: Why Pundits Are Hedgehogs and Foxes Know Best” (Plume, 2011). Author Dan Gardner says we are hard-wired for an aversion to uncertainty, so we clutch onto even the flimsiest futurisms. He quotes Scott Armstrong, a University of Pennsylvania expert on forecasting, who coined the “seer-sucker” theory: “No matter how much evidence exists that seers do not exist, suckers will pay for the existence of seers.” Gardner also plumbs the work of another UPenn academic, Philip Tetlock, who followed up on 27,451 predictions of 284 academics and pundits. The takeaway? They’re no better than a coin toss. The only prediction you can trust is this, then: The future is unpredictable.

Katharine Whittemore is a freelance writer based in Northampton. She can be reached at katharine. whittemore