As college students flood back into their classrooms, I am reminded of my senior seminar on “The Politics of the Future” that I taught in the fall. Together with my wide-eyed seniors, we charted the waves to the future on four “surf boards:” technology, politics, economics and social/religious trends.
Leaving discussion of this last “surf board” for a later essay, a fitting place to start here is with the obsession of American culture today: technology. In the year 2050, the driver of technology will be a full-throttled Space Age.
I tell college students now, though they may not go to space, they will surely sire the liftoff generation to an extraterrestrial “high frontier.” NASA already has announced plans for manned lunar missions in the mid-2020s that will culminate in a 2½-year human voyage to Mars in the 2030s. I expect that 20 years later there will be a permanent moon space port for regular Mayflower flights to Mars.
What will spur this technological boom? Water.
Probes have discovered ice pools in lunar shadows and surface formations laden with “water ice” and oxygen. Quantities are more than enough to distill breathable air and hydrogen for fuel to host both a space port and mining operations for the moon’s abundant iron.
Mars has even more spectacular holdings of water. Water ice is abundant, and there is even liquid water under the two poles that could fill a Lake Superior. In addition, the Martian soil has enough moisture to support Earth-like agriculture. Nevertheless, the high levels of radiation on the red planet will confine human settlers to dirt pyramids and thickly shielded transport tubes. Still, resources on Mars are sufficient to support millions of human settlers. In the year 2050, at the start of this new age, Mars will have a few hundred residents, mostly scientists, as in Antarctica, and engineers setting up the infrastructure for the coming waves of settlers. Hang on, America; we’re in for a hell of a ride!
The hallmark of the year 2050, politically, will be the stability of the once volatile Middle East. In our day, the central challenge facing Middle Eastern societies has been the lack of agreement over how to organize politically — whether under traditional monarchies, religious caliphates, secular socialism, military dictatorships or parliamentary democracies. I expect the winner to be parliamentary democracies modeled after the current Islamic Republic of Iraq with its democratic super structure bedded in traditional sectarian arrangements. The political scientist Michael Hudson calls this the mosaic model.
Achieving this will entail going down an arduous and bloody path. Sadly, there is likely to be another major war to sort this out, probably among Syria, Iran, Israel and the United States. To avoid a recurrence, Israel will finally give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for the iron-clad security of full NATO membership, while the rest of the region is denuclearized by the terms of the war’s end.
A counterbalance will be the incorporation of Turkey into the European Union. This will require a cultural shift in the Western world that will come to perceive itself as moving from a Judeo-Christian heritage to an Abrahamic one of three major value systems (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) built on a common dedication to human dignity and submission to a personal God, however variously understood.
Economically, the year 2050 will pivot on the full integration of China into a multipolar, balanced global trading system.
The futurist Niall Ferguson predicts a global economy in 2050 of $250 trillion to $300 trillion (compared to today’s $75 trillion) with the U.S., China, India and the European Union all posting about $60 trillion each. While the unfolding of history to 2050 is likely to be beset by military tensions over the South China Sea and Taiwan, the prospect of the incredible devastation of any such war will pull everyone back from the brink. Also, China will not escape domestic upheaval over its oppression of minorities, restive rural areas and the clamoring for democracy from its growing intellectual and technological classes. Finally, at some point, all major national economies will appreciate the necessity of pooling their resources for the massive investments needed to inaugurate the Space Age.
Since most sketches of the future are based on dystopian novels of gloom, this portrait might appear rosy. The guide to the future in my class was through a comprehensive review of history to identify the driving trends that will project into the future. For America in particular, its historical energy, through ups and downs, fuels an unrelenting drive of progress.
To dystopians, then, I turn to the famous words of Yogi Berra, the past player and coach of the New York Yankees: “The future ain’t what it used to be.”