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March 28, 2006 Newsletters | RSSxml
September 2005 issue

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The Climax of Humanity
Demographically and economically, our era is unique in human history. Depending on how we manage the next few decades, we could usher in environmental sustainability--or collapse
By George Musser
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HUMANITY HAS GROWN,  gotten richer and transformed the planet. These three great historical trends define the present day. Understanding them provides a framework for dealing with, rather than becoming paralyzed by, the problems of the world.
The 21st century feels like a letdown. We were promised flying cars, space colonies and 15-hour workweeks. Robots were supposed to do our chores, except when they were organizing rebellions; children were supposed to learn about disease from history books; portable fusion reactors were supposed to be on sale at the Home Depot. Even dystopian visions of the future predicted leaps of technology and social organization that leave our era in the dust.

Looking beyond the blinking lights and whirring gizmos, though, the new century is shaping up as one of the most amazing periods in human history. Three great transitions set in motion by the Industrial Revolution are reaching their culmination. After several centuries of faster-than-exponential growth, the world's population is stabilizing. Judging from current trends, it will plateau at around nine billion people toward the middle of this century. Meanwhile extreme poverty is receding both as a percentage of population and in absolute numbers. If China and India continue to follow in the economic footsteps of Japan and South Korea, by 2050 the average Chinese will be as rich as the average Swiss is today; the average Indian, as rich as today's Israeli. As humanity grows in size and wealth, however, it increasingly presses against the limits of the planet. Already we pump out carbon dioxide three times as fast as the oceans and land can absorb it; midcentury is when climatologists think global warming will really begin to bite. At the rate things are going, the world's forests and fisheries will be exhausted even sooner.

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These three concurrent, intertwined transitions--demographic, economic, environmental--are what historians of the future will remember when they look back on our age. They are transforming everything from geopolitics to the structure of families. And they pose problems on a scale that humans have little experience with. As Harvard University biologist E. O. Wilson puts it, we are about to pass through "the bottleneck," a period of maximum stress on natural resources and human ingenuity.

· Action Plan for the 21st Century
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· Three World-Changing Transitions
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The trends are evident in everyday life. Many of us have had the experience of getting lost in our hometowns because they have grown so much. But growth is slowing as families shrink. Ever more children grow up not just without siblings but also without aunts, uncles or cousins. (Some people find that sad, but the only other way to have a stable population is for death rates to rise.) Chinese goods line Wal-Mart shelves, Indians handle customer-service calls, and, in turn, ever more Asians buy Western products. Spring flowers bloom a week earlier than they did 50 years ago because of global warming, and restaurants serve different types of fish than they used to because species that were once common have been fished out.

Looking at the present era in historical context helps to put the world's myriad problems in perspective. Many of those problems stem, directly or indirectly, from growth. As growth tapers off, humanity will have a chance to close the books on them. A bottleneck may be tough to squeeze through, but once you do, the worst is behind you.

The transitions we are undergoing define the scope of the challenges. Scientists can estimate, at least roughly, how many people will inhabit Earth, what they are going to need and want, what resources are available, and when it is all going to happen. By the latter half of this century, humanity could enter an equilibrium in which economic growth, currently driven by the combination of more productivity, more people and more resources, will flow entirely from productivity--which would take much of the edge off conflicts between the economy and the environment. Old challenges will give way to new ones. This process is already evident in countries at the leading edge of the transitions. The Social Security debate in the U.S., like worries about pensions in Europe and Japan, is the sound of a society planning for life after growth.

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