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  • G R Matthews

Let’s not panic (too much) about the future? (but let’s worry a little).


I remember being on a panel at BristolCon, some years back, with two very eminent and intelligent sci fi authors with the topic being something like “What the Future holds for humanity?”


Apart from the nagging question; what the hell was I doing there? There were many others asked by the fantastic moderator and answers attempted by the panel - the two genius sci fi writers and me (I self-deprecate, I know).


What happened though, and to the best of my recollection and the stories told by friends in the audience was that every answer to our future turned out to be quite depressing. Starvation, Climate Change, Waterworld, floods, lack of water, war and destruction… with a lone voice of optimism, me.


Now, maybe I don’t know as much, maybe I’m just a bit cheerful, maybe I like to have hope (I do), and can see a better future for our species (despite the ongoing evidence to the contrary; war, racism, sexism and too many others to list).


However, I, author of a series of scifi books where the surface world has become uninhabitable and the survivors have fled beneath the waves, am still full of hope that there will not be an apocalypse or a slow slide into decay.


Will there be troubles along the way? Of course there will - we’re human with human greed, selfishness, foibles and faults. This is the biggest threat we face - our tendency to shoot ourselves in the foot.


Quite often, we see in future fiction the notion that the planet will become swamped with humans, rampant population growth to unmanageable levels and wars will erupt over food, water, and resources.


Well, that isn’t true (crosses fingers). Population totals as a driver of wars is unlikely to happen. Our population recently touched 8 billion and is due, by all UN studies and data, to peak around 11 billion. Still, that’s a lot and most of that growth will be in Asia and Africa. Europe and the America’s will remain stable or even decline in numbers into the future.


How will we feed 11 billion people? With better farming methods, with technology. The continent of Africa has the potential to produce a lot more food than it does currently, and will need to as population increases. However, Europe, the Americas and Asia have increased food production - Africa can too. We can feed everyone - maybe not to the levels of today, but some of us live in plenty.


Water could be an issue. Freshwater accounts for so little of the water on the planet that, despite it being a renewable resource (over a lengthy period of time), there may be too little to go around. Again, some cultures waste a fair amount, but there is water on the planet. We have technology to assist us too and some are quite simple; green roofs to capture water.


Add in Climate Change and we’re certainly going to face issues over food and water. No doubts about that, but they can be overcome to ensure those 11 billion survive with a reasonable standard of living.


Your head is in the clouds, you say. But, ah! I say, have you considered this?


Once that peak population is reached, the world population is going to decline. We will hit that 11 billion, and then the population will fall!


Already there is evidence of this. The average child per family, across the whole world is 2.1 to 2.4 from a high point of 5 or 6 just fifty years ago. Birth Rates, Fertility rates are dropping everywhere;


Vietnam - 2.0

UK - 1.6

India - 2.2

Bangladesh - 2.0


Countries in Africa still have relatively high fertility rates but they are falling.


So, the pain of 11 billion won’t be a lasting one. If we can survive that, if we can feed that many (and we can), our population will fall and food should (may) be in more plentiful supply, as will water.



4


The biggest threat may well be Climate Change driven by the richest countries at present and the poorest will, quite rightly, demand to use as much! Why wouldn’t they look at the wealthy and think we should be able to live like that? It certainly isn’t for the wealthy to say they cannot and should not!


Most of our energy comes from Fossil Fuels and there’s no denying that. However, again optimistically, we have solutions!


Renewable energy is increasing and will continue to do so. It has to despite our politicians arguing differently; no doubt due to the Fossil Fuel industries lobbying, money, and self-interest. It has happened before; see Lead Petrol and the cigarette industry .


Fusion Power has been 20 years away since I was born in the 1970s, but there appear to be more hopeful voices coming out of the research than before, even though it is really still 40 years away (probably).


We can solve our energy demand crisis. We can.


Finally, the real threat to our continued existence might be the opposite of the very thing we worried about. Not population growth, but its decline.


We are having fewer children across the world.


China famously (infamously) enacted a draconian one child policy because they foresaw the problems coming at them - too many people, not enough food, not enough wealth, leading to disorder and social change. They acted. We may not agree, but they’re far from the only country trying to socially engineer a change in birth rates. Pro-natalist policies are to be found in many wealthy countries.


Japan’s population is ageing fast and declining even faster. It has declined for 13 years without a pause and looks set to continue to do so.


Singapore enacted a “3 or more” population scheme because its birth rate had fallen below replacement levels.


Russia is facing a population crisis, and has been for decades. Tax breaks, maternity leave, other incentives including medals have all been tried to raise the birth rate.


Finland offers so much support for young families in an effort to stimulate the birth rate.


So, to try and conclude this long, random collection of ideas, there’s reason to be hopeful for our future if we make the right decisions and mitigate against the disasters we can already see coming (Climate Change). Some of the actions we take might not be popular or populist, some with wealth might see it decline, and those with little will see theirs grow. However, with technology, innovation, and little less selfishness we have a bright future.


There’s an idea that, in the future, we will spread out from this planet and into the universe, but maybe, by then, our population will be too small, our drive to reproduce too low for that to occur?


Notes:

1 https://www.un.org/en/global-issues/population

2 https://data.oecd.org/pop/fertility-rates.htm - excellent graph

3 https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.DYN.TFRT.IN?name_desc=false

4 https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/primary-energy-cons

5 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clair_Cameron_Patterson#Campaign_against_lead_poisoning

6 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tobacco_politics

7 https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2022/08/e05251057991-japan-population-falls-at-record-pace-to-12593-mil-with-births-low.html

8 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Population_planning_in_Singapore#Have-Three-or-More_(if_you_can_afford_it)

9 https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-51120165

10 https://www.cnbc.com/2020/02/21/why-finland-is-the-best-place-to-give-birth-childbirth-costs-compared.html



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