Getting Over the Hump

Now, I didn’t get my degree in futurology from a major university, but writing that last episode about one specific medical breakthrough made me sit back and think about the larger picture.

Here’s the thing: There’s some bad shit coming down the pike, but there are also some good things. Let’s start with the bad:

There are more and more people on the planet, and they have to eat. While the human population shoots upward, our ability to produce food is under stress on several different fronts.

  • Nitrogen burn — a huge chunk of farmland is at risk of becoming sterile as a result of modern agricultural practices. The nitrogen in fertilizer comes from the atmosphere and doesn’t go back. It’s building up all over the place, and is starting to affect things.
  • Running out of phosphorus — this critical mineral is in short supply. This article put the timer at 50 years. We might find more in the meantime, but China is buying all it can now.
  • Water — some of the most productive farmland in the world gets its water from the ground. The supply is finite.
  • Water, part II — changing climate patterns are likely to put too much water in some places, and not enough in others.

I had a few more, but you get the idea. Keeping everyone fed for the next few decades is going to be tough. War and pestilence will follow where food is a problem.

2050 could be pretty ugly. If sea levels rise, there will be a lot of displaced people. (I say save San Diego and kiss Miami goodbye. Topologically, it makes sense.) Agriculture will be maximally stressed. It’s going to take everything we have to get past that hump.

But it is a hump. This is just number-crunching, but so far every group of humans that has reached a certain average lifespan has stopped reproducing so much. There’s good reason to believe that after around 2050, the human population will start to decline for the first time in history.

This leads to some new problems — or at least adjustments. Consider the American Social Security system as an example of something that happens all over the place (although, most times there’s less lying about what’s actually going on). Young folks pitch in to support the older folks. THIS IS NOT A BAD THING. (Although with Social Security we’re told we’re saving for the future, and that’s patently false.) Young folks looking after the ones who came before is admirable. The problem comes when there aren’t enough young folks to carry the load anymore.

Answer: redefine “old”. By 2050, working 75-year-olds will be typical (I originally used a bigger number, but pulled back). If I were king, I’d start sliding the retirement age three months each year, starting now. I’m not king, however, and it will probably require a few major nations to default and a million pensioners to die of starvation or exposure before it is politically possible to start this adjustment. Naturally, the pension hump comes at the same time the food supply is at maximum stress. But it’s a hump, and on the other side is the recognition that people will be productive for a lot longer. There’ll still be young’uns, they’ll just be sixty years old.

And come on, young at sixty? That’s not a bad thing. You might have to delay retirement a decade or two, but you’ll still have a better retirement than folks did in 1935, when retirement age was set at 65, and the average lifespan was 62.

So, that’s two humps we have to get over. There are others. We will have to make a pretty big transition on our energy sources in the future. Bad people will have access to some really scary shit. Robots might take over (they will do this by making us so fat and lazy we don’t bother to reproduce).

But on the other side of the hump is a population gently shrinking to what the planet can comfortably support, humans productive and healthy far beyond original design parameters, and a world that does not, as ours does now, run at a deficit. Once everything runs out, we’ll have to learn to live on a budget. There will still be strife, and greed, and misunderstanding, but just get us to the year 2100 without an abrupt population correction, and I think we’ll be all right.

(Note to readers digging this episode up on Our Benign Overlord Google (may it always reign in peace) in the 23rd century: get your bitch ass in your time machine and tell me if I was right.)


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