The Risks of Prediction

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In 1902 the writer H. G. Wells predicted that "long before the year A.D. 2000, and very probably before 1950, a successful aeroplane will have soared and come home safe and sound" and he predicted such a device would become an important weapon in warfare. He also suggested that in the year 2000, cooks would no longer labor with "crimsoned faces and blackened arms" over open fires, but rather over "a neat little range, heated by electricity and provided with thermometers, with absolutely controllable temperatures and proper heat screens."3

Many of Wells's predictions for fifty to one hundred years in the future—the rise of cities; the ubiquity of electricity; mechanized mass transportation; highly destructive world wars—were remarkably prescient, given that Thomas Edison had invented the light bulb only twenty years before, the Wright Brothers' first successful flight had yet to occur, and the Model T was still seven years away. But Wells was hardly perfect. He also predicted the end of democracy and the rise of dirigibles. A Ladies Home Journal article of predictions for the year 2000, published around the same time, accurately predicted the population of the United States, but also foresaw that "strawberries as large as apples will be eaten by our great-great-grandchildren."4

Forecasting the distant future has always been a risky but necessary part of organizing how we think and act in the present. In general, our visions for the distant future are limited by what we already know and are strongly grounded in the past. Electricity and dirigibles were recent innovations when H. G. Wells wrote his predictions, so describing the electrification of daily life and strategic importance of blimps in the future made sense.

Today, however, it is very difficult to base views of the distant future on the record of the past and an understanding of the present for two reasons. The first, of course, is climate change. This is an inexorable trend of unprecedented global scope, with an enormous range of uncertainty. The plausible effects, from repeated, severe weather events to prolonged, record high temperatures, are unprecedented in human history. There may be wholly new climate zones, and some of the temperature and precipitation patterns will be entirely new.5 We can base our predictions on exceptional events, such as Hurricane Katrina or the 2003 heat wave in Europe, but there is no true record to inform our views of the future.

The speed of technological change today is another unprecedented and global trend. If the present rate of change continues, computers will approximate the power of the human brain within twenty-five years; twenty-five years after that, one computer "could have the processing power of all human brains."6 What that might mean is the province of science fiction writers. Nanotechnology, the construction and manipulation of materials at a molecular level, may radically change human society, and bioengineering may even redefine what it means to be human. It is extremely difficult to comprehend what these radical trends will mean for the future, particularly given that the pace of change itself has increased exponentially.7

At the same time, however, the implications of both trends for human society and survival raise the stakes; it is crucial to try to understand what the future might look like in one hundred years in order to act accordingly today. This scenario, therefore, builds a picture of the plausible effects of catastrophic climate change, and the implications for national security, on the basis of what we know about the past and the present. The purpose is not to "one up" the previous scenarios in awfulness, but rather to attempt to imagine an unimaginable future that is, after all, entirely plausible.

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