In the next century, the progress of humanity will proceed on the basis of how successfully we address the following six needs. They are not the typical needs of world peace, ending world hunger, or stopping environmental destruction that so often are vaguely thrown about in the press these days. Those are but symptoms of the real challenges that we must attack in the next 100 years. While they are related to some of those subjects, in different ways they are directed at more concrete, more measurable factors that will enable or inhibit our achievement of broader goals this century.
Low Energy Desalinization
The most plentiful resource on the Earth is salty water. In addition to the oceans, many aquifers around the globe also contain salt water, not fresh, at various depths, making it nearly ubiquitous. Fresh water is needed for industrial resources as well as agriculture and personal consumption and so is widely expected to be civilization’s limiting resource of the next century.
This salt water can be made fresh by the use of desalinization techniques, but today’s methods are often very energy intensive, suitable only for energy-rich and water-poor nations in the middle east and some island communities, who have no alternatives.
Low energy desalinization techniques (also here and here) with sufficiently low capital costs could instigate an explosion of increased agricultural productivity, industrial productivity, and improved public health all around the world. Without this achievement, increased national conflicts, and persistent health and agricultural problems will likely persist throughout the next century.
Increasing Agricultural Yields of High Quality Foods
The “green revolution” of the last century ushered in by the use of petroleum-based fertilizers, and simple but effective pesticides and herbicides caused a great increase in the productivity of agricultural around the world, especially basic grains. Instead of the population boom causing millions to starve as some expected, we have arrived in today’s world where there are regular global food surpluses (even if not evenly distributed) and obesity has become one of the dominant health issues of our time.
Creating the agricultural systems that produce the right kind of nutrients human need in the right quantities at the lowest cost of labor and resources will result in a healthier society with more productivity to focus on other developments. Many of today’s problems of malnutrition and obesity both partially result from imbalances in the food supply against what is actually required by the population. To solve both those problems, the proper incentives and system designs need to be implemented in the agriculture market.
Growth of Computational Power (Science of Prediction)
The power of computers in terms of memory and performing calculations has been increasing on a rapid exponential track for some time, and is expected to do so for the next several decades, and possibly even beyond that as engineers find methods to circumvent the current limits miniaturization, or barring that, computers will simply increase in size and power consumption to keep pace. These developments are now normally expected events by the culture at large, and have incrementally had great effect in the continually increasing productivity of the West, and the increasing societal and economic integration around the world.
None of those potential developments would necessarily lead to their inclusion in this list were it not for the now possible development of a nearly new field of science and engineering: the science of prediction and the closely related science of quantitative risk assessment. Humanity has been attempting to predict weather, economic developments, wars, disease outbreaks, and other problems for a long time, with little repeatable success. The greatly increased computational power, however, has allowed the tools available for prediction to catch up with the complex mathematics required to perform prediction. It is now a possibility that we soon can develop capabilities to anticipate and predict future problems before they cause catastrophic harm. Accurately predicting earthquakes, severe weather, future environmental problems, wars, and resource depletion can be accomplished this century with properly directed effort. The effects on future society will be profound.
Increasing Efficiency and the Supply of Sustainable Energy
Contrary to some of the other points mentioned in this article, this objective does realize its proper level of importance in the media regarding the projection of the course of the next century. The growth in demand for power that can be transmitted or carried from one place to another will continue to grow at a rapid pace, as the benefits we all obtain from that power to our health, our productivity, our social relationships, and other things, is steadily growing as well.
There is no progress to be achieved from turning our back on all these developments. However, by changing from depletable to renewable forms of energy generation and from inefficient to efficient forms of energy consumption, we can increase the benefit and reduce the potential harm and disruption caused by our increasing energy appetites.
Given the amount of other information available on this topic, I don’t need to elaborate much here in this article, but suffice it to say that the next century with either see a transformation of the world’s energy system leading to continued progress for civilization, or a practical collapse of that system as some of the sources of energy currently available become depleted.
Eradication of Infectious Diseases that Kill and Disable
Every year, up to 17 million people, many of them children, die from infectious diseases. In fact, outside of chronic conditions that are the most likely causes of death in the aged, these infectious diseases account directly and indirectly for more than one third of all deaths in the world each year, and a majority of the deaths of adults and young people. Adding in the effects from disability, both temporary and permanent, would likely triple the impact of these diseases on our society.
So great a loss of those who we expect to contribute their productivity and creativity to the world is a substantial drag to potential achievements in the next century. It is within our capability to not just control, but to eradicate most of these perennial diseases in the next century. The effect on global society towards increased investment in the future and away from a culture of fatalism would be incredible. The effect of 17 million more individuals every year working towards the good of their families and their communities would quickly lead to realized gains against all kinds of problems we face on this planet.
Increasing the Effectiveness of Education
Often overlooked or taken for granted, whether or not our civilization is prepared and capable of achieving progress depends on a more skilled and knowledgeable society. The proper functioning of representative governments depends on it, as well as the beneficial functioning of all kinds of organizations. If science is to find the answers to these challenges listed above, there must be a great number of highly trained scientists and engineers to produce those solutions and a highly educated population to consent and implement them. Societies that remain closed to or fearful of new theories, ideas, or foreign cultures will find significant improvement difficult if not impossible. Education is the key to creating the kind of fertile ground for progress that is required.
While there are numerous good models of highly effective education in different places, there are very few places that function highly in all areas. Even nations, cities, or schools with high reputations in one subject area rarely excel in all areas, even though the models are visible and available for all to duplicate. As such, even the highly educated from the best schools in the best nations, have wasted time in many courses for many years over the course of their academic training. When considering that those who have been lightly trained at sub-standard schools have likely wasted more time, there is considerable room for improvement worldwide. As the methods of education begin to be subjected to more scientific scrutiny, as the facts have already been, the way education is conducted will surely change. If that change is transformative on the world level utilizing best practices from wherever they are found, multiplicative dividends to global society can result.
These are transformative steps to progress. Whether our civilization takes these steps and to what degree will determine how much progress is made in the next century. Without these some incremental progress is still to be expected, but why should we settle for that, when we are on the cusp of so much more? I expect one way or another civilization will continue on through the next century, but realizing these six opportunities would truly make it a century of progress.