Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow
The future creeps along one day at a time. And none of us can predict with certainty the events of the next 24 hours. So trying to forecast what will happen during the next 100 years by fast-forwarding through thousands of tomorrows is no small challenge. But in our first issue of this new century, we are fearlessly gazing into the future and trying to see what lies ahead.
Of course, to understand the future first requires looking at the present. One interesting perspective on how current conditions will affect this century can be found in Dr. Thomas F. Homer-Dixon's recent book Environment, Scarcity and Violence (Princeton University Press). He focuses on nine current physical trends that he predicts will have major impacts during the coming years: human population growth, rising energy consumption, global warming, stratospheric ozone depletion, increasing cropland scarcity, tropical deforestation, rising scarcity of fresh water, the decline of fish stocks and the loss of biodiversity.
The most striking trend highlighted by the author, a political science professor at the University of Toronto, is the relentless growth of the human population. The latest United Nations' medium projections suggest that the total human population will increase from the current 6 billion to about 8 billion by 2025 and 9.4 billion in 2050 (the UN's low projections, which are plausible given the recent fertility declines, are 7.5 and 7.7 billion respectively). More than 90 percent of the current population growth is occurring in developing regions such as China, Africa and South America.
Homer-Dixon points out that the growing scarcity of natural resources such as fresh water could eventually lead to conflicts in many parts of the world. Such scarcities can result from the degradation and depletion of natural resources, the increased demand for these resources or their unequal distribution. He attempts in his book to focus attention on these looming problems in order to promote solutions - economic, social and technological responses to environmental scarcity.
Dr. Edward O. Wilson, the Harvard entomology professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author, offers another view concerning future environmental challenges. Well-known for focusing society's attention on the value of biological diversity, Wilson is outspoken about his concerns related to humanity's impact on the world. In a recent interview in Audubon magazine, he said "If we continue at the current rate of deforestation and destruction of major ecosystems like rainforests and coral reefs, where most of the biodiversity is concentrated, we will surely lose more than half of all the species of plants and animals on Earth by the end of the 21st century."
However, Wilson is hopeful that this trend can be reversed. He spells out his views in his book In Search of Nature (Island Press). According to him, "We are smart enough and have time enough to avoid an environmental catastrophe of civilization-threatening dimensions. But the technical problems are sufficiently formidable to require a redirection of much of science and technology, and the ethical issues are so basic as to force a reconsideration of our self-image as a species."
Both Homer-Dixon and Wilson raise important questions about the state of the planet during the next 100 years. In an effort to present you a variety of other insights concerning this topic, we've turned to several top people in the environmental field to get their views about what lies ahead. In our cover story that starts on page 14, we feature the predictions of leaders from the Air & Waste Management Association, the Water Environment Federation, the American Water Works Association, the American Chemical Society, the American Bar Association and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Even though it's hard to see the future through a cloud of uncertainty, our forecasters try to identify some trends shaping up. We invite you to take a glimpse into the coming century though the eyes of our panel of environmental soothsayers.
Click here to post comments about this topic, and read what others have to say.
This article originally appeared in the 01/01/2000 issue of Environmental Protection.