When it comes to the fate of civilization, the way of the Prophet is not that of seeking knowledge from higher powers, it is of studying trends and looking for possible continuations of movements and ideas rising to and falling from favor. The Future is an infinite number of probabilities branching out at every turn to increasingly unpredictable directions. In a human lifetime a great deal more change can be witnessed than in centuries past, people can be made aware of things quickly and cultural revolutions can take place in years instead of decades. The means of our ideas being manifested are growing faster than our ability to grapple with the changes our own inventions bring about.
The use of technology to efficiently kill ever larger numbers of people at a time is the trend to look out for and do something about, indeed the horror of what atomic weapons can do is among the most significant cultural benchmarks of the 20th century. The propagation of these images and the recollections of those who remember it has been a significant force in preventing the use of these weapons since. Living memory is a powerful force, while it exists the lessons are still part of our experience. Once these people who remember have become few, dazed, or dead, we will forget how terrible it was. The deteriorated film images will lose any impact among the myriad of real and simulated images then in circulation. Lessons will ultimately have to be relearned by the next generation, as in so much of life. This suggests the next use of atomic weapons in warfare between countries will happen soon after about 2015. The debut of atomic terrorism will probably happen sooner. Then the terrible images will be branded into the collective consciousness in whatever modern visual media will be in use.
The other trend needing attention is that of world population. A vast array of human problems regarding hostilities, environmental degradation, individual freedom, and quality of life emerge from the needs to house and feed what is currently 6 billion people. It took from the emergence of humanity to about the middle of the 1800's for human numbers to reach one billion. That number was added to the world in the last dozen years! Whatever family planning efforts can take hold will at least delay and could in time prevent future suffering of unimaginable scale. In recent times even environmentalist groups dare not presume to tell other cultures what they should do lest they branded as 'cultural imperialists' by those who declare what is 'politically correct'. This smoldering threat may be buried under tapestries woven in the name of of good intentions but it shall flare to the surface in time. All environmental problems stem from supporting more people than conditions allow, and as populations grow governments must restrict the individual freedoms of people for management as well as opportunistic reasons.
How far can one tread on the thin ice of speculation? One can look at places in the world where trends are being established and guess at possible outcomes, a few I submit seem likely to feature in the news as we grow old. Unfortunately, the advance of progress will be hindered by the proliferation of spurious ideas not likely to achieve tangible results. 'The Truth' will be but one of the voices in the cacophony, and smaller numbers will even be aware of the difference after generations of exposure to commercially run mass media. Information will be available to increasing numbers of people, but smaller percentages of humanity will understand the difference between information and nonsense.
The 'Horsemen of the Apocalypse'
loom more terrifying than ever, changing uniforms, banners, and
mounts with the times. The Middle East seems to have settled into
a kind of tense stability, although moderation is still only one
of the options considered by some in the area. Instability looms
in the region, smoldering like a submerged peat fire waiting to
be exposed. The presence of Israel in the midst of incompatible
neighbors will continue to fester like a rejected transplant,
defended periodically by the heroism of an astonishingly capable
Israeli military. Unfortunately, Israel requires only one loss
to forfeit everything, so atomic weapons appeared there long ago
while the big powers 'looked the other way', but efforts of neighboring
countries to do the same are staunchly repressed. This perceived
unequal treatment by the 'Great Powers' fosters bitter resentment.
Iran still has smoldering within it the old Persian fighting spirit the Romans grew to respect. As time passes Iran may continue to encourage Islamic fundamentalism to the everlasting dismay of the West. Iran seemingly vacillates between defiance and compliance regarding world alarm at it's nuclear program. The iranians are probably stalling for time while feverishly preparing a nuclear arsenal. Isreal will not allow tIran to point a nuclear 'gun' at them. The 'balance of terror' which kept the U.S. and U.S.S.R. from destroying each other might work in the Middle east-or it might not. Mutual Assured Destruction required all parties involved to be afraid to die. Terrorism is the more immediate and difficult problem even despots frequently have no control over, and there is never an absence of religious and political causes to inflame young men to do terrible things.
In the meantime the significance
of Pakistan's ability to fight a major war with it's arch rival,
giant India, may well be played out in one of their periodic border
conflicts. It is from here we are most likely to see the next
series of awful atomic war images. Pakistan's development
of atomic weapons will eventually result in their proliferation
through out the Islamic world, with wealthy terrorist types probably
obtaining them to further their own grim agendas. It may be that a larger
process is in operation which makes destruction of the best elements
of Western Civilization more likely with time. Sheer population
growth has more insidious effects than the obvious crowding and
feeding problems. The more people there are, the more individuals
are likely to be involved in any given movement or belief system.
In any group within a given system of thought there are variations
in intensity and emphasis of constructive versus destructive intent
and methods. This takes place alongside the technological advances
in packing greater death dealing potential in more compact and
available methods. Eventually a small number of people will
obtain weapons of mass destruction and use them, with the entire
civilization being affected by the aftermath. It may be once the
population reaches a certain point, the most 'toxic' component
of the masses reaches a threshold where they can wreak havoc on
the entire system.
China is like an awakening colossus, whose standard of living has irregularly risen appreciably since World War Two. So long as Mao's face looms over Teinamin Square, China's government can be seen as embracing his deeds as well as his image. In time the steady growth of China's military might and ambitions may lead to a conflict with the interests of the Western Powers as well as some closer neighbors. Taiwan is traditionally the most likely flash point of perceivable conflict with the west, however economic ties are stradily overcoming the older political rifts. China is the real adversary those planning a Theater Missile Defense system eye warily. Such work will blossom in the coming decades as will every other aspect of military technology, over and above all others as it has always been. We are as lemmings, putting on uniforms and marching by the millions against each other every few decades, we are helpless to stop ourselves and those that won't can only try to survive those that will.
Although some can point to the modern horrors of life and blame them on the breakdown of old ways of living, I believe that society is a kind of virtual living thing which can either evolve under the directions perceived as fruitful or remain static like the cockroaches. Most mutations are not beneficial, and many variations do not bear fruit, but some do and it can make an enormous difference in unknown ways to be flexible and adaptable. Thus those cultural trends which increase rather than restrict our options allow us to 'cover more ground' with discoveries and changes resulting.There are competing trends between subdividing regions of the world now within established nations to give autonomy to distinct cultural groups, and merging of economic systems to form 'blocs' to deal with other economic world entities. Big business between nations is among the leading stabilizing forces in the modern world. As nations depend on each other for trade they may be less likely to battle each other. Giant corporations will continue to generate wealth and influence, and along with the jobs and goods generated, people will have to continually assert themselves or be swallowed up by the corporate machinery. Vast multitudes, perhaps the majority of humanity, will increasingly serve as laborers working under near slave conditions.
While promoting stability, governments and
corporations try to assure compliant subjects and consumers, and
things which might empower people or even allow them pleasures
and states of mind alien to those of the ruling forces is often
brutally repressed. The classifying of people's lifestyles as
criminal and the subsequent industries devoted to tracking down
and imprisoning such people is something the 'dark side' of societies
are continually employed in, be it the persecution of meditation
groups in China or the 'War On Drugs' in the U.S. The times we
have been living in with all their problems may yet appear as
a 'golden age' 200 years from now.
Repressive governments will continue to get better at subjugating people, but so will the ability of a determined few to maintain independent sources of information beyond the influence of Government and Corporation controlled mass media outlets. As nations like China and India and Eurasia's poor countries elevate their standards of living their people will demand the resources mostly siphoned off now by the West, especially the United States. This will result in conflicts and episodes of drastic lowering of living standards for all but a small fraction of people.
The eventual long term 'check' to Humanity
restricted to the surface of Earth may indeed be a catastrophic
reduction in population to much less than a billion people by
disease or starvation caused by unforeseen major climate changes.
So long as we are in a game where limited resources have to be
allocated among growing numbers we are ultimately doomed. All
the efforts to increase food production and extend individual
longevity will accomplish is to trade a nearer calamity of one
intensity for a later catastrophe of far greater scope. In time
the pressure of human numbers will drain the resources of governments.
The best we can hope for with severe regulation of societies is
a future which eventually settles into a bare subsistence level
maintaining unimaginably crowded and squalid masses. This 'final
steady state condition' of the world thousands of years from now
could resemble what we see in modern day Calcutta, except virtually
the entire world would be like that. Under such conditions the
world could sustain perhaps up to a trillion people! In general
the more populated the environment, the less freedom allowed the
individual. A future world of a trillion people would be one where
individual ideas and dissension would have been bred out of existence.
It is highly likely that well before such a state can settle into place pandemics will drastically reduce human population, perhaps Gaeia still has some tricks up her sleeve! The problem is if modern civilization ever is allowed to disintegrate not only would people depending on our advances in medicine die off, the survivors trying to regather civilization would find most of the easy to get (and non radioactive) petroleum reserves will have been used up, and an uphill struggle to use alternate energy methods with whatever technology remains could prove a grim and protracted struggle. We are running with the torch of progress over gradually deepening water, the mud at our feet requiring greater care to avoid slipping and dousing the flame.
The role of intelligent machines and the intimate coupling of human and machine experiences will bring changes for the more affluent societies beyond our ability to imagine. Our computers will look like the Victorian hand abacuses in museums. Entertainment media involving direct hookups to the brain may become a substitute for real life to many. Direct experience through advanced robots sent to other worlds could blur the meaning of that it is to 'be somewhere'. Other as yet unfathomable inventions and innovations promise increasingly profound changes to come, some beneficial and some tragic. Most of the future is unguessable, and one has only to look at photographs of present locations 100 years ago to appreciate how the World can change in a century, except the pace of change is accelerating dramatically. Hang on for the ride ahead!