As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969, it’s a timely occasion to speculate how agriculture, business and politics might evolve five decades from now.
It’s become something of a cottage industry these days at trade shows and business conferences, prognosticating about how consumer trends will develop at some indeterminant time in the future.
Of course, futuristic predictions have been a thing since the days of Nostradamus 400 years ago — although his (alleged) credibility has been greatly enhanced by eager conspiracy theorists who’ve “re-interpreted” his obscure musings to suggest that the French apothicaire-et-poète predicted the atomic bomb, the assassination of Saddam Hussein and the election of Donald Trump.
(The fact the he whiffed on the impact of slavery, European colonialism and both World Wars doesn’t seem to bother his true believers, however.)
Also prominent in that genre was Winston Churchill, who’s been lauded for a 1932 essay he authored titled, “Fifty Years Hence.” In it, the future-British Prime Minister — then out of government and obsessed with writing editorials arguing against independence for India — predicted the advent of “wireless telephones,” test-tube poultry production and the introduction of television.
Problem is that cherry-picking someone’s daydreams about how science and technology will affect lifestyles decades from now, and which inventions might reach commercial development, makes plenty of futurists look like geniuses.
A closer look is always much more sobering.
Take Churchill as a prime example. Sure, he hit the center of the dartboard with some of his predictions, but in his 50-years-from-now essay he also offered a chilling assessment of genetic engineering, and not as it might be applied to corn and soybean production.
“Interference with the mental development of [human] beings, expert suggestion and treatment in the earlier years, would produce beings specialized to thought or toil,” he wrote. “The production of creatures, for instance, which have admirable physical development, with their mental endowment stunted in particular directions, is almost within the range of human power. A being might be produced capable of tending a machine but without other ambitions.”
Ultra-creepy, especially since that last sentence starts to sound like the job description for an Amazon warehouse worker.
An optimistic perspective
A genetically altered work force aside, I often try to consider what’s ahead for us in the next five decades. Some predictions are easy.
Despite ambitious assertions dating back to the New York World’s Fair in 1939, I think we can safely let go of a future with flying cars straight out of The Jetsons.
On the other hand, it’s also safe to say we won’t have progressed beyond watching informercials for all the new and improved gadgets sure to be introduced between now and 2069.
They’ll probably be transmitted directly onto video chips implanted in our skulls, but with the same chirpy endorsers hawking the always-exciting “But wait — now you can double your order!” pitch.
On a more serious note (as if making wildly speculative assumptions is some sort of scientific endeavor), I’m optimistic that actual future scenarios might not be as dire as so many people are predicting.
Thus, with rose-colored glasses firmly affixed, here goes my glimpse into future landscapes and lifestyles:
Energy. For the sake of mitigating the climate crisis, let’s hope that within the next 10 to 15 years renewable sources dominate transportation, manufacturing and residential energy consumption. That might seem ambitious, but with a steady increase in production of electric vehicles, advancements in fuel-cell technology and further development of biofuels from highly efficient sources, such as algae, there is at least the possibility that the practice of burning fossil fuels will be headed toward a gradual phasing out among industrialized nations.
But if so, I’ll miss the thrill of watching the numbers on the pump accelerate past $50 bucks just to fill up the gas-guzzling SUV I’m currently nursing through its old age.
Politics. Nobody knows how the unholy trio of geopolitical tensions, sectarian violence and global terrorism might affect the prospects for warfare or peacekeeping, but I firmly believe the world’s headed for a new “cold war,” in which widespread deployment of sophisticated weaponry so powerful and precise that other than limited regional skirmishes, deadly though they might be, we’re likely to re-enter a new “cold war” era in which any country launching a frontal attack on another country would be committing national suicide.
Business. Do you love robots? Hope so, because in 50 years, between autonomous vehicles, automated manufacturing and computer-controlled systems for home and office, expect The Machines to become self-aware sometime in the near future and basically replicate the script for Skynet’s takeover of the Earth in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Agriculture. Food affordability is likely to lessen, but the challenge of feeding billions more people will be successfully met, I believe, thanks to a combination of factors: the advancement of so-called “cellular agriculture;” greater diversity and new, more efficient crop varieties (thanks to genetic engineering); the emergence of urban food production; and use of novel techniques, such as breeding insects as a protein source.
Animal agriculture in North America will definitely remain viable, although meat and dairy foods are likely to be more of a niche market product for most consumers, as vegetarian foods, plant-based formulations and alt-meat analogs command a significant share of the protein sector.
Anyway, that’s the upbeat, glass-half-full perspective on where we’re headed by the time of the centennial celebration of the moon landing.
The caveat, however, is that things could get a lot worse long before any of my rosy predictions even come close to fruition.
But guess what? I won’t be around for anyone to point out how wrong I was, so from my perspective, it’s all good.
The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, an award-winning journalist and commentator.