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Where Are We Headed

Predicting the future is an activity fraught with danger. And lacking the confidence of Nostradamus, I won’t even try. But I can at least give you some thoughts about various areas of human endeavour that I believe need to be tracked very closely.

But even there I am in a quandary. For many issues extrapolating trends from the past can give us reasonable predictors of the future. The progress of medicine, for example, could reasonably predict that those who had access to high standard health care would live longer, and year on year our longevity marginally increases. As a result in the developed nations we now have to cope with an ageing population. Not that I would suggest this is a bad thing, being one of that demographic.

Or take population. World population growth continues inexorably, year after year. Even though some European countries have plateaued in their population growth, the burgeoning increases in the developing world swamps this impact. Population growth is a major contributor to our accelerating use of finite resources and global pollution and environmental degradation.

Yet for other issues there are great discontinuities. Scientists tell us that it is probably two million years ago that our ancestors learned to take advantage of fire. The chemical reaction of releasing the chemical energy of atoms and molecules gave us rudimentary heat and light. In the nineteenth century we learnt to convert that energy into mechanical and electrical energy underpinning the industrial revolution. And then Einstein showed us that mass and energy were really different manifestation of the same thing. Atomic fission and later fusion gave us access to energy we could never have imagined.

The industrial revolution was driven by the harvesting of the benefits of fossil fuels, and in particular coal and oil. One of the unforeseen consequences of this development was the release of huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This effect was initially limited by the fact that only the developed, industrialised societies had access to these technologies. But in recent years with the growth of the Chinese, Indian and East-Asian economies man made emissions into the atmosphere have burgeoned.

The modern development of information technology has seen spectacular growth. Computing speed and memory capacity have grown exponentially whilst costs have markedly reduced. This has led to major societal changes as, for example, we accommodate the social networking phenomenon sparked by the digital revolution, the changing service offerings of banks and financial institutions, the ability to purchase goods and services on-line, the displacement of hard copy books with e-books etc.

And so it is that our future seems dependent on trends, some of which are gradual and linear, some of which are dramatic, exponential changes in technologies we know and some of which mark major discontinuities due to new discoveries and technological developments which open up vast new areas of possibilities and render much existing technology redundant. There are many among us who had collections of LP records, audio tapes, video tapes etc. that all lost their attraction with the development of CD’s and DVD’s.

Some of the discontinuities we have to face are not as a result of new technologies but a lack of understanding in some important fields of existing knowledge. The Global Financial Crisis (GFC) is a case in point. Most economic historians would credit the publication of “The Wealth of Nations” by Adam Smith in 1776 as the birth of a new field of knowledge that we now call Economics. Despite the fact we have been studying Economics for over 200 years, we still know little enough about it that virtually no Economist of international standing was able to predict the GFC. (It is a quirk in my personality, that although I have a degree in Economics I find I am inexorably driven to write BFG [“Big Friendly Giant” -Children’s story by Roald Dahl] each time I have to reference GFC!)

Or what about Climatology? I am quite convinced because of research work I’ve been associated with over the last fifteen years that global warming is a fact. I am loath however to be too dogmatic that its cause is human-induced pollution. But what a surprise! In a year that could be the hottest ever recorded (certainly in the decade that is the hottest in modern times) Australia has had a cool year. And as a result (due to the El Nino Effect) has perhaps had one of its wettest years on record after a decade or more of drought. I can’t remember anyone predicting this (certainly no-one with recognised scientific credentials).

It is somewhat comforting to me that the future is not predictable. It is good that there are surprises out there for us. We can prepare for the future as best we can bearing in mind the various trends I have mentioned – but it is inevitable that there will always be surprises. Some of these are going to be really challenging apropos GFC and climate change – others are going to be pleasant surprises, instance the progress being made with the human genome, or recent discoveries about brain plasticity.

Despite all these changes the biggest disappointment (at least for me) relates to how our social conditions are in many ways are not advancing. In a society like Australia, where our standard of living, measured by conventional means, has increased markedly in recent decades we still have pockets of severe disadvantage. One that I have had some association with, and seems to be one of the more intractable issues, is indigenous disadvantage. We have so much more to do here!

Or in a similar vein, despite our burgeoning material wealth, there has been such an impost on our society caused by the breakdown of the nuclear family. So many children now seem to suffer from the malaise associated with divorce and separation.

When I think about the world to come, despite many pessimists and doomsayers who are concerned with such things as nuclear technology and genetic engineering, I must say my greatest concerns are associated with the changes in our social milieu. Technology will create many changes in our society, but I can’t help but believe that technology’s impacts are minor compared with the way we decide to treat each other! Technology is in itself neutral with respect to ethics and morality. How we use technology will always come back to the basic values of humankind. There are few signs that societies in the future will be less self-interested than those today. This is my greatest concern for the future.

I can’t help but believe that the world could be a better place if we curtailed population growth, consumed a bit less and cared a bit more!

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  1. 4 Comment(s)

  2.   By Father Robin on Dec 12, 2010 | Reply

    “Que sera, sera”

    Doris Day.

  3.   By Father Robin on Dec 12, 2010 | Reply

    But maybe, eventually, might end up as Love.

    I enjoy happy endings.

    Consumerism, particularly at this time of year, has nothing to do with Love.

    Only obligations.

    “We visited your parents last year so we have to visit my parents this year”

    “Have you prepared the turkey?”

    Can anybody explain what is so special about something that we have created about a date that has changed several times in the last 2K years?

    Why don’t we love every Doris.

  4.   By Father Robin on Dec 12, 2010 | Reply

    “Carpe diem.”

    Horace.

  5.   By Greg Brown on Dec 13, 2010 | Reply

    I remember Dick Tracy (Kids cartoon character of the 60’s and 70’s) had a phone in his watch (well a 2 way radio anyway). The vision of the future was communication in your watch.

    Recently with day light saving a lot of people got out of wack because they rely solely on their mobile phone for a watch. So what really happened was that the phone replaced the watch rather than the other way round.

    Who can predict the future.

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