Utopia or dystopia? What the 22nd Century has in store

Things have changed radically even in the last couple of decades, but what will the world look like in 100, 150 years? What is in store for our grandchildren and great grandchildren, or the residents of the 22nd century? How will people live? Will they work? Will their lives be so different from ours? Charlotte Richardson Andrews spoke to some of today’s leading futurists to gauge what’s in store for our progeny

"We cannot predict the future [with any confidence] because we have yet to decide what it is we want the future to be,” says futurist Mark Stevenson.

This is the kind of glass half-full view you might expect from the author of An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, but it’s not blind belief that Stevenson advocates, rather a moral position. “My job is about helping people – governments, corporations, universities – have an optimism of ambition about the future, believing it can be better and then helping them work to create it. If you can’t imagine a better future you can’t make it.”

We’ve been dreaming of that better world for decades. It’s there in the domestic bliss of The Jetsons, with their floating homes and space-age gadgets of convenience; it’s there in the altruistic, deep-space adventures of the Star Trek’s warp power universe. But for every would-be utopia, there is a dystopia, conjured up in books, comics and films: the cutthroat world of Bladerunner or the apocalyptic vision of Watchmen.

Talk of the 22nd Century

In a recent interview with Vulture, seminal sci-fi author William Gibson was asked what he thought might account for the recent surge in popular dystopian fiction. It could be, suggested Gibson, that pop culture is trying to tell us something. “What I find far more ominous is how seldom, today, we see the phrase ‘the 22nd century.’ Almost never. Compare this with the frequency with which the 21st century was evoked in popular culture during, say, the 1920s.” Are we so hopeless about the future, he was asked, that we’re intentionally not envisioning it?  “Well, that’s the question — why don’t we? I don’t know.”

Concern for the future is both logical and necessary, says design scientist and systems theorist Melissa Sterry. “Having examined the spectrum of environmental trajectories before us, my expectation is that life in the 21st century will become progressively more difficult, for peoples of all world regions,” says Sterry. “Conflict will, I believe, be a hallmark of the coming decades.”

For many, survival will reside in a return to mobility en masse: to moving as, when and where needed to avoid heat waves, chronic air pollution, pandemics and weaponry

“One of the foremost considerations within my research is that of land-use change, and more broadly, ecosystem change – the latter of which will, I believe, have a profound impact on how humans live, as well as where they live,” she adds.

In this future, the consequences of climate change and the ensuing resource wars that will arise from this will mean the majority of us are unlikely to live in comfort – or even in one place.

“For the greater part of history, the genus Homo was, by and large, nomadic, shifting from one place to another as seasons and circumstances changed. If the environmental, and in turn societal, outlook is as challenging as I think it will be, for many, survival will reside in a return to mobility en masse: to moving as, when and where needed to avoid heat waves, chronic air pollution, pandemics and weaponry.”

In this future, says Sterry, migrant populations are one of the demographics likely to bring forth new ideas and innovations in travel.

The future of the haves and the have nots

Dreaming of Fifth Element-style fashion in the 22nd Century? It’s possible, says Rachel Armstrong, professor of Experimental Architecture at Newcastle University, but we’ll be dressing for survival as much style.

“The world will be much wetter in the next century. We will have storms, which are at first regular, then become stable features of the Earth’s climate, think of Jupiter’s ‘string of pearls’,” says Armstrong. “We will dress for this weather and mobilize around its impacts. While wealthy societies will barricade themselves behind sea walls and biospheres, they will be intermittently breached, causing devastation to the protected communities. These episodes will be lamented then forgotten, as hatches, barriers and fortresses are reinforced accordingly.”

And the poor? According to Sterry, what we’re seeing today – from the Calais crisis to the tribalism behind Trump’s oft-touted border wall – is just the start of a scenario that will become increasingly challenging as the decades unfold.

The poor  will be lucky to see their children make it through childhood, where any meal is a feast

What will our descendants eat in this weather-ravaged future? “Again, this is a condition of extremes,” says Armstrong. “Those that are wealthy might have an incredible, nutrient-rich diet, laced with aphrodisiacs – for the right occasion – cancer-preventing anti-oxidants and even anti-aging nutraceuticals. These may be prepared using enzyme-digestion without the need for heat and printed with molecular precision into fantastic shapes and spectacles using artful machines.”

And the less fortunate? “They will drink polluted water and try to find ways to de-salinate and purify it as best they can. Already, microplastics in the ocean are contaminating every gulp of moisture they will take. They will be lucky to see their children make it through childhood, where any meal is a feast. Think of Puerto Rico right now. This is the tip of a real environmental iceberg,” says Armstrong.

Sterry has similar concerns. “Historically, environmental change on the scale before us triggers extinction, speciation and dispersal.” Plants are “generally well placed” to survive mass extinction events, says Sterry, but the same, sadly, isn’t true for animals – meaning we’ll face chronic food shortages as fish and livestock chains collapse.

Developing world nations may be more adept at coping in a future of food insecurities than their developed world counterparts, says Sterry – namely because many retain hands-on skills in food production. But ultimately, it’ll be the luck of the geographical draw – a literal postcode lottery that will determine which parts of the world will best cope.

Can technology be our savior?

In this future, when natural resources such as land, water, food and shelter are scarce and nomadic living is the new norm, priorities will change, predicts Sterry. “Values will change, particularly around ideas of acquisition. People will aspire to the acquisition of less stuff, but the nature of at least some of that stuff will change, and with it so too will industries and the jobs that populate them.”

In the still-industrial wealthy societies that Armstrong envisions, there will be “cultures of leisure that are enabled by robots. There will also be an under culture that service the robots, machinery and information systems that enable this lifestyle,” she says. “Business classes will travel around the world via hyperloop – perhaps even continually – and take hormones like melatonin to synchronise their sleeping patterns. Some will even have blood transfusions from the young to give them more vigour.”

There’ll be no such privileges for manual workers, says Armstrong, who may risk their lives mining rare resources on the Moon and asteroids. “Owing to the long distances they will see their families very little but will nonetheless sacrifice their freedoms to make sure their children are nourished and safe,” says Armstrong. “Already the relationship between people and work is changing as some decide to live off-grid. In this context, ‘work’ becomes the activities of daily life that restores a person’s relationship with the provisions of the land. These kinds of lifestyles will only be possible where there is peace. Where there is displacement, ‘work’ will incorporate the very act of staying alive.”

When it comes to production as survival, Sterry believes the fundamentals of what’s to come are already, to some extent, evident. “Look, for example, to some of the world’s most plight-ridden places and you will find human invention at its best,” says Sterry.

The cyberpunk visions that Gibson offered up are in action today, evident in the third world microbusinesses communities, where ingenuity and creativity are used to turn western ‘waste’ into new products. “These citizens are doing what our forebears did time and again, throughout countless major environmental shifts of the past,” says Sterry. “These people embody the very essence of what it means to be human. For we are, lest we forget, a species that is reliant on ‘technology’ – a thing that is shaped not by our preferences and predilections but by our environmental parameters.”

“As is, technology is exceedingly fragile,” points out Sterry, “as evidenced by the numerous e-waste dumps about the world, where items that only a few years ago were considered state-of-the-art now pile up, their material components leaching into surrounding land and water tables.”  The message, says Armstrong is clear to those who are open to seeing it. “We're at a tipping point, where if we don't address the gaping inequalities around the world, flying cars and smart cities won't mean a thing to anyone but the very few. We need a kinder world. If that happens, then extraordinary things could take place.”

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