“We don’t know what’s going to happen 15 minutes from now,” writes Peter Coy, “so it seems like an exercise in science fiction to predict what the world will look like in a century.” Coy is correct; but, that didn’t stop ten bold economists from predicting what they thought the world would look like a century from now. [“Ten Expert Economists’ Wild Guesses About the World of 2114,” Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 11 March 2014] I did a little poking around and discovered that the Financial Times also talked to a few of the same brave souls. [“Forecast: The world in 2114“] Even more remarkably, I found an article written by John Elfreth Watkins, Jr., that was published in 1900 in The Ladies Home Journal in which he predicted what the world would look like 200 years into the future (i.e., 2100) For those unfamiliar with Watkins, he was a journalist who wrote for a local Philadelphia newspaper and has been referred to as “The Seer of the Century” and “America’s Nostradamus.” I would call him a futurist or visionary rather than a seer. Before looking at what the BusinessWeek futurists predict, I thought it would be interesting to see what Watkins thought the world in 2114 would look like.
First, however, we should remember what the world looked like at the time that Watkins made his predictions. During the first decade of the last century, there were about 75 million people living in the United States. There were only 8,000 cars on the road. The average worker made less than $13/week for a 60-hour work week. And the life expectancy for Americans was less than 48 years (33 years if you were an African American). Watkins mistakenly thought that the average life span back then was about 35 years. Americans were also shorter and lighter than are they are today. If you read Watkins’ article in its entirety, you will probably agree with him that some of his predictions “seem strange, almost impossible” – like most of South America opting to become part of the United States or that insects and other pests would be eradicated.
Some of his predictions undershot the mark. For example, he predicted that it would take 200 years for people to get two-inches taller and for them to live to an average age of fifty years. He also thought it would take 200 years before consumers could buy “ready-cooked meals from establishments.” He saw this food being whisked to and from the table in pneumatic tubes. Some of his predictions were close (but no cigar!). For example, he predicted that “hot and cold air [would] be turned on from spigots to regulate temperature.” Today’s heating and cooling systems far are more sophisticated than that. He also believed that the supply of coal would be exhausted (or nearly exhausted) by the year 2100. He missed that by at least a couple of centuries. He wrote about airships and forts on wheels. He talked about “photographs” being “telegraphed from any distance”; “wireless telephone and telegraph circuits” spanning the world; “store purchases by tube” [see my post entitled “Surmounting the Last Mile Delivery Challenge is Urban Areas, Part 1: Pipe Dreams“]; food being grown in climate-controlled conditions; and “the living body, … to all medical purposes, [being] transparent.” All in all, it was a very interesting and entertaining article. Who knows; some of his more preposterous predictions may yet occur.
Let’s jump ahead 100 years and look at what BusinessWeek‘s and the Financial Times‘ experts think the world will look like a century from now. BusinessWeek‘s experts consisted of “10 economists who were invited to contribute essays to a new book called In 100 Years: Leading Economists Predict the Future, edited by Ignacio Palacios-Huerta of the London School of Economics.” In the article, Coy paraphrases what each of these economists predicted.
Daron Acemoglu, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, may have been the most optimistic expert since he “speculates that global warming can be solved by a motivated citizenry.” Perhaps the most important verb in that sentence is the word “can” rather than the more positive verb “would.” Acemoglu is apparently a big believer in empowered people because he also predicted “that the ‘rights revolution’ of the past several decades will continue, empowering ordinary people to demand more of their leaders.” Although he does admit, “Our track record so far does not inspire confidence.” Angus Deaton, Princeton University, isn’t nearly as optimistic as Acemoglu. He predicts that “unregulated climate change is a new and enormous danger” and, Coy notes, Deaton “concludes on a pessimistic note: ‘Perhaps there will have to be great suffering and destruction before people come together to make changes.’” Another Princeton professor, Avinash Dixit, takes a more “playful” approach to his predictions (more along the lines that Watkins seemed to follow). He predicted that the IMF would move its headquarters to Singapore and be required to make loans to America because its citizens would “insist on their constitutional right to enjoy all the latest new imported personal helicopters.”
Like several other of the experts, Edward Glaeser, Harvard University, discussed global warming, which he considered “a dangerous but solvable problem.” He stated “that climate change would ‘make extreme events more likely and increase sea levels generally.’ He continues: ‘… while such disasters may cause great harm, historically these events have been localized and limited in their long-run impact.’” Coy indicates that Andreu Mas-Colell, Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona, was the most optimistic prognosticator. He “predicts that a century from now ‘we will have managed, due to the combination of natural growth and deliberate action, to completely eliminate poverty in the world.’ Not only that, but ‘work will be more interesting.’ … Looking 200 years ahead, not just 100 (the chutzpah!), he writes that future troubles are more likely to be biological or social in origin (wars and conflicts) than from environmental, energy, or economic causes.” Coy calls John Roemer, Yale University, “the angriest” of the experts. He “portrays global warming as a political problem and puts the blame in the U.S. on the Republican Party, accusing it of an ‘opportunistic and ignorant approach to the problem.’ Roemer says that in order to meet the twin goals of curbing global warming and reducing international wealth disparities, the rich nations will have to accept an increase in their incomes of only about 1 percent a year over the coming century.”
The next expert, Alvin Roth, Stanford University, was also cited in the Financial Times‘ article. Coy indicates that he “gives the least attention to global warming of any essayist.” Roth wrote, “I think the biggest trend of future history (if it is not disrupted by environmental catastrophe, or descent into widespread terrorism, or warfare with weapons of mass destruction) is that the world economy will continue to grow and become more connected.” He expanded on this theme in his Financial Times‘ remarks: “Material prosperity will increase and healthy longevity will rise. While greater prosperity will not eliminate competition, it will give people more choices about whether and how hard to compete. Although he foresees all sorts of changes in reproduction and family patterns, he concludes, “I expect that families will remain one of the main units of production – certainly of children – and of consumption of all sorts of household goods and comforts.” Another expert included in both the BusinessWeek and Financial Times articles is Robert Shiller, Yale University. He addresses risk management and “long-term insurance that ‘protects homeowners against rising insurance premia because of long-term changes in environmental risks.’ In other words, insurance on the cost of insurance. He predicts the product will become available despite the current ‘narrow-mindedness of regulators.'” Like Roth, he expands on this theme in the Financial Times‘ article. “Most of us,” he writes, “are not accustomed to thinking about the kinds of risks that can unfold over a century. It is easy to be complacent. To make these seem real, it is useful to put these risks in a long-term historical perspective.” Shiller also touches on the subject of artificial intelligence: “Computer scientists seem to be in near agreement that true artificial intelligence is out of our reach, at least for the next century. There are others, however, who think real artificial intelligence is coming soon. Whenever it comes, an important consequence of artificial intelligence will be a long trend towards unification of global culture.”
The next expert, Robert Solow, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is the antithesis of Watkins in his approach. Coy writes, “He doesn’t use poetic license to make extravagant predictions.” To underscore that point, Solow writes, “Show me an economist with a strong opinion about these things, and I will show you that oxymoron: a daredevil economist.” He concludes, “No one can know with any precision how many people can be supported in the world at a standard of living anything like that of the currently advanced countries.” The final expert cited in both the BusinessWeek and Financial Times articles is Martin Weitzman, Harvard University. Weitzman tells us why so many of the experts focused their predictions on global warning. He writes, “If there is one genuinely natural bridge spanning the chasm between now and a century from now, I think it is climate change.” In Watkins-esque style, Weitzman predicts, “The temptation may become very great for some medium-developed nation feeling itself under climate change siege to unilaterally geoengineer itself (and the planet) out of high temperatures by seeding the stratosphere with sunshine-reflecting particles because it is so extraordinarily cheap.” He thinks that such an action would provide only a temporary solution to the problem. In the Financial Times‘ article, he concludes, “There is desperate need for some kind of an overarching international framework to deal with issues of a geo-engineered sunshade. The eventual aim is to develop rules and a governance structure for determining when and how the international community might use a geo-engineered sunshade.”
Although taking the long, long view of the future is always entertaining, it has a purpose beyond entertainment. This kind of exercise is important because it forces us to look at consequences of current trends. It’s not important that all of the details are correct. It is important that the big issues are exposed. I suspect that the issue of climate change garnered so much attention because it impacts so many human activities from the food we grow to houses we live in. We can only hope that we’re smart enough to start dealing with causes of some of our challenges so that we later don’t have to deal with the consequences of inaction.