Forget 2015 — 2050 Is The Year For Predictions


Government groups and research agencies have chosen 2050 as the year to look towards. "It's a nice round number," as Kostas Stamoulis, the director of the Agricultural Development Economics Division of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization put it.

Countless official predictions are pegged to that year, which has a cascading effect: Once a major organization sets their research parameters to that year, it makes good organizational sense for other organizations to use the basis of that research to do the same for their respective topic.

The result? Lots of predictions for 2050 that suggest we will live in a very different world by mid-century. Let's take a look.

There Will Be a Lot More of Us

There are roughly 7 billion people on the planet. By 2050, the U.N. predicts that number may be closer to 9.6 billion. That's a leap of more than 30 percent. Put another way, that's the equivalent of adding another India and China to the planet. The consequences, individually and societally, are not great, but there is still a lot we can do about it--like make birth control universally available to anyone who wants it.

A Greater Share of Us Will Be Old

The global population of old people is due to skyrocket by mid-century, as people live longer and fertility rates go down. By 2050, one in every six people on earth will be over 65, according to estimates by ... and governments will have a hell of a time figuring out how to care for them. As people live longer, they will get more age-related diseases. Dementia cases globally are set to triple. Cancer rates are set to double. Diabetes in the U.S. may double or triple too, according to the Centers for Disease Control, hitting as many as one in every three adults.

But, thankfully, medicine will also advance by 2050. Vaccines will likely be developed and widely distributed for diseases like malaria, which currently kills as many as 2 million people per year, and HIV, which, after 20 years of research, has proven notoriously difficult to effectively vaccinate against.

We may even treating disease with medicine that has been grown in tobacco plants.

Computers May be 1,000x Times Better - And Much Cheaper

According to Ulrich Eberl, author of a 2011 book titled Life in 2050: How We Create the Future Today, we are only halfway through an era of rapid advancements in computing. Over the last 25 years or so, information technology has become 1,000 times better, Eberl says. In next 25 years, he predicts that scale of improvement will happen again.

"We will see another 1,000-fold increase in computer power, data transmission rate, at the same price we see today," Eberl told Newsweek. "If you spend, say, $500 dollars on a laptop today, you would get the same power and performance and computing quality in a small chip for 50 cents," he says. "This means we will have computing power everywhere, because it is so cheap. We will have it in small chips in our jackets. We will see robots, we will see automotives driving themselves on the streets. It will be accessible for people because it will be so cheap."

In fact, by 2045, computers might be so good that we may be able to upload digital versions of our brains and live forever some speculate, though that brings up all manner of philosophical questions about what "living" really means.

We'll Need to Get Serious About Recycling for a Resource-Starved Planet

Eberl says much of the biggest leaps and bounds in computer innovation will happen by roughly 2035, well before the century's middle point. By 2050, the rate of technology innovation will slow down some. Innovative efforts will begin to focus instead on the reality of what will, by then, be our rapidly dwindling natural resources. On a planet with 9.6 billion people, resources will be stretched extremely thin.

Eberl believes these new circumstances will result in an era focused on advancing what he calls "holistic health;" or the relationship between human health and environmental health. That will mean dramatically shifting how we think about consumption.

Growing middle classes in countries like China, Brazil, Russia, and India will result in a swollen population of consumers, and a "very big hunger" for copper, oil, and other finite materials. "We don't have enough resources on earth for 9.5 billion people with growing wealth. So there will be a new recycling. A reuse of molecules," Eberl says. "For example there is now more weight in gold in your smartphones than in ore from a gold mine. There's much we can do about that."

Eberl predicts that recycling technology will be improved so that the quality of the product never diminishes even after recycling, which is a major problem for recycling now. (In their book Cradle to Cradle, German chemist Michael Braungart and U.S. architect William McDonough predict a similar future, where products are designed explicitly for their ability to be "upcycled," or recycled while retaining 100 percent of their original integrity.)

Solar Power Might Be the World's Biggest Energy Source

Converting the sun's rays into power is becoming cheaper and cheaper. The average cost of solar panels per watt in 1972 was $75, according to research compiled by Mother Jones. Today, it's just shy of $1, with the price continuing to fall. By 2050, solar power could generate as much as 27 percent of the world's energy, becoming the world's largest source of electricity, according to recent research from the International Energy Agency.

If that happens, the combined emissions savings could offset around 6 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year, which is roughly equal to all current carbon emissions from the U.S. energy sector combined, IEA reports.

There Might Not Be Enough Food for Everyone, Unless We Play Our Cards Right

The more of us there are, the more food and water we'll need to survive. The worst consequences of climate change will still be in the future, but the rates of flooding and drought will have begun to increase, exacerbating food and water shortages. The swelling population will simultaneously exacerbate climate change, creating a dire feedback loop.

Last year the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said that in order to feed a population of roughly 9 billion in 2050, the world will need to increase its food production by an average of 60 percent compared to current food production levels. Not doing so would risk serious food shortages, which could prompt major social upheaval, conflict, and civil wars. By comparison, wheat and rice production have grown at a rate of less than 1 percent for the past 20 years.

By 2050, the FAO predicts the need for food will lead to an additional 70 million hectares being converted to agricultural land, especially in the developing world. But that's not necessarily a good thing.

"In theory, we have plenty of land to grow stuff," says Kostas Stamoulis, the director of the FAO's Agricultural Development Economics Division. "But the world may move in on land that they shouldn't move in on."

About 75 percent of the land that may be newly farmed is in 35 countries in Africa and Latin America, and mostly in sensitive ecosystems, he says. "We are afraid a lot of this potential growing will go on in areas that are developing through deforestation, and on environmentally sensitive land, like wetlands."

"So in terms of global figures, we do have the land. But the world may move in on land that they shouldn't move in on."

Stamoulis says global governments must intervene to give desperate farmers real alternatives to farming on places like wetlands or old-growth forests, and encourage multinational corporations to use sustainable farming methods.

"Sometimes people expand into sensitive areas out of desperation because they have no other choice. Small farmers should get incentives and be given access to places to grow food in an environmentally sound way. We also need measures to prevent farmers from growing stuff in a way that's not sustainable--different policies for the different types of producers."


But Stamoulis is also hopeful. He says the technology exists to fulfill 80 percent of the increased need for food by 2050 by simply increasing productivity. Methods like "double cropping" and "triple cropping," or growing more than one crop on rotation in a single field, has already shown impressive returns in parts of India and China. Agriculture scientists also know how to prevent potentially devastating fertilizer overuse, and the methods for increasing productivity on dry land are improving all the time. The problem will be getting the technology and education to make some of these changes into the hands of everyone who needs it.

"We need to take these technologies down to the small farmers," he says. "We have to think about actions that have to be taken now for problems that will come 30, 40 years down the road," Stamoulis says.

"I'm optimistic that we're looking at a brighter future than in the past. The world has an ability to respond."

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