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Future imperfect

ADAM DUDDING
Last updated 10:28 03/12/2012
Megachange 2050
Megachange 2050, edited by Daniel Franklin.

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New Zealand's population sweet-spot may be five million people; it may be 15 million. But either number pales into insignificance against the 9 billion-odd humans who'll be swarming over planet Earth by mid-century.

Tides and eddies in this sea of humanity are hard to predict with any accuracy, but that didn't stop Daniel Franklin, executive editor of Britain's news magazine The Economist, from giving it a shot. He invited more than a dozen of his Economist colleagues to consider some aspect each of the world in 2050, from climate to religion, from technology to women's rights, and have a bash at predicting where they'll end up. He's put the resulting essays into a book and called it Megachange.

It seems there are disappointingly few jetpacks and teleporters in store for us, but there could still be a few surprises, both nasty and nice. Franklin will be talking about both today at an invitation-only seminar in Auckland on global trends and New Zealand's economic future.

Global bad-case scenarios include nuclear weapons used in anger, lethal flu pandemics and entire nations running out of water. Climate change is going to be a pain, especially if we keep doing nothing about it. On the other hand, we can expect brilliant cancer drugs, cheap heart operations, fridges that order your food for you, and Chinese missions to the moon.

Sheer demographics mean we'll have to figure out how to feed, water and power 9 billion people without destroying the environment - though genetically modified foods may help. China's economic miracle will have run out of steam, but places with younger populations, such as India and the Middle East, will be benefiting from the vigour of their youth.

Last month, on the phone from London, Franklin explained that when you're looking 38 years into the future, the risk of getting it wrong is high, but that doesn't mean his futurologist chums have wasted their time.

"You can't see the future to any great accuracy in 2050, but you get to ask interesting questions, and see some of the things we're going to be adjusting to."

So what will we have to adjust to in 2050?

According to contributor Adrian Wooldridge, there'll be medicine bottles that advise us when to take medicines, wine glasses that warn us when we're drunk, and robots that do the cleaning. As populations explode in poorer nations, there'll be huge pressure to develop high-end services and goods at absurdly low prices - prepare for production-line heart surgery and eye operations, and the $300 house that will, apparently, "revolutionise life in the slums". Computers will be used to deliver front-line education, healthcare and government services.

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Other writers' picks? Religion will decline in the West under the onslaught of improving education and rising wealth. Democracy will flourish in the developing world, but stagnate in the West as voters grow cynical about political lobbying and marketing. We'll all be fatter, Hollywood will still be making the biggest movies, and there's a chance we'll be mining helium on the moon.

Governments will run out of money for current levels of state benefits and be forced to become more "efficient". The wealth gap between poor and rich countries will shrink - but the wealth gap between individuals within a given country will become a yawning chasm. Biology will become the coolest area of science to be involved in, and sequencing your own DNA will cost next to nothing.

The left-leaning Observer newspaper once observed that writers for The Economist "rarely see a political or economic problem that cannot be solved by the trusted three-card trick of privatisation, deregulation and liberalisation", and certainly this collection betrays a strong streak of suspicion towards big government, and a confidence that human ingenuity will get us out of the tightest scrapes, even self-made ones such as global warming.

Has this right-wing prism meant Megachange's authors are unreasonably optimistic about the threats of climate change, over-population, famine, environmental degradation, inequality and the rest of it (the closing essay in particular, by climate change sceptic Matt Ridley, is particularly pollyanna-ish)?

Franklin says it's a mistake to see The Economist, still less its individual writers, as right-wing. If these essays seem upbeat compared to much of the media's doom-mongering, it's because they reflect "an abiding belief in progress, which goes back to the origins of The Economist - a belief in the ability of reason and intelligent thought to create solutions to problems".

Maybe, says Franklin, the doom-mongers will be right, "but it's not inevitable".

The New New Zealand Forum is an initiative of Massey University and Westpac. Participants include Mai Chen, Diana Crossan, Rod Oram, Paul Brislen and Dominick Stephens. View the forum via live stream here.

- Sunday Star Times

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