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What Big Thing Are We Getting Wrong About the Future?

What Big Thing Are We Getting Wrong About the Future?

May 1, 2024

Note: This article was originally published by Discourse.

I recently tracked down a copy of a fascinating old book, “Our World in Space,” by Isaac Asimov with illustrations by Robert McCall. Published in 1974, five years after the moon landing, it wonderfully captures a moment of exuberant excitement about the achievements of space exploration. But in one section, it also captures the way the people of an era can be blind to their own big errors.

If you’re not familiar with them, Asimov and McCall are two of the biggest names from a mid-20th-century era of techno-optimism. Every time you hear someone complain about today’s negative views of technology—which is nearly always portrayed as leading to dystopia—these are the guys they are comparing it to.

Isaac Asimov and Robert McCall
Two techno-optimists. Isaac Asimov and Robert McCall. Image Credit: Rochester Institute of Technology/NASA/Wikimedia Commons

Asimov was a writer of classic science fiction (his Foundation series was recently brought to the screen) and a prolific popularizer of science. McCall was an artist known for his portrayals of space exploration—real NASA missions as well as imagined future technology—and for the giant mural, “The Prologue and the Promise,” that he created for Disney’s Horizons pavilion at EPCOT, which set a standard for optimistic portrayals of the future. You can see his visual influence in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the Star Trek franchise. And his 1974 illustration of a spherical space station just might have had an influence on another big science fiction franchise.

Yet the error here is not an excess of optimism. It’s Asimov’s one big moment of pessimism that’s a problem.

The Population Flop

In some respects, Asimov’s description of the future of space exploration—essentially, a giant brochure for NASA’s most ambitious dreams—is not just optimistic but wildly over-optimistic. In “Our World in Space,” he projects that by now we should have whole cities of humans living under the surface of the moon as a springboard for colonizing the asteroids and the moons of Jupiter. But then at the end of one chapter is this jarringly pessimistic warning:

In one respect, a Moon colony, or any colony or combination of colonies outside the Earth, cannot help us. No one of them, nor all of them together, can help us solve our population dilemma. If anyone thinks that the important reason for exploring space is to find outlets for our expanding population, let him think again ... .
We must, of our own determination, and here on Earth, halt the population increase by balancing the birth and death rates ... . That leaves us with the necessity of decreasing the birth rate ... .
Remember that, above all.

It’s the hyper-emphatic ending that gets me. “Remember that,” Asimov says, “above all.”

What should strike you about this is how wrong it turned out to be. Asimov was writing at the height of the “population bomb” hysteria, when Paul Ehrlich was predicting mass starvation by the 1980s as a rising population outstripped the capacity of the Earth to feed them. But the population bomb was a flop. None of the catastrophes happened. India, for example, was supposed to be the first to starve as its population exploded. Instead, it embraced the Green Revolution and became a net exporter of food. Even the New York Times threw in the towel on overpopulation hysteria a few years back with a retrospective on how wrong Ehrlich turned out to be

Misguided Malthusian. Paul Ehrlich in 1974. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In fact, the current worry—far more realistically grounded—is that our biggest problem in the next century will be a falling global population.

Yet at the time Asimov wrote his gloomy words, he would have been solidly in the middle of the elite consensus. It’s clear he thinks others would regard him as irresponsible for not mentioning so important and well established a fact.

This started me thinking: What big thing are we getting wrong about the world, and the future, today? What idea is so universally accepted that we don’t realize all the things that are wrong with it?

There are undoubtedly several such ideas. (I will even acknowledge—purely in theory, mind you—that I might be wrong about something.) But I can propose one idea that enjoys much the same status as the “population bomb” in Asimov’s time—and which is wrong for many of the same reasons.

From Overpopulation to Extinction

The one big idea today that virtually everyone would append with the reminder, “remember that, above all,” is undoubtedly global warming. (Or climate change, or the climate “crisis” or whatever the next escalation in rhetoric will be.) This is regularly cited as tempering, if not completely overshadowing, any expression of optimism about the future.

In an ironic coda to the overpopulation myth, it is cited as a reason not to have children. Maarten Boudry recently reviewed this catastrophism in Discourse:

According to the founder of environmental activist group Extinction Rebellion, climate change will lead to the “slaughter, death, and starvation of 6 billion people this century.” According to Just Stop Oil, the climate group behind many disruptive actions making news headlines, any further exploration of oil and gas will amount to “genocide” and the “starvation and the slaughter of billions,” and will “condemn humanity to oblivion.” Four in 10 Americans believe that global warming will likely lead to human extinction. Not surprisingly, a quarter of childless adults cite climate change as part of their motivation for not having children. After all, what’s the point of having children if you can’t give them a livable future? As one young woman put it: “I feel like I can’t in good conscience bring a child into this world and force them to try and survive what may be apocalyptic conditions.”

Even the author of a Techno-Optimist Manifesto has to sell new technology as a way to avoid global warming by reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Yet there are good reasons to believe that this sense of overhanging dread is unwarranted—and they are the same reasons why overpopulation turned out to be a bust.

Trends Continue Until They Don’t

Part of the reason both predictions of doom are unlikely to pan out is because trends tend to continue until they don’t. You can’t just extrapolate current rates into the future.

In an unintentionally humorous passage, Asimov offers this argument to scare us about overpopulation: “[T]he fact is that within five thousand years at our present rate of increase, the total mass of human flesh and blood will equal the mass of the known universe.” I once made a calculation that if my son continued growing at the same rate he did in his first year, by now he would be 25 feet tall and weigh four tons. He did, in fact, get a lot bigger—but not that big. Asimov would have been well aware of the absurdity of such a projection on any other issue. But the thing about the cultural blind spots of our own era is that even very smart people won’t be able to see when they are making dumb arguments.

Population growth did not in fact continue at the same rate as in Asimov’s time, as birth control became more widely available and as more countries became prosperous, which tends to correlate with lower birth rates.

Similarly, the carbon dioxide emissions that supposedly drive global warming have not continued to increase at the same rate as before, particularly in developed countries. In the United States, they have been declining for decades.

And if we’re going to project the future based on current rates, the rate of global temperature increases has been at the low end of what has been predicted by just about every climate model used as the basis for catastrophic projections. Those who are promoting global warming as an apocalypse and as the one issue to be remembered above all are the ones depending on an inflection point at which things suddenly get much worse. But the fact is that nobody really knows, just as nobody back in 1974 really knew how fast population would continue to grow.

The Ultimate Resource

Where the overpopulation crusade really missed the mark was not on the demand side—not how many humans there would be—but on the supply side: how much food and other goods we would be able to produce to sustain a larger population. Global population was just under four billion in 1974. Since then, it has doubled, yet humans are wealthier and better fed than ever before, and since 1980, extreme poverty has declined precipitously in every region of the world.

The Green Revolution solved the problem of feeding a growing population by increasing agricultural yields, and the global spread of the Industrial Revolution solved the problem of producing all other goods. Yet Asimov—who had just predicted that abundant energy from fusion reactors (always 30 years in the future) would enable us to provide all the resources for hundreds of millions of people to live on the moon—could not imagine humans being able to support another four billion people in the much more favorable conditions on Earth. Like I said, the prejudices and blind spots of an era can dull the wits of even the sharpest people.

Similarly, concerns about global warming tend to vastly underestimate our ability to mitigate the effects of the most likely changes in the climate—and the proposed solutions for global warming tend, in fact, to prevent such mitigation. If it is a priority to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, for example, we could invest in more research on fusion energy—or we could just use the known and proven technology of nuclear fission, instead of obstinately blocking the development of nuclear power plants in the U.S.

More broadly, there is plenty of evidence that the most effective way to improve the well-being of humans around the globe is to encourage economic growth and technological innovation. This is what lifted billions of people out of poverty over the past 40 years. Allowing this process to continue will dramatically improve the lives of billions more—and it will do them far more good than would be undone by any likely harms from a warmer planet. Yet the Danish political scientist Bjorn Lomborg has been essentially exiled from polite company precisely for suggesting this, while some of the most popular “solutions” to global warming consist of embracing “degrowth”: not just halting but reversing the world’s economic progress.

The 20th-century economist Julian Simon famously argued that the human mind is the “ultimate resource.” Ingenuity and innovation allow us to tap into far more new resources than humans can use up—so long as people are free to put these innovations into action. The bursting of the overpopulation hysteria proved him right, but those looking for a new reason for pessimism, and a new justification for restrictive policies, simply fell back onto global warming. Many of them still reject the possibility that the same ultimate resource that allowed us to prosper with a growing population could also allow us to thrive even if the climate is changing.

This leads me to the final parallel. Back in Asimov’s day, it was considered incredibly embarrassing for an educated and intellectual type, particularly someone dedicated to science, to doubt catastrophic predictions about overpopulation. Didn’t the math make it inevitable? Skeptics like Julian Simon were either vilified or ignored, and they often still don’t get much credit today, long after they were proven right. The other lesson we should learn from the overpopulation debacle is the importance of doubt and dissent, of probing the blind spots of our own era.

Back to the Future

A lot of Asimov’s techno-optimism about space exploration proved overblown, but this is not because the technology didn’t work. It’s because we decided we didn’t really want to do it.

Toward a better future! Robert McCall’s mural at NASA’s Teague Auditorium in Houston, Texas. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps we were right in some respects. Figuring out how to get a million people to live on the moon was certainly less urgent and more difficult than what we actually did: making people wealthier and healthier here on Earth.

But part of the reason we have retreated from the future is our current bout of techno-pessimism. We didn’t just fail to follow up on grandiose plans for cities on the moon. We didn’t go back there at all. We lost the confidence that great new technological feats were worth achieving and instead we looked inward, searching for catastrophes to blame on ourselves.

That is the big thing I think we’re really getting wrong, the big blind spot of our current era. This is what needs to be challenged so we can get back to the task Asimov and McCall set for us: building the future.

Robert Tracinski
About the author:
Robert Tracinski

Rob Tracinski studied philosophy at the University of Chicago and has been a writer, lecturer, and commentator for more than 25 years. He is the editor of Symposium, a journal of political liberalism, is a columnist for Discourse magazine, and writes The Tracinski Letter. He is the author of So Who Is John Galt Anyway? A Reader’s Guide to Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.

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