My latest novel Existence shows humanity confronting many challenges forty years in the future — some expected and some unforeseen. Indeed, finding, revealing and exploring unexpected threats… this might be considered one of the most valuable services of good, thoughtful science fiction.
I recently crowd-sourced a question to my Facebook followers: What do you view as the biggest unexpected problem we will face in the next few decades? Many insightful and thought-provoking responses poured in, from profound to comedic, ranging from political instability to economic collapse, civil unrest to over-reliance on machines, social disruption to psychological plagues. Others dealt with problems of over-population and life extension, shortages of water and biodiversity, severe climate change, collapse of our information systems, growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, even meteor impacts.
Here I’m posting the most intriguing responses that got the most fan votes (the top two won fee copies of the brand new paperback edition of EXISTENCE! Note that I do not necessarily agree with all of the cited entries and will respond to a few of them in comments. But all of them show verve and a willingness to peer ahead:
1. What form of government will replace capitalism? This system is devolving at FTL speed, and the world is still unaware of a viable solution to it, while world situation is becoming more erratic and explosive daily. We will find ourselves in need of new ethno-national definitions very soon. Also, what will replace religion, for the same reasons. However, I feel that space exploration and the focus towards space will, at least partially, contribute to the latter. –Margie Lazou
2. Political and economic pressures from spacefaring nations to keep others from having the ability to access the almost infinite resources off-planet; extremely low cost for resources – material and energy – for the space-capable, and artificially high prices for everyone else. –David Christensen
3. Longevity due to augmentation and medical advances will create a need to migrate off planet for resources but those left behind must deal with massive social strain and change along with the burdensome question of what it means to be human. –John Berry Gosnell
4. A plastic-eating bacterium with resistance to all known antibiotics. –Martha Dunham
5. The unexpected loss of a sense of humor in people of European extraction, leading to mass suicide and the end of sit com laugh tracks. –Rhonda Palmer
6. The consequences of a universal lie detector machine. Politics and virtually every other field of human endeavor will be changed by everyone having to tell the truth. The rules that will evolve to deal with social and business situations will rapidly change society. –Kevin Settle
7. The biggest unexpected problem we’ll face will be psychological. A depression plague is going to begin to eat away at modern society. We lose a sense of personal control over the modern world (i.e. external locus of control), where people believe that things happen to us, rather than “we make things happen”. Apathy and self destructive behavior will no longer be the domain of emo-kids. It will threaten the viability of all societies worldwide, fueled by environmental impacts (historically, we rarely see them coming) and a growing disparity in wealth, power, and liberties. Long term ramifications will include economic collapse, famine, civil unrest and finally social atavism. –Richard Carter
8. Fresh water supplies. –David Caune
9. Biggest unexpected problems? Aren’t the expected problems enough? Biodiversity depletion, climate change, class warfare, outright warfare, the depletion of basically every resource: food, energy, fresh water, a whole whack of strategic minerals including helium, orbital debris. Hell, the only thing “unexpected” capable of killing us more quickly than we’re killing ourselves would be a meteor impact or giant-ass solar flare. –Gabriel Emilio Zárate
10. The replacement of skilled and unskilled labor by automation combined with an ever-increasing population could have drastic effects on unemployment levels and civil unrest. –Eric Berman
11. Clinical near immortality will create beyond Malthusian population growth, further stressing Earth’s resources. The moral question of when life “ends” will arise, for while they are able to keep the body alive, the mind still fails within 90-120 years. Discussion begins around planned obsolescence being introduced as part of gerontological treatments. –Wes Edmunds
12. The social (A movement away from sexism and tribalism. Along with an exponential expansion of global leisure and tourism.) and economic (Explosive demand and shifting of manufacturing, agriculture, and service industries.) ramifications of the children of 1/5th of the world’s population growing up as a ‘spoiled generation’ with two living parents and four living grandparents focusing all of their energy, hopes and dreams for the future, and their own personal life choices and mistakes on a ‘state mandated’ single child. –Richard Praser
13. A growing number of disruptive technologies and culture’s difficulties in adapting. The biggest problem here will be the growing rift(s) between the people who use the technologies and those who don’t. (Either by choice or access.) We may find that our culture is not the quickest to adapt, and the United States may be left in the wake of the world, wondering where it went without us. –Luna Rebecca Flesher
14. Collapse of our information systems due to overwhelming amounts of information from untrustworthy sources and the inability to verify sources and filter information effectively. –Eli Roth
15. Fresh-Water Scarcity and the many consequences thereof! Including massive dust-storms that will cause air-quality problems and which will contribute to erratic weather patterns in some of the most populated areas of the World ( especially in China, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Middle East, North Africa and the US South-West ). And this will lead to food scarcity and pest-control problems; hence a massive increase in the risk of life-threatening/lethal disease epidemics! Hence social instability in countries that have nuclear and/or chemical weapons! ( OK: all this is actually expected…BUT…).
But what is unexpected about this: failed states with nuclear/chemical arsenals and the dire need for the Super-Powers to cooperate on direct military interventions: so as to limit overall harm to general populations and mitigate the risk that those very same Super-Powers from going to war with one-another! Hence: a dangerous trend of ever-reduced civil liberties, freedoms and personal security! Hence: an ever-more dangerous, further erosion of trust between the general public and their respective governments! Which will lead to a massive increase in psychological breakdowns and the social disorder and related violence that will further harm our very need for social cohesion based on warranted trust: hence a whole new phenomena: psychological profiling and related witch-hunts! Hence the risk of a new dark ages. And given the kinds of dangerous technologies now in existence: a very real risk of total social meltdown and the subsequent high risk of a final, near-total, if not total, civilization collapse! –Jean-Pierre A. Fenyo
16. The development of mind-machine connections. While they will remain primitive in 30 years time, they will create a rift between those with the resources to afford their implantation and those who cannot. –Bradley Brown
17. I think the next crisis of truly global proportions will come from technologies that prolong life or even eliminate natural death. These technologies will inevitably and necessarily be restricted to a few. Not doing so would result in overpopulation, which would lead to forced birth control or mass starvation. Those who have these technologies will not want their enemies or those of whom they disapprove to live forever (would you allow a Hitler or a Stalin or even just a Castro to live forever?). Nations would want the balance of power that this brings to shift in their favor. But even in the unlikely case where none of this would happen, such technology would have to be deployed gradually and even if the intent were to make it available to everyone, those who are not at the front of the line would perceive it as hoarding and a denial of what they will surely claim is a “god given right”.
And then, of course, religions would get in the mix, calling this an evil and in opposition to the “clear” will of their god. However it happens, there will be two camps: those fervently in favor of it and those furiously opposed to it. This will lead to social unrest, widespread acts of sabotage, probably a few small wars, wildly disrupted economies, famines, plagues, rains of toads, cats sleeping with dogs, and Republicans and Democrats agreeing on something that has yet to be identified. –Claudio Puviani
18. A combination of events, which will result in over-population, lack of natural resources, an under-abundance of food stock, supply and sources culminating in a ridiciulously strained attempt to reach the stars, taking up more time, effort and money than it is really worth. –Stephen Ormsby
19. I see two upcoming problems, actually:
–The need to overhaul the global economic system. In an increasingly globalized world, “capitalism” tends to become associated solely with the U.S. model of industrialized society, while technological progress accelerates, along with obsolescence and resource depletion. This leads to disruptions due to environmental, cultural and legal differences between various countries/blocs; we will also see the need to overhaul the patent system and property rights, as well as redefine individual/collective responsibilities.
–A global religious crisis. With two of the three main Abrahamic religions in full recession – mainly in the highly-industrialized West – relegating proselytism as a secondary (less important) goal, fringe groups and extremist movements are likely to increase their public presence. The crisis of faith experienced mainly in the West will expand across the globe as more people under moderate regimes in developing nations will follow similar paths of questioning, enabled by technological progress and more discoveries in fields such as of bio logy (genetics) and astrophysics. While a truly global jihad seems unlikely, the tensions between believers and agnostics/nonbelievers will continue to grow, and this is bound to lead to cultural upheaval, with hard-to-foresee consequences. –Alex Savulescu
20. Shortages of critical materials for technology, pharmaceuticals, etc. Every environmental and problematic issue boils down to human population, however. We’re trading quantity for quality, and there is nothing to stop it. You can’t even bring the subject up without a volley of insipid, formulaic, unthinking responses, one of the first of which will be “Why do you want to murder people, you monster?” Given that every path to a survivable future involves some sort of conscious, deliberate action on population, like NOW, I don’t see any path that saves us. –Hank Fox
21. The biggest problem? There are two, I think, and they are intertwined. Climate change and the death of the oceans. –Michelle Connor
Thank you to my many bright readers for their wisdom and insight! We will need a generation of creative, ambitious, and far-seeing problem-solvers to face the unexpected over the next few decades. While not every suggestion was exactly “unexpected,” all conveyed the passion of people who think seriously about our path ahead. The kind of folks who read the literature of tomorrow.
My best-known aphorism is CITOKATE: Criticism Is The Only Known Antidote To Error. Here, we have attempted to shine light into possible (potentially dark) scenarios for the future, foreseeing various obstacles and stumbling blocks we may encounter along our path to creating a brighter future.