Dear Citizens of 2061,
If you’re reading this, congratulations. You’ve survived the first half of the 21st century, and you’ve evidently still got computers, libraries, virtual-reality visors, or some kind of communications system that enabled you to dig up these old scribbles.
I have some questions for you. I know you can’t really write back, unless someone invents Internet time travel. But it’s 2014 where I am, and there are some big problems on our plates. I figure you might have some answers. (As for why I’m writing to 2061 specifically: I’ll get to that in a minute.)
On the one hand, we’re living longer than ever—average life expectancy is 71 globally, and as high as 85 in some countries. World economic output has begun to bounce back after the financial crisis of 2008-2009. We’ve reduced global poverty to the lowest levels in human history.
On the other hand, our coal- and oil-fueled economic growth is coming back to haunt us in the form of a warming atmosphere, melting ice sheets, and acidifying oceans that are spilling farther and farther onto land. That’s imperiling billions of people and causing species extinctions on a scale the planet hasn’t seen since the K-T asteroid impact 65 million years ago. And our scientists are telling us that the changing climate will bring massive disruptions in our food systems.
Not that the food we eat is very healthy to begin with. In developed nations with carbohydrate-heavy diets, conditions like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease are bankrupting our healthcare systems. In the developing world, other nagging health problems like HIV/AIDS and diarrheal diseases kill millions needlessly every year. And the ninth-leading cause of death here in 2014 is our own machines: traffic accidents kill a stunning 1.3 million of us every year.
In the consumer realm, we’ve entered a new golden age of mass entertainment—maybe you’ve still got old copies of House of Cards or Game of Thrones or True Detective on your memory chips—but at the same time, we’re wasting much of our glorious bandwidth debating conspiracy theories, gossiping about reality-show celebrities, and spying on one another.
We’ve exchanged a cold war for regional ethnic and religious divisions and an uneasy rivalry between superpowers old and new. For every social-media-fueled revolution, it seems there’s a new junta or dictator waiting to seize power.
And contrary to expectations, technology seems to be contributing to long-term unemployment and changing our economy in ways that generate wider inequality, not shared growth.
So the big question is: How did you do it? How did you make it to 2061 without drowning your cities, sending the global economy back into the Dark Ages, or incinerating yourselves in nuclear fire? Maybe you didn’t. But if you did, we could really use some tips right now.
If our projections were right, there are about 9.5 billion of you, with access to less arable land and less fresh water than we have today. Climate change is probably still your biggest problem. It’s already too late for us to spare you from temperature increases of 1 to 2 degrees Centigrade. The question is whether you’ve been able to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions enough to avoid increases of as much as 3 or 3.5 degrees—and if so, how you did it.
Did you ban fossil-fuel power plants and the internal combustion engine? Seed the oceans with iron to fertilize phytoplankton to capture CO2? Capture methane emissions from pipelines, coal mines, landfills, and farms? Wean China off coal?
Meanwhile, how did you manage to harden your mega-cities against climate-related extremes such as heat waves, droughts, floods, wildfires, and hurricanes? Is there any ice left in Greenland? If it all melted, then your sea levels are about 7 meters higher than they were in our day—high enough to submerge hundreds of coastal cities, including London and Los Angeles.
If you did reduce greenhouse gas emissions, how did you find the energy needed to run your civilization? Did you invest in massive solar or wind installations? Did you tame nuclear fusion? (If so, how are you safely confining the plasma and the neutron-induced radioactivity?)
Or did you build hundreds more fission reactors? How did you make them safe, and what did you decide to do about the waste? Sorry about the 270,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel you inherited from us, by the way. Also, the permanently uninhabitable zones around Chernobyl and Fukushima.
What about food? Did you develop crop strains that were more resistant to drought, fungi, and pests? Did you build vast, indoor, climate-controlled farms powered by artificial light? Did you put a stop to overfishing? Were you able to prevent runaway price increases for staples like rice and maize while avoiding regional wars over water rights?
Speaking of war, did you ever have time to get back on the path to nuclear disarmament? One way to keep suitcase nukes out of cities, after all, would be to ban nuclear weapons altogether.
Finally, how did you get your populations past the phase of technology-induced unemployment? Machines are simply more productive than people, so you probably turned over more and more work to robots and other automated systems. Did you come up with new jobs for all the low-skilled or medium-skilled people put out of work?
Maybe you redefined “work” itself to include important contributions like child care or elder care, and maybe you decided everyone deserves a basic income. Certainly, so much of our own wealth is flowing to the 1 percent—actually, the 0.1 percent—that your governments could easily justify a global wealth tax. (I’m hoping that your era looks back on Thomas Piketty as my era’s most clairvoyant economist.)
And if you figured out all of those problems, I’d really love to know if you had any surplus resources to, say, cure cancer, bring back a woolly mammoth or a tyrannosaurus, or build human colonies on the Moon or Mars. I’m not too optimistic. Given the scale of our urgent problems, and the enormous costs they will impose, effective disaster prevention and adaptation will be the Moon shot of the 21st century. But it’s always nice to dream.
You’re probably still wondering why I’m writing to you in 2061, rather than to your neighbors in 2060 or 2062. Actually, it’s all about Halley’s Comet, which you should see in the sky in late July, assuming you’ve found a way to stop rampant light pollution. I got to see this most famous of comets the last time it swung through the inner solar system, in 1986, when I was 19 years old. I’m 47 now, and the next time the comet comes back, I’ll be exactly twice as old: 94.
This means—knock wood—that I’m currently at the halfway point in my own trip to 2061, a year that was also interesting to Arthur C. Clarke. So it seemed like a good place to turn for some guidance.
You see, these aren’t things that we spend much time talking about, here in Silicon Valley in 2014. In the age of WhatsApp and Google Glass and “minimum viable products,” we all have an eye on the main chance. We keep driving our cars and using up our water and letting ourselves think as if the current tech boom will continue forever; as if we can simply grow our way out of any pressing economic or environmental problem; as if our current prosperity will magically spread to everyone in equal measure. It is, perhaps, the last moment when this kind of denialism will be possible. But for you, the challenges are real and unavoidable. They’ve probably come close to destroying your civilization. If you’ve held things together, you’ve learned some things we haven’t.
I’d really like to see Halley’s Comet again. If I make it to 2061 with you, I expect we’ll all be a little the worse for wear. But maybe we’ll be wiser, too.
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