As a Visiting Professor at Caltech, I taught a course on “The World in 2050.” Though it was listed as a graduate course in the biology department, my goal was to step outside of normal disciplinary boundaries and take a broader look at prospects for the human future.
The lectures covered a full range of challenges facing the world in 2050 and offered a new way of thinking (based on my upcoming book) that was designed to help us understand these global problems and find new solutions. Each student also completed a project offering his or her own creative way for addressing some challenges of the modern age.
Lectures topics included:
1) Limits to Growth in a Finite World: This lecture considered how Malthusian limits may apply to continued growth of the human population and of global economic activity. It covered ideas of Thomas Malthus (1798) and modern studies from ecology; it discussed predictions such as those from The Limits to Growth (1972) — a study sponsored by the Club of Rome — and other more recent attempts to model the “carrying capacity” of the planet.
2) Prediction and Planning in a Complex World: Looking ahead toward the world in 2050 raises important questions about our ability to make accurate predictions: How well have previous predictions — like those discussed in the last lecture — fared when made on a multi-decade time scale? What limits the range and accuracy of such predictions? What role can foresight play in a world that is too complex for us to get all the details right?
3) Challenges of Global Warming: This lecture considered the scientific data about climate change, risks to society, limits to our current political will, prospects for international cooperation, technological advances that are needed, and the expected economic costs of fundamental change.
4) Environmental Damage and Resource Depletion: Topics included an overview of the status of the world’s oceans, farmland, fisheries, forests, and fresh water supplies. Recent trend lines – with the bleaching of coral reefs, the loss of topsoil and rain forests – were used to highlight key risks, and we reviewed current efforts to address these challenges.
5) The Global Economic System: We explored ways in which the current economic system depends on assumptions about continued growth and considered ways in which it may need to be restructured to allow for a sustainable, “steady state” world.
6) Advances in Science and Technology: In many ways, the modern world emerges only via the amazing progress of science and technology. But a question remains: Does the increasing size of the world population now expose a more fundamental limit in the carrying capacity of the planet, or will technological advances — once again — allow us to solve these problems and continue with current growth curves?
7) Artificial Intelligence: AI already plays an important role in our daily lives, and it has a potential for helping us find new ways to address some of these global challenges, but it also poses risks. There are threats to privacy, risks of cybercrime and cyberwarfare, threats of widespread unemployment, and risks of severe confusion as the legal system tries to accommodate to the increasing use of “autonomous intelligent agents.”
8) Governance and World Order in an Age of Complexity: We analyzed government as a kind of “information processing system,” considering the problems that democracy has in handling the deep complexity of the modern world, and looking at the potential advantages/disadvantages of the “mixed modes” of authoritarian governance now emerging in Asia. This lecture also explored questions of world order, considering ways that competition and cooperation may play out in a global community of nations with dwindling resources and an ever-increasing number of nuclear powers.
9) Life, Hope, and Action in an Age of Uncertainty: This lecture offered a provisional synthesis of everything discussed in the course, considering how each individual can best pick a “life path” amidst these challenges, building a satisfying career and raising a family while working to help address these global challenges.
Recommended Reading: Students were encouraged to read Jorgen Randers’ book 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012) and An Essay on the Principle of Population by Thomas Robert Malthus.
Mapping Thought: My ideas about “theories of thought,” and my strategies for mapping the flow of information – following the way that ideas develop and move from mind to mind – provided an important backdrop for this course. Students were challenged to explore these new modes of thought, new ways of seeing how the flow of ideas 1) describes the flow of physical events in the surrounding world and yet also how the flow of ideas 2) proceeds as a set of physical processes in a physical world. Seeing the world in these dual modes helps us develop a “stereoscopic” method of thought, rising above the flatland of any fixed, formal, “scientific” interpretation and seeing the world in fresh ways.
(I’m putting together an outline of my overall strategy for mapping thought, so please sign up for the mailing list if you’d like to learn more about these new ideas.)