Population Scares and the Real Future

We are living in the first period in human history when the living conditions of the billions of ordinary people are undergoing drastic change. In my new book, History of the Future, I define “modern” as the condition of the twenty-odd leading countries today, all of which are societies where information and ideas have become more important than things. The basic fact about the world today: we are living through the middle of the world’s passage from the way it was since human society began to the kind of life we have come to know in modern countries. The citizens of countries like the United States, Sweden, and Japan are the advance party, as the whole world moves to modern life over the next few centuries.

In the modern world, wealth and power can come only from a creative free citizenry. No country can build success on the basis of assembly lines, much less peasantry. In modern countries the ordinary person needs skills and talents to deal creatively with ideas and personalities -- to communicate and earn trust. This is an entirely different world than the worlds of the past.

This is not an optimistic picture of the future. It is a realistic description of what is happening. And it recognizes that there are still centuries of anguish before the modern world is achieved. More importantly, the benefits of modernity -- although great -- do not come for free. Looking ahead to the modern world, we see much to fear despite the spread -- from the already modern regions -- of wealth, freedom, and peace to the rest of the world. Modern technology may bring us temptations to change ourselves in ways that threaten our humanity. Wealth, freedom, and peace remove much of the adversity that shaped character in traditional worlds. The decadent and unhappy wealthy families we see around us today are a warning of the challenges to human goodness and happiness that will be central to the modern world. We can see glimpses of this today in the history of the already modern countries.

In the last century world population grew by six times. In this century it will not even double, and at the end will be declining. Despite our experience with increasing resource abundance, those who try to spread the fear of famine and limits to growth are still seeking to frighten us with apocalyptic scenarios.