Future Shock

The New York Times is reporting (free registration required) that the Census Bureau targets October as the month when the 300-millionth American will be born.

What I find most interesting is the outlook from 1967, when the 200-million mark was reached. The Times quoted David E. Lilienthal, the former chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, as having said then that the United States' quality of life will be threatened at 300 million. Now, 38 years later, we see that this is not the case (though some may argue that point).

Lilienthal likely fell into the trap that inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil described. Kurzweil has said that when most people look to the future, they extrapolate from current rates of progress. Such predictions fail to account for future changes—for technological advances that speed progress exponentially. With that in mind, consider what Lilienthal had to work with: From the year 1967, with the difficulties of Vietnam and an atomic war a possibility, the outlook was grim—things could only get worse, or so it must have seemed.

But Vietnam ended. Technology improved. And as we stand here in 2006, projected to reach a population of 400 million in just 30 years, we should avoid such short-sightedness. Life will be different in 2036, in ways we can't yet predict. Technology will improve and we will be living longer, and hopefully better, lives. I'm looking forward to hitting 400. How about you?

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11 Comments

  • John W

    I've been in the tech sector for nearly 25 years. Innovations will continue, that is certain. But, if any of the people with blue-sky perspectives here have travelled outside the US, they (at least) should have seen how "our" progress has been mainly on the backs of the world's poor and their environments. We need to completely change our view of how our - and the world's - rampant consumerism is affecting our ability to sustain it. Another 100 million people in itself is neither good nor bad. Another 100 million world-class consumers, as defined today, is a different story. In addition, China's (and other quickly emerging economies) impact as it grows only adds to serious near-term concern. We're killing our planet as we entertain ourselves. Maintaining the lifestyles we've come to expect will require a complete re-think. And very, very soon. Our collective denial is stunning.

  • Matt

    I can't wait until we get 400 million, think of how productive that many people will be. It should help bring jobs back to the America's and stop losing them to Asia.

  • Brandon Zylstra

    Technology will certainly continue to improve. (Who could doubt that, at least to some extent? In the least it's not going to suddenly grind to a halt tomorrow.) And almost certainly technology will address many of the problems that can be solved with technology. But the real serious problems we face are spiritual problems, and there's no sign that we're improving nationally in that area.

    Poverty is not a *primarily* a problem of limited resources. I've lived below the poverty level (as a kid) and me and my family have escaped it (though none of us are fabulously wealthy by American standards). Many are trapped in poverty by internal problems, not external ones, which they don't have the wherewithal on their own to face. These problems include addictions, self-defeating beliefs and attitudes, anger and bitterness toward other people, etc. Technology isn't going to save us from those problems, but neither will cutting back on our population growth. If the whole human population were wiped out tomorrow, there would be no human problems, but obviously that isn't a logical solution, and neither is a partial version of that solution. No matter how many people we have, we will all have some problems. Having more people will logically mean more problems, since the additional people won't be problem-free. But the jump to the idea that few people is the answer is just plainly ludicrous. It's an irrational leap of fear. Instead of being afraid of over-population, we should be afraid of under-population. (See "As the Future Catches You: How Genomics & Other Forces Are Changing Your Life, Work, Health & Wealth" if you don't believe that last claim.) Instead of focusing on numbers, we should deal with real issues, finding solutions and bringing them to the people who need them.

  • Jim Seybert (on FollsBox)

    As the world becomes flatter, the US population will mean less because the balance of power will shift. We are already seeing jobs migrate off-shore. Quality of life will follow. It is impossible to stop the flow once the levee is broken.

    The world, in 2038 will be such a different place that it is impossible to predict what it will look like.

    And we should avoid trying to make firm predictions. The more precise you are in your definition of the future, the greater your chance of being wrong.

  • Dan Alger

    The author restates Julian Simon's argument made in much greater detail in The Ultimate Resource (1981) and The Ultimate Resource 2 (1996). At least for functional cultures, Julian Simon has clearly been right over any time period longer than two decades or so.

    As for the Chicken Little's above, while we need many improvements, what we call the poverty line now was called middle-class in 1967. Minerals, food, clothing, housing, and energy are all less expensive. (see overpopulation.com)

    Imminent technological change will make telecommuting and video conferencing common, efficient pricing of highway use low cost (GPS), and the control of inventories much tighter, all of which help transportation. With higher levels of education, more people means more doctors and nurses per capita, and better IT makes them more productive.

    Given a long enough time horizon, technology can do wonders.

  • Rolf

    Wake up...open your view!

    The 300 million are already consuming global resources at a rate that is not sustainable!

    Have you ever compared the "per capita" energy and natural resources consumption in US to any other part of the world?

    Let's get a rational and sustainable life not only for the 300 million Americans but also for the "rest" of the world population.

  • jason Winter

    The length of life may be extended, however, the quality of life will suffer.
    How to create abundance for all using less of nature?
    A stage must be firmly set by every nations leaders and scientists and all growing communities to redirect this present state of unsustainability.
    Be an active and supportive part of any energy solution where-ever and when-ever possible at any cost necessary.
    The future of life on earth, within our oceans and air, and our clean water depends on it.

  • ned smith

    Sounds a little like Jonathan Swift. Who in his right mind would seriously look forward to a 33% increase in the population. We are already not doing a very good job at feeding, housing and educating the population we've got.

  • Davidio

    "said then that the United States' quality of life will be threatened at 300 million. Now, 38 years later, we see that this is not the case (though some may argue that point"

    Or some may simply look at the facts:
    1 in 5 American Children in Poverty,
    Poverty rate increasing,
    (and remember, poverty rate is nowhere near enough to actually live on)
    etc...

  • Kyle B

    I would tend to agree with Janet V. 400 million is a whole lot of people; America's size will probably help in global competitiveness. But, in industries like education and healthcare, more people doesn't mean higher quality.

  • Janet V

    I'm not at all looking forward to 400 million. Until we figure out how to "empower" -- that is, find jobs, transportation, basic amenities and other such things -- for the large portion of society living on or beyond the edge, we're only adding more bodies to cause more problems.